For some unknown reason I popped awake at 6 a.m. on a saturday. Perhaps it was the late-night onion rings. Thanks mom. I am not a morning person, hell, I’m barely a brunch person, but there I was staring at the ceiling. I flipped on the movie, Knight of Cups, which had waited in my Amazon Prime queue for over a couple of years. The cast is full of familiar names and faces, though most of the dialogue is delivered via whispered narration and the action rarely matches the words. The cast could be anyone…anyone rich and beautiful and searching for more. Even the burn victims have plenty to smile about.
The cinematography is stunning, subduing, morose, relatable, angst-filled, and full of character and yet following the thread of story proved difficult. An hour into the film I felt like I was watching several cologne commercials edited together.
My mind drifted, hypnotized by the movie’s delicate messages of longing, and doubt, and frustration and, directionlessness (is that a word?). I thought about my writing, in particular a manuscript I wrote about four teens who embark on an adventure. It’s the first thing I’ve completed that I felt had grown into my initial vision for it, but since it’s still sitting on my harddrive, doubt has crept in.
You can always second and third and fourth-guess your decisions on POV, character gender fitting the market, the clarity of your overall message, and thousands of word choices, but at some point you just have to step off the ledge and believe you’ve taken the correct path.
Christian Bale plays a writer who has lost a brother and he can’t get a grip on his new reality. He awakes during an earthquake, quickly showing the audience how shaky his foundation has become. He slips and slides through parties, business meetings, writer’s rooms, and various women searching for his place. He confronts his other brother and his father about what they could’ve/should’ve done to keep their brother alive and how to keep on going.
Synths and relaxing music and atmosphere rise and fall like the the waves in low tide as Christian’s character, Rick, visits an art gallery or a zen garden full of feng shui elements presumably maintained by an elder man speaking with a bass-toned voice, relaxing and full of experience. Rick’s Australian stripper girlfriend glides over a crowd on a zipline. A gathering of hollywood elite brings Antonio Banderas and Ryan O’Neal briefly into the fold, but aside from background bits of dialogue, I was left with little to cling to and wondered how long this commercial could last. Beautiful women and men dance and prance and laugh and strive and thrive and come and go and through it all I drifted.
Though I doubt Terrance Malik, the film’s director, intended to send viewers soul-searching during the movie, I reflected on past and current mistakes, failures, missed opportunities, and all that damn self doubt. Have I squandered my chances to create music and art and stories? Did I build walls around myself to avoid the work? Have I abused my escapist impulses to stray too far from regular life?
Sometimes I see the world as it’s portrayed in King of Cups, or at least I view myself as an extra in it. I’m there. I see what’s happening around me. I can relate to the joy, the sadness, the victory, the excitement, the danger and yet, I have no idea how to become a part of it.
For better or worse, I look to art and music and stories to find a connection to everything and everyone else. In theory, I love you all and want to share these moments with you. In practice, I spend a lot of time reading books, watching movies, and staring at paintings by myself. Call it awkwardness, call me a space case, but please never feel like I want to keep my distance. I have a constant barrage of stories playing out in my head in, through, and around the songs bubbling there, so excuse my distant stare. I am listening.
Throughout the film we are kept distant from the characters. Emotions, plot, decisions, thoughts are all portrayed through facial expressions and body motion. At times, powerful and at others frustrating. How can we sympathize if we have no backstory? How can we feel for the burning frustration etched on Rick’s face as he contemplates the future alone out in the wild? Then again, we’ve all been there, right? Do they want us to internalize and reflect on our own story, regardless of how different our lives have played out from the characters in the film?
These people seem illuminated, enriched via their burning desire to live each moment. Questions are posed about happiness, fulfillment, creativity’s role in society. One character states, “nothing lasts forever.” Another tells Rick, “Let’s live like no one has before.” And Rick, a writer with very little to say in this movie, shares, “See the palm trees? They tell you anything’s possible.”
As satisfied as they appear, the characters are hellbent on excess, on indulging, on exploring the limits of connection with each other and with themselves. Is the high fashion L.A. scene enough? Can love conquer over a barrage of temptation? Does it need to?
I write to communicate how I see the world in the hope that people can digest my words and converse about it. Bring us together. Find common ground. When I think about pulling away from everything for weeks and months at a time to type 80,000 words about people and places and plots that don’t exist in the hope that it brings me closer to you, it seems quite insane. How could that make sense?
Rick meets with his brother, who repeatedly punches and pushes Rick, goading him with calls of, “I gotta feel something” and “Come on, feel it.”. A direct approach that I hadn’t thought to try.
Rick asks, “Why do you hold back?” Don’t we all? I paused the movie to seek an answer to the question. I come back to the same, tired self doubt, or is it that I haven’t held back, and the lack of connection is a commentary on a lack of success? Of course creativity isn’t about success, its just the measure used by others to judge its worth rather than the actual content. I wrote a book, I am successful. I played a concert, I am successful. I found a wife, I am successful. I followed the guidelines, I am successful. I avoided the guidelines, I am successful. It’s a beautiful saturday morning and my kids are playing with dinosaurs while I type away and watch a film by myself…I am successful? I am a fool? I didn’t need this third cup of coffee.
The screen shows snapshots of beautiful things and broken things and refuses to allow for the souring and rusting and heartache and respect and dedication and stress and appreciation and power that comes with committing to life for more than a moment. Is that view due to my own cynicism? Am I too jaded and negative to simply enjoy the ride, to appreciate the work that went in to highlighting thousands of moments that happen everyday, which go unnoticed. A man clips and shapes a bush in the midst of a concrete jungle, a woman walks on the beach and takes in her surroundings, a man kneels in prayer and fights his aging body to stand back up, Rick and a woman share a bonfire in the mountains, these are all real, but we don’t see the ripples they cause. Every moment is beautiful when seen singularly, even when Rick’s girlfriend sobs on a sunlit balcony.
Questions are posed and questions are posed and questions are posed, but as the film ends, I don’t find any answers. Hell, I still have no idea which cologne they want me to buy.