Cinematic Memory and the Self’s Labyrinth in 8 ½ and Knight of Cups

illustration by Tony Stella

In 1962, Federico Fellini found himself struggling to make a movie, and decided that he would make this struggle the very subject of 8 ½. Filmmakers discovered in 8 ½ a precedent for how cinematic modes might convey a character’s mind (what critics have called “subjectivity”). In 8 ½ we do not merely see things from Guido’s perspective with point-of-view shots. Instead, we perceive the director’s memory at work, where the images onscreen deliver us into his recollections of the past, his dreams and fantasies, and how these intersect with his immediate experience. Guido’s self-reflexive view is something of a stand-in for Fellini himself.

Fellini turns to the reflexive, autobiographical mode when his creativity is stifled; since The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick has found a sort of rebirth while working in what is widely speculated to be a confessional mode. Critics are divided about the success of this confessional experiment.

Fellini’s subjective cinema and Malick’s confessional cinema share something in common, and this is especially apparent in comparing Fellini’s 8 ½ with Malick’s recent Knight of Cups. Many of the good things about 8 ½ are also true of Knight of Cups; a re-viewing in light of Fellini suggests a rehabilitation of Knight of Cups’ reputation.

The very making of 8 ½ is its subject; in Knight of Cups, there is some suggestion that Malick’s time spent in Hollywood is the movie’s subject. Both films are interested in the director’s personal experience generally, and his subjectivity particularly.

One central distinction is that, while the approach to subjectivity in 8 ½ has a quality of in medias res, the autobiographical approach in Knight of Cups seems marked more by recollection—an auteurial distance from the past. The main character Rick (Christain Bale), a Hollywood screenwriter, must remember what he is looking for. Malick looks back on his life from long ago, as if calling with time’s wisdom to his former self. Fellini explores his self as he is right now; to the extent that Malick is in a confessional mode, he explores his previous self. Both seek understanding.

Certainly there are many reasons why 8 ½ and Knight of Cups have thus far received a very different critical reception, but one reason might be this distinction between immediate experience and reflection. The films approach very similar ethical issues, but to the extent that Knight of Cups is in a more reflective mode, it can seem as if the answers to those ethical issues have been worked out. In 8 ½, however, there is more a sense of working through these ethical issues, of seeking life’s meaning, in real time. Maybe we’re more amenable to the latter. Maybe it’s inherently more interesting.

Comparing 8 ½ and Knight of Cups reveals the deep relationship between memory and imagination, including the manifold ways that cinema functions as memory, opening up paths through the self’s labyrinth by which we might make sense of things, and see ourselves well.


8 ½ begins in the middle of a nightmare. Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) finds himself stuck in a traffic jam in which he cannot exit his car. All of the people in the surrounding cars have their eyes set on him, fixed with a kind of judgment. In his anxiety at being watched and unable to escape, Guido begins to suffocate as exhaust fills his car. Eventually, he flies skyward, to float above it all—until he is brought back down to earth. It’s a crash back to reality: Guido wakes startled.

When we awake from his nightmare with him, though, we find ourselves in the middle of his crowded room at a luxurious spa. Between the nurse and the doctors and the film critic, Guido remains as crowded in his room as he was in his dream. This is emphasized in the scene’s opening shot when the camera pans back and forth with Guido’s point of view, each time revealing another person crowding the screen.

We soon learn, if we can recall it, that Guido’s initial nightmare was populated with people from his life—with images from memory, abstracted by dream sense. We have been given an in-the-moment sense of Guido’s dream and then recognized how that dream mirrors Guido’s present moment. What’s immediately suggested is that the deep recess of memories—the reservoir of images we keep knowingly and unknowingly—help us make sense of any given moment, though we can still remain more or less confused.

The first words spoken to Guido when he awakes in his room at the spa are a request by his doctor: “Forgive the early intrusion.” We see other people in Guido’s initial nightmare, but they are filtered wholly through Guido’s subjectivity. In his dream, Guido is pulled to the ground from his flight by other people; when he awakens in his room, though, we see that even in his waking life other people will function as intrusions on his self-reflexivity. No matter what, other people influence Guido’s inner life.

Another doctor looks at him and asks, “Well, what are you cooking up for us now? Another film without hope?” Almost immediately we have a sense for the situation: Guido is a filmmaker trying to make a film, and even this early in the movie, there are questions and expectations and hopes about what that film should be. We understand how this might frustrate Guido’s (and Fellini’s) creativity. Yet, we also see that Fellini is finding images to express that very trouble. The movie is founded on an irony: We have both the illusion of the conflict of an incomplete movie, and the recognition that the completed movie we’re viewing gives us the illusion.

