Formalism Meets Realism in Haunting, Childlike Badlands
Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands blends formalism and realism to produce a genre film (crime, American, gothic, romance) that is at once self-aware, genre-adherent, genre-breaking, realistic, cinematic, artful, and genuinely objective in its depiction of an a subjective childhood experience. The film’s sound and editing contribute to the overall feel of the film, which is deliberately romantic, innocent and haunting — as though the characters were living out a violent Peter Pan fairy-tale in the real world without realizing their own culpability. This paper will discuss Badlands from the standpoint of formalism, realism, editing and sound in order to show how Malick approaches the horrifying story of a serial-killing couple in a fresh, imaginative, sympathetic, subjective and yet amazingly objective way.
The sound of the film is guided by a score that repeatedly uses the “Gassenhauer” of Orff’s Schulwerk (German for “school work”). The score is telling in its own way. Orff’s Schulwerk was designed to be a teaching tool for children as they learned the elements of music. It is particularly relevant in Badlands because it highlights the nature of the central characters Kit and Holly: they are childlike, untouched by experience, innocent of the expectations one would normally associate with persons of their age.
The film opens with Holly on her bed, playing with her dog, as the camera rolls away from them and Holly narrates in voice over the particulars of her situation: “My Mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My Father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man. He tried to act cheerful but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. Then one day hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all these memories he moved us from Texas to Port Dupree, South Dakota” (Malick). The scene fades out on “Port Dupree, South Dakota,” as though the pronouncement of the location were the same as the pronouncement of her doom. And in a sense, it is: the film cuts to shots of Port Dupree — and who should come into view but Kit, riding the back of the garbage truck (an ominous and pathetic mode of entry).
A number of things are revealed through sound and editing in Holly’s opening voice over narrative: 1) she is a kind of orphan (as we see her sitting on the bed, it seems she is enclosed in a world without companions — a Wendy without a friend; 2) her father is a sentimental man, wrecked by misfortune (the loss of his wife) — and his reaction to that is to cut himself off from the past (he callously gives the 10-year-old frozen wedding cake to the yard man and moves what is left of the family to the north country); 3) Holly is a stranger to her father; he cannot connect to her because he himself is, for whatever reason, disconnected from himself. Thus, immediately the film opens, we are presented with a number of ideas: the characters are disconnected from themselves and from reality; there is a dreamlike, lullaby-like element to the narrative (beginning as it does in a bedroom, on a bed, where lullabies are often sung and dreams often experienced); there is a dread tone of sadness as the disconnection (the flight from reality) and the fantasy merge into a single, spell-binding narrative. In this way, Malick is able to combine the elements of formalism (the voice over narrative is an immediate cue to the viewer that the director knows and wants us to know that we are watching a film) and realism (in spite of it being cinema, Malick is determined to present a realistic portrayal of a subjective, dreamlike, fantastic experience — a story about two young persons who embark on a murderous, idyllic, cross-country spree, complete with real-life situations, as seen, at times, from the perspective of the main characters, and at other times, inevitably, from the perspective of the viewer, who is, nonetheless, invited to refrain from casting any judgment upon them).
The first words out of Kit’s mouth are cynical and joking: “I’ll give you a dollar to eat this collie,” he says to the other garbage man, referring to a dead dog on the side of the road. It is obvious that Kit has experienced a deeper feeling towards the dead dog, because when we see him he is hunched over it, as though he were deeply considering it (and, as an extension, the immanence of death) — but, in an attempt to cover his contemplation, or perhaps because he has no means of dealing with death, he makes a dry joke of the matter. And, of course, true to his “daring” nature, the joke takes the form of an outrageous dare: eat this dead dog for a dollar. His co-worker replies with a kind of detached common sense: “I ain’t gonna eat it for a dollar” (Malick).
