Film club - Badlands

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PENK
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Film club - Badlands

Postby PENK » 26 Apr 2009, 22:47

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While I was watching Badlands, the one other film I was constantly reminded of was Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. The similarities are clear: Malick's debut was clearly an influence on the latter - some might suggest that Stone simply ripped it off, so alike are the plots - and the themes, too, are much the same.
But the strangest parallell to draw is the presentation. While Stone's film was a mess of furious noise, flashy images and chaotic action, all employed to hide the fact that beyond its simple message, the film had nothing to say, Badlands is the complete opposite: quiet, simple and sparse, but conveying with incredible clarity a wealth of ideas.
It perhaps doesn't seem, outwardly, a particularly intelligent film: Sissy Spacek's narration is, throughout, blissfully moronic, as she reminisces happily and idiotically about the pointless killing spree upon which she accompanies boyfriend Martin Sheen. Sheen, a mouthy nobody who thinks he's a somebody, is a terrific caricature of the iconic 'outsider' that so dominated mid-20th-century American culture, his apparent indifference to his killings one of the most notable things about his portrayal of the character. He is neither shocked nor elated by his murders; indeed, after the first, he reacts by rooting around in the cellar and coming back upstairs with a toaster.
While the killing spree is shown in the most banal terms, to Sheen and Spacek it is clearly intended to be their ticket out of the nowhere town they live in; when Sheen is finally captured, he seems to revel in the celebrity he has earned - but tellingly, he is only a celebrity to the men of the police and military who have been chasing him. Nobody else's reaction is recorded, and indeed the other people he encounters on his spree - the rich man* whose house he invades, the man working in the desert and the gas station attendant - seem to have no idea who he is.
The desert and empty landscapes reflect the emptiness and pointlessness from which Sheen and Spacek try to escape; the mountain they head for perhaps symbolises Sheen's desire to be recognised and to stand out. However, they never seem to get any closer to it, and they head for it blindly and cluelessly, driving in straight lines through the darkness. And although Sheen fancies himself a celebrity, although the film supposedly shows his need to escape small-town life and make himself known, he and Spacek are at their happiest when alone, even more isolated - living an idyllic existence in their treehouse in the forest, or dancing to the car radio in the middle of the desert.
The most fascinating aspect, for me, was the film's take on the loneliness and isolation of small-town USA. It's something that has been portrayed so often in films and which is a truly strange phenomenon, to an outsider - the mix of the loud, social, urban side of American culture with the vast empty spaces it's placed in has rarely been demonstrated as well as it is here. The film really does capture the weirdness of the USA in a special way - by virtue of its familiarity and almost aggressive communality, the strange, frightening side of American life is more noticeable than it is in any other culture, and that is what really strikes me here.
But these are only my own impressions, on first viewing - I imagine that this is a film which produces different reactions in everyone who sees it, and which one could see five or six times without truly grasping everything it tries to say. Even writing this, I feel as if I've left out, forgotten and neglected some of the conclusions I drew myself.

*as an aside, I was left wondering why Sheen did not kill the rich man - the situation is similar to that on the ranch, when after locking the young couple in the shelter he shoots them through the door, but while he locks the door on the rich man and his maid, he chooses not to kill this time. Is it because he respects the rich man for having made something of himself, become a 'somebody'?
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby The Modernist » 27 Apr 2009, 00:28

Nice write up Ed. I must have seen this film about a dozen times over the years, it's one of my favourites. I'll limit myself for now to a few random observations, I'll probably say more later as the thread develops.

- It is perhaps stretching things to call Badlands a black comedy, but it can be very funny, albeit in a highly dry, off-kilter way. The film is full of bizarre visual non-sequitors such as Kit rushing to hold open the door for Kato in act of politeness after he'd just shot him or stealing the phone from the rich man's house. Best of all is Holly's very guileless, dry narration: "Kit told me to enjoy the scenery" ( long shot of them driving through the flattest, dullest landscape imaginable) or " kit shot a football he considered excess baggage" (shot of Kit beside the road furiously shooting a football). It was only after watching the film a few times I realised how clever Holly's narration is.

