Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Knight of Cups

Oh, Lucky Man! (Rinse and Repeat)
or
"Likes: Long Walks on the Beach"
"On the positive side, the Knight of Cups is a sensitive soul. He is a poet - a lover of all things romantic and refined. He uses his imagination in wondrous ways and taps the deepest levels of emotion. He knows how to create beauty and share it with others.
On the negative side, this Knight is prone to flights of fancy and illusion. His melodramatic moods are legendary, and his emotions often get the better of him. He's too temperamental and takes offense easily. He can't stand unpleasantness and will always let others deal with it."
We may have reached the end of the inventiveness in Terrence Malick's career and begun the phase of annoying self-indulgence and obtuseness (if we haven't already gone past it). There has always been a danger of that in Malick's work, but he has always worked with a non-traditional approach to narrative drive and story structure that oftentimes has been thrilling. Even after coming out of what seemed a self-imposed eighteen year exile after Days of Heaven, there was still a thread of story in The Thin Red Line and in, especially, The New World. He went far afield of traditional narrative in The Tree of Life, but there was still a through-line of feeling and history, despite star Sean Penn grousing that "this wasn't the movie I read." 

To the Wonder was more problematic—taking the same roundabout "Tree of Life" approach with the film about relationships gone sour despite the spark of the new, the film dragged, felt more than improvisational, and felt slap-dash and pointless, but benefited from some nice performances, even if they were mostly mimed. 

Knight of Cups (which spent very little time in theaters) has more problems than just a sense of randomness. It drifts, following a callow, non-committal screenwriter/script doctor as he roams the country, starting relationships with women, and ending them, sometimes selfishly, and always from that one man's perspective. Unlike To the Wonder, you never see the women's side of things.

There was no script (Christian Bale, who spends the most amount of time on-screen, supposedly was cribbing character notes from his co-stars' instructions to see if there was something about him in them). One suspects there was no story. At which point, one is left with merely "attitude." That's not enough, especially in a film that has enough reach to employ so many actors and leave them with little or nothing to do than merely be photographed prettily.
But, if one wants a synopsis, here's my best at one: the film begins with a prologue-story, one that was read to our screen-writer when he was a boy by his father (Brian Dennehy). It tells the story of an Egyptian prince who is sent by his father into the city to find a precious pearl. But, once he gets there, he is set upon and given a drink that puts him into a deep sleep and when he wakens, he's forgotten he's a prince, forgotten about the pearl, and lives a life of normalcy, while his father sends out messengers, once his son has gone missing, to find him and bring him home.

The movie's synopsis from its web-page reads like this: "Knight of Cups follows writer Rick (Christian Bale, The Fighter,American Hustle) on an odyssey through the playgrounds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a search for love and self. Even as he moves through a desire-laden landscape of mansions, resorts, beaches and clubs, Rick grapples over complicated relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy). His quest to break the spell of his disenchantment takes him on a series of adventures with six alluring women: rebellious Della (Imogen Poots); his physician ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett); a serene model Helen (Freida Pinto); a woman he wronged in the past Elizabeth (Natalie Portman); a spirited, playful stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer); and an innocent Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him see a way forward." 

"Rick moves in a daze through a strange and overwhelming dreamscape -- but can he wake up to the beauty, humanity and rhythms of life around him? The deeper he searches, the more the journey becomes his destination. The 7th film from director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life), Knight of Cups (the title refers to the Tarot card depicting a romantic adventurer guided by his emotions) offers both a vision of modern life and an intensely personal experience of memory, family, and love." 

...and (it might add) a lot of walks on the beach.

