America’s greatest film genre is yet again receiving some unorthodox treatment. Last year, explicit gay contours crept into Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s elegiac Oscar contender. This year, some might scoff at the treatment of one of Wild West’s greatest legends, William Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid. They may point to various problems: First, that it is directed by, yes, a female–Anne Feinsilber; second, that the production is French; last but not least, the legendary gunslinger gets bonded with Arthur Rimbaud, the equally notorious and famous French poet. Bonney and Rimbaud? Sounds like a joke from Nanni Moretti’s political satire, Il Caimano, where a spiritually and financially wrecked producer is credited with a “masterpiece” called Maciste vs. Freud.
I’ve never had a problem with genre-bending or outright provocative cineastes. Feinsilber, a newcomer exactly my age, fits my modern iconoclast director image perfectly. She picks up a legend and casts a question mark over its reality/myth. Did The Kid die by way of Pat Garrett’s bullet? Was he shot in the back or not? Were his last words actually “Who’s there?”? Would a person on the lam really ask questions first and shoot second, or vice versa? Or did The Kid strike a deal with Garrett, flee south and die peacefuly somewhere in the 1950s, perhaps witnessing one of the silver screen’s interpretations of his life? Who knows? Do we or should we care? One who certainly does is Tom Sullivan, the actual ex-sheriff of Lincoln County, who describes his efforts to exhume the body of Bonney’s mother for DNA testing (to prove if the young killer’s corpse really lies in a grave in Fort Sumner, New Mexico)–efforts shut down by a judge whose motives Sullivan describes as purely financial.
Requiem for Billy the Kid is a finely structured puzzle, part documentary, part family saga, part research project and part analysis. Rudy Wurlitzer, screenwriter of Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the greatest screen version of the Kid’s story, laments over viewers “moving away from romanticization of the Kid’s irresponsibility to a position closer to Garrett’s responsibility.”
So where does Arthur Rimbaud – this archetypal rebel with an extraordinary life, precocious triumphs, reckless scandals, and mercenary adventures in exotic locales – fit in? As history shows, he was as wild and unpredictable as Bonney ever was. Rimbaud’s poetry comes alive in the verses read by Kris Kristofferson, Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid, but the film strikes a distinctive chord with Feinsilber’s thesis of a spiritual bond between the two contemporaries. She observes that, while one used a gun and the other a pen, both ended their careers at the same age of twenty-one—the Kid by death (or exile), Rimbaud by his unexplained break with literature. Right? Right. Marlon Brando would have liked this movie as well; after all, he wanted The Kid (played by himself) to look good, to be good and to survive in the 1961 One-Eyed Jacks, his sole directorial effort and a vision of The Kid’s life.