Searching for Meaning in Knight of Cups: A Conversation with Michael Wright

Knight of Cups (image)

Though he produces films with much greater frequency than he used to, a new film from Terrence Malick is still an “event,” particularly for those of us Christians interested in theology and cinema. Malick is a filmmaker with a spiritual vision par excellence, and that vision is characteristically Christian. Whatever we each personally think about his style and his films, we must wrestle with his films intellectually if not emotionally. It is our responsibility to the broader film community. In many cases, it is also a pleasure.

Though Malick’s style is now predictable, and this might tempt us to standardize our critiques of his films—“If you’ve seen one Malick, you’ve seen them all,” one might claim—to do so would be to unjustly simplify his work. Malick’s basic form is consistent, but the questions he is asking about life, love, God, and how those three things interact with one another are not. Malick’s investigations are as cavernous and probing as Emmanuel Lubezki’s deep-focus, restless cinematography. They are as particular and detailed as Jack Fisk’s production design. They are as far-reaching as Malick’s literary reference-collage and kaleidoscopic score. Malick’s films invite conversation, not criticism, and as I considered whom I most wanted to talk about Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, with, I could think of only one person – my friend Michael Wright.

Michael is a writer whom I met in my second year as a student at Fuller Seminary. While we are both keenly interested in the arts, my attention drifts toward cinema and prose and his toward music and poetry. Like me—and like Rick, Malick’s protagonist in Knight of Cups—Michael is from the middle of the country, but he came to L.A. to seek God, himself, and meaning. Michael is also very interested in the intersections between Christian spirituality and other spiritualities, especially Buddhism, an interest in-line with Malick’s method in Knight of Cups, which samples broadly from many faith traditions as Rick samples life in Los Angeles. Michael also, conveniently, attended the premiere of Knight of Cups in Los Angeles last week. Michael, thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me.

To begin, I think asking if we each “liked” Knight of Cups would be limiting. Many films exist to engender “enjoyment” from their audiences. Malick isn’t operating on that level. He seems less interested in entertaining us as he is in ruminating on God and his own life and inviting us to do the same. Looking at Malick’s later career—The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and now Knight of Cups—a trilogy of films set (primarily) during Malick’s lifetime and dealing, it appears, with his own life, he seems to be recently interested not solely in impersonal notions of Celebrity or War or Colonialism or whatnot, but more in our personal understandings of our lives and the time in which we live in context of eternity – a profoundly spiritual question. So, I want to start by asking you if you found watching Knight of Cups to be a spiritually enriching experience personally?

Michael Wright: Absolutely—but in an indirect way. Spiritual enrichment in film can go two ways–there’s explicitly religious films like Into Great Silence or Ida or Vision that complicate and deepen religious experience as they present more directly religious subject matter. On the other side, films like Children of Men or Room bring spiritual enrichment indirectly through their courage to present suffering and allowing hope to be present in subtle ways. The first is the photograph; the second is the film negative.

So even though Knight of Cups doesn’t address anything spiritual directly, it does circumscribe it. Thomas Merton says, “The spiritual life is first of all a matter of keeping awake,” and Rick is spiritually comatose. There’s nothing holy about his hedonistic choices, but his malaise slowly forces him to confront his dissatisfaction until a priest finally says at the camera–and at us–that suffering is a gift, and if we receive it, it can lead us to God.

You don’t see that in many films, and it was deeply encouraging to me. Life is more confusing than we care to admit, and my own journey through seminary was a story of suffering just as much as it was theological education. While I was in class, I was also struggling with clinical depression, isolation, and a sustained existential crisis over years. I wasn’t making the same choices as Rick, but I identified with his malaise. It may not look like faith on the surface, but that kind of suffering forces us to deeper and more honest levels of our lives we couldn’t reach otherwise.

