Vanity is so deeply rooted in man’s heart, that a soldier, a criminal, a cook, or a porter will boast and expect to have admirers, and even philosophers want them, and even those who write against all the above will themselves want to enjoy the glory of having so written, and those who read this want the glory of having read those critics, and perhaps I who write this have the same desire, and perhaps also those who will read it.
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées
One generation passes away, and another generation comes; and the earth abides for ever.
– Ecclesiastes 1:4
The Knight of Cups (Christian Bale) is a lost prince wandering the desert of civilisation, a man, mute and brooding, weak like all men, who in his errances seeks the meaning which was promised him the son of a King. Only, this prodigal son has been abroad so long that he can no longer recognise the treasure that was to be his inheritance.
A voice recounts: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.” This deep sleep into which he falls is a life of falseness, rife with the constant temptations of time immemorial: the lusts for flesh or gold or honour, the vanities of a life destined, like all lives, to end in the tarot’s most final card: Death.
Malick’s Knight of Cups, entitled after the tarot card of the same name, is a parable of a man reflecting upon his errors and desires, infused with Christian theology, metaphors and ethics. The parable, using the most transparent of metaphors as its riddle is devoid of mystery, for the very principle of the parable is its comprehensibility. It is the most appropriate formal device to exhibit a dualism both theological and philosophical. There are two worlds – be they the heavenly and the material or the phenomenological and the cinematic. And although these two worlds evidently mirror one another they are spiritually distinct – one is but the illusory world of matter, a sign for the second, true world of spirit.
The Hollywoodite played by Bale (like Malick, one postulates, in this most autobiographical of films) has fallen into the vice of temptation. In a city overflowing with the pleasures of wine and the flesh, he is quite literally tempted in a scene which evokes the desert temptations of Saint Anthony or Jesus by Antonio Banderas’ playboy charmer, an old smooth-tongued shyster. Roving amongst Hollywood’s most beautiful and privileged in a vast garden party Antonio’s playboy, whose hedonistic philosophy is at antipodes with the narrator’s, devilishly declares to Bale: “There are no principles, only consequences.”
Much of the move revolves around the Knight of Cups’ many loves. “There is so much love inside us that never gets out,” utters a voice, manifesting a very Christian emphasis on love. Confused between terrestrial and celestial love, Bale abandons his one true love (played by Cate Blanchett), a regret that accompanies his forlorn wanderings, yet never for too long. For, what this mortal prince loves above all else is the seductive flesh and smiles of the almost infinite panoply of leggy divas who fade in and out of his life in this city of angels. “Where did I go wrong?” he asks himself starry-eyed in the film’s first chapter, a rhetorical question answered immediately in the following image – a bikini-clad beauty diving into the shallow sea.
If the world is dual as Malick’s film insists, and Beauty is a sign signifying Love, then how can we be blamed for the pursuit of beauty? For within the Christian ethic which holds above all else love to be most dear, how can one man be blamed for seeking love so hard that he can only fail?
To be sure, like Malick’s film, Bale’s character chases after this repertoire of lithe, exquisite and oft-naked Hollywood starlets, succumbing willingly to the temptations far more often than overcoming them. Yet, Knight of Cups, in parallel to its protagonist, does at least try to come fact-to-face with its vanities. Bale’s brooding silence, inner melancholy and set jaw are signs of an inner dissatisfaction with the glory in which his life is steeped. Never strong enough to rid himself of his gorgeous addictions, nor bring them under control, Malick’s prince does exhibit at least a sign of struggle to pull away. For all it’s magnetising beauty, at least this film seems to earnestly wish to transcend the typical pseudo-criticism of decadence, used so often in cinema to celebrate the very things it would pretend to criticise (of which in recent memory, The Wolf of Wall Street has been the most guilty).
Malick’s temptation, even more than towards female beauty has always been towards a cinematic beauty, evident in his super-aestheticised vision of the world and nature. And perhaps here his usage of small video cameras was an admission of this vice, even if there is barely an image in the film which could be accused of plainness, much less ugliness.
