Dear Persistence of Vision,
“Persistence of vision refers to the optical illusion whereby multiple discrete images blend into a single image in the human mind, and was once believed to be the explanation for motion perception in cinema and animated films.”
To try and write about this film in the usual way would be to miss the point entirely, I think.
We all tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of the world: this is the third time today I‘ve seen the word placenta, so my wife must be pregnant; that dog crossing the road on its own must have negligent owners; I found twenty dollars—going to be my lucky day. All these brief, self-created narratives seek to make sense of the endless parade of random events that suddenly appear before us, to give context to something that is without intrinsic meaning. Finding linkages between these events, creating an order from them, is one of the reasons humans have pumpkins for heads—an evolutionary compromise necessitated by the wetware required.
That is where you come in. To interact in any meaningful way with this film requires a more metaphorical approach. And while you have fallen out of favor as a scientific explanation, you still provide a useful framework. After all, the project of wrestling discrete, separate moments into a contiguous and meaningful narrative is the central project of every human being—which makes it fair game for Malik’s particular sensibilities.
Knight of Cups effectiveness hinges on Malik’s interpretation of someone’s un-arbitrated memories: the raw sensory data of a person’s life (in this case Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter) before it has been run through the filtering software in his head. So the film unspools without the kind of interstitial mending that conventional narratives lean so heavily upon. The connective pieces are missing, one image simply crowds the previous image out of frame, so that watching Knight of Cups is a disconcerting and often unsettling experience. This seems both a creative choice about how to visually portray this particular sort of existential crisis, as well as having the audience experience, in a visceral way, the unsettling bewilderment that accompanies this sort of profound disconnection.
The central thesis of Knight of Cups is how fractured existence can be for someone who lacks an organizing principle (in Malik’s case what he would describe as a spiritual center). That the connective tissue we create to make sense of the world is most effective when filtered through a particular lens, and lacking that filter, we are condemned to a series of disconnected, hazy moments piling one atop of another—and Malik’s uncompromising portrayal of the fractured and often incoherent nature of that struggle is why this film is often so difficult to parse.
Knight of Cups portrays what life is like for a person who lacks the will to maintain persistence of vision in their moment-to-moment existence. It is not that Bale’s character lacks the basic tools to create meaning; so much as he seems disinclined to make the effort required—and that is why the Hollywood setting is essential, as it so succinctly underscores that emptiness and lack of connection. The only time the film feels at peace with itself are the moments where Bale has removed himself from that environment, and Malik’s camera finds him wandering through some pastoral setting: a beach, a field, a mountain range.
I can certainly understand how this film would simply not register with some. Those who feel at peace in their lives, who have a sense of purpose and direction, probably won’t feel a need to engage with what is at work here, For me it was a powerful (and often unsettling) encounter, heightened by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s tendency to ride Bale’ shoulder with his camera. Images are alternately gauzy and ephemeral, and then all of sudden right up close: sharp, crisp, and often unkind in their honesty.
Many people struggle to describe the experience of watching a Terrence Malik film, so I’m certainly not alone in that. His work seems to defy a particular sort of analysis, even if just by avoiding convention and categorization. But given how stubbornly we humans try to give order and meaning to what is essentially ineffable, I will say this: whatever happened to me while watching this film was profound. And maybe it’s okay that I can’t describe that experience fully, since my interpretation of the film’s value is specific to me and my attempt to create meaning out of something I‘m not sure I will ever completely understand.