Terrence Malick’s Badlands was released within months of American Graffiti, but it offers a contrasting take on the issues I am discussing here. It is a very different kind of film: it is intended not as mainstream box office entertainment, but as a kind of art movie. Yet it too can be seen as part of a contemporary Hollywood cycle, in this case of ‘couple on the run’ movies – including most obviously Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but also Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us and Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary (all 1974). The film is loosely based on the true story of Charles Starkweather, a teenage killer who murdered eleven people while on the run in the states of Nebraska and Wyoming in December 1957 and January 1958, accompanied by his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. (Several details, including the ages of the protagonists, have been changed in the film.)
The film begins in a dead-end town in South Dakota, where fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Holly Sargis is courted by a twenty-five-year old garbage collector, Kit Carruthers. When her father finds out, he tries to keep them apart, and shoots Holly’s dog as a punishment. Kit eventually murders him and burns down the family home. The couple head off towards the badlands of Montana, pursued by law enforcement. They seek shelter in various locations, and Kit kills several other people who come in their way as they do so. Holly eventually decides to give herself up, and separates herself from Kit, although Kit surrenders shortly afterwards. Kit achieves a degree of notoriety in the media, and is eventually executed, while Holly is released on probation and marries the son of her defence attorney.
Despite its relatively simple narrative, Badlands is a dense, atmospheric and multi-layered film. The cinematography is rich and lyrical, but also frequently quite surrealistic; and the use of music (much of it by Carl Orff) is unsettling and almost transcendent at times. The film has attracted enormous critical acclaim, and Malick (whose first feature film this was) is generally regarded as one of the distinctive ‘visionaries’ of American cinema. There is a great deal more that could be said about it, but in this context I want to focus specifically on how it relates to my theme of retrospect and nostalgia.
Like several of Malick’s later films, Badlands uses first-person voice-over: the story is narrated retrospectively by Holly, speaking in the past tense at some unspecified point in the future (after her trial and her eventual marriage). This future perspective is apparent from some of her opening words: ‘little did I know,’ she says, ‘that what began in that small town would end in the badlands of Montana’. The end of the story is effectively foretold at the outset: as Kit releases a large red balloon bearing his vow of fidelity and some lovers’ tokens, Holly tells us that ‘something must’ve told him that we’d never live these days of happiness again, that they were gone forever.’ Holly’s is not the only perspective that is represented: there are several scenes in which she does not appear, but even here it is her narration that frames them.
However, Holly is not an entirely reliable narrator. There are frequent contradictions between what she says in her voice-over and what she says on screen (which is very little), and between what we hear and what we see. In particular, it is not always easy to square her account of both characters’ inner feelings with their actual behaviour. Furthermore, her narration is delivered in a laconic, almost expressionless Texan drawl, which seems at odds with the intensity and urgency of the events she is describing. Her account of events frequently uses clichés that derive from romantic fiction or children’s adventure stories: yet here too, there is often a contrast between her words and the accidental and occasionally comical nature of what we see. When she describes Kit as ‘trigger happy’ or ‘the hell-bent type’, or notes that ‘we had our bad moments, like any couple’, it is hard not to laugh at the understatement. Holly is a participant in events, or a witness of them, but it is difficult to know how far she can be trusted.
Several critics have been disturbed by the blankness and opacity of Holly’s narration, and of the characters more broadly. Yet as Hannah Patterson suggests, this largely reflects the characters’ lack of a clear sense of their own identity: Kit in particular does not seem to fully understand why he is doing what he is doing, and for Holly the world seems at times like ‘a far away planet’. Their relationship is also curiously disconnected and passionless, despite the romantic clichés of Holly’s narration. At some points, Holly claims to know Kit’s inner feelings (‘he wanted to die with me…’) yet at others she claims not to know him at all – ‘it goes to show you can know a person and not really know ‘em at the same time’ – and speculates about whether ‘there’s something wrong with his brain’.
If retrospection is not necessarily reliable, neither are the characters’ projections of the future. Both have expectations – not just of escape, but of their future lives – that seem wildly unrealistic, at times almost comically so. As they leave the burning house, Kit tells Holly to bring her school books with her; having held up a rich man’s house and locked him in his cellar, he gives his captives a list of what they have ‘borrowed’ and then carefully wipes the door handle for fingerprints; and as the couple dance in the desert to the strains of Nat King Cole on their car radio, Kit muses, ‘if I could sing something about how I feel right now, it’d be a hit’. The release of the balloon is only one instance where Kit in particular looks ahead to an imaginary future. While out in the desert, the lovers bury a kind of memory box or time capsule in a bucket; and in the final stages of their pursuit, as the police helicopters circle above, Kit tells her to meet him ‘Twelve noon, the Grand Coulee Dam. New Years Day, 1964.’ Just before his arrest, Kit constructs a small cairn of stones to mark the spot; and he also records messages for posterity, once in a recording booth just before setting fire to Holly’s house, and once into a tape recorder at the rich man’s house.
