Monday, March 18, 2013

Alan Webber: Why I Love BADLANDS

BMFI patron and film fan Alan Webber shares with us his reflections on Terrence Malick's directorial debut Badlands, the first film featured for discussion in our four-week Special Topic: Philosophy on Film - Terrence Malick’s World program, which starts on Thursday and is sponsored and presented by the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium.

Death and Poetry on the Prairie
By Alan Webber, BMFI Patron
*Spoiler alert*

One of the perks of getting married is that your spouse brings to the marriage all of the great books and authors she has come to love. Thus, it came to be that my wife introduced me to the “prairie” stories and novels of Willa Cather (1873-1947), most notably My Ántonia (1918). A true masterpiece of American literature, My Ántonia is a lyrical tribute to the Eastern European immigrants who settled the harsh landscape of the Nebraska prairie where Cather had spent her youth. In My Ántonia, the land becomes a character and shapes everyone on the hardened soil and under the vast prairie sky. It is a novel of astonishing beauty.

Like Cather, Terrence Malick also is enraptured with nature, and this is immediately evident in his debut feature film, Badlands (1973). This film changed the way I view all movies, and in its own way, Badlands is as much a masterpiece as My Ántonia.  In addition, when writing and directing Badlands, Malick was inspired by real events that took place in the same Nebraska landscape where Cather had grown up.

Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather, the inspiration for Terrence Malick's Badlands
Charles Starkweather, the notorious “Mad Dog Killer”, emerged from rural Nebraska as a poor 19-year-old in the waning weeks of 1957. He fashioned himself to be another James Dean after seeing Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, and was frantic to marry his baton-twirling, 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather had failed at every job he encountered, which was another reason he wanted to get out of the Nebraska town where everyone thought of him as a loser. He had what people today would call an “attitude problem,” himself noting that, “...the more I looked at people the more I hated them, because I knowed (sic) that there wasn’t any place for me with the kind of people I knowed (sic).”

He and Caril Ann would embark on a two-state murder spree that horrified the country and left eleven people dead, including her mother, stepfather, and half-sister. They were captured on January 29, 1958. Charlie was executed seventeen months later, while Caril Ann served seventeen years in prison, always claiming that she was a reluctant participant.

Charlie and Caril Ann’s deadly exploits from 1958 have inspired more than a few American artists, and several films have been directly influenced by them, including Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994).

Terrence Malick's prairie landscapes in Badlands are integral to the film.
In Malick's version of the events, the story is moved to the South Dakota prairie where Martin Sheen, in a great screen performance, plays Kit, a 25-year-old garbage man who begins dating Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old schoolgirl who is inflamed with romanticized notions of love despite her boring life. She is smitten with Kit because he looks like James Dean and, as she says, “he wanted to die with me.” When Holly's father (Warren Oates) discovers the relationship and forbids Kit from seeing his daughter anymore, he is gunned down. Kit and Holly end up on the run from the law, and as they make their escape, they leave a trail of death behind them. Holly’s stream-of-consciousness narrates events, revealing her belief in her romance-novel fantasy to be unwavering and stating that it is “better to spend a week with one who loved me for who I was than years of loneliness.”

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as the murderous young lovers in Badlands
When Kit sets fire to Holly's childhood home, I realized that Badlands was no ordinary film. This scene is set to the music of Carl Orff's "Musica Poetica", mesmerizing pieces of artistry that are echoed again as Kit and Holly go into hiding in a forest and roam mindlessly across the empty prairie. There is additional music by Eric Satie and George Tipton, which is touchingly romantic in contrast to the events on the screen.

It is this contrast between the violence of Kit and Holly’s lives and the lyricism of Malick’s visual and aural expression that gives the film its greatness. As they are driving north to Canada, the lights of Missoula, Montana on the horizon, they seem to enter a mythic landscape. We almost hope they will make it and forget the violence that they have wrought. In a big, stolen Cadillac, they leave paved roads and ride across unfenced prairies that connect them to the pioneer settlers who came to the land in the century before, and whom Cather loved so dearly.

On the way, as Roger Ebert has noted, “There is always much detail, of birds and small animals, of trees and skies, of empty fields or dense forests, of leaves and grain, and always of too much space for the characters to fill… There is a strong sense of humans uneasily accommodated by the land.” This is a recurring theme in Malick’s films, as it is in Cather's “Prairie” tales, especially My Ántonia. Badlands is haunting, violent, and disquieting--a lyrical descendant and an artistic equal of Cather's masterpiece--and one of the greatest American films.

Thanks, Alan!

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