Archive | January, 2017

Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” and the difference between US and European movies

30 Jan

Knight of Cups is essentially a deeply personal student film made with a big budget, famous actors, and first-rate cinematography. This is not your conventional narrative – the film frequently works on the level of a collage. Christian Bale is Rick, a guy who, from what we can tell, is some kind of big deal in the film industry, though we never really know what his job is. Titles with the names of Tarot cards introduce characters and scenes. Early in the film, we see the title “The Moon”. We’re trying to recall what happens next (and we’re too lazy to put the DVD in the player again), but we think that next come scenes of Rick and a young woman cavorting by the sea or on an outdoor stage or something. It’s hard to remember, because during the course of the film, Rick frequently cavorts by the sea with people, usually women (we’re not using ‘cavort’ as a euphemism – a lot of excited jumping and dancing goes on.) The film shows us women who have come in and gone out of Rick’s life, including Cate Blanchett, who plays a doctor, and Natalie Portman, a married woman with whom Rick has an affair. There is also a dancer in a topless club (The “High Priestess”, if we recall correctly) that Rick takes to Las Vegas, and other women, apparently prostitutes, with whom Rick cavorts in a room (again, not euphemistically.)  Interspersed are scenes of Hollywood parties at too-opulent mansions and scenes of Rick’s adult life with his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother, which  consist mostly of lots of yelling between the latter two.

The guy in the New Yorker seemed really ga-ga about the picture, but we weren’t as enthusiastic.  Halfway through the picture, it occurred to us that if the film stopped following Rick and instead chose to focus on another character, we’d have been just as happy.  This is not to say that the film is not worth your time – the cinematography is beautiful, and the film, though in our view not fully satisfying, is nonetheless intriguing.

The difference between American cinema and European cinema, in our humble opinion, comes down to the tendency of US movies to tell you too much, and the tendency of European movies not to tell you enough. We recently watched Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946)  (and no, it’s not based on the Albert Camus novel of the same name) where Welles plays an escaped Nazi living in a small college town. He tells a fellow Nazi “You know how I gathered and destroyed every single item in Germany and Poland that might have served as a clue to my identity. Only my heart knows who I am…”  OK, we the audience are smart enough to have figured out that the guy probably did his best to cover his tracks before he split, so why do we need this line?  Or, if we do, why not ‘every single item in Germany’?  Do we really need to know that he destroyed stuff in Poland, too? Do we even really care?  Sheesh…


WTMI, Orson!

Contrast that with Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) (which we’re not yet done watching)*, where we see the main characters partying in this horrible shack by the sea.  We don’t know why they’ve chosen such a horrible setting for their partying, the scene seems to go on forever, and we’re about halfway into the picture and nothing seeming to resemble a plot has really shown itself.

Now, the difference may have less to do with these films’ countries of origin and more to do with the decades in which the two were released – conventions in filmmaking changed between the two periods.  Nevertheless, we think that US pictures tend to give you too much info and European pictures tend to toss you in and leave it to you to figure it out.

*we’ve since finished watching the picture.