Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film

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During their journey and love story, Kit kills Holly's father, burns down her middle-class house, takes her to a tree house in the forest near a river, and shoots three bounty hunters, a friend and a young couple. When Holly surrenders to the police, Kit is left alone for the final phases of his unfulfilled journey and rather theatrical capture.

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Contrary to most Hollywood films, Malick's first film does not convey pathos. Indeed, Badlands is a startlingly unusual American film and is the only film to date on which the director Terrence Malick has given public comment. In one of two remarkably similar interviews offered in the s, Malick says: I don't think that the film is cold.


There is a certain warmth to it. I was very worried that people might say the film is soulless, because I admire [Elia] Kazan, [George] Stevens and [Arthur] Penn and scenes of great emotions. But to openly express your emotions you have to have great maturity, which is something my characters don't have. As Morrison and Schur observe: What marks Badlands as so decisive a break from movies that came before it is The line of films it culminates deals to varying degrees in irony, satire, or parody, but Badlands is just about alone among them in articulating some sense of the link between the characters' alienation and its own attitudes of ironic detachment.

Critical readings of the film almost unanimously point to the disturbing lack of empathy Kit and Holly show towards their victims, and the lack of a clear psychological motivation driving their behaviours. The storyline of Badlands is loosely based on an historical outlaw couple the spree killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate who killed eleven people in two months, between December and January , and is reminiscent of the other famous outlaw couple in American history, the 's Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

For William Johnson, this distancing is achieved by the film's distinctive stylistic features, such as the lack of subjective views, the use of telephoto lenses, long shots and the rapid fades and cuts. In fact, they form part of the phenomena that challenges us. Malick's comments on the fairy-tale quality of Badlands can be extended to his later films. A distinctive element of Malick's films is the peculiar use of the voiceover narration technique.


In Badlands, Holly's retrospective narration never fully explains, extends or frames the images. He claimed that as long as you're playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it's considered OK to shoot all witnesses. In this, Badlands is, indeed, an exemplary tale or an allegorical parable of sorts that needs interpretation. In most narratives, such repetitions serve as markers for critical changes in the characters and their circumstances These series of repetitions, for Michaels, do not refer to transcendental realities or symbolic meanings in the characters' narrative trajectory; they are not symbols at all.

Malick deliberately frustrates symbolic readings, undermines them with the strangeness of his protagonists, the gratuitous, awkward and quixotic violence of Kit's behaviour and the almost nonsensical narration of Holly's voiceovers. Malick's film leaves the spectator in a liminal space of suspension. While domesticity, law and order are restored Holly will marry her lawyer's son and Kit will die in the electric chair , and this is all in line with the generic conventions and social function of the Hollywood road movie, 20 Badlands remains ultimately incomprehensible, leaving viewers thinking about what it all means.

The constraints of the Midwestern 's gender roles are in fact re-enacted and imitated in the forest. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wish he'd fall in the river and drown, so I could watch. Mostly though, we got along fine and stayed in love. We'd be starting a new life, he said. In the forest and in the badlands, Holly mimics the role of the 's housewife, 22 and Kit takes on that of the patriarchal provider and defender, although in a strange, childlike fashion.

Holly seems to play when she wears curlers and puts make-up on in the forest; similarly, Kit seems to play war games. The ultimate freedom, for Kit, is complete adherence to the system that regulates and paradoxically prevents it from happening.

Malick, Terrence

In this view, the white Panama hat that Kit steals from the rich man's John Carter house and wears in the third act of the film, exceeds its symbolic meaning as a sign of patriarchy and power. In his impossible pursuit, Kit literally imitates ideals of self-affirmation. Nevertheless, while both Holly and Kit's characters can be deconstructed as consumers and products of the nascent individualist-capitalist American milieu, a figural approach to Badlands can open up the film to existential and ontological readings that exceed political and social critiques.

The visual imagery of Badlands conveys a sense of existential enclosure and entrapment. Images of confinement pervade the whole narrative Similarly, reflected images on mirrors at crucial turning points in the narrative are a recurrent motif in Badlands. Indeed, Malick's audiovisual language in Badlands complicates the process of ideological identification, making it virtually impossible.

The sick catfish motif is exemplary in this respect. The bowl with the catfish appears on the windowsill in the initial sequences with Holly in her bedroom and is then repeated and insisted upon later in the narrative. Later I got a new one, but this incident kept on bothering me and I turned to Kit. And sometimes he'd see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes, and I'd put my cold hand on his forehead.

The motif of entrapment that pervades the film's imagery is repeated and insisted upon, but it assumes a far more existential sense in its allegorical mode. These allegorical elements and the film's detached irony 31 point to the fairy-tale quality of the film and its figural value. In broad terms, James Dean's characters East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause reaffirm and reinforce the ideology they reacted against.

Nevertheless, the analysis of Badlands' figural economy moves beyond political critique. In pursuing the film's figurations, one of the most striking images of Badlands' figural economy is the big billboard that Mr. Sargis, Holly's father Warren Oates is painting in the vastness and nothingness of its surroundings. In the scene, and following the conventions of patriarchy, a frustrated Kit asks Holly's father permission to see his daughter. The father wears a white Panama hat and low camera angles show him in a dominant position compared to Kit.

