In practice, of course, cinema is the least Zen of all the art forms. The conventions of cinema are designed to drive us out of every moment created by it. Rarely is a moment allowed to be about the moment and only the moment. Instead, each moment is only a means to some other end. It is crafted to reveal character, to drive the story forward, or to entertain us.
The instrumental aesthetic of cinema, which frames all moments as means to some other end, may have come about because cinema is both an entertainment and an art. Entertainment distracts us, carries us away, and allows us to escape our reality. Similarly, art also carries us away, but it focuses rather than distracts our attention. It allows us to edify reality rather than escape it.
The difference between art and entertainment is one of degree, but, with sufficient degrees of separation, it eventually becomes a difference in kind. In the Venn diagram of art and entertainment, there is much that overlaps. But, between those instances of art and entertainment where there is no overlap, the gulf between them can be huge. Bridges are sometimes built to span that gulf, but, more often than not, the industry demands that cinema remain far from the edge of art and firmly in the realm of entertainment.
Knight of Cups, I think, is more art than entertainment. It is, nevertheless, engaging, in the same way that a well-curated art exhibition can be. It is also about as pure an art film as you are likely ever to see with A-list stars. Terrence Malick and his team jettison story and character development and instead rely on aesthetic elements primarily found only in cinema. Without a clear story, dramatic tension, or character development, our attention is held with abrupt cuts, snippets of conversation, soundscapes, and beautifully framed shots.
The aim of this picture, I think, is to show us all the different beautiful moments of now, which we so often miss, neglect, or forget because we are too often driving ourselves out of them like the protagonists in a typical A-list movie. It’s as if Malick and his team wants to show us what these characters might have seen and experienced, if only they knew how to live in the moment. The picture is also an attempt, I think, to imagine, experience, and present what a life might look like if it were always experienced in the forever moment of now.
The only sour notes of the picture — and, for me, they are very sour because they are so at odds with its overall aesthetic — are its efforts to insert conventional storytelling into the mix. The narrative fragments of manic pixie dream girls, bitter soon-to-be ex-wives, and father-son dramas, which are alluded to here and there, are ill-fitting and out of place. Not only because they are so unimaginatively cliche but also because they excite the part of our brain that uses story to pull us out of the experience of now. Knight of Cups is at its best, I think, when it focuses instead on crafting a vision of what a life might be like unencumbered by the human all-too-human parts of our brain that insists on turning everything into a story.
Not since I first read Camus’ La Peste have I encountered a work of art, which seems so in line with my own thinking. I write “seems” because, of course, I may only be seeing what I want to see in the picture. If that’s true, so be it. Within the beautiful and ambitious aesthetic of Knight of Cups, there is a straightforward and important message worth repeating: what really matters in our lives — even for a Hollywood screenwriter who has it all — are the people who touch us and the beautiful moments of now that we share with them.