70’s Sadness: Back Again to Badlands

It didn’t seem like a good omen at first, what the video store clerk said. I’d gone to my local Blockbuster to rent a copy of Badlands , the legendary Terrence Malick debut, because I’d been whipped into a frenzy of nostalgia and curiosity about the classics of 70’s cinema by Peter Biskind’s forthcoming book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls . It’s a wild ride of a read about a wild and memorable moment in American culture, a moment filled with beautiful, self-destructive losers, monstrous egos, insane overconsumption and visionary excess, all of which somehow resulted in the creation of a unique body of work whose stunning originality we’re unlikely to witness again.

Badlands always occupied a special niche for me in that body of work. The crème de la crème even among such other favorites as Chinatown , Raging Bull , Five Easy Pieces , The Last Detail , Dog Day Afternoon , Shampoo , Carnal Knowledge , Taxi Driver , Nashville, Manhattan and the two Godfather s, to name a few.

But Badlands always struck me from the first moment I saw it as having some special luminosity and intensity. Some unique, offhand American fusion of the mythic and the ironic, the ecstatic and the comic, of mad and media-savvy sensibilities. Some astonishingly accomplished poise that seemed almost incredible in a director’s first film.

It seemed an utter mystery to me how anything this beautiful could just show up from a first-timer on a budget Mr. Biskind estimates at $650,000–a mystery compounded by the mists of legend and speculation that surrounded the subsequent fate of its director, Terrence Malick. After Badlands , he directed just one more film, Days of Heaven , which was, visually at least, even more rapturous, although intellectually far more muddled than the thrilling clarity with which Badlands held its ambiguities in balletic equipoise. Indeed, Days of Heaven ‘s ambitions–to be, I think, a kind of biblical take on the Edenic American prairie, an evocation of the “alien corn” in the Book of Ruth amid the wheat fields of the upper Midwest–were a bit too overwrought, although the film is still stunningly beautiful to watch.

But after that, nothing. Nothing at all. For 20 years, not another picture from the director who made perhaps the most spectacular debut in the history of American film. (Until last year, when the rather puzzling word emerged that Mr. Malick was directing a war movie, The Thin Red Line , based on the James Jones novel, now in post-production. More exciting is the news that he’s begun shooting the brilliant Walker Percy novel The Moviegoer . I can’t wait to see it.)

But meanwhile, what the hell happened in between? You hear all kinds of stories, stories that make it sound as if in his search for enlightenment, in his ambition to make the movie to end all movies, he’d become the J.D. Salinger of American cinema (with Badlands as his Catcher in the Rye ). The only new story I came across when Peter Biskind’s book inspired me to ask around was that in the aftermath of Days of Heaven , when Mr. Malick found himself with the blessing and the blank-check financing of madman Paramount mogul Charles Bluhdorn, he’d begun traveling around the world, preparing, researching and meditating on a picture about the Creation of the World! Clearly, the kind of project (like the Reverend Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies in Middlemarch ) that never gets finished. I heard that after enormous amounts of time and money were invested, the Creation project was canceled when Bluhdorn died, and Mr. Malick was left adrift, doing the odd script or rewrite here and there, unwilling to settle for less than his ultimate creationist ambitions.

In trying to tell his ultimate “In the Beginning” story, he lost himself and couldn’t find an end. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a good story. It typifies the melancholy subtext of Mr. Biskind’s book, the way the real visionaries of that period were left by the wayside when they couldn’t adjust to the age of the post- Jaws blockbuster. Thinking about that, thinking about all the lost geniuses evoked in Mr. Biskind’s tale, like Carole Eastman, who wrote Five Easy Pieces , and Leonard Schrader, who was at least half-responsible for some of the great works his brother Paul Schrader produced, brought me to Blockbuster to rent Badlands . It had been a long time since I used to go see it regularly on a double bill with Days of Heaven at the Cinema Village. I don’t think I’d ever seen it on tape. Did I dare risk disillusion? Could it possibly live up to what memory and desire had projected upon it?

And so there I was at Blockbuster checking out Badlands when what seemed like a bad omen struck. I swear this really happened: As I was checking it out at the counter, the Blockbuster clerk scanned it, glanced at it and said to me, ” Baldlands will be due back tomorrow by midnight.”

Baldlands ! How soon they forget. How the mighty have fallen. Baldlands ! I could see, I guess, a kind of quirky indie comedy centering around the Hair Club for Men maybe, with, say, Steve Buscemi playing a kind of Sy Sperling wannabe, but still … Baldlands !

Oh well, I went home to watch it and see whether Badlands had become Baldlands , whether it had stood the test of time without receding too much.

The short answer is that, yes, it not only held up, it exceeded my expectations. I found myself once again mesmerized by the movie, more than anything by the writing, by the writing in particular of the voice-over narrative of Sissy Spacek’s character. Which, I’d argue, in its own understated, unpretentious way, is one of the great pieces of writing in America cinema, perhaps, in a larger sense, one of the great pieces of work in American literature of that period.

It’s not just beautifully written (mostly by the director Mr. Malick himself) and beautifully delivered (by Ms. Spacek in a haunting Texas twang that somehow casts a spell of wistfulness and longing over you that doesn’t end when the film does). It is, that voice-over, prescient if not prophetic: It’s a sly satire of a genre that was only just beginning to carve a place in our national consciousness, the true-crime tell-all in which the perpetrator somehow tries to convince us that he or she is really the victim.

