American Independent cinema in the 90’s was mostly interested in the post-modern rantings of Tarantino, the monologuing of Smith or raised eyebrows of The Coens. It was the rise of the Anderson’s Paul and Wes and the growing prominence of Linklater. The names were many and the films were plentiful. Yet hidden within these now well-known names, hides the wide eyes and wild hair of Vincent Gallo and his bold feature film debut Buffalo 66.
Buffalo 66 is beautiful yet grungy. It’s sensitive yet aggressive. It’s strange and abstract and yet holds an air of the familiar about it. Much like it’s director, it manages to be difficult to get along with and yet oddly compelling from scene to scene. A difficult tightrope act, but one a man like Gallo clearly revels in.
Gallo also stars in his own film as Billy, a bedraggled young man who’s just left prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The moment he leaves, he tries to re-enter. It’s only a little later we realise just why he seemed so eager to head back to the big house.
It’s in the film’s opening segments that the film sets itself apart from many of its 90’s counterparts. Opening with a film photograph of a childhood Billy, his date and place of birth (the year and location being the titular Buffalo 66) and a haunting, dream-like tone of the song Lonely Boy, also written by Gallo, is draped over the very first moments. We realise that this film, at least its opening, is a balm created to try and sooth not only the abrasions of what we are about to see but also of a man who made the film. This isn’t the post-modern winking of some of the earlier names mentioned. It is a deeply concentrated dissection of old wounds.
Gallo decides within these opening moments of a newly release Billy to deliver a full of images creating a mosaic of prison life introducing the film’s character and overall tone with economy and style. Already within the film’s opening 3 minutes, we’ve been introduced and established by our protagonist and his life in a way other films would have filled themselves with overbearing and stuffy dialogue.
Working with the then young upstart Lance Accord, the rest of the film’s opening is largely a series of wide, isolating shots, which only enhance the tragic isolation of a not-great guy gone bad. Gallo’s brilliant next trick, however, is to push the audience to empathise with this un-P.C, volatile, rouge by having him kidnap a cherub-cheeked blonde name Layla, played by a wonderfully game Christina Ricci.
The rest of the film is a loosely tied tragi-comedy of Billy picking at his emotional scars. His kidnapping of Layla is a short-sighted attempt to impress his grotesque parents played by acting veteran’s Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara. He goes bowling at his old spot to see if he’s still got the touch. He tries passive aggressively to date Layla, who we are never sure why he goes along with the kidnapping or parent meeting, but is allowed her own time to do some impromptu tap dancing to herself in a spotlight, such is the way of the film.
We begin to realise that Billy’s main purpose has much to do with what he was placed in jail for and what he intends to do now that he’s out, yet the main plot is almost inconsequential to the smaller details which help paint the picture of the boy who was tipped off the tracks. The selfish mother who only cares about the football game on T.V. The angry father whose smooth crooning is overshadowed by how easily he’s angered. The family meeting, filmed in the same house that Gallo grew up in, is filled with torrid moments. The disclosure of Billy and the only Superbowl game missed his mother missed is just as painful as that of dinner scene revelation which lies in the 1998 film Festen, which would make a solid double bill of films of broken families and discarded children.
It’s a film which feels so deeply personal, that it’s unsurprising that Gallo pretty much alienated everyone on set. His working relationships with the likes of Ricci, Huston, and Accord ensured that they never worked with him again. And yet, in spite of this Buffalo 66 holds some of the best work of those involved. If a film is meant to feel like a rock in a shoe then Gallo maybe a snugly fitting jagged pebble. There’s an assurance of craft which feels lesser seen in indie American features of recent times, yet with such boldness also bring an aggression both mirrored in real life and the film. Gallo seems to play things the only way he can: pushing buttons and bringing people closer to the edge. It seems that this is his favorite way of working.
Gallo’s love for the personal reared its head again in the infamous The Brown Bunny (2003), which has Gallo receiving a real blow job from his ex-girlfriend Chole Sevigny. The film gained many a boo at Cannes. Buffalo 66 never made the festival (Gallo has claimed this is Huston’s fault), but one wonders if Buffalo 66’s grungy 16mm aesthetic and passive aggressive nature really needed festival approval, despite his claims, it’s hard to believe Gallo truly cared.
In watching Buffalo 66, one could say that the man knows a thing or two about being unloved.
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