Entry from July 9, 2014

This summer I am once again presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six movies. The general theme this year is Middle America and the Movies. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the Hudson website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 8th with a screening of Badlands of 1973, written and directed by Terrence Malick. It stars Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates and Ramon Bieri. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Those of you who were here three weeks ago will remember that favorite Hollywood paradigm that I mentioned in connection with King’s Row and that I thought was still going strong nearly half a century later in Blue Velvet — namely the image of middle class family life in small town or suburban America concealing beneath its bland, sexually repressed exterior a secret life of crime, violence, perversion and immorality. In King’s Row that underworld was meant to be horrifying whereas in Blue Velvet it was rather fascinating if not unqualifiedly attractive. But the model of sordid reality beneath benign appearance was the same in both cases. In tonight’s film, Badlands, that model has been inverted. Here it is the few remaining traces of middle-class respectability which lurk almost unnoticed beneath an utterly anti-social and amoral surface of affectless violence. Every now and then these traces appear as a jarring reminder of social realities that are otherwise absent from the film, as when the criminal couple stage a home invasion with an accompanying apology — "Sorry to barge in on you" — or when the would-be gentleman criminal opens the door of the car he has just stolen for his would-be lady companion.

Terrence Malick, who wrote and directed Badlands as his first feature in 1973, loosely basing it on the real-life Starkweather murders of 1958, can get away with this because he has taken out of his movie everything to do with ordinary social existence as it would have been experienced by most people in 1950s Middle America. Instead of Lincoln, Nebraska, where Charlie Starkweather got his criminal start, he has moved the action to South Dakota — and a South Dakota virtually emptied of people. Middle American society, insofar as it exists for Mr Malick, disappears with the burning Victorian house which is the film’s central image. Intact, it recalls the similar houses that featured in similarly symbolic ways in Remember the Night, King’s Row, The Magnificent Ambersons and On Moonlight Bay. As in those films, we see a woman peering out at the world from behind a lace curtain at an upstairs window of such a house, but here all she sees is two children playing under a street lamp — the image of herself and her boyfriend after they have burnt the house and thrown off the only remaining vestiges of the restraint and order that it represents.

It is important to hold in our minds this image of children at play, and the film helps us to do so by repeating a catchy little tune for xylophone and tympani called "Street Song" from "Musica Poetica." This is said in the credits to be by Carl Orff, better known for his lively and popular choral work, Carmina Burana, though the album I have gives at least a co-composer’s credit to Gunild Keetman, who collaborated with him in developing the Orff-Schulwerk method of music education. And that’s the important thing about "Musica Poetica": that it is not only written for but played by children. The woman behind the window is meant to be a fifteen-year-old girl named Holly Sargis, played by Sissy Spacek who was actually 22 at the time but looked a lot younger, and her throwing off of parental restraint in the shape of her father, played by Warren Oates, inevitably took on a particular significance at a time in our history when people were much concerned with what was called "the generation gap."

Holly’s childishness is repeated in that of her criminal boyfriend, played by Martin Sheen, who was originally supposed to be a teenager as well, as Charlie Starkweather had been. But as the actor was 31 at the time, his character’s age was advanced to 25, and it was hinted that he had seen service in Korea, which could explain his survival skills and his knowledge of firearms. Once the house is burned, we see the couple mostly in cars or in desolate natural settings and without any social context, apart from their victims and their pursuers. The latter, of course, represent law and social order on behalf of absent society, but are here portrayed as similarly lonely figures in the same, lawless natural setting. Just a trace of real life remains in the rich man’s house Kit and Holly invade, but it is isolated as well and connects to nothing else but the very polite pair of fugitives who take the place over for long enough to get "supplies" and for Kit to record a bizarre set of moral instructions for the young on the rich man’s Dictaphone.

Some of you may want to ask what this has to do with Middle America as it actually exists and not as the parable that the film tries to make of it. All I can say is that you have to make the same sort of imaginative effort to put yourself into another time that I asked of you with King’s Row. There you had to try once again to see melodrama as it would have been seen before the advent of camp made it impossible. Here you need to see the movie as Vincent Canby, reviewing it for The New York Times in 1973, saw it. He set the tone for the chorus of critical praise which has followed Badlands since it came out even though he was not entirely sure what to make of it. Whatever else it was, though, he was sure it could be described as "ferociously American." I suspect that this description had something to do with that media cliché of the period about violence being as American as apple pie, a saying attributed to the black revolutionary H. Rap Brown, though Brown actually said "cherry pie," according to Bartlett’s. Although Mr Malick had studied and lived abroad, I think he had a similar kind of tunnel vision about the uniquely American character of "violence."

