March 15, 2009

Badlands: a poetic memory

If Bonnie and Clyde is the vision of hippies with guns going across the thirties countryside of the south, then Badlands is a much more realistic account of what criminals are about and what they live for. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen's characters, Kit and Holly meet on the street: they fall for each other. Both of them are slightly simple- the combination is lethal. Firstly they kill Holly's father, then they go together on a murderous spree across South Dakota and Montana. The film is accompanied by vast panoramas of the American landscape- indeed it is one of the films that most perfectly captures the sheer size of the United States and the majesty of the far West, the plains and bare brush of the Badlands. Such landscape is counterposed against the triviality of what we see on the screen: a tale of murder might become a myth, actually it is tawdry and boring. When the two characters have sex for the first time, Holly wonders is that it? I thought the same thing about the film.

That question is the question that the film wants you to ask. These are not characters like Faye Dunnaway's Bonnie and Warren Beatie's Clyde- the definition of sixties cool- these are two misfits. A little girl that noone likes at school twirling her batons in the dust, a garbage collector with a ready wit and a lacivious imagination. As they go through America they keep on assuring us that they are having fun- but actually those desperate assurances are accompanied by no smiles but merely by boredom. That repetition from Kit- 'we're having fun' is like a drumbeat through the film that reminds us that they aren't having fun. They turn on each other throughout as well- by the end of the film, they are chained to each other, chained to each other and going down together to the end of the line where you get off through an electric portal.

Over above these images and brief dialogue (one of the great ironies of the film is that the two characters never talk to each other but Kit constantly tells Holly they have to talk about something or other) comes a narration. The narration is from Holly years into the future- and what that future Holly does in a sing song voice is turn the banal images that we are seeing into poetry. What Holly does is turn the mundane into a myth. She does that through using this wonderful poetic narrative- it is a beautiful monologue- Spacek does that perfectly. And Mallick the director fits that narrative in to present the entire film as a memory- a memory in which the true parts- the actual speeches and actions are real and boring but then you get this magical memory over the top. The magic of that memory takes the film from one damn thing after another and makes it a coherent story: Mallick does that and because he does that he directs a film which is both true and mythical. True because it depicts the mundanity of crime: mythical because it depicts the mythos of memory.

Of course the memory of the participants fuses with the image the outside world sees of them. The Bonnie and Clyde image influences the world of the film: Kit believes that he will be remembered, he will be someone through his crimes. And to be honest, we see at the end he is right- but what Mallick does is subvert that. He subverts the whole notion of what really exists and appears by showing the mundane as poetic through memory: but he also subverts the myth by demonstrating that the mythic story that the young people have created around themselves is a delusion. For them the murders have not happened- they are merely consequences, banal events. Martin Sheen in an interview attached to the DVD says that Mallick told him that his character killed people not realising the consequences- he told him to think when Kit killed someone that all that happened was that someone got in the way, and poof, a shot meant that they were no longer in the way. The narrative of their lives has no relation to the reality of their lives- Spacek's narrative too is unshocked by death and childish in the extreme- even though it is poetic, it is the poetry of a two year old.

So the myth here is a delusion, and the reality is banal. Mallick demonstrates to us both the power of the human mythic imagination: Holly creates a myth out of nothing as does the general public watching Holly and Kit from afar. Moreover that myth propels Kit and Holly into dark and desperate deeds, deeds which bind them together in a loneliness that they dislike on a road to a place that they do not wish to go- the grave is not such a fine place to embrace. The film is fascinating as a description of crime: but even more so as a description of how we shape our lives into narratives and how those narratives shape our lives. For Holly and Kit the narrative becomes the purpose of living- and the narrative becomes the means to maintain their blindness about the consequences of their crimes.


Crushed said...

I've not seen it- sounds like I'd enjoy it.

Never quite been sure why, but I find Sissy Spacek oddly cute.