Memory and reverie have been the dream-stomping ground for Malick for the last few films, and one can do an awful lot with that, structurally, leading the audience through the memory-maze, which, itself, is a journey. But, there should be markers along the way or you'll get lost in thought, making that journey pointless. The film imposes a structure of chapters into the film (named, except for the last, on cards in the tarot deck), but if one is looking for that to help you find your way, you should ask for a re-shuffle—the cards and their distinct meanings have little to do with the incidents that follow them. Tarot cards are no help when the film resembles a game of "52 pick-up."
Instead, we are given randomness as Rick deals with the death of his brother, his estrangement with his father and brother, his various dealings with studio-folk, parties, happenings, road-trips, and an earthquake. But, mostly women (those being Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Theresa Palmer, and Natalie Portman, all drastically under-utliized, which is something of a first for Malick, who are usually the strongest characters in his films). Perhaps we're seeing a cinematic equivalent of depression where Rick is endlessly re-visiting past relationships, looking for a way out of the well. But, it's an endless rumination as he keeps banging his head against a mirror when what he should be looking for is a door-handle. Pin-balling inside your own skull rarely provides the perspective needed to pull oneself out of one's rut; if anything, the circular thoughts such self-examination presents generally cork-screws you even deeper into the abyss.
Hollywood navel-gazing is hardly a new subject for the movies. But, they rarely present a universal truth seeing as how the dream-factory surrounds itself with fantasy and un-reality. Most of us "real" folks have to deal with delusion rather than illusion, and as reality not as art. Yes, we can relate to the phoniness of Hollywood, to the dark-side of the dream-factory, of buying into the fantasy as if it were reality and the way that can mess you up. That orange-grove has been thoroughly tilled to the point where it's been asphalted over and turned into a parking lot. 
But, despite the trope, one shouldn't think of Hollywood's version of tragedy as real tragedy. Sure, one can be depressed in Hollywood, but that's only if one has the idle time to waste. Most of us don't have the luxury to sit back and wonder if they're wasting their lives. We're in the constant struggle not to, and to find worth in something more than the week-end's box-office take. It is hard (and practically impossible) to take Knight of Cups seriously when the person we're supposed to wring our hands about is well-off, handsome, and white, and living a life most people would dream of. "What in the hell does he have to be depressed about?" is the question that kept going on in my mind, competing with Bale's voice-over. On top of that, one shouldn't even consider that Rick is luckier than most—he makes a living as a script-writer—how many would-be writers are out there who've never gotten that chance. Boo-hoo. This is me playing the smallest violin in the world. Are we really meant to sympathize with somebody who has every reason not to be depressed?


Perhaps that's why we're treated to so many images of our poor little screen-writer walking the beach; he's attracted to it because it's so damned shallow.

One sincerely wishes that Malick made this to finance a few more shots of his IMAX project (expected this year), hood-winking the financiers into bank-rolling a few more shots that he needs to fill it out. Other than that, hopefully, this is an anomaly and Malick can return to an actual narrative, rather than these random acts of montage. The world needs more story-tellers like him, when he gets around to telling a story.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Scene 33)

The Story: This is one of those scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where, in the Python series, a British Officer like, for instance, "Brigadier Arthur Gormanstrop (Mrs.)" would interrupt protesting the sketch was merely "silly" and be halted forthwith immediately. 

Silly, yes.

And an exercise in extremes. Build-up/Dissipate/Surprise/Build-up/Drag-Out/Dissipate. The threat of a creature "so foul, so cruel that no man has fought it and lived" turns out to be a rabbit. That's one turn-around. But a rabbit that leaps impossibly, screeching and tearing out the very sinews and gristle of its opponents. That's another turn-around. We're given an over-the-top (and under-budgeted) cheap-jack Peckinpavian action sequence with puppetry and spurting blood as the berserker-bunny tears through the ranks of the Knights (and "Brave" Sir Robin at this point is very rank), leading to one of the best battle commands in movies ("Run away!"), and my favorite line of the sequence: "That rabbit is dynamite!" The only solution, as it usually is in Arthurian legends and movie epics, is a combination of religion and warfare which, in theory, should be exclusive, but has had so much practice, the two are seemingly inseparable. "Brother Maynard, fetch the Holy Hand Grenade!"

Oh! And love the shot of the Knights seemingly emerging from a skull's nose-holes. Can't decide who might have planned that shot: Gilliam or Jones?

The Set-Up: When last we left Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his Knights of the Round Table, they had encountered Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese), who offered to help them find the Holy Grail by leading them to the carved last words of Olfin Bedwere of Rheged in the cave of Caerbannog, guarded by a creature most foul, most cruel "with great big nasty teeth."

Well, they're there.

Action!


Scene 33

[clop clop whinny]

KNIGHT: They're nervous, sire.

ARTHUR: Then we'd best leave them here and carry on on foot. Dis-mount!

TIM: Behold the cave of Caerbannog!