Fellini had a rough premise in mind for 8 ½. He reportedly wanted to explore the “different aspects of a man whose life was meaningless and who was attempting to come to grips with his problems at a fashionable bathing station.” Yet, the scenario suggests an inherent problem: Where will the plot come from? Fellini didn’t know, and his not knowing became the plot’s conflict. On this level, Guido is Fellini, and we begin in the middle of this particular confusion (later, the film critic that Guido hired to review the script will tell him that “the film lacks a central conflict, or philosophical premise”).


Malick begins Knight of Cups with layers of mythology. During the opening credits, we hear a voice-over excerpt from the beginning of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: “The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream, wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.”

The first image we see is a long shot in deep focus of a barren wasteland with a horizon in the distance. Rick is small against the wasteland. The second shot draws closer to Rick’s perspective as he stares at the sunlight, becoming visible on the horizon.

“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a Dream.”

Malick introduces another layer to Bunyan’s explicitly Christian mythology when, alongside what appear to be memories from Rick’s childhood, we hear his father in voice-over say, “Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy about a young prince, a knight, sent by his father, the King of the East, west into Egypt to find a pearl. A pearl from the depths of the sea.”

We transition from childhood memories to Rick, in present day Los Angeles, cavorting with various women. “But when the Prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king. He forgot about the pearl. And he fell into a deep sleep.”

Malick draws from a personal history informed by collective, or cultural, memory—the shared memory of a group of people (readers who know images of Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance). In these choices, we are given a sense of how to frame the images we will see (much in the same way the Book of Job provided a frame for The Tree of Life). The choice of particular controlling mythologies reveals to us something about Malick himself, and the lens through which he wants to remember his past. This is by necessity a created version of the past—how he imagines it.

The use of voice over and mythological frame gives us a sense that we are not simply receiving a traditional flashback. Rather, we are in the middle of Rick’s (Malick’s) act of remembering, where we get both a version of his former self and his present, reflective self. Even as he recalls his former self’s searching, Malick remains in search.

Malick is concerned with the role of memory (the pearl) in forming a way forward (pilgrimage)—in imagining a meaningful future (where we become again children of the king). The reference to texts and the image of the background horizon together suggest in a very subtle way Malick’s presupposition of what the scholar of secularism, Charles Taylor, has called a horizon of significance—larger contexts of meaning through which we seek self-understanding.

This horizon will soon disappear from view as we enter into the more labyrinthine perspective of Rick’s former self, or, as we enter his essential forgetfulness.

In 8 ½—at least in the beginning—all we have is the promise of the finished film that we know we are watching. This, too, suggests memory’s role in opening a way forward.


As I’ve suggested, Fellini and Malick often picture Guido and Rick’s respective experiences in labyrinthine ways; the labyrinth is a common metaphor for interior lostness. The portraits of Guido’s and Rick’s interior lives often have no sure or obvious way forward.

Early in 8 ½, when Guido returns to his hotel, a horde of producers, agents, critics, and actresses bombard him. When he first sees a film producer, he comically attempts to escape the scene, but it’s too late. He’s spotted. They crowd in on him again, wanting to know about the script, about the specifics of their roles, about what the movie is even about. The scene works in close-up, only revealing one character at a time, but no matter which way Guido walks, there is someone waiting to intercept his exit. While the scene ostensibly takes place in the present, it’s still a manifestation of his inner life: Guido’s confusion about the movie’s meaning invites the inquisition.

Knight of Cups features images that convey Rick’s state of being. Malick often relies on metaphorical images to make tangible his characters’ emotional and spiritual experiences. He draws from a Biblical storehouse of metaphorical and metonymic images: wasteland, sea, and trees. Consider, for instance, the shots of Rick in the desert wasteland, abstract images that indicate his disorientation.

Malick also creates more contemporary images that do this work. For instance, we often travel along with Rick in dynamic handheld shots, yet we almost never know where he is going. Instead, these shots are crowded by roads moving all around, alternative paths. The screen pictures these Los Angeles freeways and our position among them as a labyrinth. Sometimes we see an entanglement of roads, and Rick isn’t even driving. At times, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera will take a quick peek up at the sun, but even the light—the central guiding image in Malick’s films, you might say—is of no avail.