Malick's direction emphasises the importance of the billboard with an extreme long shot that lingers on the screen at the end of the dialogue scene. Sargis' Jeep, sky, a few clouds, and a stretch of fields lying fallow. Figuratively, the fields are an equally important and insisted-upon visual element. This scene frames the father as the absolute demiurge of the world he is creating.

The artificial billboard surrounded by the vast sky and the open plains operate as a figural reminder that dominant conditions of existence are enframed within a constructed, artificial world; but a figural reading of Malick's characters also suggests that reacting against those conditions only reinforces the dominant constructed world.

In this reading, the billboard and the fallow field suggest that the existential relation of man and nature is empty and open to new and other possibilities in finitude. A figural hermeneutics of Badlands looks at the visual shapes and forms that are evoked, organised and used in the film's world or diegesis through objects, visual style, characters and artistic tropes, and contends that certain gestures that recur in visual, creative practices exist beyond intertextuality and exceed narrative teleology, creative intentions and economic frameworks of production.

This textual recurrence of figural gestures deserves critical attention beyond symbolic, religious and sacred interpretations. In using a figural hermeneutics, the figural economy of Malick's Badlands draws on a specific figural logic that operates as an ontological questioning of humans in relation to freedom with ecological implications.

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Interpretive meaning is produced in the singular interaction between the film and the viewer, with new interpretive possibilities produced and released from the film's own figurations at the time of each viewing. Under such a figural approach, Kit and Holly's walk in Fort Dupree's central streets at the beginning of their love story assumes particular relevance for this viewer and for an interpretation of Badlands' figural logic its ontological questioning of human freedom. In the long track shot that will be considered here, a series of framed moments appear and happen in the film's unfolding world; they resonate with and gesture towards the film's past and future events.

The poster on the window shows a striking image of classic idyllic nature 42 with two human figures under a tree, near a river, and one of them is carrying wood. As with Mr. Sargi's billboard, the advertisement signifies a romanticised and idealised idea of nature that is inherently commodified, marketed and sold in capitalism; it also prefigures Holly and Kit's tree house in the forest. Behind the glass there is a man with a hat, who smokes and looks outside, rather lost in thought the place is visually reminiscent of the employment agency seen earlier; it suggests enclosure and subjection to a predefined system and order of things beyond individual control.

Figural [film] analysis is not concerned with the causal logic of narrative, but with transformations of figuration that produce the story world as a matrix of prefigured filmic material [ This trajectory is not inside the narrative.

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Rather, it is the film as immanent figuration Embedded in this trajectory are myriad gestures, rhetorical expressions, theatrical devices, fetish objects and modes of visual display, which owe nothing to the narrative action. As argued in the final part of this paper, a Benjaminian perspective on figural hermeneutics can uncover a possible specific function of the film medium to deal with issues of human-nature relations in Malick's Badlands. Thus, for Benjamin the advent of film technology in modernity primed a profound and undetected process of destruction.


Myths, legends, religions, beautiful novels and imaginative stories appear and move; they become material, historical phenomena. In this, Benjamin's ideas on film assume a deeply ontological value. Films arguably crystallise this condition, making it very clear to see.

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It is neither good or bad. It just is. We are all endosymbiotic organisms: Chaos and Order - living together within. What happens in the end? The diverse becomes a universe. In the end there is a positive feedback entity named Order who was the sum of everything and dreamed of becoming nothing. The day that Order created Chaos, a negative feedback entity, there was an explosion…. Thank you for articulating what I was afraid to admit was my own similar impression of Malick's film.

With his movies, am usually willing to disregard the usual "narrative" obligations in favor of seeing them as a sort of cinematic "tone poem", to be appreciated in their own right, much like his gorgeous and evocative Days of Heaven. But even on those terms, this seemed quite a bit too self-indulgent, where as you mentioned, some more rigorous editing might have helped alot.

BTW, am happy to have stumbled onto your blog, which also led me to your book "Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic", as well your website. And hey, anybody who appreciates such disparate interests as Terrence Malick, "the problem of evil", and Alexander Lowen is pretty cool in my book! I thought the movie was quite good and certainly awoke me from my every day routines to appreciate life a little bit. I apologize for being critical of your article, but you came off to me at least a bit elitist and condescending.

The majority of movies today and most television does not concern itself with existential subject matter. Malick certainly got me thinking and changed my mood for a few days about life. This movie is his magnus opus and I highly doubt he released a movie that he did not edit to his liking. The reason Malick did not address the unconscious is simple. He is a director who does feel that every action is determined by psychology dinosaur scene is one clear example - why does the predator let the prey go?

We don't know. After watching the film, I looked into his other films. I found this page that I think you should read and re-watch the film.

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Here is one snippet from the page discussing Badlands: Malick is insistent that human action is not always motivated by psychological causes. In fact, the freedom that Kit and Holly experience, as they retreat more and more from society, is an oppressive, unbearable one. To me, the movie succeeded in conveying his beliefs, and it got me thinking about life.