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Archive for December, 2007

Billy the Kid (2007)

DV Documentary

Dir: Jennifer Venditti

DP: Donald Cumming

 

 

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Billy the Kid—on limited run at the IFC Theater in Manhattan—has been garnering accolades & awards for months. Shuffling through reviews the classic buzzwords fly out: “haunting,” “utterly original,” “important,” a “heightened metaphor for the universally torturous condition that is adolescence.”” But it is glaringly obvious this (long) 84min documentary was shot in only eight days without much attention to detail.

Its subject: Billy, a socially-awkward, talkative, outcast 10th grader who lives in Maine with his mother (and unseen stepfather). Billy has a bumpy familial back-story (a drug addict father who abandoned him) and there’s no doubt he’s an interesting subject, due mostly to his peculiar vernacular. He uses words like “damsels,” speaks cryptically about battles he’s had within himself, and has a quixotic view of heroism and chivalry. He’s overtly kind-hearted, to the point of naivety, that inevitably leads to discomforting situations.

From the start we see Venditti has spent zero time establishing an intimacy between herself, the camera, and Billy. Virtually every scene plays out as if it were planned, staged, or arranged. We’re constantly told things about Billy but rarely do we see the sophistication alluded to. For instance Billy is said to have explosive tantrums; not once does he go over the edge. His mother tells us Billy is “borderline genius” but there’s absolutely nothing that validates this. Another story tells us of a concerned librarian calling home to see if everything was okay, that day Billy had borrowed three books on serial killers. All these are red herrings, superficially painting a picture more complex than we’re given.

Some scenes appear to just be filling time: Billy knocking snow off trees (slow-motioned & strobe effected) reciting a Frost poem; Billy playing a shoot-‘em-up game in an eerily empty video store; Billy playing guitar (is he even playing?) in his room to a VHS tape of his favorite rock band. These scenes are clumsily photographed and histrionically stagy. Why is Billy attracted to 80s glamor rock? What are these inner ‘battles’ Billy has had? We’re left to wonder.

The heart of the film is also the most troubling: Billy’s supposedly ‘love affair’ with a sixteen-year-old waitress, Heather. Heather (who has a condition that makes her eyes shake) works in a family-owned diner that Billy frequents. After an introduction and awkward conversation Billy gets excited. He returns the next day, speaks to Heather, and meets some of her family. The next night they’re out for on a walk. Finally he officially asks her to be his girlfriend, she accepts, onlookers applaud the lad.

On the page this is very sweet, but on-screen it’s harrowing to witness. This “romance” unfolds with everyone painfully aware of the camera and it appears Heather awkwardly agrees to Billy’s advances simply because it would be rude to otherwise. Her family parades out, like deer in headlights, to see this odd young man (and to check out the movie sideshow). Nothing here is genuine other than Billy’s growing infatuation with Heather and his inevitable fall from grace.
The myth of Icarus comes to mind here. Venditti’s camera emboldens Billy, supplying his wings of wax. Day after day his love grows…as he gets closer and closer to the sun. And ultimately the camera is rolling when his wings melt and he falls into the sea.

When we see Heather after the breakup, she can’t say a word. Yes, she’s shy, but she also has no idea who Billy is and seems baffled by the whole situation. (We must keep in mind this all happened in a few short days) Heather, like Billy, has been a pawn in their game.

Many major periodicals, in print and on the web, have not taken the stance written here. Nor do they mention that the film is riddled with sub-par photography. The handheld camerawork undulates distractingly, sometimes in the most pivotal of scenes. Many shots were so under and overexposed they should have never left the editing room. Still photos of Billy and his family were hastily shot, blurring in and out of focus. And scenes between Billy and Heather are so heavily cut that it raises serious questions about the presentation of this courtship. None of these are stylistic choices but blatant evidence that the film was rushed and slapped together. This is the work of a film shot in eight days. Yes, Venditti is a first time director, and that should be taken into consideration, but there has to be a standard on with cinema is judged (especially when accolades and awards come into play).

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But it’s not entirely Venditti’s fault. Too many critics (and judges) are not doing the work they’re paid to do. Week after week reviews and critiques roll out rife with platitudes, buzzwords, and effusions of praise or disgust but with no real insight or investigation as to why. This is troubling for readers of criticism and filmgoers alike.

Venditti missed an opportunity here to present a unique individual. Authenticity does peek out from the corners of this film but is left unexplored: the way Billy steps over a bus stop bench, the empty quiet town which serves as the backdrop to Billy and Heather’s walk, the seemingly tragic story of Billy’s mother (which really deserved more time). We don’t even met Billy’s younger sibling(s?) running around the perimeter of the film laughing and playing.

And why does Venditti end the film with a photograph of Billy and Heather? Their four-minute romance is exploited to melodramatic heights. And to add insult-to-injure the filmmaker includes a phone call from Billy’s mom (speaking for Billy) asking the filmmaker to omit portions of the film where he said he’d die for Heather. Of course they took it out…but they inserted the phone call.

The lovable nerd with a heart of gold has become an iconic American character—no matter how much the critics pretend Billy is the first outsider to be presented on-screen—like the court jester we admire their wit. But now we’re tricked into thinking we actually relate to them. Ironically, we’re just laughing more openly. Sadly, Billy is no exception.

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From David Bordwell’s post “Sleeves” — December 3rd, 2007

“Am I fussing over minutiae? No; Wyler and Mizoguchi did. We just have to follow where they lead. As I try to show. . . directors attend closely to things that might seem trivial. Our analysis needs to be as fine-grained as their craft and artistry.”

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If film critics recieved awards Bordwell would have at least one Palme d’Or…an inspiration and treasure.

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