It has been almost four decades since Terrence Malick's debut feature film "Badlands" and if you haven't seen the film in a little while, it's just as good you remembered it. Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, "Badlands" sounds about as un-Malick-esque as you can get. Loosely based on the true story of Charlie Starkweather and his 14-year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate who went on a two-month road trip through Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958 and stacked up eleven murders, Malick re-imagines them as Kit and Holly, but this isn't your standard "Bonnie & Clyde" styled flick. Lyrical, enigmatic and pastoral, frame-by-frame the style and tone that Malick would become famous for makes its presence known. In fact, revisiting the film, one can almost see thematic parallels between "Badlands" and "The Tree of Life." Arguably, Kit and Holly represent "nature and grace" in their own way; Malick's penchant for nature as an unspoken force is definitely felt and more superficially, Jessica Chastain looks disarmingly like a young Sissy Spacek.
In the lead up to the national release of "The Tree of Life," week-by-week, we're getting reacquainted with the films of Terrence Malick, researching as much as we can and hopefully presenting you with some things you may not have known about them beforehand. We tackled Malick's latest effort last week -- you can read it here if you missed it -- and this week we go all the way back to the beginning. So here's eleven things we learned about "Badlands."
01. This is not Terrence Malick's first film, that honor belongs to the 17-minute "Lanton Mills."
While "Badlands" is the first feature film completed by Terrence Malick, his debut effort behind the camera in the form of the curious, seventeen minute long "Lanton Mills." Even the most diehard Malick-heads are unlikely to have seen it or ever see it. Now housed at the American Film Institute where it is viewable by students only who are unable to check it out or copy it -- it must be viewed on the premises -- Theresa Schwartzman at Rohstoff Filmmagazin managed to take a look and the first thing that will surprise many is that it's an outright comedy. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates (who would also feature in "Badlands") and Malick himself, the story follows "two cowboys (Malick as Tilman and Stanton as Lanton Mills) who set off on horseback to rob a bank. On the way, they stop to see their boss, the Old Man, only to discover he has been murdered by another cowboy, John Sparks (Oates)." Schwartzman describes "Lanton Mills" as "an extremely 'talky' film and most of that talk teeters on the edge of vaudeville or jabberwocky" but she does note "it is rich in elements that would become Malick's trademarks. Daylight assumes a tactile presence — though here it is not the diffuse 'magic hour' light (i.e., Malick-light) of later films, but a bold late afternoon sun that streams through leaves, creating shadow and dappled highlight on the characters' faces. The camera angles tend to be either wide or wider, even in dialogue scenes. Also familiar from Malick's later films is the attention to landscape and nature — a few hens strut past Warren Oates as he is shot and a humongous pig noses around him as he dies." So a gorgeously lensed, talkative comedy about two cowboys? Maybe Malick should follow-up on that "Zoolander" love and direct the sequel.
02. And before "Lanton Mills," Terrence Malick was a staff writer at the New Yorker before deciding to become a filmmaker.
A Rhodes Scholar and Harvard philosophy major, Terrence Malick briefly toyed with a journalism career. Richard Brody of the New Yorker spoke with Malick's classmate Jake Brackman who recalled that the auteur first worked for Life magazine, covering Latin America before moving to the New Yorker where he had an office from 1968-1969 (he also had a brief stint at Newsweek). His biggest piece of writing -- that of course, he never finished -- was centered on the imprisoned French philosopher Régis Debray who had been working with Che Guevara. Paul Lee, a philosophy instructor at Harvard and MIT told GQ, "I have a memory of it piling up to six feet of copy. He got obsessed, and he overwrote, and he went past it. He never finished it." However, Malick and Brackman did team on a piece that was completed about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. published in the April 13, 1968 issue of the magazine which you can read right here with a subscription.
Eventually, Malick migrated over to films with Lee recounting, "I remember meeting him on a corner in Cambridge, and he told me he wanted to go to film school in California. I almost hit him. I said, 'You'd give up a promising career in philosophy—even more promising than my own—to go and do movies?' I really was gonna knock him down. I was so appalled that he would stoop to that." As for Malick, he figured filmmaking was a good as any other job telling Sight & Sound (in what appears to be the last ever interview he conducted in 1975), "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. 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." Hence, "Lanton Mills" now being archived at the school.
Before getting started on "Badlands," Malick earned some coin with early script writing assignments. He earned a credit on the Paul Newman/Lee Marvin western "Pocket Money," did some uncredited work on Jack Nicholson's directorial debut "Drive He, Said" and, believe it or not, he even worked on an early draft of "Dirty Harry." But most trivia worthy, one of Malick's scripts -- the comedy "Deadhead Mile" -- was made into a film starring Alan Arkin, Richard Kiel, Hector Elizondo among others and interestingly enough Ido Lupino and George Raft as themselves. But directed by Vernon Zimmerman, it was considered so bad, Paramount Pictures has never officially released it (though if you're curious, you can snag a bootleg).
03. Terrence Malick says classic literature was the primary influence on "Badlands."
While legendary New York Times critic Vincent Canby in his glowing review of "Badlands" drew a line to Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Fritz Lang's "Fury" and "You Only Live Once" and Roger Ebert compared the film to Robert Altman's "Thieves Like Us" and Steven Spielberg's "The Sugarland Express," Malick himself revealed to Sight & Sound magazine that his inspirations didn't come from any celluloid.
"The critics talked about influences on the picture and in most cases referred to films I had never seen," he said. "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."
"You should always feel there are large parts of [Holly's] experience she's not including because she has a strong, if misplaced, sense of propriety," Malick explained in the same interview. "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.
But it's a particularly intangible quality that Malick ultimately found in those books that infused his film. "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 believes enough there is such a place that she must confess to you she never got there."