- I read a good insight in an essay on the film which pointed out how Holly uses the language of the teen and celebrity magazines she constantly reads to describe their relationship. She talks in this hyperbolic, idealised way which suggests she is acting out a fantasy. In fact both of them seem like children playing at being boyfriend and girlfriend which can be seen in the way they set up house (almost a parody of a newly wed couple), the oddly stiff way they dance with each other and their stilted conversations generally.

- Malick uses music better than anyone pretty much. The use of Carl Orff combined with the shots of nature are just magical. I also like that acoustic track which plays as they drive up to Kato's house. I'd love to get that.

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby The Modernist » 27 Apr 2009, 00:36

Professor Digital wrote:*as an aside, I was left wondering why Sheen did not kill the rich man - the situation is similar to that on the ranch, when after locking the young couple in the shelter he shoots them through the door, but while he locks the door on the rich man and his maid, he chooses not to kill this time. Is it because he respects the rich man for having made something of himself, become a 'somebody'?


Yes I think so. Kit definitely has a pompous side, throughout the film he's very judgemental of others, and sometimes uses the skewed logic he draws from his judgements to justify the killing. I think he is rather in awe of the rich man and would be impressed, in his superficial way, by materialism. Incidentally the guy that comes to call on the rich man, and is sent away by Kit with a rather unconvincing lie, is Terrence Malick himself.

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby pang5 » 27 Apr 2009, 06:09

Saw it decades ago but one thing struck me early on in the film - Spacek is not a reliable narrator. She says something about her fish dying and we are shown her tossing it out onto the lawn. The fish we see is gasping in the air and dying only then.
She's definitely wishing things alive in her narration. Would you say that's intentional? Maybe her wishful narration is supposed to make her more juvenile?

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby PENK » 27 Apr 2009, 12:15

Dr Modernist wrote:- I read a good insight in an essay on the film which pointed out how Holly uses the language of the teen and celebrity magazines she constantly reads to describe their relationship. She talks in this hyperbolic, idealised way which suggests she is acting out a fantasy. In fact both of them seem like children playing at being boyfriend and girlfriend which can be seen in the way they set up house (almost a parody of a newly wed couple), the oddly stiff way they dance with each other and their stilted conversations generally.


[quote="pang5"]She's definitely wishing things alive in her narration. Would you say that's intentional? Maybe her wishful narration is supposed to make her more juvenile?[/quote

I thought there was a definite element of her playing out a fantasy all the way through. She seems an impassive observer rather than participant in most of the action and Kit seems to treat her as such, too - rather than being a "real" girlfriend, she's more someone to watch and worship him; his first disciple, as it were.
One of the only times that she and Kit really seem to connect, to be on the same wavelength, is when she's reading stories from her celebrity magazine to him as they drive through the desert - the conversation seems a lot more natural and easy than many of their others which are, as G says, stilted and strange.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby The Modernist » 27 Apr 2009, 16:28

Just to add to the earlier conversation on why Kit didn't kill the rich man, I was reading up on the Charles Starkweather case that Badlands was based upon. Like Kit, Starkweather was a garbage man with a James Dean fixation (as you can see in the image below).
Image

He went on a killing spree with his teenage girlfriend Caril Furgate and actually killed 11 people in total, including a prosperous businessman whose house he entered (as in the film), the businessman's wife and their maid. Malick made the decision to tone down the extent of the violence, partly because he wanted our attention to be on Holly and Kit's dream world and so he wanted to"take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality". The other effect of this is to emphasis Kit's random, lost quality. He begins to kill, presumably enjoying the power it gives him but then almost becomes bored with it like a child becoming bored with a toy. He declines the opportunity to kill after killing (perhaps..it isn't made that clear) the young couple, more it seems out of disinterest rather than any moral qualms.

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 27 Apr 2009, 16:57

Where to start?

Badlands has as much claim to being my all-time favorite film as any movie. Only The Godfather rivals it. It absolutely transformed my entire view of what a film could be. I'm pretty sure I've seen it several dozen times, and yet watching it again last night, I still find myself puzzling over it and discovering new things. It is the riddle of the sphinx.

