The Lovers: Malick’s “Badlands”
My dad thinks he’s cool. He’d tell me about how his dad was too cheap to buy him the disco suits all the other teenagers wore so he had to settle with and rock the white T-shirt and jeans like Martin Sheen in the 1970’s. They showed a Martin Sheen movie on TV in the Philippines, the actor strutting down a back street, squinting his way into nonchalant cool. His working-class anti-fashion fitting his body properly like it only does with the young. I didn’t know back then that Dad was introducing me to one of the most revered auteurs of all time, tackling a subject I shouldn’t be watching. I’m not sure he knew neither. His hair’s as long and parts the same way like my dad too.
Matt Zoller Seitz, in a video essay about Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven, said that it was ‘like the greatest novel James M. Cain never wrote.’ Those words seem more fitting with his earlier film Badlands, with Kit as a good old boy who has his own set of ethics that makes sense even in its contradictions. Sheen, harking back to James Dean, presents a different, naturalistic version of old-school. He’s masculine in his rebellion while childlike in thinking over the rules and consequences of his crimes. He arbitrarily knows when to stop playing and doesn’t feel remorse about being caught.
If Kit, in his simplicity, is consistent, Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) is the opposite and constantly changes. Although she’s never convinced me as an infantile 15-year-old, she’ not so mature nor womanly neither. We’d think that by the time they run away, she’d ditch her Southern princess behaviour, but instead of a linear evolution, her outlook has different waves. Sometimes she’d be like his female counterpart or wear a bandanna on her head, looking like a 1950’s housewife. At other times she’s a stubborn doll, enacting her unrefined yet legitimate rebellion against Kit.
I didn’t realize that a Malick film was used as sartorial inspiration, but it’s genius. This is also his most narrative film so far. There’s the traditional landscape imagery, using more textures and colour palettes than his other, later films do. But nonetheless the two young rebels stand out within the backgrounds as well the exciting shoot-up scenes that most crime films would have. Badlands is showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at June 14 at 9:30 PM as part of the venue’s retrospective on the director.
- Opening Shots: Badlands (blogs.suntimes.com)
Black Masks: Lee’s Malcolm X
Disgusting Muslim terrorist Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) was once Malcolm ‘Red’ Little, actor. He was Bogart to Shorty’s (Spike Lee) Cagney, the two occasionally switching roles. He’s also Burt Lancaster to a pure woman’s Deborah Kerr.
“Have you ever met one white man who wasn’t evil?” Yes, Sophia (Kate Vernon) was bitchy to Molly Ringwald, but evil? I’ve gone both ways on whether Malcolm X depicts white people as evil. Sophia loves Malcolm because he gives her freedom, but yes, she does treat him like a pet while he waits for their relationship to self-destruct. Although, in lame-evoking Frantz Fanon, we look at the outer ugliness of the ‘black man’ instead of the inner ugliness of the ‘white woman’ seducing him, intentionally or otherwise. ‘Inhuman’ as a word fits better, the child services officer behaving out of hearsay, but with no desire to see Malcolm and his siblings stay together or have a decent home. Speaking of decent home, Sophia marries a white man for money, these white persons as much slaves as their black counterparts.
This scene is everything, their anger beautifully clashing like the third act of a Puccini opera.
I first saw this for the Islam section of our Grade 11 World Religions class. The film, Lee’s direction and Washington’ performance to me was the Angry Black Man, pushing eggs in front on the white sailor’s face on the train (in his mind anyway), reciting inflammatory sermons against the white devil, insulting the white beatnik in the university he is giving a speech to. That scene, by the way, can be a subtle and possibly inadvertent reference to “King Lear,” the beatnik’s question as Lear’s search for validation while Malcolm, as a dissenting Cordelia, gives her the painful answer she needs. Nonetheless he changes with his separation from the Nation of Islam, removing racism from his mind.
Many things have happened between then and now, including a “Mad Men” episode where those characters don’t even bat an eye at this influential man’s death. This rewatch gives the man, the film and those behind it more dimension. We’re not supposed to like him in those ugly moments, pondering, say, that young woman whom Malcolm brushes aside, her face lingering towards the camera for one more second to see the slow emotional damage he might have done to her. But there’s also Washington’s youthful grin while he’s around Sophia, working the train or when he’s learning something new. His narration like a man reaching enlightenment even when remembering Malcolm’s painful memories. Hesitating to raise his voice in times of conflict. That’s also Lee’s purpose in the epilogue. Yes, the director is comparing himself with his subject, showing the world that he, just like Mr. X, isn’t always angry. Lee shows Mr. X smiling, laughing and becoming, to more people around him, a compassionate person.
