Z To A: Buffalo ’66 (1998)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Welcome to Buffalo- dingy, depressing, cold, grey and hilarious as Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) gets out of the frying pan (jail) and into the fire (home to his parents).  Billy emerges from prison where he’s just done a five year stretch with three missions.  The first, and most hilariously pressing, is to take a pee.  The next is to find the right gal to show off to mom and dad (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara).  The last is to assassinate the Buffalo Bills placekicker whose missed field goal caused him to lose the bet that led him into a life of crime.  Wandering into a tap dance studio to accomplish his first mission, he promptly kidnaps Layla (Christina Ricci) from her tap class- second mission accomplished.  Before Billy can get around to mission number three he goes home again only to confirm what he suspected all along: his barely socialized parents didn’t love him even a little!

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Like many films I’ve reviewed in this series, Buffalo ’66 is here for personal reasons.  The first time I saw it I appreciated how funny and strange it was- an off-beat story encapsulated in its own bizarre reality.  The second time I saw it was during a time where I needed to see it.  Like The Fall, the story is about transcending hopelessness and death, and I happened to revisit it at a moment where I needed to be reminded that was possible.  There’s a light at the end of every tunnel, and Buffalo ’66 illustrates that in such an unusual and unexpected way.  I haven’t seen anything like it since.

The film debuted at Sundance eighteen years ago (doing some quick math: that’s half of Christina Ricci’s lifetime).  Has it aged well?  Yes, beautifully.  Has it aged well enough to be embraced in this PC-driven, sociologically shifting present?  Well, to be honest, um… no.

Buffalo ’66 is about an incredibly difficult man who crosses paths with a girl who is as compliant as she is quietly unyielding and assertive.  She isn’t quite real.  Ricci described the character as a “fantasy girl,” which might be the only way to explain her actions.  In the midst of her own kidnapping she doesn’t fear her captor or attempt to run away, even though she is given ample opportunities and reasons to escape.

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For my part I’ve always had the feeling that Layla fell for Billy at first sight.  Then he opened his mouth and all that came out was homophobic slurs- so there’s that (PC Strike #1).  In spite of this, she immediately sees something that hardly any human being would have the patience to attempt to fathom: that Billy is sweet and handsome, and that he also has the capacity to love her back.

Oh man, if only there was someone as patient and accepting as Layla for everybody.

buffalo-66-12Does that excuse Billy’s behavior toward her?  Absolutely not.  I will say this, though- it’s alternately irritating and hilarious to watch.  His first interactions with Layla consist of him berating, insulting and threatening her with bodily harm before building to these unbelievable lines: “If you make a fool outta me, I swear to God I’ll kill you right there… And I’ll tell you something else.  If you make me look bad, I will never, ever talk to you again.”

This is a moment where you’re like, “What the- is that even a threat?”  But the thing is Layla isn’t taking any of his threats seriously.  Although she is annoyed she is also intrigued with him.  Why?  Well, perhaps it’s because he has been pretty ridiculous so far.  Other than that, who knows.

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It’s a fact of life that at some point you’ll encounter someone who is an absolute asshole.  I’ve experienced my share, but sometimes I’ve taken a step back and thought, “How did this happen?  How did you happen?”  Most of the time you’ll never find a satisfactory answer, whether you’re posing the question concerning a family member, a sociopathic CEO or the guy who cut you off on the freeway.  But the fact is their behavior doesn’t materialize out of nothing.  Likewise crime doesn’t come from nothing.  Harshness doesn’t come from nothing.  There are reasons.

By the end of Buffalo ’66 the audience ends up knowing more about Billy Brown, even more than Layla does.  Through flashbacks we’re shown how he was forced to do time for a crime he didn’t commit and how five years in prison were traumatic for him.  We learn he had an incredibly unhappy childhood with a neglectful mother and an abusive father (a short vignette implies that his father killed his puppy).  He has been adrift and alone with only one childhood friend to talk to, Goon aka “Rocky” (Kevin Corrigan), and no one else demonstrating genuine love or interest in him.  He has no prospects or future.  He has never had a girlfriend.  He has been a ghost most of his life, albeit a prickly and neurotic one.

