March 19, 2016


TERRENCE MALICK'S OPENNESS TO LIFE (William Randolph Brafford, 3 . 17 . 16, First Things)

He films a great deal of plot, then cuts it away in the editing room until all that's left is a dense web of beautiful, highly symbolic moments. Sometimes we'll see a famous face in the corner of a shot and wonder about which pieces of the story we're missing. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's literal and what's a memory or a dream. But to say Knight of Cups is formless is to miss its moral vision, which, like his last film, is in the service of what Pope John Paul II called "the culture of life": a culture that includes, cares for, and protects the full span of human life, from conception to death. The family open to receiving new life stands at its center.

Knight of Cups opens with text from The Pilgrim's Progress and scenes of its main character wandering in a desert. What follows will concern a pilgrimage. Like John Bunyan's Christian, the main character of this film, who I'll call the Knight, passes through a strange and dangerous landscape, meeting friends and guides as well as enemies and tempters. His journey takes him through the Los Angeles of the entertainment industry, with its lights, drinks, drugs, parties, and palm trees. The Knight's brother and father visit him at intervals throughout the film. Other characters are present only in episodes. There are six women who appear in various relationships to the Knight: a young actress, a mournful ex-wife, a serene model, a lively stripper, a married woman, and an angelic blonde.

What might be called a symbolic geography is laid out through certain images that recur in patterns. Whenever the Knight has been jolted out of his complacency, perhaps by an earthquake or by the end of a relationship, we see him wandering in the desert. When the Knight is falling in love, or opening himself to love, he goes to the ocean. So we have a desert, and an ocean, and between them, The City, where the Knight experiences ambition, confusion, fear, and desire. The deeper the Knight's love for a woman, the closer they get to the water. The Knight stands at the shore with his ex-wife but does not step into the surf, just as he couldn't fully step into their marriage. The Knight and the stripper-temptress, who entrances him without reaching his soul, just stay on the boardwalk and shop for sunglasses.

What is this love that the ocean represents? It is a love that calls us out of ourselves. To fall in love is to have the soul awakened. Yet the Knight has rejected this love, and lives his life in alienation. The sign of his fear of love is a refusal to have children.

Posted by at March 19, 2016 8:48 AM