The scene is realistically portrayed and it arrives directly on the heels of the formalistically portrayed opening shot of Holly in her bedroom, shrouded by the golden hour (or magic hour, as it is sometimes called) light, just before dusk sets. We are presented two scenes — one on the heels of the other: the first of harrowing familiarity, beauty and sharp pain (the bedroom is, of course, familiar to all of us who have grown up in one; the room is dimly lit, effecting in the viewer a feeling of nostalgia; and the pain is felt in the words of Holly’s cool, detached description of her situation); the second of stark unfamiliarity, ugliness, and blunt pain (the empty roads, lined by pails of trash seem abandoned, as though never before walked or seen by any of us; the garbage truck is a perfect emblem of ugly refuse, which no one would wish to dwell upon; and Kit’s interaction with his co-worker over the dead dog evokes in us a hollow ache, as though here were a soul so benumbed by banality that it cannot even make a decent joke of its circumstance but must rather hide it in trite and untrue attempts at wit). The two opening scenes thus contrast with one another, inviting the viewer on a ride that is both formalistic and realistic.
Kit’s next words, “Watch your head,” further complicate matters. He is observant and cynical — yet he is also observant and caring. Not that his co-worker was ever in danger of hitting his head on a heavy branch — but Kit wants to express his concern, for the dog, himself, his fellow man, whatever — somehow. When he asks the driver for a cigarette and is denied, his cold nature reveals itself: he tosses the metallic (now empty) garbage can to the curb with a kind of distaste as though he were not only rejecting (the indignity of) his office but also the indignity just shown him in the driver’s lack of charity. It is plain that there is an angry, animal force in Kit waiting to be unleashed.
This dual nature of Kit (one that longs for answers, for love, for charity, for meaning — and one that lashes out without compunction when treated with indifference) will reveal itself again and again throughout the film, as scenes of eloquence and tenderness are cut together with scenes of cold, wanton cruelty and carelessness. The film’s editing condenses these themes within the span of a few short minutes. Within the opening two minutes of the film, we have already been treated to an idyllic, , followed by a brutally realistic and mundane everyday world — and the two cannot be separated one from the other, for they exist in the same fabric, the same narrative, the same time and space — almost impossibly so — yet, nonetheless, there they are — two parts to one whole. This is the way Malick weaves a formalist structure in with a realistic one.
The sound helps incredibly. The dialogue reveals sides to the characters that speak volumes. The voice over narrative reveals layer upon layer of inner consciousness. The childlike score strings together the seemingly incongruous parts. And the way that certain scenes are muted for dramatic effect and overlain with meaningful, non-diagetic sound (the torching of the house, for instance, is accompanied by Orff’s “Passion”) helps to connect the viewer more deeply to the story. Holly’s voice over assessment of Kit (as a man who looks like James Dean) is perfectly timed to be heard just as Kit does look most like James Dean in his white t-shirt and jean jacket and hair poofed over and up like the Hollywood icon of youth and rebellion. The assessment and the image conveyed are a further truth about Kit: he, like Holly, is part of a generation that has been cut off from something intangible, something important, something human. Although Holly’s father is not to be taken as an uncaring man, he does come across as one who is missing something vital. He has no time for Kit and no desire to understand him or to see him come around. To Holly’s father, Kit is an intruder. To Holly, Kit is a kind of Peter Pan.
Yet, their love seems almost arbitrary, even as it is idyllically set against picturesque backdrops (a picnic on the river under the bows of tree, while she looks uncomfortably over her shoulder as though expecting to see the disapproving eyes of her father and he hunches over a deck of cards). She says without conviction, “What a nice place,” and he agrees — but there is something lacking in the sound of their words. They seem barely able to comprehend what it is they are doing, whether in love or in violence. The childlike Schulwerk score reinforces the idea — and the quick cut editing from scenes of a brutal realism (a cow in pain, lying and groaning on the ground, while Kit makes a quick getaway to avoid taking responsibility) to scenes of picturesque romance help the film to sustain its formalistic and realistic tone all the way throughout.
In conclusion, Malick’s Badlands is a film that combines formalism and realism to effect a narrative that is both American and gothic, complex and simple, childlike and adult, dramatic and mundane, realistic and romantic. Most importantly, however, Malick’s fusion of formalism and realism establishes in the viewer the awareness that one must put off judgment lest he himself be found guilty in the eyes of a higher power, seen and felt everywhere in Badlands. The fact that the film is so passionately dispassionate, and that it combines so many elements into one harmonious whole, is testimony to Malick’s craft and his ability to bring together disparate parts with a soulful, sympathetic eye.
Malick, Terrence, dir. Badlands. Los Angeles: Warner Bros., 1973. Film.