Badlands (1973)

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I’ve always maintained a great admiration for Terence Malick, even after only seeing two of his most renowned pictures, Days of Heaven (1978) and Tree of Life (2011). This a testament to his intuitive understanding of the image and how gloriously sublime it can be. It’s true his pictures seem to exist in their own strata, part reality and then this heightened stratosphere verging on the ethereal.

Now I’ve seen a third, his arresting directorial debut Badlands, and it remains obvious that though his career has progressed, his films at their very essence have remained the same. Malick is a Texas native who attended the AFI Conservatory and became a pupil of Arthur Penn.

It’s true you can see a cursory similarity in content between the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and this picture because we have the archetypal love-on-the-run narrative. But there’s hardly any confusing them in terms of execution.

Penn’s picture is upbeat, sensual, and almost flippant with these youths in revolt. It does feel like a kind of a statement for the 1960s. But Malick’s film is entirely matter-of-fact, a bit detached, and mystical. Even the music plays into this almost timeless quality that sets it outside of a specific timeline even as it functions as a kind of period piece.

We have a vacant serenity playing a backdrop to all the action with canvasses bathed with soft hues of light. As best as I can describe it there’s a dreamy, gossamer-like tint to the imagery. It feels warm and welcoming at first with a calm cadence until it no longer can exist as such.

Aided by Sissy Spacek’s innocent gaze of mundane wonderment in the world, it’s a southern story of the grimiest sort, which somehow winds up being a fairy tale romance in her eyes. Her voiceover is what holds the film together and never allows it to lose this illusory quality.

Loosely based on The Starkweather case, Kit Caruthers (Martin Sheen) is a high school drop out who collected garbage for a time and fashioned himself after James Dean’s rebellious reputation. He introduces himself to the hesitant, naive Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) who nevertheless finds him intriguing. Though many years her senior, they start accompanying one another, much to her father’s chagrin (Warren Oates). He knows the boy is no good.

Kit was never someone to let others dictate his life for him and with cool calculation, he moves forward with a plan, taking Holly with them as he goes out on the road. They commence a life together out in the open and it feels a bit like Robinson Crusoe. It’s no small coincidence they read Kon Tiki while lounging in a tree house they have constructed by themselves. It’s a far cry from its predecessors at this point.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands is a film depicting killings dotted across the land and yet they are, again, matter-of-fact, even forgettable, which seems terribly callous to admit. But there simply is not the same blatantly violent, in your face, bloodshed of the earlier picture. Continually any amount of drama is replaced with a trance-like dreamscape, aided by the fact writer, producer, director Terrence Malick was never one for intricate, pulse-pounding plotting.

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He is a filmmaker and he gifts us indelible panoramas of America. A billboard set up against rolling prairies and the most glorious of cumulonimbus clouds. Naturescapes cultivated with luscious greens that might be found in Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970) and frolicking easily at home in the works of Renoir. Conversely, we have a house burning that feels like an otherworldly funeral pyre. The old must burn to give way to the newfound promised land Kit and Holly are embarking for.

While the image is always paramount in a Malick film, one could argue the music also has a hallowed place with Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” adding this oddly tinny, adventurous note to the score. Then, Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” provides an immaculate encapsulation of romantic ideals whether our fugitive lovers are driving, dancing, or just taking in the scenery. It’s perturbing to have something so melodious play in the wake of such brutality.

To say the film reaches a conclusion is slightly deceptive. More so, it simply fades away. Finally, some local police catch up with them. First, they send a helicopter and then a police car is dispatched. Holly is left behind and caught. She recounts how she moved on with her life after Kit, getting off on her charges and marrying the man who defended her. And Kit was caught too but it came on his own terms. He accepts it with his usual unemotional equanimity.

Watching Martin Sheen in these moments is riveting because he seems content with how things have run their course. As friendly and personable as you might expect and yet capable of such dehumanizing evil. It’s the dissonance of these scarring acts of aggression followed by him pragmatically fielding questions with the media and then being shipped off to his execution with his guard wishing him well. How can such a man exist?