When Guido’s mistress, Carla, comes to town, he checks her into a different hotel. They have lunch together, and she recalls a recent dream she had about how Guido finally secured a job in the industry for her husband. At first Guido pays no attention. “But,” she says, “he went crazy and killed us both.” Guido sits up.

She says that her husband killed them at “that little street behind Via della Croce, where I bought you that tie the same time your wife did, remember? And then you wore it and I never knew whether it was hers or mine. There we were on a cot, in each other’s arms, naked, and he came in and killed us both with a broom.”

This exchange follows the tonal pattern of the entire film, which tends to situate its more solemn moments in comedy. Notably, in this dream scenario their shared memory leads to a dead end. The anecdote about the tie also reveals how Guido’s double life has splintered his commitment into at least two paths that cannot be traveled at once, try as he might. But the jealous husband killed them with…a broom. It’s a comedy of self-deprecation with an underlying moral seriousness.

In the very next scene, Guido and Carla are in her hotel room, and Guido directs Carla to perform one of his fantasies. He has her step outside and return as if she is a stranger who stumbles into the wrong room, then decides to have sex with Guido.

“We’ve never done that one!” Carla says in response to his direction, alluding to a growing shared history—shared memory—in which she plays multiple women.

Another memorable scene from 8 ½ is Guido’s harem fantasy. Here he collects his memories of the women he’s known in order to fantasize that he is married to all of them, and they are there to praise him and serve his every whim. Once they grow older, they may be banished from his presence for good, but in the meantime, they serve him dinner, dance for him, and answer his beckoning call.

The tarot deck structures Knight of Cups, but so too does Rick’s womanizing. Our opportunity to get to know them is broken by Rick’s continued acquiescence to the possibility of meeting someone new. Rick doesn’t want love; he wants a love experience, and each relationship has a falseness about it precisely because he wants the experience and not the person.

Late in the film, Malick films a strip club so as to accentuate the way that the women are remembered as commodified images. Torsos abstracted from bodies; sexuality abstracted from physical pleasure. Faces are removed from the screen space until the stripper, Karen, is humanized briefly with Rick, and observes of him, “You live in a little fantasy world, don’t you?…I can be whoever I want to be…you can be whoever you want to be.”

Moments earlier in voice over, Karen says, “Nobody cares about reality anymore.”

In the strip club, Rick is shown caught in a cage, emphasizing that his pilgrimage is in an even more difficult situation than the labyrinth.


It’s sometimes a thin line between soul-searching and solipsism. In their self-reflexive searching, Guido and Rick are both in danger of losing touch with the world, with others—especially loved ones. Their memories may ultimately lead them to dead-ends, with no way out of the self’s labyrinth. Each film depicts its character’s selfish fantasy treatment of women without heavy-handed moralizing. Even temporary pleasures are allowed to have their moment. Yet, Fellini and Malick also allow ethical disruptions of these fantasies, particularly in the wife and ex-wife.

When she arrives on the scene, Luisa delivers repeated criticism of Guido’s way of life, including his unfaithfulness to her. Luisa will not allow that 8 ½ is simply another one of Guido’s fantasies where he does whatever he wants without anyone getting hurt:

It’s a movie—another invention, another lie. You put everybody in it, but only the way you like to see them. But I know the truth. The difference is that I would never have the impudence to tell everybody the way you do. Go ahead. Make your movie. Indulge yourself, stroke your ego. Go make everyone think you’re so wonderful. What could you ever teach strangers when you can’t even tell the simplest truth to the ones closest to you?

Likewise, in Knight of Cups, Rick’s ex-wife, Nancy brings him back down to earth. In a calmer moment, Rick and Nancy walk together, wondering what happened. Later, Nancy asks, “Do you remember how happy we were?” It’s notable that she asks him this in an airport hangar, with the doors open. Part of the problem with Rick’s pilgrimage is his aimless wandering, always alluded to through modes of travel. After the very next cut, Nancy says that Rick can do whatever he wants—but just don’t wreck her with leaving.

In his recollection of Nancy, Rick is reminded of the love they once shared, of how its fleeting moments of genuine intimacy remain with him.

Luisa and Nancy remind Guido and Rick who they really are, and what they’ve really done. If these films are labyrinths of Guido’s and Rick’s confused interior lives, then there are moments when they seem to recognize as true what their wives reveal to them: that to some extent the way forward is obscured by their inability to commit to a path that rings true.

