Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Buffalo '66 (1998)

I went with my buddy Dave to see this film when it came out. I think I had seen a trailer for it somewhere and it looked intriguing. Mostly, Christina Ricci was the appeal for me. We really had no idea what to expect. I walked out of the theater after the movie and had a new top 5 movie on my list. The film is darkly comedic, with Gallo channeling Ozu, Welles and Capra, yes Frank Capra!

Billy Brown is released from prison after taking the fall for a petty crime he didn't commit. He was forced to take the fall in exchange for defaulting on his payment for a bet he made with a bookie on a Buffalo Bill's game. As we follow him through his day after being released from jail, the audience is given some insight into his background from his ineffectual mother, his love of bowling to his obsession over a woman that was barely aware of his existence. Forced into his day of adventures is Christina Ricci, who is essentially kidnapped by Billy and falls into Stockholm Syndrome. The plot builds as Billy plans to get his revenge on Scott Wood, the QB responsible for losing the football game that cost Billy the $10,000 and landed him in jail. Roger Ebert hated The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo's follow up to his 1998 masterpiece, Buffalo '66. But what did Ebert have to say about this film? He actually gave it 3 stars! The movie is not for everyone but has so many redeeming qualities it's impossible to not find something to love. What other film has Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston, Rosanna Arquette, Jan-Michael Vincent AND Mickey Rourke?!

And now my original 2006 essay on the film:

