Saturday, September 17, 2011

Terrance Malick and Buster Keaton

I caught two double features in the past month or so featuring the films of noted auteurs.

At the Castro, they screened two Terrance Malick films.

Badlands starring Martin Sheen & Sissy Spacek; with Warren Oates; directed by Terrance Malick; (1973)
Days of Heaven starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard & Linda Manz; directed by Terrance Malick; (1978)

Badlands is screening at the PFA on October 8.

At the Stanford, they screened a five part series of Buster Keaton films every other Friday with Dennis James on the organ. I attended the final Friday of the series. The films were:

Three Ages starring Buster Keaton & Wallace Beery; directed by Keaton; silent with intertitles; (1923)
Steamboat Bill Jr. starring Buster Keaton; directed by Charles Reisner; silent with intertitles; (1928)

The crowd at the Stanford was the largest I'd ever seen there. I arrived 45 minutes before showtime and the line wrapped around the corner. I grabbed a bite to eat and 30 minutes later, the line was still around the corner. They had been letting in a steady stream of people for at least 45 minutes prior to the screening.

Whenever I go to the Stanford Theater, I grab a slice of pizza at Pizza My Heart - one of my favorite pizza joints. I wish they had a location in the City or in northern San Mateo County.


Badlands and Days of Heaven were Terrance Malick's first two feature films. They are similar in tone and style. Of the two, I slightly preferred Badlands but was impressed with both.

Martin Sheen and an impossibly young looking Sissy Spacek play Kit and Holly, two young lovers on the run in Badlands. Based on the Starkweather-Fugate murders, Malick infuses the murderers with an elegiac quality combined with a bittersweet nostalgia for the Midwest United States in the 1950s which happens to be the time and place Malick grew up. The last time I used the word elegiac was in describing Monte Hellman's Cockfighter. The two films are quite different in appearance but evoked a similar emotion - a vague sadness combined with empathy for characters I didn't particularly like.

Badlands was improved immeasurably by using Carl Orff's "Gassenhauer" (also known as "Musica Poetica") as its coda and leitmotiff. The xylophone piece was memorable without being obtrusive. Martin Sheen's Kit is an interesting character. Kit begins the film as a garbage man who is two unfocused to even finish his shift. He happens upon Holly. Spacek was 23 when the film was made but played a high schooler. With her freckled face and skinny legs, she looked even younger to me. Holly's father (Warren Oates), forbids the relationship but Kit solves the problem by killing him and then torching the house.

While on the lam, Kit's confidence grows in lockstep with his notoriety; not to mention with each successful murder and escape. However, Holly begins to regret her decisions. The dissension eventually leads to their capture which present the centerpiece scene of the film. Now a celebrity, Kit holds court in front of some soliders or nationaal guardsmen as he is shackled and awaits transport at a military airport in Wyoming. Part press conference, part stand up routine, Kit trades quips and gives out souvenirs to the soldiers. While taxiing down the runway, Kit seems more interested in his legend than impending prison sentence (which turns out to be death by execution).

While ostensibly a film about callous and callow youth, Malick also criticizes the cult of personality. All the while, he does this at a measured pace and with detachment which is at odds with the churning emotions and impatience of his youthful characters. This dichotomy is what gives the film its lyrical and transcendent feel.


Whereas Badlands felt like a Greek tragedy, there is distastefulness at the heart of Days of Heaven. Richard Gere plays Bill, a Chicago steelworker who accidentally kills his foreman during an argument. Bill, his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz) flee the city by train. The three of them end up in Texas where they land jobs as seasonal farm workers on Sam Shepard's farm. Shepard's character is never given a name.

To avoid gossip, Bill & Abby pretend to be brother and sister rather than a couple. Shepard's character is a wealthy farmer who has little to do with the workers except Abby who he takes a shining to. As his interest in her grows, Bill encourages it as the preparation for a scam. The farmer takes things to a new level when he asks Abby to marry her and Bill goes along with it so as not to spoil their plans. Once, they're married, Abby begins to develop feelings for her husband which threatens the scam.

For his part, the farmer is beginning to suspect that his wife and her brother have an unusually close relationship. In an inspired scene, the farmer goes after Bill with a gun during a locust swarm and controlled grass burn which has gotten out of control. Bill kills in self-defense but is hunted by the police and the farm foreman.