ARTHUR: Right! Keep me covered.
KNIGHT: What with?
ARTHUR: Just keep me covered.
TIM: Too late!
[chord]

ARTHUR: What?
TIM: There he is!

ARTHUR: Where?
TIM: There!

ARTHUR: What, behind the rabbit?

TIM: It is the rabbit!

ARTHUR: You silly sod! You got us all worked up!

TIM: Well, that's no ordinary rabbit. That's the most...

TIM:...foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent...

TIM: ...you ever set eyes on.
ROBIN: You tit! I soiled my armor I was so scared!
TIM: Look, that rabbit's got a vicious streak a mile wide, it's a killer!

KNIGHT: Get stuffed!
TIM: It'll do you a trick, mate!
KNIGHT: Oh, yeah?
ROBIN: You mangy Scot git!

TIM: I'm warning you!
ROBIN: What's he do, nibble your bum?
TIM: He's got huge, sharp-- he can leap about-- look at the bones!

ARTHUR: Go on, Boris. Chop his head off!

BORIS: Right! Silly little bleeder. One rabbit stew comin' right up!

TIM: Look!

[squeak] The rabbit leaps in the air and attacks Boris, biting off his head.


BORIS: Aaaugh!
[chord]

ARTHUR: Jesus Christ!
TIM: I warned you!

ROBIN: I done it again!

TIM: I warned you! But did you listen to me? Oh, no, you knew it all, didn't you? Oh, it's just a harmless little bunny, isn't it? Well, it's always the same, I always--

ARTHUR: Oh, shut up!
TIM: --But do they listen to me?--
ARTHUR: Right!
TIM: -Oh, no--

KNIGHTS: Charge!

[squeak squeak]

KNIGHTS: Aaaaugh!

[squeak squeak]

KNIGHTS: Aaaaugh!

[squeak squeak]

KNIGHTS: Aaaaugh!

[squeak squeak]

[squeak squeak]

ARTHUR: Run away! Run away!!

KNIGHTS: Run away! Run away!

TIM (exits laughing): Haw haw haw. Haw haw haw. Haw haw.

ARTHUR: Right. How many did we lose?
KNIGHT: Gawain.
KNIGHT: Hector.
ARTHUR: And Boris. That's five.
GALAHAD: Three, sir.

ARTHUR: Three. Three. And we'd better not risk another frontal assault, that rabbit's dynamite.

ROBIN: Would it help to confuse it if we run away more?
ARTHUR: Oh, shut up and go and change your armor.

GALAHAD: Let us taunt it! It may become so cross that it will make a mistake.
ARTHUR: Like what?

GALAHAD: Well,....

ARTHUR: Have we got bows?
KNIGHT: No.
LAUNCELOT: We have the Holy Hand Grenade.
ARTHUR: Yes, of course! The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch! 'Tis one of the sacred relics Brother Maynard carries with him!

ARTHUR: Brother Maynard!

ARTHUR: Bring up the Holy Hand Grenade!
[chanting]

ARTHUR: How does it, uh... how does it work?
KNIGHT: I know not, my liege.
ARTHUR: Consult the Book of Armaments!

MAYNARD: Armaments, Chapter Two, Verses Nine to Twenty-One.

BROTHER: "And Saint Atila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, 'Oh, Lord, bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thy enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.'

BROTHER: "And the Lord did grin, and people did feast upon the lambs, and sloths, and carp, and anchovies, and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats, and large --"

MAYNARD: Skip a bit, Brother.

BROTHER: "And the Lord spake, saying, 'First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less.'

BROTHER: 'Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shalt be three.'

BROTHER: 'Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three.'

BROTHER: 'Five is right out.'

BROTHER: 'Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thou foe, who being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.'"

MAYNARD: Amen.

ALL: Amen.
ARTHUR: Right!

ARTHUR: One... two... five!

KNIGHT: Three, sir!
ARTHUR: Three!

[boom] The hand grenade explodes, blowing the deadly bunny up.

Some distance away, the police investigating the previous deaths (and now at the shrubberies of "The Knights who say 'Ni!'") hear the distant explosion and rush forward to investigate.



Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Words by Graham Chapman, John Cleese , Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin

Pictures by Terry Bedford and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam


Monty Python and the Holy Grail is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.