There’s an old story about the Lumière brothers’ first screening of their short film, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” that tells of audience members screaming and running to the back of the theater as the aforementioned train approached on screen. It probably isn’t true, but it’s a fun little tale, and it illustrates a very important point: if you have no frame of reference for the type of art you’re taking in, you won’t know what to make of it.
All art teaches the viewer/listener how to experience it, but no medium does it to the extent that film does. As you watch a film, you learn about what you’re watching and how to process it so that it makes sense. In a traditional narrative, this isn’t difficult; we are easily able to identify the characters, their desires, and the conflict impeding them, and through those identifications, we are able to determine what the film is “about.” Even when films break this structure—both Irreversible and Memento move from end to beginning, while movies like Pulp Fiction and 21 Grams splice their narrative up and mix up the order of events—our familiarity with narrative structure as a whole provides a frame of reference that helps us figure out how the film is working; in a sense, it lets us learn how to watch it. We combine our past knowledge of the medium with the information given to us by the film to create narrative meaning.
And then you get a film like Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, and you feel a little bit like the audience at the Lumières’ screening must have felt. You aren’t frightened, but you don’t quite know how to process what you’re seeing. And unless you’ve followed Malick and are familiar with his style, you may be frustrated, baffled, and angry (as the elderly couple sitting behind me were).
Knight of Cups is, ostensibly, about a screenwriter trying to find meaning in a life full of decadence. That’s not much of a plot, but it’s enough, and with a traditional structure it could lead to a fine narrative. But Malick isn’t interested in the traditional. He’s interested in the transcendent. And so he’s made a film that destroys any sense of familiarity we have with our traditional cinematic framing devices. There are characters, there are images, and there is music. And, as always with Malick, there are the haunting, whisper-quiet voiceovers that lend the film an almost spiritual sense of privacy and vulnerability. But there is no plot here. There is hardly any dialogue, and the characters feel more like ideas than people. Instead of movement towards a goal or a climatic scene, we have only meditation, pure and gorgeous in its fullness.
In a sense, this feels like a perfection of the form Malick has been creating throughout his career. His early films—Badlands and Days of Heaven—were image obsessed and carried a hint of the mystical, but were still bound to conventional storylines. The Thin Red Line and the criminally under-watched New World stripped their stories even barer, but still, there was a beginning, middle, and end. It was only with The Tree of Life and To The Wonder that he began to fully give himself over to film as pure operatic movement. The shots were cut to feeling, not function (or, at least, not function in the traditional sense). The spiritual was invoked far more openly than it had been in the past, whether through voiceover or symbolic reference. Those films felt less like traditional cinema and more like transcendental meditation, and with Knight of Cups, it seems Malick has finally reached a sort of cinematic nirvana, a pure understanding of what it is that he’s been getting closer to all throughout his career.
When we watch a film like this, we struggle at first. Even if we’re aware of Malick’s stylistic preferences, we fight the film in the early going, because we are still tied to the traditional narrative framing and reference points of the films we’ve seen before, and we can’t figure out how they apply here. This is not a jumbled timeline or muddle plot—this is a suspension of the need for either. I’m hesitant to invoke meditation again, but it feels quite a bit like learning to meditate, when knowing you’re supposed to be clearing your mind of thoughts leads to you thinking about if you’re thinking or not, and then thinking about that, and so on. Luckily for us, Malick is providing the mantra here, and as we watch, we are broken down until (if we’re open and not actively fighting it) we surrender to the parade of images and music and let it wash over us. Our thoughts empty of everything but what is on the screen and what it does for us. If most films are about “what happens,” Knight of Cups is a film is about what happens to you, the viewer, while you take it in.
Struggling with a movie like this is natural. It happens across all forms of art when we encounter someone who’s doing something so different. If you’ve been raised on pop, blues or rock-‘n’-roll, listening to Coltrane for the first time would be a disarming experience. As would studying painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt and suddenly finding yourself confronted by a Pollock or Rothko. But time spent in the company of the seemingly strange allows for understanding. Not always of subject—no one would ask what the songs on Sun Ship mean, nor should they—but of the form, how the artist is using it, and how it’s affecting you.
In terms of linear movement, this is an evolution of Malick’s style. But in a sense it is also a de-evolution, a return to the primal aspects of cinema—moving images, and, when necessary, sound. That is all that the medium started off as, and Malick has brought it back there, using pictures and swells of classical music to create meaning in a way that narrative cinema never could. It is one thing to hear two characters talk about the soul, or meaning, or the pull of the spiritual in a world divorced from it. It is another thing to see those ideas put together by moving pictures. It accomplishes what words cannot. By finally shedding almost all of the baggage of narrative form, Malick has found a way to re-frame the cinematic landscape. By destroying the form as we’ve come to know it, he has perfected his form.
All that said, whether you respond to the film or not is completely up in the air, as it is with the rest of Malick’s filmography. What works for one person may not work for the other. The beautiful decadence of Los Angeles may pull some in and leave some out, just as The Tree of Life’s prolonged creation of the universe sequence worked for some and put off others. But what you cannot do is dismiss it. It is not a half-hearted work (indeed, the film spent two years in post-production), and it is not made by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Malick, now more than ever, is doing exactly what it is that he wants to do with the cinematic form. That should be applauded, and for viewers who can give themselves over to his films, it may also be a blessing.