On McCracken on Malick

I said I liked this review by Brett McCracken of the new Terrence Malick film “Knight of Cups” and my friend, the artist David Wittig, asked why, so I thought I’d try to figure it out.

First though, I should mention that I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t say whether McCracken’s is a good review of Knight of Cups, only that I appreciate it as a film review, and as a piece of writing. It may well be that the disconnect between McCracken’s reading and the actual film is so great that it’s a terrible review of the film, but I wouldn’t know.

Second, I should say that I pretty much hate movies. I just don’t appreciate the genre as entertainment, let alone as art, which brings me to the first thing I like about the CT review: it gives me permission to skip this film. I skip most films, of course (see aforementioned hatred) but when a new Malick film comes out, I feel compelled, like I should see it somehow, like it’s part of an artistic person’s duty. So I probably would have seen this, or at least felt bad about not seeing it. But I don’t now, because of this piece. I think this happens because you can tell, reading it, that McCracken wants to like the film. He’s not dismissive like many reviewers are, nor a booster, nor so vague one can’t tell where he stands on it, providing mere description and letting we wizened readers decide ourselves. Rather, he enters the viewing with generosity of spirit and a good deal of background and comes out of it demurring.

That’s kind of amazing because McCracken is the biggest fanboy I know. He loves Malick films like few people love anything. It’s basically the only thing I know about him, apart from the fact that he routinely attacks people from my tribe (hipster/Christians) and that he somehow thinks the latter Coldplay albums as good as the first two, an error of judgement so profound I stopped following his twitter. But even given that fandom, he walks away from this film shaking his head.

I recognize that gesture, which is another thing I appreciate about the review. Like many, I admired Tree of Life for its patience, dedication to beauty, and willingness to stare into the maw of grief without melodrama. But when I saw the next one, To the Wonder, I found it precious, bored, and self-indulgent. Part of the problem was casting Ben Affleck, which one does not do if one wants to make a serious film, and part was Malick’s misunderstanding, and then minimizing, the best parts of his own story. He thought it was about the beauty in mundanity, how the bare American landscape and its attendant suburban culture are redemptive despite their tawdriness, but really it was about the spark in the priest character and that visiting French woman that wasn’t extinguished somehow (because they were not Americans? Because they believed in something older than oilfields?). In that, I think of Malick like John Berger thinks of Picasso: that he’s insanely talented, and has failed to find a subject worthy of his attention.

He doesn’t come out and say it, but I take McCracken to be accusing Malick of committing the mimetic fallacy: of making a film that ostensibly criticizes the vacuous pretty-people lifestyle of Hollywood by making vacuous, pretty images of those things. Viewers, I take it, leave the film feeling empty and slightly dirty, and that is, I take it, the point. And I could so see Malick doing that. With his slow camera work, distrust of traditional narrative structure, and an idolater’s devotion to female physical beauty, he’s ideally poised to make that sort of film. If so, I disapprove. Having watched Mad Men, I’m exhausted of the self-indulgent posture that at once criticizes and enjoys the representation of titillation. I mean, pick a team, and put on the jersey already.

I’m inclined to think McCracken is right about this aspect of the film (though he may not be; again, I haven’t seen it) because I know from those previous films that Malick (like many artists, especially ones who work in commercial media) loves a shortcut. For all his 1000 hour film schedules, and all his auteur rebellion, he does tend to rely on the occasional gimmick to get the job done, reducing complex theology to a binary between law and grace, for example, or the hard work of love to some feeling that can be “over” according to mood or a hard winter. I can just see him using bits of Debussy to nod toward, but never actually engage, another world of meaning. He’s the kind of director who just drops in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” whenever the mood strikes, rather than earning it, honoring it. So he may use the beauty of Natalie Portman’s face, or the beach/sunset in just the same way: shortcuts to the heart without the proper tillage. As Monty Python says, “Stimulating the clitoris? What’s wrong with a kiss, boy?”

Finally, I feel taught, strengthened by McCracken’s review in the way Malick probably means his audience to be. When McCracken suggests that “any pilgrim” needs “rehabilitation of the senses” through “a more attentive posture in the world” I feel that I have, in a sentence, all the film can give me, and a bit more because I can work the koan into my life. That’s something I believe deeply, and something —again, this is weird—that McCracken actually practices in the review. Rather than fire off some thoughts, as I’m inclined to do, or as his colleagues do by fiat and culture, he stews. How much better if reviewers said “I don’t know what to make of this film. I waited for a week before writing anything about it. I talked it over with my wife.” I like the struggle of it, I guess, rather than the usual critic’s posture of sitting above the fray dispensing judgments.

On the level of style, I also appreciate McCracken’s statements about postures of openness as rebellions against framed realities, and the double entendres on “Sunset Strip” and “Paradise Lost.” And my goodness, the idea that a kind of gaze could act as a bulwark against the tendency to “turn pretty things into porn,” which who among us hasn’t felt, and which Stephen Dobyns gets at, at least as successfully, in this poem.

Maybe I’ll see the film and maybe I’ll change my mind. But in the meantime, I’m glad I read this, and even if it turns out he’s wrong about everything, I’ll still be glad to have thought about it with him.