PSA: Buffalo ’66 (1998), or Still Life With Vincent Gallo

26 02 2009
Christina Ricci as a blonde... No, sir, I dont like it!

Lose one on to the Heart of The Sunrise...

Greetings, all! Welcome to another addition of the PSA, where I give my own take on movies I have already seen before so you can make up your teetering modern mind. Today we have a movie that has divided a lot of people. Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 is as controversial as it is mesmerizing. The director, writer, and star of this fiercely independent flick is something of an outspoken asshole, and when he is not churning out quality content he is being very off-putting to a large number of people. I do not like the man myself, but I really do not care what the man does in his personal life as long as the art is good. And I feel that this piece of art is very, very good.

Billy Brown is a lonely, disturbed 30 year-old individual who just served his sentence of 5 years for a crime he did not commit. He made a large bet on Buffalo to win the Super Bowl with a bookie, a bet which he lost. And not being able to pay back the money, he had the chance to take the fall for a robbery and serve time for the bookie’s friend (otherwise, the bookie was going to kill him and his family). Billy accepted this, and took seven years in jail for his mistake. But he does not blame himself or the bookie or anyone else. Instead, he blames the kicker who missed the winning kick for Buffalo, who he hears missed it on purpose to collect on a bet of his own. So he hatches a plan, once out of jail, to dispose of the man whom he believes ruined his life. Before that, though, he wants to see his family once more, a dysfunctional mother and father who are worthless in every way. But even that turns out to be complicated, because instead of telling his parents the truth about his incarceration, he makes up a story explaining his disappearance involving getting married and finding a government job. So, not having a girlfriend or even knowing any women, he does what any of us would do; abduct a tap-dance student and force her to be a fake-wife. Duh. The woman he abducts, Layla, is a lovely, shy, quirky young woman who almost doesn’t seem to mind being kidnapped. She is frightened at first, but actually warms up to him and finds that she might be in love with him (!!). That doesn’t mean anything, though, to depressed, self-absorbed Billy, who only wants someone to make him look like less of a fuck-up before he kills the kicker who ruined his life. Will his mother and father believe this complex ruse? Will Billy really go through with killing that damn kicker and ruin his life again? Will he warm up to Layla’s love, the only thing that can save him?

This is a difficult movie on a lot of levels. Gallo creates a monster of narcissism and self-assuredness here that is almost indescribable. His character, Billy, is so damaged but so concerned with himself that we end up despising him. The way he treats Layla, someone who just wants to help, is appaling, and you run the risk of wanting to pick up Gallo’s address on the internet and just bashing him at his palatial New York home. He doesn’t act as much as he makes an autobiography on screen, a starkly disfigured portrait of loneliness through mistake after mistake, self-inflicted wound after self-inflicted wound. It is despicable, and I think we can all agree that Vincent Gallo needs to be assaulted heartily.

But, damn it, I like this movie a lot! And not because of the plot, really. That has something to do with it, I suppose, but Gallo as a director is really innovative. He makes the feature very vintage and dirty, recording sound on antique equipment and filming with 35mm film stock. It adds to the entire beaten-down mood of the picture. It feels the whole way through that Buffalo, New York is dying, and it feels the same for the old equipment he uses, as if the camera will simply stop working at any moment. He makes use of a number of older camera techniques, and it turns at once from a home movie shot with the care of capricious summer to a classically shot Hollywood movie. It is the sensibility that attracts me; the idea of making a movie as an auteur, an idea that Gallo takes very seriously.

The cast is great. Christina Ricci took a number of abuses at Gallo’s hands, and I can only assume that it was worse working with him than she could ever truly articulate. But the results, however wickedly achieved, speak for themselves. She is great as Billy’s long-suffering hostage/girlfriend Layla. She takes the cold things he says to her because he loves him, and despite the misguided nature of that notion, she feels genuine as a person. And for this we love her, and hope that she can change him. Other actors shine, like Angelica Huston, who plays Billy’s mom. She is a die-hard Buffalo fan, and you can really tell that she cares about football more than she does her son. Billy’s father, played by Ben Gazzara, is a permanently pissed-off curmudgeon, with not a drop of interest in his child either. The family scenes where they are all together are equal parts hilarious and tragic, because they are so uncaring of their son who has returned after so long that you cannot even comprehend the sadness and just have to laugh.

Oh, and the soundtrack is AMAZING! Featuring some of my favorite songs from my favorite progressive bands like Yes and King Crimson, this collection of songs really gets my blood going. It adds to the vintage quality the whole movie has, and some of the instrumental noodling might just be the inner working of Vincent Gallo’s head. I think every person on earth should own it, and I think after you hear it, you will too.

Check this movie out once. You may be disgusted by it, and I can’t quite say that I wasn’t either, but it was such an enjoyable experience to see a pioneering vision from an American auteur that it did not phase me much. I think Vincent Gallo is scum, but he knows what I like, and I have to admit it. It is a journey through a fading, haunted America that will have you talking with your friends. I give Buffalo ’66 9 self-absorbed auteurs out of 10!

See you tomorrow, where we discuss Stray Dog!