If ever there was a film that deserved to be seen on the big screen, this is it. I was 12 or 13 years old when I first saw a clip of it in a theater setting. I'd gone to hear Martin Sheen speak at the Director's Guild in Hollywood and they showed the opening sequence as part of his introduction. I remember having an incredible reaction to it. It was literally the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

So given this, I almost hate to post these...but somebody has uploaded the entire film into Youtube. If you would be watching for the first time, do yourself a favor and rent it - then watch it on the largest screen you have access to. But if you simply want to revisit all or part of it for this discussion, here are the links to the film:

Part 1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mxXvPY0szE

Part 2
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQQ30BzB ... re=related

Part 3
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRk5fta_ ... re=related

Part 4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeNMzfkQ ... re=related

Part 5
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr5FafGn ... re=related

Part 6
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKDnhmRW ... re=related

Part 7
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IijgqrJ ... re=related

Part 8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVXwQp5m ... re=related

Part 9
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSyeplxq ... re=related

Part 10
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFteNUXZ ... re=related

Anyhow, there are all sorts of things I could say about the content of the film, but I'll come back to that when I have a little more time for reflection. I could imagine this thread going on a long time if anyone else is half as fascinated by this movie as I am. In the meantime I am enjoying reading the comments that have been posted.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Snarfyguy » 29 Apr 2009, 08:20

I'm out of town without a way to watch it, but it's one of my very favorite movies too.

I'll give it a spin next week when I'm back home & post then.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Goat Boy » 30 Apr 2009, 16:48

Some thoughts...

Visually it's such a beautiful film. It kinda reminds me of William Eggleston at times. Especially the scene where Kit releases a red balloon into the sky. Stunning. I also like how the warmth of the cinematograpy contrasts with the coldness and cruelty of Kit and, to a lesser extent, Holly and it's clear that Holly's cruelty is there from the beginning. Watch how she dumps the 'dead' fish in the garden because she's simply bored of it in the same way a child throws a toy away. It's also interesting how her Father kills her dog in front of her so this cruelty is displayed in her Father as well. I also love her childlike musical motif that reoccurs throughtout the film reminding us that, despite her playing at being an adult, she's still very much a child.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Snarfyguy » 30 Apr 2009, 18:57

Goat Boy wrote:Some thoughts...

Visually it's such a beautiful film. It kinda reminds me of William Eggleston at times.

That's a really good observation.

The visual esthetic of the film is unimpeachable.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 02 May 2009, 00:59

Saw it for the first time. They're relationship is very awkward isn't it? There's almost a sense that he could be impotent. There's this conversation between them after their first go sexual encounter

HOLLY Did it go the way it 'uz supposed to?

KIT Yeah.

HOLLY Is that all there is to it?

KIT Yeah.

Her questions make him uncomfortable.

HOLLY Gosh, what was everybody talking about?

KIT Don't ask me.

Silence.

HOLLY Well. I'm glad it's over... For a while I was afraid I might die before it happened...


I'm probably sprouting nonsense but there's a sense of shame and a suggestion that he's not interested, maybe he can't get it up. It could suggest a general impotence he has in life, something an intelligent person like him would be well aware of. But then, maybe he's just a nutter.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby The Modernist » 02 May 2009, 14:37

I think Kit's probably a virgin before he meets her.

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 02 May 2009, 23:15

oh :? so much for that thought

i, like Holly, thought he was experienced

i'll see if i can come up with some more bright ideas :)
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Still Baron » 02 May 2009, 23:16

Impotence is the pervasive theme of Bonnie & Clyde.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Jeemo » 03 May 2009, 23:03

Watched this today. Beautifully filmed and framed. The scences when driving towards the mountains are stunning, glad that I have a 50" plasma to see this in all its glory. The banality of the characters versus the crimes that were committed was a masterstroke, usually there is justification or an heroic angle. Not here its just mundane in the extreme. Sheen almost played two different characters. The nobody that is dull with no inner light to attract people, and the caught charismatic murderer.

My favourite scene was when Spacek was looking at her fathers photos and talking about life after Kit. I wonder how long Mallick looked for those photos or did he have the photos first.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 03 May 2009, 23:14

Dr Modernist wrote:I think Kit's probably a virgin before he meets her.