Elijah: I’d like to come back in a moment to your suggestion that Knight of Cups doesn’t directly address anything spiritual, because I definitely want to discuss the kinds of spirituality (perhaps “religiosity” is a better term) that we see in Knight of Cups. But first, concerning any personal spiritual connection I felt with the film, like you, I had a similar experience during the first few years of my seminary education. I don’t think I was ever depressed, and I endured severe isolation during undergrad, so I knew how to guard against that, but I certainly went through a profound existential crisis while a student at Fuller. I didn’t have the means Rick has to sample Hollywood hedonism, but I did try to experience as much of the world as I could in an attempt to test if there was anything of real value outside the narrow limits of life as I had lived it up to that point. My faith failed me for a spell, so I explored other potential centers of meaning while I was figuring out if and how this faith I’d always claimed was still applicable to my life and what that faith would need to look like if it was going to carry me forward. Like you said, Rick finds deep meaning in suffering; I found it in silence. I’m still finding it there to some extent. Before I went through that, I would never have recognized the faith I claim now as faith.

All that being said though, I never connected personally to Rick or to what Malick is doing in this film. I understand what’s happening in the film, both narratively and thematically, but it never moved me. Watching The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, I wept openly, and I changed the way I interacted with loved ones afterward. Knight of Cups did not affect me in that way. I think there are two reasons for this. One, I’m still going through the things the characters are going through in The Tree of Life and To The Wonder. I’ve already gone through what Rick goes through in Knight of Cups. I’m on the other side already. Two, Rick is a detached character, and I think it’s more difficult to empathize with someone so numb. That being said, I don’t think that makes this a “lesser” film, and I don’t think it needs to apply to me to be worthwhile (of course). I’m just trying to understand my response.

One thing that worked very well for me in Knight of Cups, however, is how it is both framed as a journey—the opening and closing shots are of a car on a freeway—and oriented around a quest. Malick’s films have been set in multiple locations (and eons, for that matter) before, but I’ve never felt like his characters were traveling and exploring and searching like Rick does in this film. Paradoxically, the film is set in mostly in one place, Los Angeles (with brief jaunts to Death Valley and Las Vegas), and in one time period. L.A. is huge and varied though and known for its freeways, so you can travel all day and never leave it. The whole world is there. It is everything and nothing at once, a fact reiterated for me by the time spent on the Universal Studios backlot. Surprisingly, this made L.A. an ideal setting for Malick’s spiritual quest.

Did anything work especially well for you in Knight of Cups?

Michael: You’ve made some great points here. Rick’s quest is not as compelling if you’ve already gone through his questing, and his detachment (and minimal dialogue on screen) can make it hard to find an empathic handle on his character. There also seems to be even more expressionistic dialogue in this movie–there are hints at interactions, but the audio seems to fade in and out to match Rick’s numbness. Combine that with a revolving door of supporting characters, and it’s hard to find a place to be emotionally grounded in the film. For me, that decentering is part of the point, and because I’m still questing like Rick, the empathy came easier.

And you’ve tapped into one thing that worked well for me in this film–the structure. Lubezki said at the premiere that Malick is “searching for the language of film” in his movies. The danger is his lyricism can put so much pressure on the narrative that there’s nothing to follow. On the other hand, with a film like Linklater’s Boyhood, the strong sense of linear structure can dampen the lyricism. Organizing Knight of Cups episodically with tarot card titles really worked for me, even if I didn’t know the meaning of each card. It gave a container of meaning for Malick’s style without pushing a linear structure. We all know that tarot cards are used to look for some kind of divine orientation in life, and each section of the film resonated with themes of the cards. You don’t have to know much about a card called “The Hanged Man” to sense how it impinges on Rick’s father, Joseph, or how a card called “Death” complicates the scene with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) telling Rick she’s pregnant. A quick online search of “Knight of Cups,” and then you get a clearer sense of the quality of Rick’s quest.

Also, and this is a more general comment about Malick, his process of filmmaking is just as exciting to me as the film itself. Lubezki talked about it at length at the premiere. Malick writes pages and pages of scripts, shares them with the cast and crew at the last minute, and often tells them to throw it out. He’ll make sure people feel unprepared and at the edge of their rational abilities. It’s an environment where unscripted and sincere moments can occur, and I absolutely love it. In an age where we self-edit all the time and when posturing is a lifestyle choice, how refreshing to have unplanned moments to discover. There’s a Zen Buddhist koan that asks, “What did your face look like before you were born?” I think that question is getting at the same thing–what happens when we strip away the pretence and accumulated layers of calculation and anxiety? What happens when we let go of our sinful habits that obscure our hearts? That original face is profoundly Christ-like, and it’s exciting to see filmmakers chase after this kind of innocence and wonder. The net effect is felt even if not grasped–they’re looking to express experience beyond the rational mind–or as Richard Rohr calls it, “the naked now.”