It’s significant that Luisa’s and Nancy’s presences have become part of Guido’s and Rick’s interior lives in this way, weighing on their consciences with the memory of their loss. Their presence signals to Guido and Rick a sense of their disorientation.


One night at dinner with everyone involved in his moviemaking process, Guido converses with a man who’s leaving his wife of many years for a woman 30 years younger. A critic breaks into their conversation and asks Guido, “Excuse me, could you create, on demand, something true, important, and beautiful? For example, if the Pope asked you?” Then they continue their conversation about how he’s in it for her youthful beauty, and how he suspects she wouldn’t be involved with him without the money.

In the absence of a creative direction from Guido, these kinds of exchanges characterize the film’s pre-production and, as such, 8 ½.

In one scene from Knight of Cups, Rick attends a Hollywood party that is marked by the sort of uninhibited possibility that I’ve been describing. The man who seems to be the ringleader of the circus—played memorably by Antonio Banderas—later says of women: “They are like flavors. Sometimes you want raspberry, then after a while you get tired of it. You want some strawberry!”

Or consider the brief fever-dream drive where our attention is drawn to the bombardment of advertisement images littering the way. What’s remarkable about this tour is not merely that Malick is offering a subtle moral critique of the sexism, vanity, and greed that characterizes much of the Hollywood social imaginary; rather, it’s that he doesn’t leave us in that judgement but instead suggests that, if we can see it, these images can in fact reveal our desires to us (whether we shape the market or the market shapes us is a vicious cycle that is difficult to discern). To insert Major Briggs into the soundtrack of this sequence is to suggest the possibility of true self-discovery, if only we can see these images for what they are and consider the ways we might be implicated in the market’s tacit dictates. It’s the possibility of the mind revealing itself to itself.

In this sense, 8 ½ and Knight of Cups don’t simply explore their libertine male leads. They are movies about moviemaking, too, in the sense that they call into question the pernicious desires and influences at work before and during the moviemaking process, so much of which is hidden onscreen when we sit down in a dark theater. The marketed and monetized images, both inside and outside the theater, shape the filmmaking business and the moviegoer’s memory, intimating the boundaries (or the absence of them) for what’s desirable and possible.


8 ½’s labyrinth is often the intermixed modes of experience. Fellini’s original title for the film was The Beautiful Confusion. It’s the very struggle to find our way through the film, to locate ourselves in the experience. Our experience of these modes is very often like Guido’s experience when surrounded by a maze of film producers, actors, or reporters. It’s that suffocation when others seem to crowd the possibility of our way forward. It’s not always so obvious where we’re going.

As Guido searches for a movie he can’t seem to make, we search for how this movie is becoming itself. Of course, watching a movie always involves us. However, these films are structured in a way that emphasizes the viewer’s role, and particularly the role of the viewer’s memory. Every film requires that we remember what has happened as we piece the story together. We are active participants in making sense of things. But this participative role is heightened in 8 ½ and Knight of Cups because our protagonists are often struggling against meaninglessness. We bring our memories to these films, in the sense that we bring our own personal history, in the sense that we store the film’s images in our own memory, and in the sense that we attempt to make the series of images intelligible in some way.

If we conceive of both films as labyrinthine reflections of the moviemaker’s interior lives, then we might say that the viewing experience is a quest to find a way. In Fellini, the different modes of subjectivity—immediate experience, memory, dreams, fantasies—are made porous in a way that creates confusion; the movement from one image to another is edited in a way that obscures obvious cues marking the transitions.

In Knight of Cups, the experimental confessional mode remains the same throughout the movie: A point of view that combines the present and reflective self (Richard Brody has also argued a version of this). Malick continues with his late interest in montage marked by fast cuts that set images side-by-side, with no immediately obvious association. From one image to the next, our eyes wander in search of meaning that might emerge, a resonance we might sense within ourselves, given our personal history. We try to find a way forward by discerning possible connections.

We should notice, too, that the filmmakers have already had a reflective, perhaps even therapeutic experience in the editing room. There they took thousands of feet of footage and tried to piece it together—to imagine what it meant. The “therapeutic” aspect of editing can exist for any film, but in an autobiographical film, one can imagine the director seeking self-understanding in the edit, on the way to making something that connects with others. This is the potential that memoir has for healing, its sense-making capacity.

We have a deep capacity for chaos, yes, but the films invite us, each scene along the way, to remember the human capacity to make order out of the chaos. If we’re watching, we can’t help but travel this road, too.


