Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Knight of Cups

(Terrence Malick, USA, 2016)

The apportioning of an artist's career into "periods" is a delicate and hazardous business, particularly if that artist is still living.  On a purely biological basis, it would seem that Terrence Malick is now in his late period, given that he's recently crossed the threshold of 70.  But then, he's only made seven features, and the recent few have come at a positive torrent, at least when compared to his earlier output.  If he keeps it up at this pace - we're told that he has two more films that are complete or nearing completion - it might be more accurate, when the final tallies are made, to designate Knight of Cups as a middle-period piece.  His recent work has been so brilliantly inventive, so emotionally searching and courageous, that its hard to imagine him ever slowing down, and even harder to imagine what new heights of achievement he might reach in a later stage.

The point being, it isn't always easy to appreciate how special something is while it's happening.  Lives, like stories, take shape in retrospect, when the armature of narrative is applied.  The same is true of artistic careers, those funny things we create to make sense of a cluster of works from an artist who has made his or her mark on the world.  We can see the mark, but the meaning takes time to arise.  In fifty years, if the human race is still around to talk about cinema, we'll still be trying to make sense of Malick's movies, and time will likely have provided us with more clues. For now, however, we can only appraise what exists to the best of our abilities, knowing that our understanding is limited, but our impressions are as fresh and as vivid as they will ever be.  And for that, we should be grateful.

The passing of time, and the meaning that arises or doesn't arise from time and one's attention to it, is the force that gives Malick's latest opus its form.  It is, as his films have increasingly been, framed in a way that denotes a specifically Christian approach to the world (and whatever lies beyond the world.)  This has been a source of distraction to many viewers and critics.  Some have recoiled at the Christian stuff, finding it archaic, retrograde, stale, clichéd, etc.  Others have celebrated it, casting Malick as less an artist than a proselytizer, although the wisest among them haven't claimed that he can't be both.  It must be said that this is an issue Malick seems to be aware of, and even struggles with, as he excavates his own feelings, be they religious, sensual, or otherwise.

But Malick isn't trying to convince anyone of anything.  His faith in the world, in the manifest beauty and miraculousness of existence, unfolding before us minute by minute, is enough.  It's a take-it-or-leave it proposition, as all art is.  Christian Wiman said that "in the finding of a form for one's experience one's whole soul can be at stake," and that's how it must be for Malick.  He's put himself into his work to a degree that few artists of any medium dare, and his faith seems to be that the work will hold him and still be worthy of the world.  There's a tremendous joy in that, but also a kind of terrible risk.  There is no guarantee that you'll find your form, or that if you do, that the world will notice.   

Another common mistake has been to cast this film as a kind of rebuke or condemnation of Hollywood.  The depictions of the Hollywood types certainly aren't flattering, but they are never less than alive.  Malick doesn't portray Hollywood as a cesspool or as a vacuous waste of humanity, although he's aware that those are not inaccurate descriptions.  He is as bemused and appalled and attracted as we are, and why shouldn't we be?  To deny that decadence can be beautiful, or that the allure of worldly power and freedom will tempt even the best among us, indeed especially the very best among us, who assume that their intelligence and virtue will immunize them from temptation, is to take a child's view of the world.  Malick isn't letting himself off the hook, but he is also not about to moralize his way out of that conundrum.  Crucially, there is no alternative home for Christian Bale's character, the lost and restless Rick.  To the extent that grace may be found, it will be found exactly where he is.  It's a matter of perspective, a question of vision.

The film is divided into chapters, the titles of which are taken from the Tarot.  This complicates the Christian element no less than the appearance of Peter Matthiessen, who raps with Rick about Zen Buddhism   Although the metaphor of the spiritual journey is the film's major structural conceit, the journey's progression is anything but linear.  Malick moves the story to and fro in time, doubling back and then vaulting forward, tracing the movements of a troubled, searching mind.  This mind belongs to Rick, of course, but the perspective is not his exclusively.  In one of Malick's many profound aesthetic tropes, the consciousness of the film is permeable, and other characters - Rick's father and brother, the women from his past, the disembodied voices of John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, and Ben Kingsley, reading from spiritual and philosophical texts - often intrude.

