Buffalo ‘66 (Directed by: Vincent Gallo) Buffalo ‘66 is Gallo’s ode to his childhood and hometown. Like most artists he writes from what he knows. Having moved to New York from an early age (around 17), for his directorial debut he went back to the city where he grew up, and even shot scenes in his real parents’ old house. Buffalo made him what he is, and still resonates deeply in him. He had enough emotional distance when he made the movie to be able to find the humor in it, but watching the movie it’s clear that his past still haunts him, “It’s an open wound”(1), as Roger Ebert describes it in his review.
Spite, resentment, revenge and anger seem to fuel Gallo’s energy; they’re his motivation to create. He is infamous for his public antics, his idiosyncrasy and statements like “’I stopped painting in 1990 at the peak of my success just to deny people my beautiful paintings.
And I did it out of spite.’” A one man army, nobody praises and hypes Gallo more than Gallo himself.
He’s never short of bravado and macho, like a kid forever competing with everybody else to be the coolest, most hands-on and authentic. And yet in his art, his stories and songs, we see a fragile man, haunted by his past, broken by the hardships of love. He presents himself that way, his heart perennially broken and sad, looking for revenge or closure. He’s a bitter man, but he is sad in style, of course.
His looks and sense of fashion and “cool” are integral to understanding what he does and where he is coming from. His cult of personality, gigantic ego and vanity inform his work a great
deal; it’s his approach, what makes him different. Gallo is an artist that operates as an outsider, but looks like a rock star. He understands that to stand out, to be noticed, an artist has to create his own hype, his own legend; his persona is as much a creation as his work. Which is why he likes to keep people guessing, and building a mystery around him. Provoke people and they’ll pay attention, elaborate on your own past, make things up, and you’ll appear more interesting. Consider the scene in Buffalo ‘66 where Ben Gazzara’s character performs “Fools Rush In” for Layla (Christina Ricci). The voice we hear is actually an old recording of Vincent Gallo’s father singing the classic song. In 1998, after the release of the movie he told Village Voice journalist Jerry Talmer that he himself had recorded his father, praising his own engineering skills: “So 10 years ago,” says 36-year-old Vincent, “I’m driving across the country in a car with one hundred of my cassettes, and at the end of the B side of some punk-rock thing there’s this old, dirty, sun-baked tape, and I hear that “Fools Rush In” and I’m stunned at my father’s talent and my 13-year-old engineering skills.
And that’s the inspiration for the whole movie…”(2) In 1992 though, he wrote an article for Sound Practices magazine where he tells a different story: “I remember my Grandma’s house. It was small and it had a smell, not a good smell or a bad smell just a certain smell. There was no TV, no radio – just this old wind up 78 machine with this big metal horn that had flowers painted on it. Underneath in a shelf, she had 9 records: three by Domenico Modugno- you know, the guy who wrote Volare, four Caruso records, and her two
favorites – one by Dean Martin and one by my father singing “Fools Rush In”. Before my Pops went to prison, he was a nite club singer. He got to record one single.”(3) Wouldn’t he mention the fact that he recorded his father’s single at age 13 on an article for a DIY sound magazine if it was true? And if his grandmother was listening to it on vinyl, clearly it wasn’t a homemade recording. But even if he’s contrived, small minded and petty, he seems to be self aware enough to be able to not only talk about it straight, but to also make art out of it, and if a movie like Buffalo 66 ultimately works is because Gallo can find the humor in his own story and persona. He has to be poking fun at himself and anyone with his outrageous provocations and massive trolling.