At any rate, it is easy to see in Badlands how he Americanizes the violence by setting it in the midst of magnificent images of the Great Plains and other settings of seemingly primaeval natural beauty and by making its perpetrators into overgrown children — the very embodiments of that liberal-progressive chimera, American innocence. The visual horizon consists predominantly of nothing but a vast emptiness with a few transient figures in the foreground, and it thus gives Terrence Malick the space in which to create the ersatz Eden which, in another, more audacious inversion, the criminal couple’s original sin is shown as having created for them. Like a mock version of the Swiss family Robinson, Kit and Holly take to the forest where they live in harmony with nature and seem to have everything they need or want, pending the eventual but inevitable intervention of the law — which is practically all that the film allows to represent the civilization from which these attractive youngsters have retreated, like hippies avant la lettre, to try to build a life for themselves apart from it.

Of course they need an idea of that absent presence of American society and culture to react against, apart from Holly’s father and his resoundingly middle class, middle-century home which is mostly empty. Partly we see this in the stereopticon images that prompt some philosophical musing on Holly’s part and that take us, like the earlier movies in the series, back to the America of the turn of the 20th century — except that that period is now seen as dead and without any relevance to the present, apart from its pastness. Mostly, however, the America of Badlands appears there only through the media: the car radio, the Hollywood fan magazines that Holly reads and, above all, their own eager attention to a mostly imagined sense of how the unseen world outside reacts to news reports of their killing spree. "The whole world was looking for us," says Holly in voiceover, "for who knew where Kit would strike next?" This voiceover narration, which was to become a rather annoying trademark in Terrence Malick’s later films — all of which also feature much less compelling imagery of Edenic innocence — here serves an important function as the means by which Holly seeks to dramatize their story, in what her knowledge of movie magazines has taught her is the proper style, for an imaginary audience. That audience turns out to be us.

As someone entirely at home in the celebrity culture, someone whose attraction to Kit is that he looks to her (and to the deputy at the end) like James Dean, Holly seems to have known all along that her life was destined to be made into a movie — something which has an oddly undisconcerting effect on us as we watch it, perhaps because we have come to see our own lives in the same way. Kit, too, comes in his own imagination to see himself as a kind of celebrity, as when he records on the rich man’s Dictaphone his words of advice and guidance for the young. This, too, is the stuff of fan magazines — the sort of thing that, if like James Dean he had been interviewed by one, he knew he would have been expected to say — and it prepares us for the end when, with his capture, Kit comes into his own as a celebrity, holding what amounts to a press conference for the assembled mass of law-enforcement personnel and handing out souvenirs of himself and his killing spree. The lawmen, too, appear to find it natural to treat him as a celebrity and so to validate his pathetic little stabs at fame, such as burying or sending aloft more souvenirs of his life, or piling up stones in a makeshift cairn at the scene of his capture to commemorate the event for his imaginary audience — which also turns out to be us.

This may be the place to mention that the real-life Starkweather murders were not much like those we see in Badlands. Charlie Starkweather killed several more people than Kit Carruthers does, and most of them he shot multiple times or knifed to death, unlike the one clean bullet to the midsection with which Kit dispatches all his victims here. At a time when the movies were just beginning to discover the excitement of technicolor blood and guts, which Quentin Tarantino has since brought to such a high art, Kit’s victims have the sort of decorous deaths that were the stock in trade of Hollywood in the days of the Hays Code. The real life killer also sexually assaulted the young woman who was the counterpart of the one Kit locks in the storm cellar with her boyfriend, and shot the boyfriend six times in the back of the head. Where the rich man in the movie survives, his real-life counterpart was murdered along with his wife and their maid. Charlie, like Kip, seems to have fancied himself as a new James Dean, but there was nothing at all romantic or picturesque about his murders. And, instead of chivalrously denying any part for his young girlfriend in his crimes as Kit does, he insisted at her trial that she had been a full participant in his murders and committed two or three of them herself.

Thus in re-imagining Charlie and his criminal career, Mr Malick seems to have made a point of treating it and him as he might have wished to be treated — if he could have foreseen, in 1958, what the celebrity manufactory of the 1970s and subsequently was capable of doing for a criminal fantasist. This, at least, was remarkably far-sighted of him. I doubt that there were many people in 1973 who foresaw a world like our own in which random shootings, that endemic disease of the celebrity culture, have become almost routine, and social misfits of all kinds see a pathway to a debased sort of fame and glory for themselves, even if it is a posthumous fame, in the media sensation they can create by killing strangers. By turning Kit’s view of himself, or at least Holly’s view of him, into the view of the film he has made about him, the author shows how the media have helped to turn murder, at least a certain kind of murder, into performance art. I doubt if the trick could work if we were not left in at least some doubt as to whether the author himself doesn’t see it that way.