Again, much of the critical discussion seems to miss this central fact.  Bale's character, while deeply lonely, is not alone, and the consciousness of the film extends far beyond his straitened view.  Trying to draw a philosophical conclusion from this is hard work, and probably unnecessary: there need not be a strict formula for where Rick's impressions, imaginations, and the exterior world all diverge.  But still, the character himself, and his role in the world of movies, is puzzling, at least initially.  What is this guy, who is clearly uncomfortable in the thicket of opulence and raw ambition that is show business, doing there?  And he's supposed to a comedy writer - is that a deadpan joke by Malick?

Probably, in part, it is meant to be funny.  But it also makes perfect sense, given the themes of the film: the pain underlying excessive displays of joy, the masks that must be donned to navigate a world of willful illusion (masks, and other ways of obscuring one's face, come up with some frequency in the film), the perennial absurdity of the movie colony's pretensions and garishness.  When we first encounter Rick, he is surely a different man than the one who came out to Los Angeles, lured by the palm trees that "make you believe anything is possible..." and the promise of easy, high living.  But even then, in his salad days as a hotshot, he seems to have held himself in reserve, indulging fulsomely in the sensual delights available to him but protecting his tender side behind a wall of aloofness.  There are clues littered throughout the film: a walk-and-talk with Rick's "people" (as they say in the 'biz), during which one of his suits recounts Rick's grand ambition (something about being the biggest screenwriter in Hollywood), and how he (the suit) just got a studio boss (somebody named Ted) to double Rick's quote.  Also revealed in the swatches of dialogue: Rick has failed to turn in one of his writing assignments, although, due to the hard work of his rep, that fact, and the trouble associated with it, "goes away" now that he's bagged this even bigger and better assignment.  

Rick has been faltering for some time, it would appear. Indeed, as we encounter him in what could tenuously be called the "present" of the film's timeline, he is living in a small, sparsely furnished loft in downtown L.A., not the sprawling, modernist house in the Hills, where he lived with his former wife, played by Cate Blanchette.  As for the money, and the need to acquire so much of it: this likely comes from Rick's troubled family dynamic.  We hear some of the scarcity ethic preached by his father, who talks of the sacrifices he made to provide for his family, and by the predicament of his brother, who appears unable to care for himself, financially or otherwise.

Rick, then, despite having almost no spoken lines, and whose anhedonic mien changes little over the course of the running time, is a complex and vivid character, and played expertly by Bale.  It's been some time since Bale showed his boyish side, his vulnerability, and it feels like bracing desert air after the severity and dourness of his stint as a superhero.  Malick's method of crafting performances is crucial to this, of course: while the overriding impression of Nick is of a listless and sorrowful soul, the depth of his character is revealed in quick, bright flashes of emotion: lust, joy, fear, and rage all make appearances, all the more striking for their brevity.  While the peripheral characters - the women around whose Rick's recollections tend to center, and his volatile male relatives - are not as deeply sketched, they are carefully individuated.  Rick's memory of his affairs - serious and frivolous alike - is rendered in a deeply human way.  He is searching for meaning with an almost desperate intensity, but he is easily sidetracked by the flood of emotions that complicates any act of memory, voluntary or not.

Knight of Cups, while close kin to Malick's previous two films (some have gone as far as to suggest a trilogy, although it will take another film to see if this is correct), is a noted departure.  In the first place, his restless experimentation with editing, shooting mediums, performance, and time, has only deepened.  Knight may be his most musical film to date, with its carefully harmonic and rhythmic  succession of images - a theme is stated, developed, repeated - going beyond even the cosmic span of Tree of Life and the intimacy of To the Wonder.  Malick is freer than he's ever been, and taking greater risks.  The element of the surreal - which has always been present in Malick's movies, but usually far less so - is also, in his latest, far more prominent.  Two examples spring to mind: Rick's half-dreamed, half-observed study of his father, who is shown pacing in an abandoned office building, and who performs an ablution in blood.  The other comes late in the film, after the revelation that Natalie Portman's character (she's billed as Elizabeth) has had an abortion, likely because of her doubts about Rick's love, with whom she has been having an affair.  Elizabeth and Rick are in a room, shrouded in smoke, decorated in white, where a child gambols about.  These scenes are jarring, both in their sudden departure from the quasi-documentary style of other sequences, and in their use of imagery that can feel familiar, even clichéd.  But Malick's originality purges these symbols - some of which are rather obvious, which need not be a knock - of their familiarity.  As always, it is through context that meaning arrives, and, perhaps more importantly, emotion.

