This is a version of the annotation published in CTEQ Annotations No.1, 1998, in Metro 113/114, 1998.
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“While taking a look at some vistas in Dad’s Stereopticon it hit me, that I was just this little girl born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who had only just so many years to live.” (from Holly’s voiceover in Badlands)
“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” (Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”, 1982)
Badlands (1973) is undoubtedly one of the great first films of the cinema, and it is also one of the most influential works of the early 1970s, a golden period of American filmmaking. It documents a short killing spree carried out by a young couple, Holly and Kit, in the 1950s as they travel from Fort Dupree across the South Dakota Badlands. Loosely based upon Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate’s 1958 murder spree, Terrence Malick’s film is in turns elegiac and dispassionate, presenting a fascinating portrait of opaque, vaguely motivated characters drifting across an ethereal landscape. While relying upon the basic framework and preoccupations of an established genre, the road movie, Badlands twists, defamiliarises and critiques its familiar coordinates. The film presents a potent but immaterial portrait of its period. Like Malick’s subsequent films, Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), it presents characters who are mired in their society, their moment in history, and who react in keeping with the stereotypes, clichés and constricting social, philosophical and moral conditions they exist within. Unlike in Oliver Stone’s infinitely more strident and simplistic Natural Born Killers (1994), society (and cinema) only provides a framework for the characters to exist within, not a means to justify their murderous actions (Badlands never really motivates or justifies its characters’ actions, but neither does it condemn them). The film’s unusual tone, always distanced and never quite immediate, is supported by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen’s incisive but impenetrable characterisations. This combination of incisiveness and impenetrability is equally characteristic of the multiple characters, points of view and perspectives formulated in the myriad and overlapping narratives of The Thin Red Line. And yet it is the multiplicity of temporality and the multitudinous ways in which it is experienced that is most emblematic of Malick’s films.
Essentially, Badlands, like They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray,1949), Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1949), is a film preoccupied with the fate of its doomed couple. This inescapable fate is most hauntingly captured in the sequence where Holly looks at and narrates over some stereoscope images she stumbles over on one ‘ordinary’ afternoon. This sequence, one of the most moving and strange in all cinema, has an otherworldly quality. Framed and narrativised by the (im)possibility of the couple’s domestic life together, it also stands in for the organisation and thematics of the film on a broader level. As a series of images flick by, Holly disconnectedly narrates the awakenings of her ostensibly conventional sexual and social consciousness. At times, the rather banal voiceover and the images fix together (as they do throughout the film) as Holly’s specific comments are ‘universalised’ by our syncopated reading of the image. Yet, the old-fashioned scenes of lovers, pyramids, steamships, a canal, perhaps a mother, a traveller, are themselves beyond understanding in any explicitly narrativised or purely representational sense. It is simply possible to say that these scenes, people and places existed. Their ‘strangeness’ is somehow familiarised, ‘familialised’ and lent continuity by Holly’s chilling but homely voiceover.
Not unlike Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) the grounding of this storytelling function within the female character has significant, explicitly critical, effects. She ‘transforms’ the film’s otherworldly imagery, its deeply troubling and inexplicable events into a simplistic, conventional and ostensibly ‘negative’ narrative of the self. Holly’s naive, personalised and overly narrativised reading of the images and events in general helps foreground the film’s self-conscious and critical ‘quotation’ of a series of conventions and archetypes. A series of conventions, poses and archetypes that seal the fates of these characters. Despite this, and this is typical of the film’s duality, Holly’s relation to the events of the film is equally multifarious and strange. Badlands has a matter-of-fact beauty that is complimented by and contrasted to the beautiful but colourless pallor of Spacek’s voice.
The film, I think, is essentially interested in dealing with archetypes and established and archaic systems of representation. Whereas Holly’s narrative is presented as a minor break from the repetition of small-town life, Kit’s is a linear spiral to death indicative of the ‘genre’. Kit’s reference points are more ephemeral, modern, and relate to his aping of various movie stars and popular singers. He does not attempt to place himself in a continuum of ‘universal’ images as Holly does. His ‘images’ are somewhat reflexive, obscure, cinematic and blank. For Kit these images represent a microcosm of his attempt to make a mark on the world, his stab at a kind of iconic immortality. Unknown and lost in a small backwater town at the start of the film, Kit consistently attempts to record or mark their murderous adventure: on a recorded 45; on a Dictaphone; by a monument of rocks at his roadside capture; in a book belonging to Holly; in a time capsule buried roadside or floated high into the air by a balloon; in a suicide note; by leaving his body to science; and by his unemployment registration and his criminal record. Struggling to forge his own identity, he attempts to paraphrase the attitudes and appearances of marked celebrity, such as the look of James Dean and the voice of Nat King Cole (in a move typical of many such rebels without a cause). Thus, we can only understand Kit as an emanation and reflection of the image culture he emerges from. Equally, Holly’s voiceover, which conventionally would be analytical and explanatory, fails to penetrate Kit’s psychology and explain his actions.
Ultimately, Badlands is a film full of strange and transfixing moments. Any reading of the film will ultimately fail when trying to communicate its subtlety, its opacity and its always questioning lyricism. Its characters are given no sense of distance, nor placed in a position that can possibly transcend their limited understanding of the world. Badlands is, in the end, a paean to identity, lost motivations, of what it means to be in the world and the difficulty of making a mark. It is only here, in this series of grisly but only vaguely felt killings and on this melancholy and haunting strip of celluloid that these characters register their existence.
“Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photo taken of me… is Death.” (1)