In one of the only two interviews he ever gave before withdrawing into a Salinger-like shyness of public statement — both of them given to foreign publications back in the 1970s when Badlands was his only major work — Terrence Malick replied to the interviewer’s suggestion that he patronizes Holly as narrator by saying: "That’s foolishness. I grew up around people like Kit and Holly. I see no gulf beteen 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 defense against them. What I find patronizing is people not leaving the characters alone, stacking the deck for them, not respecting their integrity, their difference."

This is an astonishing statement to me. Unless he means that he grew up around serial killers, he must mean that this aspect of Kit and Holly is as unimportant to him as it is to them. The fact that they kill people and he (presumably) doesn’t is not enough to create a gulf between them; it is a minor detail. Which, not coincidentally, is what Kit and Holly themselves think in presenting themselves to the world as ordinary people only distinguished from their audience, celebrity style, by their fame. Respecting the characters’ integrity and difference means respecting their choice to be murderers, which is mere moral imbecility. But then the moral imbecility of the American heartland is his theme, it appears. He twice calls Kit an "Eisenhower conservative," which is another kind of imbecility, though perhaps an indication of his opinion of the kind of heartland folks who twice elected Eisenhower president.

These are indications of why you need to be wary of believing what film-makers say about their own films, but they help to explain why he carefully excised from Kit and Holly’s idyll in the forest any of the signs of community or social existence that must have existed, even in South Dakota, even in the 1950s, apart from the garbage truck and the feed lot where Kit is briefly employed. The focus on only two other people beside Kit and Holly themselves — Holly’s father and Kit’s work mate, Cato, played by Ramon Bieri, reduces the social context of the murders to almost nothing. Holly’s baton twirling and the mention of her music lessons serve as ghostly echoes of normal teenage life as it would have been lived at the time, but they seem to me only to accentuate her isolation and her lack of any social network of support. She remains, she tells us, a "little stranger" in the house of her father — who himself appears to have no relative, friend, neighbor or work mate, no one at all in his life apart from Holly, the little stranger.

It’s true that social class is also present in ghostly fashion in daddy’s prohibition of his daughter’s relationship with someone that George Amberson Minafer would have called riff-raff, and Holly knows without being told that Kit is forbidden fruit, mentioning in voiceover that "of course I had to keep all of this a secret from my Dad. He woulda had a fit because Kit was ten years older than me and came from the wrong side of the tracks, so-called." I love the meek protest in that "so-called." This, too, is the language of the fan magazine and part of Holly’s self-dramatization as a romantic rebel, defying what family she has for the sake of the man she loves. And once the family goes up in flames, along with the piano and the print of the baby Jesus and the rest of the middle-class bricabrac of Holly’s home, there is only their brief stay in the rich man’s house to remind us that there is any such thing as social hierarchy. America suddenly becomes the classless society it once advertised itself as being, as there are no social distinctions either in the Eden in the forest or the big world outside which itself suggests an Edenic innocence and beauty.

It is as if the Middle America that the previous four films in this series, all in different ways, were at pains to portray, has simply disappeared, leaving behind the looming presence of its absence, both visually, in the wide open spaces of the prairie, and morally, in the gaping void where the once-normal sense of social obligation, shame and conscience would have been. True, there are a few remaining shreds and patches of civilization, as when Kit spots a bit of litter on the sidewalk and says, "If everybody did that, the whole town would be a mess." Here, apparently, is someone with a basic understanding of the Kantian categorical imperative but without the most rudimentary of moral inhibitions against murder. I think that the film means to project that early-70s, post-Vietnam sense of anomie back onto the 1950s, as if to say, you know, it wasn’t just Vietnam and protest and sex and drugs and Watergate and lawless politicians and the breakup of families and the breakdown of authority. All these things were symptoms of something that had always been there in the American character just waiting for the chance, like Huckleberry Finn, to light out for the territory where civilization’s writ doesn’t run.

Kit and Holly, in other words are meant to be seen as in some sense representative figures of their country, and their region of the country — a place where, as Terrence Malick imagines it, people are more or less like Kit, shrugging and saying that it takes all kinds to make a world. And, like Kit, they increasingly can imagine no other object or purpose to life but to be known to the widest possible public as "quite an individual" — as the trooper escorting him to trial says of him at the end. I think this a libel on Middle America. I want to believe that the basic goodness of life in the heartland which we saw in the earlier movies in the series is still there, still forming our national character. I want to believe that the lingering illusion of revolutionary change is just a youthful "phase," to be cast aside with maturity as in On Moonlight Bay. But I have to admit that the reflection of ourselves that we see in today’s popular culture gives us at least some reason for thinking that Badlands is a better representation of the reality of Middle America than even Mr Malick could have supposed at the time it was made. Anyway, see what you think and then stay around afterwards, if you can, to let me know.

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