Beyond that, there is a shift in emotional tenor - and even, possibly, in metaphysical orientation - that is rather stark when compared to the previous two movies.  Whereas Tree and Wonder both tilted towards redemption, even in the face of terrible loss, Knight is a decidedly more uncertain and troubled film.  While Malick's eye is never far from the manifest beauty of the world, and the grace that seems to underlie it, Rick's deliverance from his ennui, his recovery of himself, is cast in great doubt.  The whole movie, it would seem, pivots on the edge of a decision by Rick to "begin."  Time is bearing him forward, even as he beats against it.  As the film winds down, his moorings become more vague, his vision more abstracted.  Is he finally on the path to find solid ground, a sense of himself, a moral and emotional center?  A final woman appears, blond and diaphanous, the only true wisp in the story; we don't, as I recall, actually see her face.  Rick is back in the desert, and seems to be climbing, seeking the light, looking upward. (My pet theory is that the upcoming Weightless will be a companion piece to this film, even a second part,  and may offer more finality to the tale.)  Knight of Cups is Malick's most sensuously excessive film, his most conflicted, and his most confounding.  I've still only seen it once, and I'm eager to see it again; to savor it, to try to make better sense of it, to see how it matches my memories.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

(Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2016)

The Coens, in a lighter and more exuberant mood than they've been in some time, have crafted a minor masterpiece about faith and art.  But before diving in to this new film, it might be instructive to trace the broad outlines of their artistic careers.  Beneath the hijinks of the Coens is a longstanding riddle: who are they, and what do they really think?  For all of their boisterous antics and their willful, meticulous oddity, the Coens have always kept their cards close to the vest.  A common take is that they are paragons of ironic distance, inveterate hipsters whose chief thrill is condescension.  I've suspected this myself, from time to time, movie to movie.

Hail, Caesar! doesn't entirely resolve this question, but it did help clarify, for me, what might be called their aesthetic attitude.   The Coens have always been filmmakers of prodigious and preternatural talent; from Blood Simple onward they have shown a facility with the tools of cinema that is nothing short of astonishing.  This has permitted them to invent entire worlds, populate them with strange and indelible characters, and still withhold a great deal from the audience.  What you get out of a movie by the Coens is largely a function of your own perspective; there is much to be found for the hopeful and the despairing alike, sometimes within the same movie.

Their combination of talent, scintillating intelligence, and a goofy sense of humor situates the Coens in a wholly unique place among their peers, and presents a challenge to any serious attempt to unpack their art.  We know they can't be nihilists ("That must be exhausting" was the Dude's wry take on the philosophy of nothing), and yet at their most irreverent, the Coens seem to mock the very idea of meaning in art.  A Serious Man was the latest example of this tendency, wherein they crafted a world that was perfectly meaningless, characters whose thin veneer of naturalism couldn't conceal their fundamental blankness, and a plot that spiraled slowly into nothing.  It was a goof on late-60s suburbia and the drab, provincial Jewish community of Minnesota, but it was also a goof on Jewish religion and religion in general, not to mention physics, television, adolescence, and infidelity.  A Serious Man is larded with symbols and motifs - the teeth, the rabbis, Jefferson Airplane, the Mentaculus - whose patterning, while amusing and intriguing, like wallpaper to a stoned person, is finally devoid of significance.

