Monthly Archives: May 2011

Badlands

The film career of Terrence Malick began in 1972 when, after two years studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the former Rhodes scholar began work on his first feature, Badlands. A deeply atmospheric, myth-driven retelling of the infamous 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, Badlands explores the phenomenon of innocence in the midst of that most disturbing of evils—the evil of the everyday. Citing influences such as The Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, Malick has stated his intention of capturing the concept of “innocents abroad”—of innocence in the face of overwhelming drama. Indeed, the focus of Badlands is on the curiously sedate mindsets of its characters who witness and partake in evil as if it were just another mundane activity to engage in.

Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen) live out a Bonnie & Clyde road-trip fantasy in the film, and their interactions, voiceovers, and demeanors allude to a genuine disassociation from the concept of sin; or more specifically, their sin.  Kit kills people right and left and Holly watches with bewildered detachment; neither seems to associate exterior circumstances with their interior thought.  Malick himself described Kit as a child who “can only really believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions—they’re all sort of abstract for him.” It is no accident that Sheen greatly resembles James Dean in the film. The character of Kit is truly a rebel without a cause.  We never know why he does what he does, and apparently neither does he.

What, then, are we to make of this seemingly arbitrary, inexplicable, “innocent” sin?  The film is completely uninterested in explaining the causes of its characters’ behavior or judging their amoral actions. Malick’s point is perhaps that judging or explaining human action covers up for the fact that our world and values are more fragile than we think, and unable to account for certain human possibilities. The implication of this notion is that sin and evil inhere within nature itself; within the everyday.

A consistent biblical allusion in the films of Malick is certainly Eden, and Badlands introduces it beautifully. Kit and Holly are like Adam and Eve insofar as, post-“Fall,” they are less concerned with the fact that they’ve sinned than they are with their “nakedness” and the necessity to hide from God. Kit and Holly hide out in the trees from pursuing authorities. They’re constantly on the run–a guilty couple expelled from the Garden, evading capture as well as ownership of guilt. The parallel to the Genesis story climaxes near the end of the film when Kit and Holly dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “The Blossom Fell.” The classic scene evokes the dread of sin and consequence, of paradise lost: The dream has ended / for true love died / the night a blossom fell / and touched two lips that lied.

The rest of Badlands is an extended chase sequence as Kit and Holly evade authorities, but it’s also a search to recover the innocence lost and to reconcile the self with some sort of pure, forgotten ideal. In his essay, “All Things Shining: The Struggle for Wholeness, Redemption and Transcendence in the Films of Terrence Malick,” Ron Mottram notes that central to film is “an Edenic yearning to recapture a lost wholeness of being, an idyllic state of integration with the natural and good both within and without ourselves.”

In Badlands, as with Malick’s other films, this yearning is often represented in the beauty of the natural world–which in spite of industrialization, war, and other sorts of human folly still stands as one of our most persistent and powerful signs of a higher good.  The peace, calm, and indifference of nature form the constant backdrop to the human dramas of Malick’s films and often overshadow the narratives. Images of nature—beautiful and menacing—pervade all four of his films, though to different degrees. In Badlands, natural sounds and images are everywhere (birds, dogs, fish, flowing water, trees), though in relation to Heaven, Line, and The New World, nature is much more distant. The plains of South Dakota, the badlands of Montana, mountains far off on the horizon: it’s as if Eden—or epiphany—is out of reach. Nature feels distant, cold, fabled in Badlands, reflecting the widening distance between Kit and Holly “the mythical outlaws” and Kit and Holly as they were created to be.

Badlands ends, as does Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, with a climactic chase scene in which the male protagonist flees pursuant forces bent on killing or capturing him. In Badlands, Kit flees the police in a Dukes of Hazzard-esque dust-up, yet his motivation is less out of fear or obligation to life than out of a desire to gain a glorious notoriety and fulfill his pulpy myth through spectacular capture. He doesn’t hide or try too hard to evade the police. He desires an end for himself not as a redemptive purge of his rebellious behavior (because by all appearance he never sees his actions as sin), but strictly because a spectacular denouement is the proper end to his myth.

Kit and Holly never re-connect with themselves or achieve any sort of substantial understanding of the self as existing in the world. What motivates them, seemingly, is a desire to escape boredom and the mundane everydayness of life. They’re desperate for some sort of difference and thereby transcendence, and thus they embark on their rebellious, murderous misadventures. As Mottram notes, Kit “has chosen to trade his life for a fleeting recognition of his existence.”

Perhaps this is just another iteration of the original sin: Pride. We all want to be significant in some way–even if it means being a notorious criminal. In this way, Badlands can be seen as “a paean to identity, lost motivations, of what it means to be in the world and the difficulty of making a mark,” as Adrian Danks wrote in Senses of Cinema.

More than simply a morality tale couched in 1960s post-war nihilism, Badlands is a timeless tale of the human search for significance and the resultant battle between rebellion (pride/significance through freedom of the will) and redemption (humbly submitting to something bigger and recovering that union with creation and the Creator). Perhaps this is still a tension Malick is exploring… “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace.”

