[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
It’s come to be almost a given that American communal life is pervaded with violence, contained or at large. Those filmmakers who aren’t examining contemporary urban jungles from vantage points of nihilistic glee or despair turn to the American rural past to disprove any vestigial illusions we might have had about the noble savage or the pastoral innocent. From Mean Streets to Badlands, from Bad Company to Thieves like Us, from Payday to Buster and Billie, the lay of the land remains the same: brave new worlds gone wrong, gone brutal, gone back from innocence either by accident or in cold blood. America, the home of hillbilly and ghetto crazies, killers pure in heart, traveling city streets and country backroads, dwarfed by skyscrapers or the prairie, always caught, mostly dead—the last American heroes.
Daniel Petrie’s Buster and Billie looks to southern Georgia circa 1948 to find another exemplum of American graffiti. Jan-Michael Vincent, whose male-model, soulless good looks have heretofore seemed most at home in urban films like The Mechanic, plays Buster, an all-around good guy who fulfills ‘most everybody’s dreams—those of his parents, his girl, and most of all the bevy of high school boys who follow him about, loving and hating him for being better than they are at just about everything. Petrie doesn’t develop the love/hate ambivalence on the part of Buster’s compatriots very well, mostly because he’s so hooked on that lush green South Georgia landscape which fairly begs to be photographed as some picture postcard out of the past. He’s also enchanted by the potential authenticity of using a lot of nonprofessional actors (citizens of Statesboro, Ga.) in Buster and Billie—and somehow nonprofessionals are coming more and more to look and sound like the most mannered professionals, their very stiltedness and camera-shyness metamorphosing into a stylish selfconsciousness.
But back to Buster: Bearing the burden of communal blessings is a pleasant task as long as you play by the rules. Buster wins points from the respectably disreputable owner of the local poolroom/bar for not joining the rest of the guys for their regular Saturday night gangbang. Instead, he gets to spend a horny couple of hours necking with his girl, who’s saving herself—if not him—for marriage. It’s hard to tell which is more loveless and unnatural: the bovine Billie (Joan Goodfellow) being mounted in the mud by Buster’s buddies, or Buster being coolly put off by the girl (Pamela Sue Martin) most likely to succeed at everything except getting turned on until custom allows—if then. Custom permits Buster to use Billie as the other boys use her, but not to see more in her than an object for rutting. As long as Billie is not human, Buster’s friends are not animals; as long as what Billie does for the only kind of affection she can get is condemned as unnatural, what nice girls won’t do for love or money is good, in the nature of things. The arbiter of proprieties, the poolroom overseer (Clifton James), cuts Buster dead, as do his erstwhile admirers, when it’s clear he’s allied himself with an outcast.
The best part of the film is the gradual evolution of that outcast. Quickened to life by the first real affection anyone has shown her, Billie slowly emerges from her nearly mindless, wordless lumpishness and awakens to her own humanity. Buster plays God with formless clay and then turns Adam to her Eve as they skinnydip and make love in the woods far from the unnatural constraints (and license) of the town. He takes her to church, introduces her to movies, dresses her in pretty clothes, and teaches her to dance—gifts that do not so much add to, but rather create, a person. When he is petulantly invalided by a cold, she entertains him by reading a Captain Marvel comic. “Shazaam!” she pronounces with childlike excitement, and to her, one feels, Buster’s love must be as much a magic open-sesame to doors she never missed for never having imagined them.
But community proprieties are not flouted so easily. Appropriately, it’s Buster’s gang that makes proper reprisal—appropriately, because smalltown rules are ironically most rigorously enforced by those who seemingly have least use for them. Billie’s resignation as sexual lightning rod looses aggressions that she herself becomes the victim of, and she is returned to her former position: a lifeless, used lump of flesh lying in the mud and rain, an object that will never again be animated by Buster’s—or any other—shazaam! Buster’s bloody revenge is that and more, for the all-around good boy has from the beginning harbored his own state of suppressed rage (although this too is sketchily developed by Petrie and company), rage against the constraints of his own goodness, the disguised isolation of the more sensitive, the more thoughtful man crowded by adolescent sycophants and doting adults in an environment of narrowmindedness and limited choices. His Galatea is lost to him, and perhaps Billie was the only art Buster will ever know, ever create. The ending of Buster and Billie is poorly constructed, with a really awkward breakdown in narrative sense and momentum, but the last shot of the film is one to remember. Flowers with which Buster has loaded his pickup truck fill the bottom of the frame. Beyond the truck Buster stands beside Billie’s grave. Freezeframe, and slowly all the color leeches out of the shot. It is the visual equivalent of Billie’s loss to Buster, and to us.
BUSTER AND BILLIE
Direction: Daniel Petrie. Screenplay: Ron Turbeville. Cinematography: Mario Tosi. Music: Al DeLory; Theme song: Hoyt Axton. Production: Ron Silverman.
The Players: Jan-Michael Vincent, Joan Goodfellow, Pamela Sue Martin, Robert Englund, Clifton James.
Copyright © 1974 Kathleen Murphy