Even before they were over, the '70s were being extolled by many as the lost, golden years of filmmaking. This was especially the case in America. Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) ushered in the era of the popular blockbuster, and effectively put an end to a brief spell of freedom that had enormously benefited directors such as Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson.
It is easy to romanticise the American cinema of the '70s. Yet it is undeniable that films including Monte Hellman's masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) could only have come into fruition during this very particular period.
Two landmark films from 1973, Terrence Malick's Badlands and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, are sometimes bundled together as evidence of an early peak in that illustrious American decade. (Two years after they were premiered, Manny Farber still had the urge to compare and contrast them in print.) Both directors have managed to sustain careers in industrial situations very different from those that prevailed in the '70s. But where Scorsese has been reasonably prolific, Malick has chosen to direct only two subsequent works, Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998).
Mean Streets is not, in my opinion, among Scorsese's best. But, in its rough and ready way, it traces most of the director's enduring obsessions and sketches the basis of his kinetic, inventive filmmaking style. Badlands is another matter entirely. It has rightly been classed as one of the most stunning and fully formed feature debuts since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941).
In 1973, Scorsese already had several features and much involvement in the industry behind him. Malick had made only one short while a student at the American Film Institute. But he had already gathered a lifetime of experience as a gifted philosophy student (he translated Heidegger), a voracious reader, and a high-class journalist for The New Yorker.
Badlands is loosely based on the notorious case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, two disaffected teenagers who blazed a trail of murder across Nebraska in 1958. While the popular media of the time whipped up a moral panic around the duo, subsequent manifestations of youth subculture held them up as anarchist heroes.
Malick did not acknowledge this real-life story source for his story when Badlands was released, for sound legal reasons: although Starkweather had been executed for his bloody crimes, Fugate was still in jail and appealing her sentence.
A 1986 telemovie devoted to the case, Murder in the Heartland, focuses squarely on the enigma of Fugate's complicity in the killings. But Malick barely alludes to this mystery element of the story. Although he shows the horrifyingly amoral and casual nature of the acts performed by his characters Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), his aim is not to judge them but to imaginatively enter their strange, childlike world.
In the '70s, Badlands naturally seemed to be part of a cycle of films devoted to glamorous "lovers on the run". This trend had been kick-started in the '60s by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and that film's director, Arthur Penn, served as a mentor to Malick. But, compared to virtually every other film of this kind, Badlands is disquietingly cool, surreal and unsensational.
With its visual compositions derived from hard edge landscape painting and photography, and its serene procession of musical tracks borrowed from Eric Satie and Musica Poetica by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, Badlands becomes a meditative, philosophical experience. Malick does not lament alienation as a modern social condition, but assumes it as an essential and endlessly fascinating fact of existence.
Badlands is a brilliantly acted and superbly constructed film. Undoubtedly its greatest novelty is the voice-over narration spoken by Holly. Its sing-song, mock-poetic cadences – "I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, but this never happened" – have been echoed in movies including Election (1999) and The Good Girl (2002).
Holly's verbal account is often wildly at variance with what we see with our own eyes. As Farber suggested: "The deliberate mismatch of what you see and what you hear puts Badlands in the surreal neighbourhood of a Henry David Thoreau nature study crossed with Lewis Carroll". (1)
Badlands is a film that can be analysed forever. But it is easy to overlook a principal aspect that makes it great – its extremely rich and subtle deadpan humour. Although it's difficult to classify as a comedy, I find it one of the funniest films in the history of American cinema.
Kit is not a hate-filled psychopath like Starkweather, but his brain certainly works in odd ways. Malick obviously enjoys portraying all the paradoxes and contradictions in his behaviour. Kit comes across not as magnificent rebel but an Eisenhower-era conservative. Constantly, in the middle of his crime spree, he takes time out to articulate his homespun values: "Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority of opinion once it's accepted".
© Adrian Martin October 2002
1. Manny Farber, “Badlands, Mean Streets and The Wind and the Lion”, Framework, no. 40 (Spring 1999).