Billy Liar, the sweet-natured 1963 coming-of-age comedy by John Schlesinger, is a movie worth going back to. The first time I saw it was, nearly half a decade ago, my pals, JT and Helen out in Philly, chose it for a dinner and a movie night. Maybe after enough pints spent hearing my lionization of epic children--having long counted titles like The Unvanquished, Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies and Chris Ware's stunted bizarro bildungsroman, Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth as touchstones, they figured it was time my affinity evolved. Maybe it was that the gilding of hard youthful lessons distracted me from the equally hard--if less youthful, lessons that were to follow, that with age must come other generations of spiritual wounds, diversions and errors.
Our culture absorbs movies like this into its deepest tissues, the characters reemerge in satires--as remakes. We dream of having children just to show them this and not everything else.
Ride's seminal Brotpop single, "Twisterella", a jangling Hollies-like dance pop-out, takes its name from the tune Billy co-wrote--a rapturous and innocent bit of bubblegum, perhaps Billy's only invention not to injure his working-class beloveds (or himself for that matter). The Decemberists too, with bookish exhibitionism forged, with "Billy Liar", an only vaguely related character piece, replete with conveniently trisyllabic words and ever baffling Victorian speech mannerisms.
Of course what sets the movie apart from the book written by Keith Waterhouse in 1959 (the same year as the publication of Catcher in the Rye) besides Schlesinger's acrobatic balance of pathos and ridiculousness, are the performances of Tom Courtenay (as Billy) and Julie Christie (as Liz).
Their chemistry (generated here, and again two years later in Dr. Zhivago) popped up in yet another musical ode--two, when you consider the complementary single version and alternate take, Yo La Tengo's "Tom Courtenay". Husband Ira Kaplan sang the A side version, a faithful shoegaze buzzer full of admiration and empty promise forgivability. It's a Billy Liar love letter worthy of Billy's own immoderate hand--written not to the characters but the actors playing them. Schlesinger used the concept of role-playing and staged drama to great effect, showing worlds overlapping one another, but separated by willful deceptions and armored fantasies. Yo La Tengo imaginatively went at it with a kind of blurred distinction between who the real subjects even were: the characters or the actors. Georgia's singing of the same song, an alternate take rescued on the 2005 collection, Prisoners of Love, a paean from Liz' frame of mind. Much as Georgia patterned herself on Liz' charm and liberality, she revealed in between the cracks a kind of pining suspected in Liz, but given that much of that buouyant charm derived from either her mystery or her unknowability--maybe both, never quite glimpsed with such dimension. It gave the tune an empathetic quality that puts its on high in our poplife menagerie of tired reference and painfully self-conscious homage. In the end I've resolved for my own liking that Georgia's is the definitive version regardless of where it wound up, and how it came to us.
Ultimately I love how these movies, and their lovely barnacles compel us to go back, weigh them again, and with diminishing surprise, feel the difference in meaning from year to year. When last I watched a disgraced Billy Fisher desert his love at the train station last I felt the hopeless familiarity accompanying his march back to the house where he grew up, as if watching my own mistakes played back for me. Wasn't he doing what he'd always done? Wasn't he running back to his shell, the boyhood providence, the unprofitable daydreams? And who abandons Julie Christie anyway?! This time around I thought differently. It wasn't the abandonment of love at all, in fact it was the opposite. The daydreamer was going back to the source of his problems, to the things he needed to change about himself, maybe even to care for the people who sheltered him in the nadir of his spinning disconnect.
It's actually a fantastic little scene, one in which, much as Georgia would nab it from Ira in the song, Julie Christie's Liz stole that final scene in the train station from her daydreaming man: The train is set for London, they'll have a life together. Billy's lies, romantic clusterfucks and petty crimes can become a thing of the past. It's a fresh start, except it couldn't possibly be. Liz sees it. Billy fidgets in his seat as the porter calls the last of the passengers in for final boarding. He needs an excuse. One last lie so he can go back and set all the other things right. There is an order to things. He rushes from the train to fetch the two of them some milk for the journey. He retrieves two bottles from the machine, turns and finds the train has left the station. Likely knowing Billy too well to be fooled Liz has left his suitcase on the landing. It's like in that charming breed of human acceptance born most often later in life in many of us and never in as many others, she says without bitterness, "not yet."