I'd trace this tendency back most explicitly to Barton Fink, where the titular character suffered a string of misfortunes that seemed designed explicitly to lampoon his artistic pretensions, and possibly even the notion of artistic ambition itself.  This paradox - two brilliantly idiosyncratic auteurs who seem to disdain the very idea of creative ambition - has only deepened throughout their career.  Their last film, the wryly bleak Inside Llewyn Davis, while not without humor and even a sliver or two of tenderness, was familiar enough in the detached circularity of its conception.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coens (likely unintentionally) shed some light on these questions, belonging as it does to their sunnier, gentler work.  It occurred to me after ruminating for a while on the film that there is a character type that they seem to admire, or at least show mercy towards, in film after film.  He (or, more rarely, she) could be called the holy fool.  Abby in Blood Simple, H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, Norville Barnes in Hudsucker, the immortal Dude.  Even Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik are variations on this theme; the difference is temperament.  Those who don't take themselves, or the world, too seriously, have some hope of satisfaction.  But the vain, the self-serious, and the ambitious - think Barton Fink, but also think Jerry Lundegaard - are almost certain to suffer.  Hail, Caesar!'s variant on this type is Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix.  While not a fool, necessarily - he's smart and capable - he is besotted with the idea of morality, and conscientiously religious.  He's thus a bit silly, especially when considering the rampant venality of the world in which he operates.  He suffers genuine remorse over sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife, but doesn't seem to scruple at lying to the tabloids or covering up all kinds of impious misbehavior.  But rather than a McCarthyite, driven by personal demons to paranoia and repression, he is a kind of benevolent zealot, fundamentally caring and decent.

Structurally, the film is episodic, with the central kidnapping plot providing only a modicum of momentum.  It's more of a basis for the Coens to take us on a tour of Golden Age Hollywood, with its outward opulence, moderated with a facade of propriety, and its inner turmoil, powered by pleasure, fear, and striving.  Given their taste for naifs, they have a glut of material to work with, including the sub rosa organizations of Communists.  All of this rolls along at a relaxed pace, with every opportunity taken to set up another pleasurably droll set piece. 

And the pleasures are worth noting: the hilarious quibbling of the religious leaders that Mannix consults with; Jonah Hill's uber-loyal fall guy/notary, Alden Ehrenreich's brilliantly funny turn as the sweet and dopey Hobie Doyle, Scarlet Johanssen's fast-talking and cynical star.  Brolin's Mannix is itself a remarkable role; there's a pathos to his character that provides the film with a crucial center of gravity.  Brolin has rarely been this supple and this affecting; he exudes a careful balance of zing and vulnerability.  Ehrenriech, also, excels in a role that's sublimely goofy but also manages to be charming.  His outing with Carlotta Valdez (a lovely Veronica Osorio), a date rigged for the benefit of the press, turns out to be subtly romantic, a breeze of unalloyed joy between two people who are in over their heads but enjoying the ride.

Caesar's gentle touch, which is miles away from the chilly angst of Inside Llewyn Davis, is only rarely punctuated with any darkness, but these rare occasions are worth noting.  As previously mentioned, the dealing with Communism is mostly played for laughs; the screenwriters come off as disgruntled and shallow, rather than ideologically rigorous.  But there is a sense of menace to the way that their circle is summarily dispatched, especially considering the actual history, which involved scores of ruined careers and lives.  The other glaring intrusion of worldly woe is in Mannix being courted by Lockheed Martin; among the military industry-rep's come-ons is a picture of a mushroom cloud, which impresses Mannix enough to utter "Armageddon." When deliberating whether he should take the job, Mannix seems largely unperturbed by the idea of working for war merchants, even though he appears to understand what it is that they do.

His decision to stay the course, re-committing himself to the grand illusions of the movies, comes across as a genuine article of faith for the Coens.  When all is said and done, they are unabashed entertainers, down to the marrow.  Generally, this is the most we can say about their personal feelings and convictions; while certain themes inevitably arise, and certain types of characters resurface, it is all always in aid of putting on a good show.  Their lodestar, after all, is Preston Sturges, that consummate entertainer of Golden Age Hollywood, whose Sullivan's Travels (the source for the title of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) makes for a kind of manifesto.  In that film, pretensions of social consciousness and artistic purity are derided in favor of pure escapism.  That's far too neat for the Coens (and even for Sturges himself), but it does indicate the general direction of their sympathies.

In light of this, it can be said that Hail, Caesar! is one of their most personal films.  It posits the big-scale entertainments of cinema as a kind of secular faith - uplifting, harmless, and even capable of generating a sense of purpose in one's life, provided one doesn't take it too seriously.  Like all irrational belief, its roots are entwined with silliness and absurdity, but out of them can grow work of genuine wonder.  The Coens would probably never frame things in such an exalted way; even here, ending with Mannix's re-assertion of his faith, and as the last shot pans up to the heavens, we can hear them giggling.  Holy fools to the end, they are never less than sincere when it comes to their audience.