Just look at his website, where he offers himself for $50,000;(4) or his claims that he’s a republican, and that Bush is a great man. Through his work he can transcend himself and reach out to other people: “I’m clearly a small-minded person, with my own petty grievances. Hopefully, my work transcends my own petty grievances and small-minded nature. It’s best for me to remain small-minded on an emotional level and broad-minded on a conceptual level. It doesn’t matter whatever it is that makes me do my work. Neurosis, obsession, wanting people to like me, wanting my parents to feel bad for underrating me, making a lot of money, power, and social status, wanting girls to like me or just to meet one girl on a job. All of this doesn’t matter as long as the work that I do to achieve these small-minded needs is a lot more interesting than me and my reasons for making it.”(5)
But if the starting point, the initial motivation to do art was revenge, he’s past that, he says: “One begins one’s adult life trying to conquer the voices and the demons and the hang-ups of one’s childhood emotional life. At a certain point for me, I became actually interested in what I was doing to take this revenge. I became more interested in the activity and the result and the objects I was making out of these motivations so I became more preoccupied with what I was doing than what he was thinking and that happened gradually. At about the age of 30 I was finally more preoccupied with my work than with what my father thought of my work. At this point I have very little interest in proving him wrong, I am more interested in the work.”(6) He is an artist who identifies himself as a working man, a “hustler”; he doesn’t want to be seen as some delicate poet: “I don’t identify myself as an artist in that way, like a preconceived concept of what it means to be an artist.
That’s what a bunch of TV actors who finally get a movie job like to think of themselves. I’ve done so many different things. I’ve done a million different things for money. I’ve done a million things to have impact into culture. I’ve done a million things for love and approval and social status. So when I said ‘I hustle’ I was trying to describe the basic premise of what motivates me to do all these different things, and it’s certainly not poetic and anybody who tells you that it is for themselves is full of shit.” “I’m not a young poet. I’m a working person.”(6) The Buffalo shown in the movie is the one Gallo remembers, the one he describes in interviews. “It’s miserable. It’s a failed city living in a delusion of grandeur. It’s a regressive unambitious fat ass city with a bunch of real pricks who are controlling things like the newspaper and things like that. Some people are very charming there, and I’ve banged a lot of cute girls there, but I would say that it’s an unpleasant place and it certainly has had impact into my personality hang-ups and my personality struggles.”(6) This resentment and unresolved issues with his past are all over the film.
Was he looking for closure by making it? Did he find it? One of the central themes of the movie is the relationship the main character Billy Brown has with his parents. They don’t think much of his son, football is more important to his mom than his kid. She regrets having Billy, she lost a game the day she had Billy. According to Gallo, the character of the father (played by Ben Gazzara) is just like his own father.(2) Even though there’s plenty of humor in the scenes involving the parents, it’s evident that Gallo holds a great deal of resentment towards them and his whole upbringing.
What is unclear though is the way he resolves it, the way he deals with it. Why would Billy Brown bother going to the lengths of kidnapping a girl and taking her home to his parents to try to impress them, when they couldn’t care less. Nothing in the movie makes much sense if you try to rationalize it, because the story is more about emotions than reason. But that’s what makes it feel urgent and alive, and how the moments of humor and fantasy make sense. We don’t get to know the other, real side of the story. Gallo went back to his hometown to make this movie, shot scenes in his own childhood house and used an old recording of his father singing. How is his relationship with his real parents, what did they think of the movie, what was it like when Gallo came home shoot it, how did that affect their relationship? What about his old neighborhood, old acquaintances, how did that all play out, and how did that ultimately affect Gallo himself?
These are all questions we cannot answer, and of course you don’t have to know all the details of an artist’s personal life to understand his oeuvre, but in cases like Gallo, life and art are so intermingled that you’re always aware that you’re only seeing half the picture. He has a problem with people seeing Buffalo ‘66 as an autobiographical movie, for he feels that it takes credit away from all the work he did in it (writer, director, composer, star): “I feel that when you or anyone else refers to that film as “autobiographical” what you are really doing is creating a sense or an idea that I didn’t really write the script. It sort of wrote itself. And since I am playing myself, I’m not really acting and since I’m not really acting and the script wrote itself then the film sort of directs itself.
