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The largely discarded Auteur Theory is still seems to apply to a rarified, fortunate group of directors whose careers indeed followed the pursuit of a personal cinema. Terrence Malick definitely qualifies. Critics have noted his sparse output (grown less so lately) and his near-absolute avoidance of situations in which he must discuss his film artworks on any level. In 1973 Mr. Malick brought his completed first feature Badlands to the students at the UCLA Film Department. Believe me, I don't think many of us self-anointed film progressives had a clue as to its superior artistry. I also don't remember Malick answering any questions; I think his remarks were mostly technical in nature. Badlands was unlike anything we'd seen, and simply didn't fit into any convenient critical pigeonhole.
The accomplishment of Badlands took a while to soak in. Malick had made something completely unexpected, an amour fou love-on-the-run romance, surely the umpteenth recycling of the old Bonnie & Clyde story. Some of the previous versions are classics by top rank directors: Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, Joseph H. Lewis and Arthur Penn. But all preferred to dodge or soften the basic truth that the bandits were lawless murderers. The young bandits were instead presented as politically oppressed, or lost adolescents, or too crazy in love to be responsible for their actions. Social excuses and psychological motivations are almost irrelevant in Malick's film, which is based upon a chillingly cold-blooded case from the late 1950s.
Garbage man / drifter Kit (Martin Sheen) has no prospects but thinks mighty highly of himself. Polite in his speech asnd as charming and handsome as James Dean, he picks up aimless, affectless local girl Holly (Sissy Spacek) while watching her toss a baton in her front yard. Holly's sign-painter father (Warren Oates) kills Holly's dog as a punishment, and tells Kit to move on. Kit holds his ground and shoots him instead. He and Holly take off by car across the Dakotas, robbing and killing along the way. Neither is moved in the slightest by the fates of their victims; and a stream-of-consciousness voiceover by Holly seems to further detach the lovers from the consequences of their actions.
The first few scenes of Badlands show a garbage truck moving through a vintage residential neighborhood. Its handsome but modest houses sit on large green plots of land with few fences and no sidewalks. Malick's visual observation makes us feel like we've lived there. We also feel a sense of reverse déjà vu: the gentle and peaceful streets could be part of his The Tree of Life made almost forty years later. All the facets of Malick's style are here, fully developed: a constant observance of detail, particularly natural detail, that makes us feel like we're in a particularized space, not just watching images. Malick also doesn't create conventional characters for us. Starting from the proposition that nobody can be summed up in glib sketch form, we must carefully observe the behaviors of the people on screen. Holly and Kit don't exactly explain themselves in dialogue. The wide-eyed Holly watches everything around her in a way that isn't innocent, only shy. Kit has long since given up dealing straight with the world. He's a charismatic loser who spells trouble wherever he goes, yet considers himself a superior individual whose time has not yet come. Is his studiously sincere smile really friendly, or does it mask contempt? Kit clearly thinks himself a budding celebrity, someone whose words should be listened to. He records a message on a dictaphone, which turns out to be the kind of dull fatherly advice he's rebelling against. Exceptional people have to make their own rules.
Malick holds the picture together with Holly's voiceover / diary entries, which would surely flummox any expert looking for logic behind their crime spree. She free-associates in her Texas twang (Sissy Spacek knew it well), her thoughts drifting away from the bloody business at hand. Holly freely romanticizes a relationship and flight from justice that's little more than a sordid flight to nowhere, like a modern police pursuit but on a vast featureless prairie. Holly under-reacts to every awful crime she witnesses Kit committing. Is she too naíve, too clueless to muster even a minimal revulsion or recoil? The general consensus leans toward this.
Other minds will chalk up Badlands as an expression of the "new age of senseless violence" that conservatives claim came out of the permissive 1950s with its relaxed dress codes and Godless Rock 'n' Roll. The only difference is a matter of style. James Dean & Co. made teen angst into a personal style, and directionless rebellion cool. Yet the exact same attitudes and crimes were always there, along with shocking, pointless, angels-weep cruelties.
A pair of runaways chalks up a high score of murders in a shockingly brief period of time. Yet Terrence Malick keeps most of the killings just off screen and horrifyingly low-key. Many moviemakers have made their mark by pushing the edge of the screen violence envelope, capturing the sensation and thrill of blazing gunfights and defiance of the law. Malick goes in for none of that. The shootings are ugly and cold-hearted. Deprived of the expected crime-show thrills, we still feel as if something horrible has happened. Badlands really addresses the way a really odious crime warps the social fabric. Kit and Holly's crimes fit no preconceived pattern; they blow a hole in the perceptions of civilians and lawmen alike. Kit is looked on with awe. He's a trophy catch but also a criminal celebrity. He's treated like a VIP who just happens to be in metal bracelets and leg chains. And Kit plays it like a gentlemen -- he's finally the Rock Star he always knew himself to be.
Malick doesn't allow narrative, thematic or conventional digressions to sway him from addressing the plain facts of his story. Holly and Kit have placed themselves outside society. They're not playing out any particular teen fad. Neither has a clue how to dance, for instance. Kit rehearses elaborate Boy Scouts-meet-guerrilla survival and ambush drills in their country tree house. It's a parody of the all-American family. 1
Call Malick's style a poetic conceit, but it's the same style that viewers love in Days of Heaven and that elevates his The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. We feel the presence of the landscape through cinematography that never fakes a shot, even when a baleful moon hangs over Kit's "lost frontiersman." Terrence Malick 'composes' movies, or 'paints' them ... and his approach almost always opens the eyes and the mind.
No, Criterion's superior Blu-ray of Badlands doesn't feature direct input from Terrence Malick, but disc producer Kim Hendrickson has connected the dots so well that his presence is strongly felt. An excellent making-of featurette arranges input from Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and the film's art director (and later Spacek's husband) Jack Fisk. Badlands kicked Sheen and Spacek both into a higher rank of acting, leading to world-class performances for both of them. From this trio we hear a great account of the filming and of Terrence Malick's methods the first time out. As this was the early '70s crews were still made up of Hollywood veterans accustomed to very set ways of doing things. Malick had to resist technicians and even cameramen that expected him to comply with their traditional methods: there is of course nothing traditional about Badlands.
Editor Billy Weber and producer Edward Pressman appear in individual interviews; Pressman tells us that he got started producing by more or less mismanaging his mother's money. When she found out, she doubled down on his show biz gamble. For those interested in true-crime facts, a very good TV documentary is included on the real-life models for Kit and Holly, Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate. The archival news coverage shows Starkweather to be enchanted with his camera coverage. A trailer is included, and the insert booklet essay is by film director Michael Almereyda. I may be off base, but the colorful new cover art reminds me of old fruit and produce box labels. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Badlands Blu-ray rates:
1. And also a parody that lends credence to a theory that surfaced with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: the passed-over, dispossessed rural working class will savagely rebel against the progressive urban moderns that have left them behind. It fits for Deliverance as well. With an adjustment or two, it can also be applied to the seemingly endless zombie craze.
"The colorful new cover art reminds me of old fruit and produce box labels."
Me too. But maybe the inspiration was a "what if?" vision of how Holly's sign-painter father might have portrayed the couple if Kit hadn't been such a rotter... -- Ed Sullivan
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