Malick’s style (the overdubs, the wandering through landscapes, the expressive camera) has been consistent for these past three films. What do you think it adds to Knight of Cups? What is the cumulative effect for you?

Elijah: “The decentering is part of the point” – I think you’re onto something there.

Sticking to those stylistic bedrocks you mention allows Malick to experiment around the edges. Ultimately, I think his style continues to develop. I’m cautious to never say a filmmaker (or any artist) has to develop every element of her or his style in every work. I think it’s fine for artists to focus on developing one or two aspects of their style in a work while letting the rest coast for a spell. Over time, the artist’s entire voice changes and becomes richer. Cumulatively, I think Malick is becoming a better artist who is more capable of expressing himself cinematically, and I am becoming more in tune with what he is doing. I think I understand and appreciate all of his films more after seeing Knight of Cups.

In Knight of Cups, I was keenly aware of the way Malick is using locations as representative of emotional states rather than as actual places where narrative action is occurring. For example, I don’t think Rick is ever actually in Death Valley, but he is going through a dry place emotionally. As he finds meaning in suffering, he is still in the desert, but it is a more lush desert than the barren salt flats where he starts. At the end there is great meaning and beauty in the dry places. Malick did this kind of thing to an extent in To the Wonder (Mont Saint-Michel) and The Tree of Life (Death Valley again), but those locations were also tied to the films’ narratives in a way Knight of Cups locations most often are not.

Malick used this “location as emotional state” conceit with Rick’s lovers as well. The house he shares with his wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchette) is embedded in the earth just as Nancy is more in touch (literally) with unglamorous, needy, earthy people. Helen (Freida Pinto) is his most exotic and mystical lover, and her house is like an Eastern shrine. Did Della (Imogen Poots), the rebel, or Karen (Teresa Palmer), the stripper, even have houses? I don’t think so, and those relationships happened during Rick’s most unhinged periods as well. Rick’s affair with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is passionate but dry, and the primary location for that affair, the house by the beach, is all glass and concrete, mirroring the severity and ultimate cut of that relationship.

I was also surprised that at least a quarter of the narration is disconnected from any character in the film. I think that’s the first time Malick has done that.

And I am impressed by how rhythmic this film is, and I mean that in the poetic sense rather than the musical. There’s a constant back and forth movement between caged and free, dry and wet, loud and quiet, urban and natural, alone and together, Oklahoma and L.A., etc. Did you pick up on any of that or on anything else? Or is Malick’s style wearing on you like it seems to be wearing on many people who once praised The Tree of Life as a work of unparalleled genius?

Michael: So when we call a film or filmmaker “genius,” sometimes we’re responding to the qualities of the work itself, and sometimes we’re trying express how the film transforms us as viewers. As far as the work itself goes, I still appreciate Malick’s style, but I want to be careful to not overpraise it. Anytime we bestow art or film with phrases like “unparalleled genius,” disappointment so easily follows. That’s in part because advertisers use phrases like that to sell tickets (I love the word for this: “puffery”), and it’s also because we humans are really good at obscuring reality with our ideas of it. Furthermore, overpraising his films obscures what he’s trying to do.

And I also want to be careful to not put too much pressure on a film to offer some kind of spiritual transformation–that’s not something you can guarantee for any work of art. When The Tree of Life came out, I knew friends who treated it like a new testament, and I’m not sure that kind of approach is wise. Works of art and our experience of them reach these deeper levels of “genius” and “transformation” through a process that’s way beyond us—there’s a kind of spiritual excess that Malick’s films contain, and his films create an environment for us to receive it. But, and this is important, when we confuse that presence with its aesthetic vehicle it becomes a mess (read George Steiner’s Real Presences for more).