Well, it wasn’t autobiographical, it’s a real screenplay and a real performance and a real soundtrack.”(5) He might have a point, but as a viewer it’s very difficult to separate the character of Billy Brown from the persona of Vincent Gallo, especially if you know anything about him. Billy Brown is just like the Vincent Gallo you read in interviews: jumpy, never relaxed, easily offended, perpetually at war with everybody, never hesitates to throw threats and snark, brag about his many talents or dismiss the work of others. Except of course Billy Brown is a pathetic nobody and Vincent Gallo a model and multidisciplinary artist. His movies and art are confessional, but in a very capricious way, we are always reminded that he does things his way. Everybody knows that film auteurs are the ones that do what they want and are stubborn enough to get complete control, it’s just that Vincent Gallo makes really sure you are aware of this at all times.
In 2004, around the time his second movie The Brown Bunny was released in America, Gallo told Ebert that he’s an entertainer: “Film has a purpose. It’s not art. Real art is an esoteric thing done by somebody without purpose in mind. I’ve done that in my life and I’m not doing that making movies. I’m an entertainer. I love all movies. I don’t divide them up into art films, indie films.”(7) But he makes movies for himself. About himself, by himself, for himself. The obvious proof being Promises Written in Water, his third feature. Premiered in 2010 at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, it has not been showed since, and Gallo says he has no plans to release it to the public, so that it is “allowed to rest in peace, and stored without being exposed to the dark energies from the public.”(8)
He was invited to screen it this year at the Whitney Biennial in New York, but he didn’t bother to show up. His movies are made from his very specific point of view, always just his. It’s all about finding sympathy for him the lead. The world revolves around him, everything transformed by his view. His female characters are concepts, fantasies, vague and elusive; we never really get to know who they are. Christina Ricci’s character in Buffalo 66 is more than willing to cooperate with him from the beginning. He doesn’t hold a gun against her, doesn’t need to use much violence (except verbally) to persuade her. By the end of the movie it’s her that’s begging him to return. It’s like Billy Brown is so used to antagonizing with everybody that he doesn’t even know how to deal with someone who actually likes him. A self-professed perfectionist, he wants to control as much as possible in his movies, equaling his directorial approach to the carefully constructed classic Hollywood musicals: “When I made the movie, in my mind I was making a classic musical. So when Ben Gazzara sings, or when Christina Ricci does her tap dance, or in the bedroom scene where we kiss, it’s choreography.
Those are musical numbers like in those old Hollywood musicals.”(2) He insisted director of photography and camera operator Lance Acord that the film be shot on 35mm reversal stock, a very rare old type of film stock that created many problems during production. Gallo got the idea from an Italian jeans commercial he had previously worked on with Acord. “The director wanted the spot to look like an old print of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou”, recalls Acord, “With Vincent as the Belmondo character. I chose to shoot with reversal to obtain that faded look you see in older prints, while still maintaining strong saturation in the primaries.”(9) The other key visual references for the look of the film were the NFL Films feature presentation of the 1969 Jets Vs. Colts championship game, and the look of old pictures, according to Acord, “the kind you might find in a suitcase under a table at the flea market. Some were nudes of someone’s girlfriend, probably lit with Photofloods and shot on Kodachrome. The girl was reclining on an avocado couch, against a brown curtain and a dull orange rug.