Do you know the true-crime tale from which Badlands was derived, the Charles Starkwether and Caril-Ann Fugate “spree killings” of 1958? They were the two love-struck teens who terrorized the nation when they killed the father who threatened to thwart their love, and murdered anyone who got in the way of their mad flight from the law. Eventually, they were caught. He got the chair, and she got off with soft time by pinning the killings on him alone. According to Jacob Brackman, a friend and creative collaborator with Mr. Malick (they met at Harvard), Mr. Malick had been fascinated by the Starkwether saga ever since his youth in Texas and Oklahoma, when they’d had a kind of Bonnie-and-Clyde, Romeo-and-Juliet appeal to love-tormented teens.

Mr. Malick even visited Caril-Ann Fugate in prison, Mr. Brackman told me, but what he’d done with her character rises far above documentary realism or the true-crime details of the Starkwether killing spree. Its achievement is all in the tone and rhetoric of the voice-over, an exquisite media confessional that flickers between flat, affected naïveté and Harlequin-romance, purple prose cliché. An uneasy, unstable, disturbing voice whose conflicting undertones–heard again today–conjure up the pure sincerity of Shakespeare’s Juliet and the cynical manipulativeness of O.J. Simpson rhapsodizing about his love for Nicole Simpson in I Want to Tell You .

It’s told in the voice of a wistful high school twirler who takes up with a young (and soon fired) garbage man (Martin Sheen) who styles himself like James Dean, falls for her, (eventually) kills her father for forbidding their love and takes off with her into the badlands of North Dakota with the law on their trail and a nation enthralled by their flight. The voice-over has the ring of something written, perhaps with a ghostwriter for True Confessions magazine in the aftermath, after they’re caught, after he’s executed and she’s set free. But it doesn’t strain to be an apologia; rather, in its dreamy wistfulness, it conjures up a vast sadness, as vast as the badlands themselves, a sadness about life and fate that transcends the twists and turns of gunshots, flight and capture.

That subtextual note of sadness is struck in the very first line of the voice-over when we’re told, “My mother died of pneumonia when I was 2 years old. My father kept the wedding cake in the refrigerator for 10 years. Then after the funeral he gave it to the yardman.” That’s it, end of story. But that wedding cake in the refrigerator, that image of frozen joy turned disposable grief, has a power and resonance that all the orgiastic, orchestral effusions of that other locus of 70’s wedding-cake imagery, “Macarthur Park” (“Someone left the cake out in the rain”), could not approach in a million years.

It has the offhand poise and the suggestion of the abyss beneath the ordinary that the best Philip Larkin poems possess. I could go on explicating line after line of the Badlands voice-over at length; I could devote an entire chapter of a Ph.D. thesis to the stereopticon scene. And another one to the scene in which the girl tells us about their captive, the dim-witted but good-natured Cato, and his hobby of keeping spiders in a bottle and feeding them bugs–as a dim but real echo of the spider imagery in the sermons of Puritan metaphysician Jonathan Edwards about sinners in the hands of an angry God. Mr. Malick’s voice-over has layers and depths and resonant ambiguities that would repay that kind of literary appreciation.

I could also rhapsodize about the way it looks, the luminosity of the saturated colors that seem to make Badlands take place in some parallel realm of extraordinarily enhanced emotional intensity, an emotionalized landscape, a landscape that is a painted desert of luminous loneliness. I could go on about the haunting melancholy of the musical score. Cumulatively, Badlands is the great rhapsody to American sadness, to that subterranean feeling of fallenness, lost promise, nothing ever living up to what it’s promoted to be that haunts late 20th-century America. After their first sexual experience (or at least her first), the Sissy Spacek character tells Martin Sheen, “Is that it? I just don’t understand why everyone makes such a fuss about it.”

Perhaps the sadness that infuses Badlands , that infuses all 70’s cinema, reflects that powerful sense of disillusionment, a feeling that conquering the earth or even conquering the moon could not assuage; evokes the bald, bleak badlands within that no external flourishes could make flower. Reading Peter Biskind’s book, looking back on 70’s cinema from a couple decades’ perspective now, makes it seem that so much of it was about that sadness. It was a body of work that exalted the unhappy ending, made the downbeat denouement into a high art. Think of the ending of Chinatown . There may be nothing more deeply, shockingly depressing in all American film. Think of the ending of Shampoo –even a brilliant sex farce leaves the lothario alone on a hill, paralyzed with loneliness. Think of Bruce Dern walking into the waves in Coming Home . The slow-motion, sad ballet of bullets in Bonnie and Clyde . The pathos of Carnal Knowledge . The “We blew it” line in Easy Rider . It was an era in which the best and brightest artists on film fell rapturously in love with loneliness and loss and losers. It made me want to rename Badlands . Not the name the Blockbuster clerk gave it. Not Baldlands , but Sadlands .

Special Bulletin: Major Civic Victory Won by The Edgy Enthusiast!

I know some thought it a quixotic crusade when I wrote a column calling on the new owner of the Chrysler Building, Tishman-Speyer, to keep the beautiful, luminous spears of light on the spire lit up all night long [“Come On, Tishman, Light My Spire,” Feb. 23], rather than switch them off at 2 A.M. as the previous owners had. But, in fact, I just learned from Tishman-Speyer’s spokesman, Steve Rubenstein, that after a one-week shut-off for maintenance, the lights of the luminous landmark are going to stay on all night from now on. Thanks to those of you who responded to my appeal to write “Light my spire” pleas to Tishman. Thanks to them for an enlightened decision. This column gets results!

70’s Sadness: Back Again to Badlands