Director Danny Boyle uses his new film 127 Hours to show off what he can do with the camera. Here he assembles some of the crew who have also been in the Slumdog team like Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle as well as less familiar names like cinematographer Enrique Chediak and editor Jon Harris. Three way split screens! Footage of subway platforms or sports arenas, encapsulating the 21st century crowd syndrome. Then there’s Aron Ralston (James Franco), not answering his mother’s phone calls and packing up for a trek by himself, and in a way he’s the antithesis to the crowd. We’ll understand his solitary adventures because of where he’s going – to the canyons in Moab, Utah. The vast landscape is enticing, beautifully captured in the film. Aron is at one in this kind of environment.
The audience knows what’s eventually going to happen to Aron, since the press and other reviews have given it away. Aron Ralston is a real person whose hand got stuck in a boulder and has to cut it off to save his life. Thus, every little detail and event shown in the film becomes noticeable and is a source of dread. We’re anxious when he puts his hand on the cupboard and just misses a useful Swiss Army knife, a few inches out of reach. But the trailer shows him meeting lost two girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before everything else happens, so we don’t have to worry yet. When he does fall off his bike into some shrubs he, we’re scared but he laughs it off. He drives into the canyons, and guides Kristin and Megan into as deep as they wanna go.
These minor characters add to Boyle’s even-handed portrayal of the empty landscape, showing both the beauty even within the danger. Falling between deep crevices of rock can mean diving into a reservoir of clean water. Even when he’s stuck, the film pulls away from his predicament to other visuals within Aron’s line of sight. The sunlight in the early morning that he can feel on his right foot. A raven that passes by at a certain time. A silver lining in Aron’s situation is being able not just to see this part of the canyon but to contemplate it, a legitimate viewpoint adding complexity to his character. He’s also aware of the mythology of the land and reminds us of it before and during Aron’s difficult five days. He also thinks in a transcendent pattern, believing the inevitability of his predicament. Boyle emulates all of that and accomplishes to share those different perspectives within one character in this film. Seeing both the sublime beauty in this situation thankfully doesn’t make this film a cautionary tale, telling its audience both to become daring and be smart.
Boyle captures Franco’s performance through the split screens and different pixel resolutions of digital cinematography. Franco more than does his part, evincing dread not through words but through his eyes in the first few seconds of Aron getting stuck. There’s little moments of regret and self-flagellation, and his moments of calm, control, and intelligent problem solving stand out. He gets photographed in unflattering angles, letting go at visceral time, eating like a wild man, showing Aron’s exhaustion.
Those things said, it’s probably more helpful to read the source material, Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” before watching the film. The movie is just about the man’s state of mind as anything else, as the film takes us into flashback scenes of past loves, him thinking about alternate scenarios of the present and future. That also means that a lot of distracting scenes are within the film. It could have done better without the interior shots of Aron’s blue camel bag, the Lovely Day sequence and the Scooby Doo sequence. But then those scenes probably broke us into other leaps of fantasy, like the Good Morning Boulder sequence – simpler and thus better than I imagined or was led to believe, thankfully. The film also makes the mistake of casting the genius of a wordsmith Lizzy Caplan as Aron’s sister and not giving her any lines.
Ralston was stuck in that boulder in May 2003 and I was in Grade 10 and have no recollection of hearing this news item. Despite of the film’s distracting editing flaws, I was giggling like a giddy little school girl in the film’s adventurous first half hour. The ‘last’ scene is visceral and long enough for me to change my mind, taking my hands away from my eyes and deciding that I have to witness the reenactment of that moment. That kind of engagement that a film offers is enough for me.
- ‘127 Hours’ review: He’s in pain – so is audience (sfgate.com)
The film begins in 1973, with a car explosion killing Mohammed Boudia. Then they show the man who’s going to avenge that death, a fashionably dressed man named Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez). We see him going to Beirut to meet Wadie Haddad, trying to prove himself to Haddad by telling the latter his guerrilla history. Despite his youth and inexperience, Haddad includes him in the PLFP. An important theme of the film will be Ilich, now calling himself Carlos, constantly trying to prove himself to Haddad and win his approval despite his shortcomings.
We see Carlos, going to and from his contacts in Paris and London, the camera fading in and out and beginning a scene with captions of the place and time elapsed, marking how disjointed this short version of the film can be. He’s assigned and taking on missions by himself, accomplishing them with quick athleticism. We get to see Carlos get weaker and fatter as the film progresses. The film wanes as it goes on yet Ramirez’ performance gets stronger and he portrays Carlos’ later days. The shorter film focuses on Carlos’ nasrcissism and interiority, yet I would rather have seen him pull off more terrorist plots than to see another full frontal shot.