There is a sincerity and purity in the crudeness of the technique that somehow makes work like that very revealing and powerful. We tried to bring some of that to the movie.” As for the NFL movie, apparently Gallo was taken by his father as a kid to see its production. It was shot on high-contrast reversal Video News film, and made a strong impression on Gallo. (9) The visual components of the film include the use of the picture-in-picture technique, which consists of a small window of footage superimposed over a larger window at the same time(11) (in the beginning of the movie, after Billy is released from prison, he lays on a bench in the street while the screen fills with small windows with different scenes that show us his time in prison, and later on as he sits on the table with his parents, complimentary windows appear a couple of times to show us painful moments from Billy’s childhood);
the use of Japanese filmmaker Yazujiro Ozu’s “Tatami shots” (Christina Ricci’s car plates read “OZU”(12)), in which the camera is placed at a low height, at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat, so that the audience is on the same visual level as the characters sitting, to place the viewer right into whatever conversation is going on(11) (the dinner sequence with Billy, his parents and Christina Ricci sitting at the table); and the striking 3D-like virtual pan in the moment where Billy enters the strip club and imagines killing the owner and then turning the gun on himself. Lance Acord got the idea from French director Michel Gondry, who had employed a technique where “A circular still-camera array was simultaneously triggered, “freezing” the subject from multiple angles.
The resulting frames were then sequentially morphed and animated to create a virtual pan and 3-D effect”. Instead of using still cameras, Accord used a movie camera to produce the stills, moving the camera around the actors as they stood still holding their positions. Blown-glass pieces resembling splashing red liquid where attached to Gallo’s head so that they resembled blood coming out of his head to help achieve the effect of a moment frozen in time.(9) Somewhere between John Cassavetes (or that school of 60s-70s American realism) and art films, Buffalo ‘66 can feel overcrowded with visual motifs and ideas, at times style overcoming substance, but the overall mood and tone of the film are well maintained.
The emotions and the urgency of Billy Brown’s character (and Gallo’s performance) feel real enough to go beyond the pose. He even has enough perspective to be able to laugh at himself. Roger Ebert argues that the movie doesn’t offer a payoff, a real resolution. “Buffalo ‘66 isn’t really about endings, anyway. Endings are about conclusions and statements, and Gallo is obviously too much in turmoil about this material to organize it into a payoff.”(1) But the movie actually ends on a positive note; he’s opting to be optimistic, embracing the possibility of love. After envisioning a fatal ending to his story, he backs out and chooses a happy ending, and that is a resolution.
1) Ebert, Roger. “Buffalo ‘66”. Review. Chicago Sun-Times (Chicago) 7 Aug. 1998. Print/ Online.
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19980807/REVIEWS/80807 0302/1023 2) Tallmer, Jerry. “Vincent Gallo and Buffalo ’66”. Interview with Vincent Gallo. New York City 1998. Online. http://www.siegelproductions.ca/filmfanatics/gallo.htm. 3) Gallo, Vincent. “Mono Mia”. Article. Sound Practices Magazine. Summer 1992. Print/Online. http://www.drowninginbrown.com/dib_sp.htm 4) Vincent Gallo’s website. http://www.vgmerchandise.com/store/home.php 5) Kaufman, Anthony. Vincent Gallo. Interview. Soma Magazine. November 2001. Print/ Online. http://www.vincentgallo.com/writing/AnthonyKaufman.html 6) Taylor, Lee. “The Cover Star: An Interview with Vincent Gallo”. Flux Magazine. UK, No.9, Oct/Nov 1998 Print/Online. http://www.galloappreciation.com/print/flux.html 7) Ebert, Roger. “The whole truth from Vincent Gallour”. Chicago Sun-Times (Chicago). August 29,2004. Print/ Online. http://www.galloappreciation.com/index2.html 8) Lim, Dennis. “R.I.P. ‘Promises,’ It Was Nice Knowing You”. New York Times (New York Edition) June 8, 2012. Print/ Online. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/movies/vincent-gallo-keeps-promises-written-inwater-off-screens.html 9) Oppenheimer, Jean. “Playing a Risky Stock on Buffalo 66”. American Cinematographer. July 1998, Vol. 79 Issue 7, p32. Print/Online database Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson) 10) Video Glossary. Online. http://www.video-editing-made-easy.com/video-glossary-p.html 11) Criterion. “The Ozu Shot: Tokyo-ga and Late Spring” Criterion film essay. Online. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2257-the-ozu-shot-tokyo-ga-and-late-spring 12) Internet Movie Data Base. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118789/trivia