Fellini’s film ends with Guido’s enormous rocket ship set breaking down. It ends after a kind of suicide has occurred, though which self Fellini has killed is difficult to say. Maybe it was the one who couldn’t decide on a path. Maybe it was the one given over to solipsistic sorts of fantasies.

It ends with a circus dance wherein all of the people of his life hold hands and gather together in a circle. There is a sense in which reconciling the people in his life is a kind of reconciliation of all the parts of himself—a momentary coming together of all that’s been memorable.

Before Guido joins the circle while holding hands with Luisa, he asks that she accept him in all of his contradictions. We’re left to wonder if the reconciliation can be so easy, if it’s not just another manifestation of how Guido wants it to be, instead of how Luisa would need it to be.

All of these recognitions form a mysterious moment when Guido says, “What is this flash of joy that’s giving me new life? Please forgive me, sweet creatures. I didn’t realize, I didn’t know. How right it is to accept you, to love you—and how simple! Luisa, I feel I’ve been set free. Everything looks good to me, it has a sense, it’s true. How I wish I could explain, but I can’t. Everything’s going back to what it was. Everything’s confused again, but that confusion is me; how I am, not how I’d like to be. And I’m not afraid to tell the truth now: What I don’t know, what I’m seeking.”

Before this sequence, Guido had a conversation with Claudia—representative, throughout, of the ideal (comparable, in some ways, to Freida Pinto’s character in Knight of Cups). But in her final scene with Guido, she confronts him with the three-fold repetition of his essential problem: “Because he doesn’t know how to love.” When Claudia speaks to Guido, we know that it is coming from within him. Some voice emerges, reminding him of something that he is tempted to forget.

Memory will make a way for Guido’s (Fellini’s) movie after all, allowing a reconciliation, however temporary, between himself and others—and delivering us to the darkness that follows the final image.

Malick’s confessional mode has been marked by an Augustinian approach to memory as exemplified in Confessions, one in which it might provide a path back to God. The consistent refrain of his characters’ voiceover, inviting themselves and us to “remember” is an invitation to recall the pearl and search for it even now, on our pilgrimage. In Kierkegaardian terms (Knight of Cups is effectively Malick’s long-rumored adaptation of The Moviegoer, perhaps our most Kierkegaardian novel), this is a search for the true self that’s been lost. Glimpses of what’s been lost are for the moment temporary. For Augustine, the heart—the person—is restless until it rests in God; for Kierkegaard, we are in despair until we rest transparently in the power—the love—that established us. It’s difficult even for the faithful to maintain faith in every moment. This life is marked by a kind of perpetual beginning again. The sun comes out only to be obscured. Our “exodus” continues.

In 8 ½, the institutional church seems just as likely to obscure the possibility of genuine creativity, and therefore to obscure Guido’s way forward.

Yet, according to Donald P. Costello in “Layers of Reality: 8 ½ as Spiritual Autobiography,” Fellini is said to have described his intention this way: “To try, first of all, to tell something about myself; and in doing so, to try to find a salvation, to try to find a road toward some meaning.” According to Costello, Fellini elsewhere calls 8 ½ “a shameless and brazen confession.” For Fellini, “the key to the mystery—which is to say, God—is to be found at the center of the successive layers of reality.”

In so many ways, cinema is composed of memory’s inexhaustible mysteries. Memory is that special human capacity which attempts to order our personal experience by recalling the past and orienting us to the future. Our involvement with movies, whether directorial or moviegoing, requires an attentiveness that almost certainly requires a quality of love about it, if we’re willing to give it. Our memory calls forth countless images and our very remembering of them suggests their inherent value. The way we move forward, though, is by being moved to make sense of them.


I’m trying to imagine Fellini now during the scene, wearing his sunglasses, in the middle of giving direction to Marcello Mastroianni, wearing sunglasses. I’m trying to imagine Malick pointing Christian Bale to dive into the ocean, as if the metaphorical pearl might actually be there amidst the seaweed and the chaotic waves.

Maybe as they give out direction they recall a moment—an image—from their lives that they couldn’t forget. I wonder what they’re looking for when their search leads them both outward into the world and inward into the interior world, both paths necessarily converging at some point.

I can almost imagine the light catching things in just the right way, if only for a moment, and the director, seeing his actors anew in that light, seeing himself in a way he hadn’t before. I imagine all three crucial to the sudden revelation: the light, the eye, and what was seen.