BUFFALO '66 (1998) ***
In some ways, Buffalo '66 is an ego-trip, but an arresting one and excusable in someone who is seemingly as interesting as Gallo. This is his first feature as director and almost everything else (se credits above).
He plays Billy Brown, who is released after five years in jail. A nondescript, hirsute, dirty-haired, intense man in ill-fitting clothes, he may look at first like someone you'd hate to meet in a dark night, but on short acquaintance you realize that he is no true aggressor, and on longer acquaintance you understand that he is a fellow with problems, a sad sack whose worst enemy may well be his own self.
Billy leaves a Buffalo prison on a cold, snowy day. As he shivers, he acts like someone who does not know what to do next, except for one crucial, immediate aim: to empty his bladder. His several attempts to do this may look comical, unless you've experienced them yourself. He even tries to seek warmth and urinary relief by asking to enter the jail. Whether invented by Gallo or unconsciously derivative, this is the first of several references to older movies (cf. Chaplin's Modern Times) or stories (cf. O'Henry's The Cop and the Anthem).
Billy's vain search for an unloading site culminates in a tacky tap-dancing school where he meets tackily dressed student Layla (Christina Ricci), a buxom petite who'll have to watch her diet as she grows up. With his bladder still full, Billy improbably finds time to call his Ma. The call is both funny and pathetic. Then he kidnaps an unresisting Layla, orders her to accompany him to his parents' house, to pretend she is his adoring wife and confirm that he, Billy, is a CIA operative who, for reasons of secrecy, has remained incommunicado for the last five years!
By now, absurdism, comedy and sadness have taken over. Their amalgam works very well. The Browns make up an abysmally dysfunctional trio. The parents obviously couldn't care less about their son. Dad's (Ben Gazzara) sullenness and flashes of paranoid ire show perhaps where the manic Billy got his genes. Mother (Angelica Huston) vague and empty-headed, has a sickly passion for the Buffalo Bills team. She spends all of her time glued to the TV, watching re-runs of games. She still resents Bill for her having missed the only game in her life, the 1966 Superbowl, because the child chose to be born on the day.
Bill's motivation for visiting parents he doesn't love or even like, is not explained. We can guess, however, that he is trying to come to terms with his past and that he has a futile, unrealistic hope of belatedly gaining a family that he never had. Or to show them that he has become someone. The long section in that tacky home (a copy of the last place where Gallo himself lived with his parents) is a splendidly inventive buffet of grunginess, somberness, comedy and ultimate hopelessness.
While neither Billy or his folks can even begin to relate with each other, Layla takes her play-acting to heart. The film tells us nothing about her, except for what we see here and now. It says nothing about her past, her present, her character, her background, her family. Yet the subtext is there: Layla dreams of better things and of love. The unreluctant kidnapee finds herself inventing stories about her "husband, " romanticizing him, charming the parents, and finally announcing that she is pregnant, to the joy of Pop and Mom who lavish maudlin affection on her while ignoring Billy.
The quartet of actors is excellent. Note that Ben Gazzara was part of the repertory troupe of the late John Cassavetes, whose style had quite a bit in common with Buffalo 66's. (I absolutely must plug here Saint Jack (1979), a masterful, way underrated film by Peter Bogdanovich, with a terrific Gazzara as a pimp in South-East Asia).
Having failed to get a family, Billy turns his attention to revenge on the Buffalo place-kicker who, he thinks, had sold out a crucial game, cost Billy $10, 000 and eventually sent him to jail. Several episodes take place after this point. They deal with the relationship of Billy and Layla who gradually falls in love with him; encounters at a Denny's; the slow rounding up of Billy's psychic portrait; the unorthodox sharing of a shabby room in what we might call a Motel 3; a reluctantly happy finale.
Buffalo 66 combines hyper-realism with imagined points of view, wishful thinking and grim facts, the present tense with the past. I can find nothing about Gallo's educational experiences, but watching his movie, I was increasingly certain that his foreign films, including three with French director Claire Denis, directly or indirectly gave him European perspectives which he artfully (instinctively perhaps, but not artsily) blended with his background in American movies. Repeatedly I was reminded of several techniques used by the French New Wave.
He shot with reversal film, the kind used in home movies. Here it results in saturated colors that, among others, capture with power the lonely day or night in sights of desolate areas within an industrial city. In flashbacks, somewhat a la Godard or Truffaut, Gallo uses effectively squarish picture-within-picture inserts which focus the eye while stressing drama or humor.
A scene in which Layla, out of a blue sky, tap-dances amateurishly, recalls the equally amateurish. would-be seductive dance of Anna Karina in Godard's My Life to Live. Also very Godardian are the repeated images of Billy and Layla taking their pictures inside an I.D. photo booth, the constant telephoning (see Breathless) and more. There are New Wave-ish dialogues, abrupt transitions, non-sequiturs and more, but neither cloned nor copy-catted.
With much of it based on Gallo's own unhappy childhood, the film plays
as a work of revenge on parents by a loser, not so much a born loser but
a made loser. This goes a long way toward explaining its caricatural aspects,
grotesque characters, over-the-top acting, all exaggerations which in theory
could have been liabilities, but in fact make the movie memorable.