Like those in the very different context of American Graffiti, the characters are preoccupied with the relationship between the past and the future. Yet this is not a ‘coming of age’ movie. In the dream-like sequence where Holly’s house burns, we see emblems of her childhood consumed in flames, accompanied by choral music; and she looks out of the window at a couple of younger children playing in the street below, as if forever disconnected from such a possibility. Nevertheless, Holly seems to retain a kind of child-like innocence throughout the events that follow. Kit is significantly older than Holly, and he initiates her into sex; but (despite her gushing commentary about their undying love) she is distinctly underwhelmed – ‘Is that all there is to it?’ she asks. During their later stay in a forest hide-out, Holly puts on improvised make-up; but for the bulk of the movie, she remains girlish both in her dress and behaviour.
Badlands might conceivably be described as a road movie, but here again there is no obvious progress towards self-knowledge or enlightenment that is often characteristic of such films. Nor is the film really a ‘youth rebellion’ film. As Neil Campbell points out, the early sequences are full of images of confinement; yet Kit and Holly’s apparent freedom on the road is equally limited and constrained. Kit does kill Holly’s father, but the framing of these sequences serves to emphasise the similarities between them; and as the narrative proceeds, he takes on an increasingly fatherly role towards Holly. The philosophical musings he records into the rich man’s tape recorder are decidedly conservative: ‘Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat them like enemies… Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted…’ Of course, there is an incongruity here between Kit’s words and his actions, but Kit and Holly’s rebellion nevertheless seems curiously aimless and arbitrary: it goes nowhere, because it has nowhere to go. And ultimately, they are both defeated by the social order: Kit through his execution and Holly through her respectable marriage.
The film is very far from the kind of pastiche condemned by Fredric Jameson, but its references to popular culture of the time are striking. Like John Milner in American Graffiti, Kit wears the James Dean outfit of quiff hairstyle, white t-shirt and jeans. The comparison with Dean is one of the first things Holly says about him in her narration, and this recurs at the end, when one of the arresting police officers remarks to his colleague, ‘I’ll kiss your ass if he don’t look like James Dean’. There are also several visual echoes of Dean, both in Rebel and in his last film Giant. Throughout their period on the run, the couple seem to be well informed about how their actions are being reported in the media (although it’s not clear how); and after his arrest, Kit consciously sets about cultivating his own legend. Before his final arrest, he carefully adjusts his hair in the car’s rear-view mirror, and then replaces his hat. Later, he leans nonchalantly on the wing of a plane while holding what amounts to a press conference with the assembled soldiers who have come to arrest him. Despite the execution that clearly awaits him, he seems to have achieved his goal of a kind of media celebrity or notoriety: ‘I always wanted to be a criminal’, he says, as we see him signing his arrest papers and shaking hands with his arresting officers, while offering mementoes to his audience. Nevertheless, this is all suffused with irony: Kit is not a smart, misunderstood kid, or a prototypical rebel, but a deluded loser, and a failure. Like Milner, he dies (or is killed) before he can get old; but the gap between the legend and the reality is evident to all.
Barbara Jane Brickman argues that Badlands undercuts what she sees as the conservative fantasies of the youth nostalgia movie. Where American Graffiti regresses to the past and evades the present, Badlands critiques the past, and undermines the grounds for nostalgia. In my view, American Graffiti is more ambivalent and less conservative than she suggests, but I would agree with her view of Badlands. Again, a key dimension of this is to do with gender. Holly has been described by some critics as a relatively passive figure, and as a dupe of popular culture – especially of romantic fiction, and of celebrity gossip, which she is seen reading in one scene during their journey. However, as Brickman argues, she is an active agent in the narrative: she uses Kit to achieve a kind of feminist revenge against her father, and to escape from his control. Kit starts out as the object of her desire – ‘he was handsomer than anyone I ever saw’ – but even at an early stage in their relationship, she mocks and belittles him. As the story proceeds, she consistently undermines his potential as a kind of fantasy lover – albeit more in what she says and does on screen than in her voice-over narration. She increasingly comes to regard him with a kind of ironic detachment, gradually becoming more bored and disaffected: at one point she describes her feelings as being ‘like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub’. Kit’s masculine authority is thus undermined, not only by his stupidity and his narcissistic approach to fame, but also by Holly’s waning interest in him. For much of the time, he (rather than Holly) is the real butt of the irony.
American Graffiti and Badlands are self-evidently very different, but they share a preoccupation with the relationship between the past, the present and the future, and with questions of retrospect and memory. While both are set in the past, neither can easily be accused of wallowing in nostalgia. Although American Graffiti might permit such a response, it remains ambivalent about it; while Badlands provides a more troubling and more directly critical perspective. The next two films I’ll consider take up this theme of the relation between the present and the past much more explicitly.