Malick’s descent into the city is his first venture into the urban setting. For someone who has always been an acolyte of film, nature and natural light, a descent into Hollywood adds a dimension to the dualism: Hollywood’s falsity is to material existence, what material existence’s falsity is to the spiritual. Bale approaches Hollywood like anyone must, through the vast concrete maze that leads up to it. This opposition allows for the classic moral opposition (recuperated by environmentalists) between nature and urbanity. The city, with its vast arched overhead passes obscuring the sky and its endless concrete horizon seems like a sort of constructed arrogance, especially when contrasted, as Malick does time and again in Knight of Cups, to the desert’s vast emptiness. As the film cuts from Caesar’s Palace in Vegas (again playing its role as America’s Sodom) to the Nevada desert we hear Bale’s voice off-screen decry near-biblically: “What fool am I to lie in a stinking dungeon when I can walk in liberty?”
Through this opposition of nature versus civilisation Knight of Cups presents an inclusive cosmic philosophy which echoes in fact throughout all of Malick’s films: Destiny is a bone-crunching wheel, and the cosmos is here to serve neither our will or understanding or pleasure. Rather, as the initial images of a revolving Earth from space indicate, it is human life which is inserted within a cosmic understanding, be it under nature, god, or the universe.
In a tarot reading, placing the Knight of Cups upwards signifies, like the figure on its face: romance, opportunity, beauty. Upside down however, it represents falseness and deception, the promises of the future turned upon its head. The progress of Bale’s character from success to success (matched by equal disappointment to disappointment) is the reversal of his fortune, one caused by that very fortune in the first place.
To understand existence through the tarot deck is to conceive of it cosmically; to see the universe as a synthesis of events, whose meaning, like the tarot’s, can be understood through a re-arrangement of the elements, which is formalistically, exactly what Malick has done (as he has in his previous two films) in the rearrangement of the narrative elements in a non-linear form. Any two elements can be rearranged in space to create meaning, just like any two shots can be rearranged in time. Yet, also not unlike the card-reading seer, the selection of the cards and their arrangement is a subtly constructed arrangement, ultimately far less arbitrary than it seems.
Just like the stream of images surpasses the scene, surpasses dramaturgy. The diverse images shot in 65mm or 35mm or cheap video are recomposed into a single continuous phenomenological experience, a sort of visual stream (matching too the soundtrack, a stream of consciousness composed of varying voices).
For a director like Malick to set a film in Hollywood is for him to enter into the reflexive, the autobiographical, and Knight of Cups feels like the entry into the memory currents of one who has lived and loved, and who is late enough along in life to consider and regret, with Bale’s character as his stand-in. Now that he has been released from the burden of living it and is approaching death he can leisurely venture into memory of the third age of one who reflects upon his life, although he may no longer be caught in the heart of the struggle.
Thus, when Bale’s Knight of Cups lives through the literal trembling of the earth in a Californian earthquake, we understand that for him this event is more than the sliding of two tectonic plates against each other, but through his believer’s causality this event can only be taken as a sign of God. Malick’s film, a quasi-jeremiad, imbued with the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, (1) chastises and yearns while affirming the existence of both beauty and soul. Yet his theological conception is less representative of thunder and brimstone than of the bright positivism of modern Christianity, full with the love of sinners, love of nature, love of love. Its heart full of nostalgia and forgiveness, one cannot help but wonder if the movie does not too easily preach the glories of love and truth, while exhibiting a character who has already attained and lived what others can only dream of (like the wasted, disfigured bodies of LA’s failures lying supine on Skid Row, them too having dreamt of Hollywood, but not successfully enough to have regretted it)
It is Pascal, in his sickness and severity who exhibits the fundament of faith with far more clarity – it is not that an earthquake must or must not be a sign of god – it is only how one chooses to understand it which is indicative of one’s choice of faith or no faith. For Pascal faith, by nature, can never be satisfied by a phenomenological answer. His desert is not so much a sign of emptiness representing plenitude as it is here, but it is emptiness itself. And in all Knight of Cup’s positive infinitude of love and God and cosmos, although often beauty-filled, one can’t help but wish for a bit more of the void’s true terror.
1. The connections between the Sermon on the Mount and Malick’s film could be explored: (Matthew 6:19-20): “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”