What Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' says about L.A. and its architecture

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An Instagram feed with orchestral score, a triumph of location scouting and architectural scene-setting, an advertisement for Proust and the Los Angeles tourism board shot like one for Chanel: “Knight of Cups,” the new Terrence Malick film, is not for many of its 118 minutes a model of anything resembling restraint. But there is one moment when Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, make a pointedly self-effacing decision: During a scene in the Hollywood Hills at Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House, otherwise known as Case Study House No. 22, the camera declines to re-create the angle made famous by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman, whose 1960 shots of models in its glassed-in living room, the nighttime grid of Los Angeles stretching out below them, are among the most indelible images of 20th-century Southern California.

Instead we look from the living room back toward the rest of the house, or across the small pool toward the office towers of Century City, catching glimpses of a piece of architecture that is as self-possessed as ever but also sagging a bit and showing its age.

The same might be said of the Malick MO, which appeared nearly fully formed in "Badlands," released the year the director turned 30. This time around, in telling the essentially unscripted story of a screenwriter played by a largely mute Christian Bale, the same inscrutable languor is in place, the same sure-footed and deeply vain confidence of visual taste, the same sweeping vistas and pink skies and birds in flight.

It’s the world -- the culture -- that has changed. We produce, organize, consume and judge images differently now. The stringing together of remarkable visual tableaux, Malick's key talent, is in the digital age no longer strictly or even primarily a cinematic skill.

Aside from the kind of enveloping beauty that only movies with this level of fastidious commitment to the medium can deliver -- and that is not nothing -- there is little in "Knight of Cups" that you couldn't plausibly re-create at home by putting Arvo Part or Claude Debussy on a Spotify loop and scrolling through the Instagram highlights of Iwan Baan, Dezeen and Jim Goldstein (Lautner owner, LACMA patron and like Malick a fan of images of half-naked women in swimming pools).

And let’s be frank: The timing -- unleashing this kind of hyper-white-male POV on the world less than a week after #OscarsSoWhite -- is not good for Malick or his defenders in Hollywood.

Still, just as people in the industry will have fun picking over the cameos (Fabio, agent Patrick Whitesell, novelist Bruce Wagner), art and architecture buffs will find pleasure naming the specific floats in Malick’s parade: John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel; Chris Burden’s "Urban Light" in front of LACMA and his "Metropolis II" (filmed much less engagingly than it might have been) inside the museum; John Parkinson’s Los Angeles Athletic Club; Minoru Yamasaki's Century Plaza Towers and their neighbor, Gensler's CAA building, better known as the Death Star; A.C. Martin’s Brutalist St. Basil Catholic Church on Wilshire Boulevard; Frederick Fisher’s Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica; and on and on.

"Knight of Cups," which takes its name from a tarot card, is the kind of movie where the male characters wear more clothing than you’d expect to do things like play tennis or jump into the ocean and the women wear less than you’d expect to do things like stand on apartment terraces in the middle of Santa Monica.

It's most impressive as an extended, wallowing visual riff on a line Carey McWilliams once used to describe the great appealing contradiction of Southern California, that the metropolitan region is "a paradox: a desert that faces an ocean." We get a rush of scenes on either edge: Natalie Portman’s tears dripping onto the deck of a Malibu beach house, Bale's character seeking some kind of revelation (just as Tony Soprano did before him) among the Joshua trees as the sun comes up.

Back nearer the center of things, when the soundtrack is given over to the drone of leaf-blowers and helicopters, or later when the action moves cringingly to skid row, a bit of Mike Davis-style dystopia intervenes, replacing an even briefer homage to the empty freeways of Reyner Banham’s “Autopia.” When an earthquake sends potted plants crashing from high decks to low ones or the camera lingers on the too-green lawns, you begin to see that beneath the lush layer of well-irrigated gardens is a dessicated city that can barely keep from crumbling.

Like the architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, who around 1970 briefly considered Los Angeles as the setting for the critique that would propel their most famous book, "Learning From Las Vegas," Malick ultimately finds a more condensed and powerful version of American Babylon on the Strip, in and around Caesars Palace, whose glued-on pilasters and food-court frescoes he and Lubezki treat as lovingly as if they were the Roman originals.

“I was really interested in Los Angeles,” Venturi told one interviewer, “but I realized that Las Vegas was similar in some respects and simpler to study.”

Nearly five decades later, Malick, near the end of "Knight of Cups," stumbles toward the same lesson: The easiest way to fit the Los Angeles of hedonistic stereotype into a single frame is to throw the camera into your convertible and hop onto the 15 Freeway, driving northeast through the desert and not slowing until there is so much neon filling your windshield that you couldn’t possibly look away.

Learn more at latimes.com