Context and perspective can be everything — it’s not difficult to simply view Jennifer Venditti’s adroit and honest documentary “Billy the Kid” (2007) as a sympathetic portrait of a working-class high schooler inflicted with Asperger’s. You can, if you insist on doing so, take it clinically, or as yet another small-framed nonfiction slice of life bearing with it a fashionable special-needs public issue. Too bad about Billy P., a 15-year-old Maine kid living in a converted mobile home with his remarried mom, remembering an abusive father, and mixing uncomfortably with his neurotypical teenage contemporaries in school, who largely tolerate him but keep him at arm’s length. Billy himself is a lively piece of work, chattering endlessly from a headful of old movies and entertaining dreams of being a rock star, but you need only to watch his tense body language and searching eyes for a few seconds to understand that he’s disconnected, that he cannot mesh with everyday human society.
I wouldn’t have thought much of that movie, but rather mysteriously, Venditti’s evolves into a different kind of experience. Simply put, as we’re forced to immerse ourselves in Billy’s daily struggle rather than ignore him like we might if we found ourselves behind him in line at McDonald’s, he becomes more than just a kid with a handicap — he becomes an iconic figure, a walking, talking representation of adolescent traumas. It’s hazardous thinking of handicapped individuals this way, and Venditti doesn’t do very much to encourage our thinking. But Billy does, and in his wake Asperger’s becomes more than just a disorder, but a living metaphor for our own tribulations growing up, trying to navigate an overwhelming world, attempting to find love and friendship and having to nurse the scars alone when we fail.
Once you go there, Billy’s indomitability becomes stirring. Miranda July, in her mini-essay accompanying the DVD, nails it viscerally: “There was nothing Billy said or did that I couldn’t relate to, and for this reason ‘Billy the Kid’ was a hair-raising ride for me. I’ve worked so hard to control all the impulses he lets fly… [B]y the end of the movie, it seemed to me that Billy was a superhero…” It’s true: as Billy creates, out of sheer force of will, a romance with a 16-year-old diner waitress with nystagmus, and then confronts its collapse, Venditti’s film becomes almost unbearably triumphalist, an anthemic paean to awkward teenagers everywhere. “Heroic” is a too-often-used term for the handicapped — after all, what choice do most of them have? But with Billy, it seems apt, because by dint of his condition he plunges fearlessly ahead when all of us would probably hold back and shy away. He’s not exactly a tragic figure, in the Aristotlean sense, but the movie is a covert “Quixote.” I thought as well of AndrÃ© Gide, and Hamsun’s “Hunger.” It’s too much to consider Billy as a Christ figure, but he may be a modern Prometheus.
Existentialist parallels bubble up helplessly, too, watching Helma Sanders-Brahms’ “No Mercy, No Future” (1981), the latest film of this internationally renowned German filmmaker’s oeuvre to be DVD’d by Facets. The fiery, dogged, despairing feminist voice of the New German Cinema, Sanders-Brahms is an all but unknown figure here, despite having had a few of her films distributed to American theaters. Deep into her career she remains an unrepentant New Waver, montaging and jump-cutting and metafictionalizing all over the place. Of her Facets catalogue, “Under the Pavement Lies the Strand” (1974) is a kind of frau reimagining of Godard’s “Masculin, FÃ©minin,” in which the failure of a post-1968 romance corresponds to the failure of all idealism, as it also liberates the woman. “Germany, Pale Mother” (1980), perhaps her most fondly remembered film, is an occasionally clumsy autobiographical period epic in which Eva Mattes plays Sanders’ mother, left alone (as so many of the filmmaker’s women are) during WWII, and forced to trek across the landscape away from the carnage with the child on her back.
“No Mercy, No Future” is a leaner and scarifying world apart — a relentless odyssey endured by a schizophrenic young woman who abandons her helpless upper-crust family and hits the streets of Berlin, the ultimate lost soul, looking for Jesus (so she says) but finding only men to exploit her. In a classic, show-it-all acting coup that doesn’t wriggle free of your memory very easily, the cataclysmically anemic Elisabeth Stepanek has a genuine, disturbing lostness, and her portrayal of soul-destroying madness is far from Romantic. Like Billy, Stepanek’s wastrel is an extreme case gravitationally attracting larger significances; practically every abuse and suffering a woman can endure in the western world falls between her legs. The heroine is a clueless lamb in an endless landscape of wolves and weasels. Rape is a given, and in Sanders-Brahms’ view not as harmful as emotional manipulation and romantic deceit. Certainly, the most appalling scene involves a horny immigrant man who ostensibly wants to marry her; he insists on sex too soon after an abortion, and the resulting hemorrhage-soaked coitus is hard to watch. And it goes on, punishingly, until the couple is swimming in a symbolic flood of gore. This is not a movie that goes gentle into the night of feminist outrage.
[Additional photos: “Billy the Kid,” Elephant Eye Films, 2007; “No Mercy, No Future,” Facets, 1981]
“Billy the Kid” (Zeitgeist Films) and “No Mercy, No Future” (Facets Video) are now available on DVD.