As I sat upstairs during Nickelodeon Theater’s Sunday matinee screening of Badlands, I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. There is no image as simultaneously full of hope and beauty, but also of absolute misery and despair, as Martin Sheen gazing at a full moon, looking like a denim-clad scarecrow with his arms draped around a shotgun. A seemingly endless field of dirt and pale grass stretched out for miles ahead of him. At the Nick this Sunday, the audience, including me, sat behind Sheen’s back, gazing at him, the landscape, the beauty and the loss, taking in all of this imagery, feeling both moved and disturbed. The film is iconic in its depiction of both the loveliness and the grit of rural America.
I don’t give a damn
For the same old played out scenes.
I don’t give a damn
For just the in-betweens.
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul,
I want control right now.
-Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”
Badlands is Terrence Malick’s 1973 fictionalization of spree murderer Charles Starkweather’s love story with his accomplice, Carol Ann Fugate. We listen to narration of the protagonist Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, who wistfully recounts the dreams and yearnings of a fifteen-year-old American girl as she is shown sitting in a tree, reading books like Treasure Island. We see rather dull, ordinary depictions of rural life in working class neighborhoods surrounded by bland, browning fields, all of which are juxtaposed with gorgeous backdrops of the American skyline: fairytale sunsets blending pinks and browns, breathtaking cloudy blue skies that looked imaginary, almost like an artist painted them, and even glimpses of something more, something brighter, between the branches of a dense forest where the characters hide.
Starkweather’s on-screen alter ego is Kit Carruthers, a James Dean lookalike profoundly portrayed Sheen. I have to say, for a movie with some very horrifying and morose moments, the people around me at the Nick laughed quite a bit Sunday. Kit is charismatic, funny, and alluring; he both charms and repels the other characters in the movie, and, obviously, the audience as well. There is something fascinating about the psychopath in American culture, and that has been explored in-depth in other works. But what makes Kit such a remarkable character isn’t his trigger happiness, but the fact that we, the audience, continuously find ourselves relating to him in a way we cannot verbalize. We watch him picking up garbage and working at a cattle ranch. We see his girlfriend’s father tell him he isn’t good enough to date his daughter. We watch him struggle and want more. And we want more, too—for Kit, for Holly, and, deep down, for our own lives.
This haunting film was shown at the Nickelodeon as part of their summer film series, “The American Odyssey.” Their website explains the series as a collection of seven films “exploring the adventures, intoxicating fantasies and harsh realities of the American open road.” Badlands followed another classic film in the series, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which was shown in two sold-out screenings. Certainly, experiencing these films in a small, intimate theater like the Nickelodeon has its appeal: the setting itself is nostalgic and unique, set directly in the middle of Columbia’s transitioning Main Street district. As the only nonprofit art house theater in the state of South Carolina, he Nickelodeon continuously brings intriguing opportunities for the public to experience classic films in a setting that is itself reminiscent of simpler times.
It was difficult to watch Malick’s depiction of dreams and frustrations played out across a vast American landscape—one that seemed both so strangely limiting and yet so limitless, too—without being reminded of my own childhood growing up in a rural area in “Kentuckiana,” that spot surrounding the Ohio River where southern Indiana meets western Kentucky, where the Midwest and the Southeastern U.S. collide. Sheen’s performance as working class Kit, stomping through the grass and dirt and the fields of America, chasing after some dream or ending that he can’t quite verbalize, was as startling as it was endearing. Kit’s energetic sadness, constantly shown beside Holly’s quiet, naïve optimism, was at times overwhelming to watch, as it connected to a small part of each person in the audience, reminding them of that feeling deep inside: Is this it? What more is out there for us?
“The American Odyssey” film series will finish up this week at the Nickelodeon. Tickets are still available for upcoming screenings, but the public is encouraged to visit www.nickelodeon.org to purchase advance tickets, as some of the screenings have sold out.
10:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27 – The Hitcher, directed by Robert Harmon
2 p.m. Sunday, July 30 – Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner
6:30 p.m. Monday, July 31, Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner