The Legend of Billie Jean

(Matthew Robbins, USA, 1985)


The Legend of Billie Jean (no relation to Michael Jackson’s song) is an inspiring tale of youth revolt that bases its campaign of honour on something actually quite small: the measly $608 that BJ (Helen Slater) wants from a local bully and his Dad for the wrecking of her little brother’s cherished motorcycle.


But it has much to say – a much to propose, to invent – about both narrative action (how to tell a story, stage a scene) and also symbolic action.


Indeed, the film elaborates an entire theory of symbolic action. The spontaneous catchcry of Billie (Helen Slater) – “Fair is fair!” – becomes a community slogan among all under-sixteens, as she takes on an outlaw public image drawing in equal measure from Bonnie Parker and (in a particularly inspired touch) Joan of Arc.


But she can also renounce that position when it has lost its use-value, withdrawing both herself and her knowing audience from that arena.


Like many of the most fascinating teen movies, it hinges on a series of moments that stretch just a little the boundaries of what can be thought and represented via the vehicles of its stereotypical characters. In the language of Jacques Rancière, it truly “redistributes the sensible”!


These are transgressions not much like those which modernism values, but in a way they are more powerful, more real, and certainly more populist: Billie Jean’s celebration of the first menstrual bleeding her young sidekick Putter (Yeardley Smith, later famous as the voice of Lisa Simpson); Putter’s defiance of parental law by the gesture of cutting off her pigtails; the wonderful moment when a five-year-old kid silently takes a video to the cops and then flourishes a Billie Jean salute.


This is a teen revolt movie you can really believe in, an apotheosis of genuine girl-power.


If it has a (very clever and mobile) thematic schema, it also has a wonderful, stylistic texture that keeps opening the schema out from the inside. At every moment, the film bubbles: propelled by questions, asides, distractions, complications. Virtually every scene is a model of how to fill the spaces between the key lines, actions, shots (in this respect resembling Jonathan R. Betuel’s My Science Project [1985]).


It’s as much like the cinema of which Gilles Deleuze dreams in his Movement-Image – a cinema in which each moment of a film would serve to ceaselessly transform the whole, keeping it in motion – as any modernist masterpiece (by Duras or Dreyer or Syberberg) that I can summon.

© Adrian Martin 1987 / 2014

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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