Monday, 13 June 2011

The Films of Terrence Malick: "Badlands"

Looking back on 1973, it was quite an important year for film. Roger Moore stepped in as James Bond. The Exorcist, considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time, was released. Al Pacino soldified his status as a major actor with Sidney Lumet's Serpico; and two young directors who became two of the most important American filmmakers of the last forty years, would release their major breakout films. These directors were Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick, whose films Mean Streets and Badlands, respectively, were both shown at the 1973 New York Film Festival.

What strikes me as the most fascinating aspect of Badlands is how it encompasses two time periods. The film takes place in 1959 and is based on the real life killing spree by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The film does an excellent job of envoking the feeling of the 1950s, even as the two main characters, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) get away from civilization. As I said about Malick's The New World, this may not be exactly how the time period was but the film still captures something truthful nevertheless. The film was made 14 years after the time period it depicts, in 1973. The film is a fascinating document of one time period being filtered through the cinematic sensibilities of another. Badlands feel likes a film from the seventies, with its realistic violence and the sense one gets from watching it that there is a personal vision behind the images. There had certainly being auteurs in cinema befor the 1970s, particularly in other countries, and American did have directors like Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller; but in the 1970s, from what've I learned, American cinema saw the emergence of directors like Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrence Malick. They weren't the first American auteurs but they be called the third generation of American film auteurs, directors who made some of the defining films of their time. That was a digression and I apologize. Basically what I want to say is that Badlands captures the period of the late 1950s through the lens of the 1970s. What is impressive about this conversion of time periods is how well they blend together, creating something evocative of both eras yet at the same time, timeless.

The first shot of the film establishes Holly as the main character of the film or at least the character through whom the audience views the story. She tells us in narration about her life until now:
My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman... He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. Then, one day, hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all his memories, he moved us from Texas to Ft. Dupree, South Dakota.
We see her in her bedroom on the bed with her dog. Coupled with the voiceover narration, this opening shot establishes her character as a young girl, one who has gone through tragedy yet has a certain distance from this tragedy, which foreshadows the murder of her father by Kit and the violence she witnesses while on the run with him. Kit is a garbage man who loses his job and becomes Holly's boyfriend. To her, he was "the handsomest man I ever saw-he looked just like James Dean." This similarity between Kit and James Dean is reiterated by a law officer near the end of the film when Kit is arrested. There's also the moment, late in the film, when Kit lays his rifle across his shoulders, in a homage to Dean's role in George Steven's film Giant. Kit being seen as a James Dean figure emphasizes Holly's romanticization of her and Kit's relationship. Coming back to Holly's distance from her family tragedies, as well as the violence she sees Kit commit, these contribute to the romanticization of her and Kit's story. Romanticization requires a certain emotional distance and I think Holly has this distance.

What struck me about watching Badlands is if I hadn't known Malick was the director, I wouldn't have necessarily thought of Malick, even with the voiceover and the meditative shots of nature. I can't quite say why, I think it has to do with how the characters are treated, which I found did not shrink in to the background the same way they did in The New World or Days of Heaven. I found the voiceovers in this film did not reach for the poetic as much as in The New World. Jim Emerson recently wrote a piece on Days of Heaven where he said that he found the more banal topics that Linda talked about where more poetic than the topics which where supposed to be poetic. I think I felt the same way about the narration here. While Holly is not trying to be poetic, there are passages which get at a certain truth about her character.

Sheen and Spacek give very lived in performances. Sheen does remind one of James Dean, the sexy rebel who has that streak of danger. He also has a little naivete in him because one senses he has no idea of what it means to be a criminal. Spacek also conveys a naivete but in her voiceover we sense she is more aware of the world than Kit, more conteplative. There is one voiceover where she asks herself where she would be if she never met Kit or lost her mother. In the early parts of this film it doesn't seem to be a set-up for a story about senseless killings but I think the normalcy of the early parts of the film make the descent in to violence all the more disturbing. It also suggests that the descent in to violent has the same mundaness that Kit and Holly's early life had. Kit and Holly, while on the run, don't seem to have any clearer goals than they did earlier in the film. The goal seems to become legendary more than anything else.
The final shot is that of the heavens, which thinking back on, I find relates to the final lines of the film

Kit: Sir... Where'd you get that hat?
Trooper: State.
Kit:  Boy, I'd like to buy me one of those.
Trooper: [the trooper smiles] You're quite an individual, Kit.
Kit: Think they'll take that into consideration?
When Kit asks whether "they'll take that into consideration," we as the audience automatically think of the judge and jury, etc. The final image of the heavens suggests that Kit is also thinking of getting in to heaven, whether him being "quite an individual" will get him in to heaven. The final shot may also be asking us whether we believe in something like heaven and wonder if the good we've done, despite our flaws, will be taken in to consideration.  

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