I recently watched two art films, one set in Hollywood, the other in Thailand, that take on meaning-of-life matters in strikingly different styles and stories. Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor both take the form of pilgrimage by sleepwalkers and dreamers, drifting rather than driven toward unexpected or desired revelations: Knight tracks the progress of Christian Bale’s pilgrim (call him the sick soul of Southern California) whose privileged life sucks when it comes to meaning or purpose. In Cemetery, we wander through a numinous Thai landscape in the company of a serene soul (Jenjira Pongpas) whose world is slowly permeated and perhaps shattered by revelations.
Weerasethakul’s unforced, visually mesmerizing excursion into metaphysics makes Knight of Cups look all the more pretentious, an airless exercise in aesthetic solipsism. Malick overloads Bale’s dream-quest with Portentous Signifiers, from allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, that 17th-century best-seller about the journey of an Everyman in search of his soul, to the Tarot card that features a knight-errant who symbolizes new opportunities and change, unless he’s upside down; then all positive bets are off. Then there’s a solemn prologue, all about a prince who went off on a quest for a legendary pearl, only to fall into a deep sleep along the way. His father the king—Malick the director?–continues to send out signs and guides to provoke epiphany. Malick means to cast his hero’s journey in a strong mythic light, but all this philosophical footnoting fails to provide illumination in Knight of Cups.