He certainly could be. In a lot of ways he is a similar character to Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. The same disassociation with reality is at play. Kit is a good looking guy and probably could have had a lot girls by this point in his life, but he just as easily could have driven every girl he had a shot with away from him by saying or doing the wrong thing. One of the great things about Badlands is that it leaves questions like this completely open to the viewer. The one thing that is clear from the scene we're talking about is that it does not register for the protagonists nearly as much as their expectations of it would have led them to believe it might. This seems to be the central idea of the film - the human desire to cut through the mundane. To make our mark.

Martin Sheen's Kit is obsessed with making his mark. Witness the opening scenes as he is throwing garbage. He offers Cato a dollar to "eat" a dead dog (does he want him to put the dog in the jaws of the garbage truck? Will he renege because Cato did not actually "eat" the dog?). The next scene he is trying to sell some shoes he found to a (likely homeless) man. The contrast of these two acts tells us something pretty clear about Kit. He clearly doesn't value the dollar he is trying to earn as he just offered to give one away for nothing. Essentially he is doing all of this simply to make something/anything happen. To exert some control on his surroundings - the way a child likes pushing a button in order to see something light up or move.

His entire romance with Spacek's Holly seems to be less about her than his attempt to play his part in some movie in his mind. He essentially cast her in the role of "the girl who wasn't giggly" and when her father does not accept him, his storyline is set. Their "film" is going to be about forbidden lovers...love on the run. Everything that happens after is simply Kit's attempt to play his part correctly while Holly plays along for no other reason except perhaps that he makes it seem natural to do so.

There is a line in a Graham Parker song where he talks about people living their lives like fiction. I think there is some truth to the notion that we all do this at times. Much of our ceremony and ritual exists to underline things we feel are important in the story of our lives. Is the intention behind taking pictures on prom night really all that different than Kit's desire to mark the day they consumated their relationship by crushing their hands with a rock? Throughout the film Kit leaves memorials along the way. Burying articles in the ground, recording his words (is he illiterate?), even marking the spot he is captured on and pointing it out to the police.

In one of the film's most memorable shots he stands on a dead cow, seemingly trying to fathom the difference between death and life. For a guy like Kit to whom life itself is somehow less real than the fictionalized life he imagines, death can never be real. It it is just the most interesting part of the story.
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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby pang5 » 04 May 2009, 08:09

All these comments really are helpful. I think I'll go back and rewatch it this week.
On a slight tangent - did anyone have the feeling that that trashy film True Romance was meant to be a trashy homage to Badlands?

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby Kenji » 05 May 2009, 15:08

I just watched it (first time).
Of course the characters and their strange friendship is very interesting but I also really enjoyed the wide countryside scenes and music.*
About the characters, at first I thought why didn't Holly have any big reaction to her father's murder and then I realized and thought again later when there were more murders she must be as crazy as Kit. And that made it more interesting for me - I was waiting for her to do something and that made a tension for me...
(I didn't know anything about this movie before I watched it - I didn't read any of the posts here yet too...)


* But my favorite for cinematography is "The Hired Hand".

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby The Modernist » 05 May 2009, 15:18

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:
In one of the film's most memorable shots he stands on a dead cow, seemingly trying to fathom the difference between death and life. For a guy like Kit to whom life itself is somehow less real than the fictionalized life he imagines, death can never be real. It it is just the most interesting part of the story.


Great post Todd.
Just to pick up on that last point, he actually seems at his happiest at the end of the movie handing out his mementoes to the crowd of cops who themselves want to be part of his story. That's one of the few times in the film we see him smile, he actually seems to be at one with the world as he finally takes centre stage in his own movie.

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Re: Film club - Badlands

Postby The Modernist » 05 May 2009, 15:26

Kenji wrote:About the characters, at first I thought why didn't Holly have any big reaction to her father's murder and then I realized and thought again later when there were more murders she must be as crazy as Kit. And that made it more interesting for me - I was waiting for her to do something and that made a tension for me...


Holly's impassive, emotionless behaviour throughout the film seems to be pretty close to an extreme case of autism or Aspergers. She does not know how to read situations and seems impervious to the context of events, for example one of the oddest scenes in the film has her carry on an inane conversation with Cato as he lies dying from a stomach wound (or similarly her teenage chit chat with the girl who Kit forces in the storm bunker and probably kills).
I don't know if Malick intended that Holly's behaviour was meant to be read in this way, I don't know how much they knew about these conditions in 1973, but it is an interesting way to understand the way she behaves throughout the film.