With the upcoming release of Tree of Life, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is having a Terrence Malick retrospective. We’ve been attending, and up until the release of Tree of Life (review on May 26), we’ll be reviewing and talking about his movies, with comments from contributors who were at the LACMA screenings. Sissy Spacek was there for Badlands, and she noted that her casting was simple: “I met Terrence Malick, and shortly thereafter I was buying a baton.”

It’s weird to think of Malick as a film school brat like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, but he was one of their peers. Malick spent time at the AFI and had been toiling writing scripts for the studios, including Pocket Money and Deadhead Miles. These films have fallen under the radar partly because Malick’s greatness is hard to suss in them, though Malick has been noted as one of the writers on Dirty Harry. He had also spent time as a philosophy studying at Harvard and Oxford, and translating Heidegger. His first film as a director was 1973’s Badlands, and it introduced the world to his peculiar talent.

Badlands stars Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers, a drifter with charm to spare, but a wanderlust that keeps him distracted at work. He meets Sissy Spacek’s Holly Sargis, a fourteen-year-old with a protective father (Warren Oates). The two enter into an illicit romance, but when her father gets in the way, Kit makes the decision to shoot the father and burn the house. The two then hit the road, first making the woods their home, and then on to the road to points unknown, running after killing a number of people along the way.

Based loosely on Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, Malick’s debut has all the trappings of a first film, but the sort that reveals a master artist. Like Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, it’s one of those debuts that feel small – especially in what comes after – but perfect, and perfectly contained. Malick’s approach is not tentative, but this feels like a transitional work in that you can see how this feels closer to a more Hollywood movie than anything else he would ever do. The film follows the structure of a number of other couple on the lamb pictures (from Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night to some elements of Bonnie and Clyde) but its moves are all its own. Musically, the comparison would be to a Rubber Soul, or an album like The Bends. There’s still the framework of the standard approach, but all the seeds for what came later were planted.

You can also see the impression the film made on other filmmakers. Though it may have been evident in Quentin Tarantino’s script, Tony Scott and Hans Zimmer appropriated the music from the film for the two lovers in True Romance, while there’s elements of Kit in the leads of Natural Born Killers. And where a filmmakers like David Gordon Green is criticized for turning to comedy while being lauded as the heir to Malick, It’s worth noting that Badlands is a very funny movie. Spacek’s narration often serves as a counterbalance to what’s on screen, and her view of love and their travails is naïve but endearing – what she says feels like the train of thought of a young girl. One of the great moments in the film is when she suggests she wants to drown Kit for annoying her, but mostly they get along great. Spacek said of the narration “We did the voice over at Terry’s house, with blankets nailed up all over the room.” The track has a great intimacy, as if the story is being recollected. It’s a technique that Malick would use in different ways in Days of Heaven.

It’s also – unlike his later films – contained in a short burst. The film runs a quick 95 minutes, and it doesn’t waste any time. At the time of release it was either heralded as a masterpiece, as one of the great first films, or – as Pauline Kael reviewed it – an aloof take on similar themes as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. It’s an interesting comparison, as the though the characters might be self-aware, the film is not. And that’s an interesting take. Godard, and much of the film school generation were so taken with film that they borrowed many of the tools and grammar of their predecessors. And though Malick has obvious influences, his approach does not offer the same sort of quotation marks. But the characters are self-aware of their own fame and would-be fame, which is put in contrast with the film we see where the outside world is mostly kept at bay until the end. At one point Holly narrates a passage where it outlines how they are the most wanted people in America, but for much of the film we’re with the two of them and the rest of the world fades away. And that may be the big difference from how this film would be staged today – they are not reading newspapers or anything about themselves, so when Holly suggests they are the most wanted people in the world, and the film stock switches to monochromatic, it feels like part of the fantasy of her world.

Kael saw detachment and possibly mockery, but that’s not how the film plays now. Malick comes across as a humanist, and the moments of the two dancing, or their eventual discord come across as sharply detailed. If their reaction to violence is a little blasé, it’s because they too see themselves in a greater narrative. Spacek suggested that Malick had a great sense of humor about this, he knew this was a funny movie. “He made me feel like an artist. He would pull out slips of paper, and ask me to read them, then roar with laughter. Which made me think I was the greatest actor in the world. I was cast first, and I got to do scenes with every good looking actor in Hollywood, and Terry said, ‘we have to meet with this guy as a favor, but he’s too old.’ That was Martin Sheen, and it was obvious immediately. From the moment we met him he was Kit, he had the boots and everything.”

“I think Terry cast his film, and then figured out how to use me. There are no bad performances in a Terrence Malick. I would just go see Terry every day, and he would give me little pieces of paper, and having me try things out, and if he laughed, it was a good sign, but I don’t remember a lot of rehearsal. Terry was the puppetmaster. He liked us to do things matter of fact, and he knew exactly what he wanted, and it’s great to work with that as an actor. “

As for the shooting, Spacek said “We were in Colorado, a crew member stopped by from another film, and I remember thinking ‘They’re making a film somewhere else?’ We had so little experience we didn’t know that Terry was working in an unorthodox way. But crew members would disappear. It was a normal shoot at the beginning, and then it kept going, and then the crew got smaller. My trailer became the crew truck, and the honey wagon. My husband pointed out that when we left, Terry was strapped to the front of a car with no hood, and he was driving through the prairie with a wild look in his eye. Badlands came at an impressionable time, and it swept me away, it was Jack (Fisk) and Terry’s influence that affected me. And I thought after it ‘if I never do another film, I’ll be a part of something more wonderful than I could imagine, and that’s enough.’ After Badlands, I realized film is a director’s medium, and I chose my directors carefully.”

Badlands is that impressionable. It’s the work of a great director finding his legs, but one who already knows how to run. The film is currently available on DVD. Tree of Life opens Friday May 27, while LACMA will be showing The New World on May 20 with special guests.