I didn’t pick up on the landscapes like you did, and that really seems to match Malick’s larger goals. He’s not trying to tell stories in a traditional sense; he evokes them through landscapes, through emotionally honest moments, and his idiosyncratic visual style. It all works together to create a visual movement that can carry us along and invite us to reflect on our own inner experiences. It’s hard for me to express, but when I watch his films, it seems like the contours of my own inner life–the memories and longings and constant sensory engagement with the world–is on the screen. Genius aside, I don’t know any filmmaker working so incessantly to capture this experience of consciousness, and that deserves our support and careful reflection.

What do you think about Malick’s style? Is it an accurate depiction of being alive in the world? How would you practically use Knight of Cups in your own spiritual life?

Elijah: That’s a helpful “demystification” of genius, Michael. “Genius” is a designation that we ascribe, and it too often puts the focus on the designator instead of the designated. It is certainly a shame when we critics let our desire to crown a master (or villainize a demagogue) get in the way of genuinely interacting with their work. As Dr. Johnston teaches to begin his Theology & Film class, paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, we ought not try to stand over films; we ought to be trying to stand under/understand them instead.

When I first watched Malick’s films (pre-The Tree of Life), I had never encountered another filmmaker like him. I was blown away. I didn’t know it was possible to represent prayer, contemplation, and exploration in that way on screen. It felt like a revelation, like a curtain had been ripped open and something transcendent had rushed out into my world.

Since then, I’ve watched films by filmmakers I think he is clearly influenced by—Andrey Tarkovsky, especially—so I’m not as flabbergasted by Malick’s style. Now, it’s difficult for me to watch Malick’s films without seeing Tarkovsky all over what Malick is doing. (Lubezki seems drawn to Tarkovsky as well. Check out this video essay showing the parallels between The Revenant and Tarkovsky’s films.)

So for me, as The Tree of Life was Malick’s Mirror, Knight of Cups is Malick’s Solaris. Both are stories about a son who goes on a journey during which he tries to make peace with a past lover(s), but really, the story is ultimately about a prodigal son returning home. The films are both framed by shots of cars zooming down an urban highway; the protagonist encounters a floating woman at a key moment (in Knight of Cups, this happens in Las Vegas symbolically as Rick stands beneath the women suspended from the ceiling) which reminds the men of the true nature of love instead of the facsimiles the are chasing; and nature keeps finding ways to stubbornly impose on human-constructed environments, calling the protagonists back to earth – “back to earth” literally in Solaris and figuratively in Knight of Cups. Finally, the moment of integration in both films is when the protagonist reconciles with his father. In Knight of Cups, I feel like Malick is pressing against pastiche, though I think that in maintaining a terrestrial setting and in relying on different kinds of photography instead of special effects, Malick does something different than what Tarkovsky is doing in Solaris. Namely, Malick is both grounding the story and probing the depths of the human psyche instead of the depths of the universe. I suppose one could make the argument that this is reductive and arrogant, that it raises up humanity (particularly man) to be as big as the universe, but I agree with Peter Rollins when he casts a human being as “an eternity that you can walk around.” Malick’s style echoes that conception of the human spirit.

So yes, to an extent, I do think Malick’s vision is an accurate depiction of being alive in the world, but I would qualify that. I think Malick’s vision is an accurate depiction of contemplating the world. His protagonists are all somewhat disconnected from life itself. In his early films, he accomplished this by using retrospective voice-over narration and by setting his films in the past. (Curiously, The Thin Red Line and The New World, his most “period” pieces, may be his most “in the moment” narratives.) In these later films, his narration is even more disconnected from the immediate events on screen, and his protagonists are literally removed from the action whether they are wandering through Texas skyscrapers or the California desert. Malick’s vision is an accurate depiction of life in as far as it tries to be an accurate depiction of a facet of life, the contemplative facet.

Watching Knight of Cups, I was struck by Rick’s privilege. I wondered if his ability to wander around L.A., cavort with women, and party to his heart’s (dis)content—and if the existential crisis that accompanied that wandering, cavorting, and partying—was a product of his privilege. I wondered if my similar opportunity to contemplate life’s meaning was a product of my similar privilege. Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs would situate Rick and myself in the top of the pyramid searching for self-actualization because all our other needs have been met. Maybe I thought of this because of how much time Rick spends on skid row with homeless people and with his ex-wife in the hospital caring for people with serious skin diseases. I wondered, is what Malick depicts an aspect of the lives of humanity’s neediest members as well as its wealthiest? I felt… guilty for having the luxury of contemplation in my life.