There is no reason to Kit. He simply commits to actions, which are completely detached from any feeling. And yet he is simultaneously capable of some amount of human connection and camaraderie. It leads me to surmise he is a character who could never exist outside the context of celluloid. There you have part of what makes him such a compelling study. Because other films have already filled out the contours of disillusioned antiheroes and killers to our heart’s content.

Like any admirable filmmaker, Malick provides us with a novel distillation of age-old themes. He makes the accepted paradigms feel fresh and perplexing again. Thankfully for us, he’s never ceased going down a road paved with his own vision and personal preoccupations. Because at its best, his individuality is capable of speaking to willing audiences in fundamentally unique ways.

4.5/5 Stars


Museum Hours (2012)

Museum_Hours_posterThere are few films where art and film more obviously intersect than Museum Hours. In fact, its director and general mastermind Jem Cohen blends the line between filmmaker and multimedia artist. His generally deliberate piece on Kunsthistorisches Museum of Art follows two figures in the vibrantly beautiful city of Vienna, Austria

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a museum guard with a reassuring face full of kindness and good humor. He spends his days in the museum, a place where he finds tremendous tranquility and great contentment in the vast intricacies of the beauty around him. For others, this would be wearisome work. From his perspective, it’s an immense joy. His eyes are constantly taking in the world around him, bright and full of awe. Always ready to help.

In one such occasion, his gaze happens upon Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), an obviously frazzled traveler, lost in a world that is foreign to her. In truth, she came to Austria after receiving news of the deteriorating health of a distant relative. Johann willingly gives her directions to the hospital and soon enough the museum becomes her little oasis too.

So if the film did have a plot that would be it. Two people finding a connection in a great big city. And yet this film is hardly Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The arrival of Anne in Austria is seemingly only a pretense for the audience to spectate. In some ways, it’s quite reminiscent of the contemplative nature of Christ Marker’s Sans Soleil, at times blended with the naturalistic visuals of Malick’s Tree of Life. It operates as part film, part documentary, with voice-over often playing over images. Everyday scenes mixed with works of art, and ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of both.

Often the camera is stationary and as such it watches the world of Austria rather like the patrons who wander through the halls of the museum surveying the most mundane things with a degree of awe, peering at the beauty that lies there within. We can use the same critical eye we use to look at art for life. Not to find fault but on the contrary, to develop a greater appreciation for all that is around us.

The likes of Cranach, Rembrandt, and especially Bruegel bring to light the beauty that can be found in our world, even in the smallest of instances. Different people take it different ways. A tour guide will become didactic, patrons in a tour group will try to come up with all the answers, and kids are content sitting in a corner to stare at their phones as the world passes them by. But Johann has the right idea. It really is rather a child-like perspective, in the sense that each day brings new excitement and he garners great joy out of the little things.

Obviously, I’m a bit biased as someone who likes paintings and art history, but Museum Hours is a powerful film that truly elicits a greater appreciation for art, but more importantly life itself. Really, there’s no need for a score, because that would almost detract from the pensive nature of Cohen’s work. It’s about the juxtaposition of visuals. That’s where it gets its power.

4/5 Stars

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days_of_heaven1You can see Terrence Malick’s fingerprints all over this film and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It has his eye for the breathtakingly beautiful visuals and there is almost a spiritual quality of reverence to its pacing and tone. Slow, methodical, and ultimately deeply impactful. And there are so many Biblical parallels that can be taken hold of as well.

It’s as if Malick cannot bear to be stuck indoors. He hates having walls surrounding him especially when a camera is involved. He takes considerable interest in the sky, the landscapes, and creatures inhabiting the space around him. It’s not just his human subjects either, but everything of all shapes, sizes, and sounds. He cares about the exterior more than the interior, the earth and the heavens rather than anything made by the hands of man. It’s that type of approach that allows for such breathtaking visuals from Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler because the priorities are set. The sky is literally the limit.