Advertisements

May is Terrence Malick Month

I’ve declared May to be Terrence Malick Month. On my blog at least.

Why? Because something is happening this month that happens only about once every 93.5 months: A Terrence Malick film is being released. The reclusive, mysterious filmmaker has released only five films in his 40 year career. One in 1972 (Badlands), one in 1978 (Days of Heaven), one in 1998 after a mysterious two-decade absence from civilization (The Thin Red Line), one in 2005 (The New World), and then this year. In this case, the film in question is called The Tree of Life, and it’s been a long time since so much hype has surrounded a film that so little is known about.

The timeline for Terrence Malick festivities during #MalickMonth will be as follows:

May 8: Blog post about Malick’s 1st film, Badlands.

May 10: Blog post about his 2nd film, Days of Heaven.

May 12: Blog post about his 3rd film, The Thin Red Line.

May 14: Blog post about his 4th film, The New World.

May 16: The Tree of Life premieres at Cannes. I will post a roundup of post-Cannes reactions to the film from critics in attendance at the premiere.

May 27: Life opens in theaters. My review will post on Christianity Today‘s website.

So, that’s the plan. If you can’t tell… I’m a fan.

For those who haven’t seen the trailer yet, watch it now. Explore the amazing website.

Also, watch this first clip, released today exclusively to Entertainment Weekly.

From the looks of it, Malick’s continuing to explore an impressionistic, symphonic cinema of emotions and reverie–through fragments of image (heavy on the jump cuts), fragments of sound (dialogue and diegetic sound coming in and out), and classical music tying it all together. In this way, I anticipate the film to look and feel more like The New World (with its barely audible whispers of fragmented thoughts and emotions, strung together by Mozart and Wagner) than the more plot-driven films of Malick’s early career.

In other words: Don’t expect this film to have a readily apparent “meaning,” or a “plot” in the conventional sense. DO expect it to be a beautiful assemblage of poetic imagery, lyrical vignettes and grandiose cinema par excellence.

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

What a weekend. Highs, lows, drama, love, death, destruction, trending topics, presidents, princes, terrorists, tornadoes, Twitter. Let’s take a moment to breathe… Another weekend in the world.

On Friday morning, as the U.S. South reeled from the second deadliest tornado outbreak in American history, the world turned its eyes to Westminster Abbey to enjoy a moment of old school romanticism. A prince marrying a princess. All the hype may have frustrated some, but the event seemed to me to be a rare occasion of hope and idealism in a world so mired in cynicism and malaise. It was a beautiful, happy day. In a world of so much tragedy, there’s clearly a hunger–an almost eschatological instinct– for images of regal, grandiose love and peace. The Royal Wedding offered a vision of this for millions around the world.

On Sunday night, another event caught the attention of the world–this one wholly unexpected. Osama Bin Laden–villain of our times–shot dead by U.S. Navy Seals. A long sought justice served. Like the crowds elated in the London streets on Friday, crowds of Americans could be seen celebrating in Times Square, Ground Zero, & outside the White House.  Though this occasion (a death) is certainly more solemn than the happier occasion of a wedding, both events filled a deeply human, elemental emotional longing: for love, for peace, for justice.

Both events were redemptive moments for the world. In the case of the wedding, it was a healing moment of sorts for a world which, 14 years ago, mourned with Prince William as he walked behind the hearse of his prematurely dead mother, Princess Diana. Out of tragedy, a new hope. Similarly, the death of Osama bin Laden is the 10-years-later bookend to the tragedy of 9/11. Out of tragedy, justice.

On Saturday night, in between these two historic events, I attended an Explosions in the Sky concert in a one-of-a-kind venue: Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was quite the experience. A huge crowd of several thousand fans reclining on blankets in the cemetery, looking up at the stars while listening to the instrumental post-rock symphonies of Explosions in the Sky.

If you’re familiar with the band (you might have heard their songs on Friday Night Lights), you’ll know their music consists of highly emotional, slow-building guitar anthems that ebb and flow with dynamic contrasts of extraordinary proportions. As I lay on the blanket Saturday night, the cool L.A. night winds blowing the tall palms back and forth, the music of Explosions in the Sky seemed to capture so much truth about the dynamic, unsteady, solemn and beautiful nature of the universe. As the band played wordless songs from their recently released album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, it was abundantly clear that there is something truly beautiful about the cycle of tension built… and tension released. Dissonance resolved. Chaos reined in.

Lying in that cemetery on Saturday night, listening to the live performance of “Your Hand In Mind,” holding the hand of my girlfriend, feeling the cold night air and keenly aware both of the vitality of existence and the immanence of death (we were in a graveyard after all)… it all added up to something transcendent; something galvanizing. And now, reflecting on all that has transpired through this week and weekend, it feels even more galvanizing.

Ours is a world of ups and down. On any given day, or weekend, there is joy and heartbreak, fear and hope, sickness and death. What we can do is abide, faithfully, in hope, love & charity, working for renewal… and taking care of those around us, taking care of ourselves, taking care of the world.