But then, as Rick walked precariously along the edge of another building, I realized we are all on the edge in one way or another, and one thing that cannot be taken away from us by economic hardship (or plenty) is our ability to pray and appeal to God for whatever rescue we need. What else is on a stripper’s mind while she dances? What do we imagine a man wielding the leaf blower is thinking about? To pick up on the theme of suffering you mentioned earlier—which Knight of Cups encapsulates in the words of Fr. Zeitlinger in the film—”To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.”  As in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, even widows, maybe especially widows, get to be persistent.

So, while I hesitate to apply the term “practical use” to any work of art—Mako Fujimura would say that all art is gift; it has no practical use in the way our industrialized society thinks of usefulness—I would say that Knight of Cups, like all of Malick’s films, gives me permission to ask difficult questions of God and myself. Malick encourages me to be a persistent widow.

Picking up on another aspect of Knight of Cups, what do you make of Malick’s blending of different forms of spirituality in Knight of Cups? I know you are personally drawn to the potential intersections between Christianity and Buddhism. Did Malick’s intermingling of Christianity, Buddhism, astrology, and yoga, to name only the most obvious influences, work for you? Can Christians who have embraced Malick’s more clearly Christian vision in the past embrace this films as well?

Michael: Good question, and we could spend a whole essay talking about blending spiritual traditions. To be honest, I would say we’re all syncretists. We might not be explicit about it, but if you look at our practices and our beliefs on the ground, syncretism is actually very normal. If there is an American flag on the stage of your church, that’s syncretism. If you listen to U2 for spiritual sustenance, that’s syncretism. The relationship between religion and culture has always been blurry, and to say it doesn’t happen seems dishonest to me. The trick is locate what beliefs and practices are overlapping and whether or not it’s contributing or diminishing spiritual health.

I’ve never done a tarot reading, and I don’t think I necessarily need to. But for Rick, it’s clear that his spiritual practices are haphazard and half-hearted. That tarot reading is inconsequential–he could have been in the back of Angelus Temple and I think his reaction would be the same detached wandering. In any case, to only engage in explicitly “Christian” culture is the worst kind of amputation you could make. There’s so much truth and goodness and beauty in the world, and it’s a tragedy when we turn our backs on that.

There’s a great ecological term called “ecotone,” the name given to the overlapping space between two different landscapes. For me, I’ve learned more about suffering and the way we create it for ourselves from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron than any theology of sin I read in a class. That there’s truth in other faiths or culture or art that doesn’t look like my own religious tradition is something to celebrate. Yes, Knight of Cups isn’t as explicitly Christian (on the surface) as Malick’s earlier films, but that means there is more to contemplate and more to question. And when we do that, as we’ve done here, we can learn so much more. There’s that great definition of interfaith dialogue–the mutual exchange of gifts. That exchange can happen every single day if we have open hearts and eyes to see it.

Elijah: That’s an excellent observation, that all of Rick’s spiritual practices (more like lazy dabblings) are half-hearted. One could read that interreligious aspect of Knight of Cups as suggesting that if God wants to get to you, God will get to you somehow even if you’re only barely paying attention, that God is bigger than any of our traditions, that the things our traditions have in common are at least as important as the things that make them different. God of the ecotone – I love it.

Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Michael. It’s been helpful for me as I’ve processed this film, and I hope it’s helpful for readers as well. Malick’s films are so different than the rest of what we see at the movies, I think it’s helpful to “talk them out.” In closing, is there anything else you’d like to add about Knight of Cups that you haven’t had a chance to say yet?

Michael: Thank you for asking me, Elijah! I’ve been honored to reflect on the film with you. I would say two more things. First, when Christian Bale was preparing for the role, Malick gave him a copy of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (a book Malick has long wanted to adapt), and many of the themes of this movie start in that book. It’s a good read for people who resonate with Rick’s searching. And finally I would say that engaging religious culture–whether it’s Malick’s recent films or a book by a teacher outside of our own tradition–is one of the most important practices we can cultivate. It deepens and clarifies our perception, and over time it gives us a diverse cloud of witnesses that can help sustain our lives.