Monday, 14 December 2020

Terrence Malick on Badlands

Badlands (Directed by Terrence Malick)
The son of an oil company executive, Terrence Malick grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. He went to Harvard and later to Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study Philosophy but failed to complete his thesis – his topic proving unacceptable to his tutor, Gilbert Ryle. Summer jobs took him from the wheat harvests in America and Canada, to working in oilfields and driving a cement mixer in a railyard, to journalistic endeavours for Life, Newsweek and The New Yorker. In 1967 he was sent on assignment to Bolivia to observe the trial of French intellectual Regis Debray who had fought alongside Che Guevera. Guevara was himself killed the day after Malick’s arrival. In 1968 Malick was appointed a lecturer in philosophy at MIT but abandoned teaching within a year. He explained: ‘I was not a good teacher; I didn’t have the sort of edge one should have on the students, so I decided to do something else’. In a rare interview in 1975 for Sight and Sound magazine, Malick explained how he turned to making movies and the influences behind his first feature film, the semi-factual Badlands, which starred Martin Sheen as the serial-killer Kit Carruthers and Sissy Spacek as his girlfriend, Holly.

‘I’d always liked movies in a kind of naive way. They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else. I came to Los Angeles in the fall of 1969 to study at the AFI; I made a short called Lanton Mills. I found the AFI very helpful; it’s a marvellous place. My wife was going to law school and I was working for a time as a rewrite man – two days on Drive, He Said, five weeks on the predecessor to Dirty Harry at a time when Brando was going to do it with Irving Kershner directing. Then we all got fired by Warners; the project went to Clint Eastwood. I rewrote Pocket Money and Deadhead Miles. I got this work because of a phenomenal agent, Mike Medavoy.

‘At the end of my second year here, I began work on Badlands. I wrote and, at the same time, developed a kind of sales kit with slides and video tape of actors, all with a view to presenting investors with something that would look ready to shoot. To my surprise, they didn’t pay too much attention to it; they invested on faith. I raised about half the money and Edward Pressman (the executive producer) the other half. We started in July of 1972. 

‘The critics talked about influences on the picture and in most cases referred to films I had never seen. My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn – all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I didn’t actually think about those books before I did the script, but it’s obvious to me now. Nancy Drew, the children’s story child detective – I did think about her. 

‘There is some humour in the picture, I believe. Not jokes. It lies in Holly’s mis-estimation of her audience, of what they will be interested in or ready to believe. (She seems at time to think of her narration as like what you get in audio-visual courses in high school.) When they’re crossing the badlands, instead of telling us what’s going on between Kit and herself, or anything of what we’d like and have to know, she describes what they ate and what it tasted like, as though we might be planning a similar trip and appreciate her experience, this way. 

‘She’s a typical Southern girl in her desire to help, to give hard fact; not to dwell upon herself, which to her would be unseemly, but always to keep in mind the needs of others. She wants to come off in the best possible light, but she’s scrupulous enough to take responsibility where in any way she might have contributed.’

I suggest to Malick that the film has been criticised for patronising Holly and her milieu.

‘That’s foolishness. I grew up around people like Kit and Holly. I see no gulf between them and myself. One of the things the actors and I used to talk about was never stepping outside the characters and winking at the audience, never getting off the hook. If you keep your hands off the characters you open yourself to charges like that; at least you have no defence against them. What I find patronising is people not leaving the characters alone, stacking the deck for them, not respecting their integrity, their difference. 

‘Holly’s Southernness is essential to taking her right. She isn’t indifferent about her father’s death...
You should always feel there are large parts of her experience she’s not including because she has a strong, if misplaced, sense of propriety. You might well wonder how anyone going through what she does could be at all concerned with proprieties. But she is. And her kind of cliché didn’t begin with pulp magazines, as some critics have suggested. It exists in Nancy Drew and Tom Sawyer. It’s not the mark of a diminished, pulp-fed mind, I’m trying to say, but of the ‘innocent abroad.’ When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public. 

‘Holly is in a way the more important character; at least you get a glimpse of what she’s like. And I liked women characters better than men; they’re more open to things around them, more demonstrative. Kit, on the other hand, is a closed book, not a rare trait in people who have tasted more than their share of bitterness in life. The movies have kept up a myth that suffering makes you deep. It inclines you to say deep things. It builds character and is generally healthful. It teaches you lessons you never forget. People who’ve suffered go around in movies with long, thoughtful faces, as though everything had caved in just yesterday. It’s not that way in real life, though, not always. Suffering can make you shallow and just the opposite of vulnerable, dense. It’s had this kind of effect on Kit.

‘Kit doesn’t see himself as anything sad or pitiable, but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and to future generations. Like Holly, like a child, he 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. He thinks of himself as a successor to James Dean – a Rebel without a Cause – when in reality he’s more like an Eisenhower conservative. ‘Consider the minority opinion,’ he says into the rich man’s tape recorder, ‘but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted.’ He doesn’t really believe any of this, but he envies the people who do, who can. He wants to be like them, like the rich man he locks in the closet, the only man he doesn’t kill, the only man he sympathises with, and the one least in need of sympathy. It’s not infrequently the people at the bottom who most vigorously defend the very rules that put and keep them there. 

‘And there’s something about growing up in the Midwest. There’s no check on you. People imagine it’s the kind of place where your behaviour is under constant observation, where you really have to toe the line. They got that idea from Sinclair Lewis. But people can really get ignored there and fall into bad soil. Kit did, and he grew up like a big poisonous weed.

‘I don’t think he’s a character peculiar to his time. I tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island. I hoped this would, among other things, take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality. Children’s books are full of violence. Long John Silver slits the throats of the faithful crew. Kit and Holly even think of themselves as living in a fairy tale. Holly says, ‘Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, but this never happened.’ But she enough believes there is such a place that she must confess to you she never got there.’ 

- ‘Beverly Walker: Malick on Badlands’. Sight and Sound, Spring 1975. Copyright Sight and Sound.

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