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Badlands (1973)

August 20th 2016
Intro by Lisa Rae Bartolomei
Cinemaniac board member

Hello Everyone. Badlands was a film that had an ominous reputation for me growing up. As a fan of post punk artists such as Nick Cave and the Scientists which often referenced Badlands as a brutally violent masterpiece that inspired their most dark murderous works. When I hear that films are disturbingly violent I often avoid watching them fearing that I might not handle the disturbance to my psyche. I’m not a huge fan of gore to be honest. When I did eventually sit down to watch the film I realized why it had such a fearsome reputation it wasn’t that the violence depicted in Badlands was particularly bloody or visceral it was just depicted in a completely emotionless, haphazard and meaningless way.

The director Terrence Malick is an all but recluse that refuses to grant interviews or allow photo’s on set. He was A Rhodes scholar but dropped out of oxford and then lectured in philosophy at MIT focusing on the work of Heiddeger. And wrote for the New Yorker, Life and Newsweek before changing tack and enrolling in The American Film Institute centre of Advanced Film Studies along with Film director David Lynch and famed Production Designer Jack Fisk who would go onto work on all of Malicks including films Badlands as well as Lynch’s Mullholland Drive, There Will Be Blood and was most recently was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The Revenant. Fisk would meet his future wife Sissy Spacek on the set of Badlands.

Malick’s early life was troubled, his younger brother was badly burned in a motor accident that killed his wife while his other brother suicided after cutting his hand off after a failed music career. These harrowing experiencing and the cruel and inhospitable environment in Texas informed much of the questions around the meaning of life raised in this film in a rare interview Malick described Texas as such –

“I was raised in a violent environment in Texas. What struck me was how violence erupted and ended before you really had a chance to understand what was happening…”

Badlands is a great example of early 70’s cinema. It plays into the 70’s infatuation with 50’s culture seen in films such as Grease and as film with similar themes of existential alienation George Lucas ‘American Graffiti’. After the success of Easy Rider a completely independently financed production producers and studio’s were willing to back independent film by new artists. The shooting budget was a modest $300,000 with Malick himself investing $25,000 of his own money into the production. The production was plagued with problems. During the filming of the fire sequence a massive accident occurred. Special effects supervisor Roger George bought and abandoned house to blow up to save money. They filled the house full of Rubber Cement and and inexperienced production assistant premptively lit a match. The air literally caught on fire and George and other members of the crew were badly burnt. This coupled with Malick’s impromtue shooting methods. Often changing shooting locations because he liked the light in a different place caused many of the crew to quit the production. Though who can deny how beautiful the light is in this film and how Malick is truly a master of elevating landscape into a mythic character in his films one of the most iconic shots of the film . Martin Sheen holding his gun behind his back with the rising night was shot completely on a whim The production then went rogue with only Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen and a couple of other crew members staying on Malick commented on this –

“We were shooting on private properties without authorization. The police were looking for us, along with the IRS. We ourselves were on the run.”

Badlands was loosely based on the real life murderers committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Anne Fugate in January 1958. The first mass murder event to take place in the age of television it shook the heart of the American Nation. The couple was to 50’s teen rebellion what the Manson Family was to the hippy movement. The world began to see the rebellious youth culture based around cars and rock ‘n’ roll as inherently dangerous. Starkweather idolized James Dean the hunky star of the seminal film of teen rebellion at the time “Rebel Without A Cause” and the murders could be seen as the ultimate act of nihilism without Cause. Starkweather was charming and handsome the antithesis of what we like to associate with evil.

George C Scott when seeing Badlands described Sheens portrayal of Stark weather like this and is at the heart of what makes the film so disturbing.

‘You are the most charming villain I have ever seen!’ ‘You’re pulling for this horrible mass killer. You’re concerned about him, you feel for him. You’re attracted to him.’

While Starkweather was sent to the electric chair on July 15th 1959 . Caril an protested her innocence all along saying that she was an unwilling captive of Starkweather. Which contradicted Starkweathers discrption of Fugate as “ the most trigger happy person I ever met” which is reversed in the film. He accused her of at least 2 of the murders. She was sentenced to 17 years for first degree murder. Malick met with Fugate and the film was contractually obliged to omit that it was based on a true story.

Fugate had hoped that her portrayal in Badlands would help her image of innocence . However she described Spacek’s take of her as “ Psychotic” however she said Sheen was dead on in his potrayl of Starkweather tapping him on the shoulder at a screening and said’

‘Charlie , You Have come back to haunt me’

The actors themselves were explicitly forbidden from researching or even looking at pictures of Fugate and Starkweather and many of the details of the original case were changed for the production. Starkweather committed rape and extreme violence to animals that are not shown in the film.

Killer couple films preceding it such as 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde and the 1950’s film noir GUNCRAZY depict doomed romances fuelled by lust and greed that explode ferocious mayhem on the American Landscape. There is no great romantic, passion behind the Holly & Kit’s murderous rampage through the American Badlands even sex is treated as empty and indifferent in the shallow and valueless world the characters inhabit. If anything they are trying imbue their lives with meaning within the constrictive Small town environment of Fort Dupree, Sth Dakota , where there is little chance of social mobility or Agency over their own lives. Holly’s life is completely controlled by school and a controlling yet emotionally unavailable father. The allure of “Rebel Without A Cause” James Dean lookalike Kit represents a freedom and rebellion she has never experienced in her own 14 years. Kit sees a specialness and attractiveness in Holly in while the rest of the town see only her ordinariness. However, as the film progresses she realizes that freedom is not what awaits her but an ever-encroaching, barren wasteland echoed in the empty plains if the Minnesota Badlands. Kit himself is older and more aware but desperate to make his mark in the world, eventually resorting to violence. He desperately wants to be heard but no one listens except Holly. Kit in another life and perhaps if he was more directed could have been James Dean but lack of opportunity or motivation bar this as a possibility. A fierce individualist that belongs outside the confines of civilization he firmly belongs in the canon of outlaws and cowboys mythologized in characters such as Billy the Kid, Al Capone and even Ned Kelly. Perhaps there is a part of all of us that wished we could break out of the confines of society if not violently. He reacts like a trapped animal or child when cornered and both characters inhabit a childlike fairy tale view of existence. Kit can be seen as an typical narcisstic personality time with an inflated view of his own importance –

Malick describes the character in these terms:

“Kit doesn’t see himself as as anything sad or pitable but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and future generations. Like, Holly, Like a child, he can only really believe what is going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions, they’re all sort of abstract to him.

Sissy Spacek commented she was surprised that when Badlands was first viewed by audiences they didn’t see the humour in it but now they laugh in screening. I believe this speaks to how common place senseless acts of gun violence have become in our society that the dehumanized and pointless acts of aggression in this film now see humanized so tonight I will leave you with some quotes of the absurd reasons why people were shot in the US

Thanks Love is Strange