There a few indelible scenes in Days of Heaven. The beginning scenes at the steelmill look like something out of Dante's Inferno. In the middle of the film, Malick shoots long, sweeping, panoramic views of the wheatfields and prarie land. As I mentioned, the scene near the end with the locusts and smoke blotting out the sun was biblical; like one of plagues prophesied by Moses. Malick certainly filmed some beatiful scenes.

The whole part where Bill is pimping out his girlfriend was contemptible and I could not empathize with Bill after that. As portrayed by Shepard and directed by Malick, the farmer was empty vessel. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, the farmer's relationship with Abby seems to start like a bucket list fling and becomes a lonely man's final attempt at happiness. If the farmer was lonely, it was only because he didn't have much personality. He was too trusting and ignored his own suspicions. Only when confronted with irrefutable proof does the farmer lose his temper and grab his gun...and it results in his death. That scene was indicative of the film - a character I didn't like killing a character I didn't care about.

Lukewarm towards the characters themselves, I found the performances to be uniformly adequate. Much has been made about Gere, Adams and Shepard's performances but I thought them capable with a few inspired moments. Linda (Manz also narrated portions of the film) was an interesting character but Manz's thick New York accent made it difficult to understand much of what she said. Robert J. Wilke as the no-nonsense foreman delivered the standout performance of the film.

Days of Heaven relied on imagery, elliptical storytelling and a "less is more" approach to get more out of a thin plot than was written on the page. I guess that's a left-handed compliment of Malick and Days of Heaven. I cannot say I was left unsatisfied by the film and was impressed by many scenes.


Dennis James introduced both films at the start. Three Ages was the first film. It was a satire of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916). Three Ages was structured as three stories with the same cast. James said Keaton had contingency plans to release each story as its own film if Three Ages did poorly at the box office. Three Ages was the first feature Keaton wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It was successful enough to launch a series of films which Keaton had complete creative and financial control. Perhaps deliberately, Steamboat Bill Jr. was the last film made by Keaton's production company.

Three Ages was set in prehistoric times, during the ancient Roman empire and in "modern times" or the Roaring Twenties. In each setting Keaton competed for the affection of Margaret Leahy but only to lose out to Wallace Beery who was larger, stronger and richer and favored by Leahy's screen parents (Lillian Lawrence & Joe Roberts). Three Ages suffers in comparison to other, more famous silent films by Keaton (Sherlock Jr., The General & Steamboat Bill Jr.). The continuous rotation of the three stories gives each segment a skit comedy feel. The material is not quite as strong either. It's as if Keaton had to third his creative output for each segment of the film. Still, there were a log of gags in Three Ages and even a subpar Keaton film is relatively good.

Steamboat Bill Jr. earns it reputation as one of Keaton's best. Keaton appears to attempt to break out of his self-created stereotype or at least modify it slightly. The screen persona of Keaton is the little guy who is pushed around but has enough resourcefulness and pluck to come out ahead. Always present was his porkpie hat. There is a scene in Steamboat Bill where Keaton is trying on several hats and quickly discards his traditional porkpie.

Keaton plays the titular role in Steamboat Bill Jr. - a recent college graduate who visits his father (Ernest Torrence), a Mississippi River steamboat captain who is locked in brutal competition with a rival steamboat company with more financial resources. As it turns out, the owner of the rival company is the father of a college co-ed (Marion Byron) that Bill Jr. is sweet on. This causes all kinds of trouble and hijinks as the two kids conspire to see each other while their fathers are locked in competition. Although set on the Mississippi River, the film was shot in Sacramento and the Sacramento River. I recall the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn also substituted the Sacramento River (or was it the American River?) for the Mississippi.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is best remembered for one of Keaton's most famous stunts. In the film, a tornado or hurricane blows through town and detaches the exterior facade of a two story building. Keaton stands with his back to the building when the wall falls onto him. He is saved because the top window is open and he stands exactly where the open window falls. A few inches in either directions and he would have been killed. I've read and heard differing stories as to how dangerous the stunt really was for Keaton. Regardless, on screen, the stunt is spectacular.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is memorable for its gags and the interaction between Torrence and Keaton as a father and son pair who couldn't be different.

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