The story opens during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and a young man named Bill (Richard Gere) is forced to flee his mining job for Texas taking along his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda. They travel around hitching a ride on a train looking for work until they finally find seasonal jobs at a Texas ranch in the fields. Life is relatively tranquil, although the work is hard. Bill maintains that Abby is his sister to keep people from getting ideas, but they are very close.

However, the young reserved owner of the ranch is instantly taken by her. She does not share his feelings, but a marital union is formed on the advice of Bill. After all, then she would have a cut of the man’s inheritance and the farmer doesn’t suspect a thing. So in this way, the love triangle is put into place, and yet relations still remain genial between everyone. This is a life they can get used to, especially for young Linda. That is until the man notices the intimacy of Bill and Abby and it angers him deeply. It’s only exasperated because Abby is starting to have feelings for him causing the web of romance and feelings to become ever more complicated.

And of course, on the day of the locust, the final restraints holding the farmer in place are released, and he unleashes on Bill with all his wrath. He is incensed beyond reason and once again Bill finds himself in another incriminating situation which he must flee from. Abby must start over with a new life and Linda finds herself at a boarding house. It’s not where we thought we would leave them, but it nonetheless satisfies as a half-resolution. It might as well be.

Many might notice that the narrative of Days of Heaven is rather thin, being held together by the meandering narration of Linda Manz. All this took Malick over 2 years to weave together into cohesion and it may not be a perfect fit, but it was thoroughly captivating because his film-making style is so visually robust. It’s often shot at gloriously magical times of day where the outlines of people and things become beautiful contours or stylized shapes. The sky is often bursting with color or warm like a painting of pastels. Those are the images that you are left with.

On her part, Brooke Adams is a natural beauty much in the same way of a Katharine Ross. Richard Gere is necessary with his playful and still fiery ways. Sam Shepard has a plainness and a calmness to him, but he really made this film with his explosion of emotion at the end, because something needed to break through the muted characterizations. It changed how we see him and really ups the tension of a generally restrained film.

4.5/5 Stars

The Tree of Life (2011)

9f8e8-thetreeoflifeposterDirected by Terence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn, this film is a grand and audacious piece of cinema that intertwines images of the creation of the world with the life of a young boy in 1950s Texas. 

When I say daring, I mean that you will either find it fascinating or very, very dull. There does not seem to be much middle ground here. The film begins with a biblical allusion to Job and depicts a flickering golden light. Over these images are whispered words urging the listener to follow either grace or nature in life. 

Then, both Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) find out separately that one of the sons has died, and the reason is not explained. In the present, one of their sons (Sean Penn) who is now an architect contemplates his life while trying to get through his day. Then, we witness the breathtaking formation of creation, with the creation of the planets, sea, and life itself.
Back in 1950s Waco Texas, a young couple has had their first baby boy, and then two more follow in the ensuing years. Most of their life is focused on the conflict inside of the young boys, Jack. He must struggle with a mother who is gentle and loving, and a father who is authoritarian and even abusive. After one friend dies and another is burned, Jack begins to grow more disillusioned with the world and his parents. During a summer, their father goes away and during that same time, Jack becomes even more rebellious. Then their father is in trouble of losing his job, and he questions how he has lived his life to deserve such a fate. Back in the present, Jack has a fantastical vision seeing his younger self, as well as his family and others walking on the beach and the film, ends soon after. 

The closest movie that I can think of with the same thought-provoking intentions as The Tree of Life is probably 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, I think I surprisingly appreciated Tree of Life a little more, because it focused more on the human aspect instead of the fact that humans are insignificant and primitive in the realm of outer space. Furthermore, the ending of this film somehow seemed reminiscent of La Dolce Vita, since both had rather cryptic conclusions taking place on expansive beaches.
4.5/5 Stars