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The story becomes more complicated when it becomes clear Billy has decided he has nothing to lose, which explains most of his antagonistic behavior.  He is burning bridges left and right, whether he is rejecting Layla’s affection or calling Goon an “ugly retard” (PC Strike #2).  His return to Buffalo is his farewell ride because he has decided that life isn’t worth living anymore.  All he has is a list counting down to an ending.

  1. Find somewhere to pee.
  2. Find someone to pretend to his wife.
  3. Appear successful during his last visit with his parents.
  4. Bowl at his local alley.
  5. Die.

This doesn’t become apparent for quite some time, only surfacing during the moments where he’s alone.  Billy is nothing but an angry, frightened and broken person who has given up.

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In a weird way Buffalo ’66 demonstrates how it’s impossible to know someone’s true intentions, let alone see into their soul.  Although it’s clear that the story isn’t operating in our day-to-day reality, its message makes things seem more hopeful.  That hope is embodied by Layla, who remains steadfast in trying to know Billy and understand where he’s coming from.  No matter how much he tries to push her away, she doesn’t move or push back.  She wants him to see what she sees in him, even though it’s impossible for everyone else, including Billy himself.

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I guess what I’m trying to say here is Layla represents love that is offering itself and could be easily missed.  Everyone could benefit from some love, even assholes like Billy.  What sets him apart is what he decides to do with it, leading to a hairpin turn near the end of the film.  In fact, the ending is so memorable it makes you wish the film could go on for longer, because you aren’t sure if you’ve seen who Billy truly is, what he could be or both.

Although the film is great- at times startlingly brilliant- the production was troubled.  Gallo not only starred but wrote and directed the film, obsessing over every detail.  He had run-ins with Anjelica Huston.  He insulted cinematographer Lance Acord in post-wrap interviews.  A heated argument with Ben Gazzara made it into the final cut.  Kevin Corrigan was uncomfortable with his performance so he asked to remain uncredited.  Years later, when asked about her experience on set, Christina Ricci said she would never work with Gallo again.

Of course I’m not here to condemn or defend Vincent Gallo, although my interest in his work highlights my own hypocrisies and contradictions.  I’m just here to write about the movie.  Nevertheless, what I find interesting about him is that in spite of his hostile public persona he seems acutely aware of what he’s doing, both the good and the inexcusable.  In an interview with Elvis Mitchell he stated that Buffalo ’66 is a portrait of his father and how he would have turned out if he hadn’t left home or made an effort to avoid the same behavior.  For a guy who has been pegged as narcissistic and self-indulgent, this gives me pause.  It turns out that Buffalo ’66 isn’t a portrait of what Gallo thinks is appropriate or romantic, but what should be questioned and rooted out.

And sure- at its worst Buffalo ’66 could be written off as self-indulgent art, but what counts is how that art ultimately effects the people who see it.  Gallo will always be divisive as a person, but in the end the film manages to speak for itself after all of these years.  For one thing Gallo can’t deny Ricci’s contribution, even though they had a falling out in the press:

“No, no.  But listen: Christina Ricci — wow.  Even though she’s said some stuff about me recently, the little Judas,” she was “excellent, excellent, excellent” in Buffalo.  She was great.  Perfect.  He shakes his head, smiles, then frowns.

Ricci reflected on the film last year and has become more forgiving as well:

“It’s unfortunate because I think people have definitely shied away from seeing those movies because of the way [Gallo has] presented himself in the press and stuff,” Ricci said.  “But I’ve worked with tons of people who have all kinds of different behavior, and you really have to look, at the end of the day, at: What did I create?  What was I a part of?  And I think that’s what’s going to last and be really important.”

Upon revisiting Buffalo ’66 I’ve realized that she’s right.  When you watch the film everything behind it doesn’t matter.  All you see is two incredibly mismatched people who are forced together in this impossible situation, spanning time.

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