Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Bale stairs

Here, Sisyphus meets John Bunyan’s Christian.

Or something like that.

Terrence Malick, for me, is a bit like T. S. Eliot, a forager through resonant, mythic fragments, pieced together into something that, while offering a reader a whole Thing and an often intensely emotional experience, also spins that reader off into multiple directions at once.

With something like “The Hollow Men,” for example, I first trace the Fisher King threads, and then I follow a Dante and Beatrice path, and then I’m sent to re-think Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, and then to grasp at remnants from Julius Caesar. All of these literary references are in “The Hollow Men,” and knowing them enriches my experience of the poem. But then, I also find that the poem works on a level that doesn’t seem to need any particular literary knowledge. Many of my students who’ve never read any of those other works love Eliot’s wasteland vision, those hollow whispering men; they can take the line “not with a bang but a whimper” and savor it. Just for itself. That line reaches directly into the feelings.

And so there’s meaning and there’s meaning and there’s meaning. Eliot is someone I will read my whole life and still find dark corners – that will very suddenly light up. Even Eliot himself, when a reader noted that he must have taken the “shadow” lines in “Hollow Men” from a poem by Ernest Dowson, agreed, “This derivation had not occurred in my mind, but I believe it to be correct, because the lines… have always run in my head.” It delights me to understand that even an artist cannot know everything contained in their own work. Eliot was an artist who was a receptacle who then poured himself into his work, at a conscious and unconscious level.

Malick is like that, I think, an artist, giving himself to his work utterly, and the result is a rich work that grows only richer. It is a richness that will make watching and re-watching and re-watching his films a life-long pleasure.  Continue reading Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)”