Buffalo ‘66, the Art Film

Vincent Gallo’s 1998 feature length debut, Buffalo ‘66 is considered by many to be an indie classic.  An indie film is described by as a film that is produced and distributed without major studio financing.  These indie or independent films are typically categorized as art films.  This essay will address the ways in which scenes of Buffalo ‘66 reflect the definition of an art film by the film theorist David Bordwell.
In Bordwell’s article, “The Cinema as a Mod of Film Practice,” he states that the art film defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode of cause and effect linkage of events.  Instead, art films typically feature a looser linkage and a deeper study into what motivates that loosening of cause and effect events. (Braudy 776)  This idea is prevalent throughout Buffalo ‘66 as we join Billy Brown just as he is released from prison and follow him through the next 10 hours or so of his life. 
A specific example from the film that supports Bordwell’s idea would be when Billy finally ends up at the dance studio where he tries to use their bathroom to relieve himself after trying unsuccessfully for the first 10 minutes of the film to find somewhere to go, while in the hallway, he borrows a quarter from Layla to use the phone, who is on her way to the bathroom.  We then overhear his conversation with his mother explaining that he just flew in for one day with his wife, who his parents have never met.  She insists on Billy bringing his new wife to the house to meet them.  He reluctantly agrees which results in him deciding to kidnap Layla as she comes back out of the restroom.  This is not the typical cause and effect sequence that a regular narrative driven film would have.  First, we are not sure what his true intentions are with Layla.  Is he going to rape her, rob her and steal her car or what?  After all, Billy was just released from prison and we do not know what he was in there for.  There are several minutes of uneasiness as we see and hear Billy treat Layla in a violent way.  This includes lines like Billy telling Layla if she doesn’t do what he says he’ll take a bite of her cheek and shit her out.  Up to that point we are led to believe that his intentions are of something unpleasant.  It’s not until they arrive at his parent’s house that Billy explains to Layla that he just plans on using her as his wife to impress his parents.  This form of character interaction is right at home in an art film but would not fit into the regular Hollywood narrative style.
Another example is when Billy and Layla arrive at his parent’s home.  The audience would expect the parents to be happy to finally see their new daughter-in-law and son who has been away.  This concept is immediately thrown out the window when Billy’s father, Jimmy, answers the door and immediately yells to his wife that her “son” is here.  She welcomes him and Layla in.  The next scene shows all four people sitting around a square table in silence.  With the lack of sound and body language, we can see that the situation is uncomfortable.  This goes against the traditional narrative notion where we would have expected a family excited to see Billy and his new bride.
Bordwell states that the art cinema motivates its narratives by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity.  Realism is presented in real locations, complex psychological characteristics, real problems and often sexual situations. (Braudy 776)  In Buffalo ‘66, realism is almost always constant.  The settings all appear to be the real thing.  Much like the neo-realistic films of the past, this movie is shot on location in Buffalo, New York.  There is virtually no hint of any studio artifice in the film.
Bordwell notes the difference between art film characters and mainstream cinema.  While in Hollywood films, the protagonist shoots directly for the target; in art films, the protagonist often lacks a goal and slides passively from one situation to another.  (Braudy 776)  This can be found in this film as the character of Billy begins the movie with no real direction.  His first goal seems to be reuniting with his parents which has disastrous results.  Billy then moves toward the goal of murdering Scott Wood, the football player who made him lose $10,000 on a bet.  There is no traditional Hollywood storyline following Billy, the protagonist, on the usual story arch.  Billy does exhibit his problems interacting with his parents.  When Billy and Layla arrive at his parent’s home for dinner, he has a breakdown on the porch before ringing the doorbell.  We witness the flood of negative emotion that seems to envelope him after returning home.  This also ties into Bordwell’s concept of the hero in art films typically being supersensitive individuals who are on the edge of a breakdown.  There is a reoccurring realization of the anguish of ordinary living.  This is further illustrated by several flashbacks that Billy has to his childhood.  One flashback recalls when Billy ate chocolate and learned that he was allergic which resulted in his face turning red and swelling.  The other flashback is when Billy’s father Jimmy kills his puppy Bingo in front of him after the puppy peed in the house for the last time.  These flashbacks illustrate the inner turmoil of our protagonist.
In art films, Bordwell also notes that violations of classical conceptions of space and time are justified by the complex characters found in the films.  These films often have plot manipulations of the story order.  Bazin, the man considered the first major critic of art cinema also acknowledged the loose, accidental narrative structure of art films and praised it. (Braudy 418)  In Buffalo ‘66, we see an example of the classical conception of time when in the middle of the film, at the start of the second act, we are taken back in time and shown why Billy was placed in jail.  Unlike the earlier mentioned flashbacks, which were also shot in 16mm as opposed to the 35mm of the rest of the film, the prison scene is shot in 35mm.  During this section of film we learn that he made his bad bet on Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl.  A bet which he loses and as a result is forced by his bookie to admit to a crime he didn’t commit.  It is due to all of this that Billy creates such contempt for Scott Wood, the player who lost the Super Bowl.  Following this scene we are abruptly placed back into the present.  Since this flashback is essential to the storyline, the audience is quick to forgive its disruptive nature as we delve deeper into Billy’s world.  Also, the childhood flashbacks are shot in a home-movie style giving the audience the idea that these are Billy’s memories which may not be completely reliable.  The prison flashback is played to appear much more factual since it was filmed like the rest of this film.
            As mentioned earlier, Bordwell also notes the authorial expressivity found in art cinema.  He states that art films are the work of expressive individuals.  These films often made by individuals who include autobiographical content to their movies.  This was true of Fellini, Truffaut and in this case, Vincent Gallo. (Braudy 777)  The movie commonly referred to as a semi-autobiographical movie.  Gallo himself denounces the idea that film was even remotely autobiographical other the parents in the film being similar to his own.  He is afraid that people will think he really did not really create the script and merely played himself in the film.  Gallo insists that he really did write the screenplay and those performances in the movie were acted.  The film was not intended to be some re-enacted documentary of his life. 
Following right in line with Bordwell’s beliefs, Buffalo ‘66 is able takes advantage of its freedom that Hollywood films do not.  For example, in a sequence taking place around a dinner table of a Hollywood film, the camera would either be fixed at the end of the table with people sitting around the table facing the camera and/or the director would present many close ups of peoples faces as they engage in conversation.  This film turns that notion on its head.  Billy, Layla and his parents each sit on a side of the square dinner table.  As the conversation ensues, the camera takes the place of each person at the table so that no more than three characters are ever seen at a time while they are sitting.  By filming the sequence in this way, the audience is an active participant at the dinner table of this dysfunctional family.  This clearly violates the classical conception of the camera objectively filming the sequence and it works brilliantly.  It has been said that this scene was Gallo’s homage to Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker who is known for his static visual style.
In art films, Bordwell states that authorial commentary is showcased by any breakdown of the motivation of cinematic space and time by cause-effect logic. (Braudy 778) These can be portrayed by things such as enigmas or the puzzle of deciphering just who is telling the story, why the story is being told or what is is being told in the film.  This is not something typically found in classic Hollywood cinema. 
Gallo provides his authorial commentary with a sort of flash forward.  We follow Billy as he leaves Layla in the motel and heads for the strip club that Scott Wood owns with the intent to kill him.  Billy makes one last phone call to his only friend Goon to give him the combination to his bowling locker and says goodbye.  We then follow him in the club which plays in slow motion.  He then finds Scott Wood and shoots him in the forehead and then turns the gun on himself.  This scene is played in a series of frozen shots referred to as “bullet time,” “whereby the passage of time is displayed as extremely slow or frozen moments in order to allow a viewer to observe imperceptibly fast events.” (“bullet-time”) We then cut to Billy’s parents at his graveside, with his mother listening to the latest Buffalo Bills football game on a portable radio and his father sitting next to her, complaining about the cold weather.  The two quickly get up and leave, seemingly unfazed over the death of their son.  Suddenly, we see that this was Billy’s imagined version of the scenario.  He decides against killing Scott Wood and then walks out of the club and goes back to Layla in the motel.  This sequence functions perfectly to stress Gallo’s authorial presence over the film.  He makes us believe we are seeing the fate of the character when it is changed on us to the reality of the situation.  In addition, we are allowed to share in Billy’s imagined consequences of his actions.
One thing that Bordwell does not address in his theory but seems to be ever present in art films of today is the use of lesser known music that was not created new for the film.  In Buffalo ‘66, Gallo chose to use several songs by the band Yes.  The music of Yes uses symphonic and other classical structures blended with rock.  Their music is instrumentally driven which allows for a surreal soundtrack during the imagined strip club murder/suicide scenario of Billy.  Directors like Quentin Tarantino have been quite successful in assembling music that spans the decades and genres to use for his soundtracks, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are great examples of this.  It has become a common staple of many art films.
Bordwell’s ideas of art film are best culminated in this statement, “…we are to watch less for the tale than the telling, that life lacks the neatness of art and this art knows it.” (Braudy 780)  In Buffalo ‘66, Bordwell’s vision of the art film is firmly upheld through the storytelling style of Vincent Gallo.  Bordwell makes the case for the place of the art film in the cinematic canon.  This film again proves the value of art cinema which provides possibilities for movies that do not exist in classic Hollywood cinema.


Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism, sixth edition. Oxford UP, 2004.

Buffalo ‘66. Dir. Vincent Gallo. Perf. Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci. 1998. DVD. Lions Gate Films, 1999.

“bullet-time.” Wikipedia. 3 March 2006. 3 March 2006

 “Independent Film.” Wikipedia. 6 March 2006. 11 March 2006

Kaufman, Anthony. “writing.” November 2001. 11 March 2006

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