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PRINT Summer 1998

COVERING THE SPREAD: VINCENT GALLO’S BUFFALO ’66

It’s rare to see a film so totally the product of a single personality as Buffalo ’66. Yet Vincent Gallo’s first feature—he cowrote it, stars in it, directed it, and even composed three terrible, terrible songs for the score, which he also sings—is more than that. It’s not merely a product of his personality but a picture of it. The film’s narrative is overtly cinematic, but at heart it feels like a diary, compelling in a voyeuristic manner, even, if one can still use the term, real. Rather than actually tell a story, the narrative is jerry-rigged out of a series of minute, finely crafted, but ultimately derivative tableaux—there’s a little of Godard’s structuralism in the dinner scene, a bit of Scorcese-esque verbiage in the kidnapping, and some Van Sant shenanigans in the dance numbers. It all amounts less to a movie than to the idea of a movie—specifically, to the idea of an “art movie.” But if Buffalo ’66 is a failure of articulation, it’s a triumph of expression: what comes across is a kind of beautiful obfuscation, an overwrought but ultimately doomed effort to distract viewers from the film’s true subject, which is Vincent Gallo himself.

By now we know the angular body and the scowling, Mansonesque face that sits on top of it—from those Calvin Klein ads, from films by Abel Ferrera (The Funeral), Alan Taylor (Palookaville), Claire Denis (Nénette et Boni), even Kiefer Sutherland (Truth or Consequences). Gallo seems to share the external vision that so many other directors have of him, and he loads his film with thousands of shots of himself. Most are synechdochical, as if Gallo sees himself not as a whole person but as so many bits and pieces: stubbled, slightly ravaged face, thin, spindly limbs, twisted hands, packed crotch. “It’s just so big,” exclaims the faggot next to Gallo at a urinal, privileged to see the one piece of anatomy the director denies his viewers. When the camera pulls back to reveal the whole scarecrow frame, it’s almost always to show Gallo running, either after someone, or away from someone, or, in a set of plot devices, simply in search of a place to pee.

The body’s a prison, the body’s a temple: choose your metaphor, and your moral. Gallo doesn’t, and that’s one of the film’s strengths. About all he’ll cop to is this body’s a paycheck, and the occasion of this particular chit is a story at once hackneyed and compelling. Billy Brown, perennial loser, has just been released from prison, where he was serving time for confessing to a crime he didn’t commit in order to keep a bookie—Billy owes him $10,000 on a bad bet that the Buffalo Bills would win the 1991 Super Bowl—from hurting his parents. Billy at least decides to take revenge on Scott Wood, the field-goal kicker whose wide, right slice lost the game for the Bills. Billy’s anger at Wood seems displaced: Shouldn’t he be mad at the bookie? But “motivation,” in the Hollywood sense, is dependent on rigged coincidences of plot, and we soon see why. Billy’s revenge, like the bet that preceded it, was a way of creating a surrogate relationship with his parents, particularly with his mother (played by Anjelica Huston), who is a fanatical fan of the hometown Bills. We know Billy’s parents don’t love him because his father (Ben Gazzara) killed his puppy and his mother would rather watch a football game than talk to him, but, again, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the three-minute lip sync to “Fools Rush In” done by Gazzara, a disjunctive, sentimental interruption whose presence in the film isn’t justified until the end credits: the voice Gazzara lip-synced belonged to Vincent Gallo, Sr., just as the house inhabited by Gazzara and Huston is in fact a Buffalo house Gallo once shared with his own parents.

The bits of autobiography spin the film as indictment and offering, a gift to the artist’s parents in the form of a statement about himself: look what’s happened to the child you didn’t love enough. Within the film, that gift is represented by Christina Ricci. In a movie full of fragmented intentions and isolated performances, Ricci’s is the one unifying presence: her fleshly ampleness isn’t merely a contrast to Gallo’s bony stinginess, but a reaction against it. Ricci plays Layla, a girl Billy kidnaps and forces to masquerade as his wife in order to impress his parents. She tells Billy’s parents how good he is and confesses her love for him, and as she speaks, we see her come to believe the words herself. Though her motivations, like those of every character except Billy, are neither explored nor even hinted at, Layla dives into the role, and by the time the afternoon’s charade is finished she’s decided she’d rather stay with Billy than go back to whatever her life had been. Her refusal to leave becomes a metaphor for the film himself, for, especially, the fact of a film’s continued life—the fact that the work goes on to acquire a meaning of its own, one that is often antithetical to the artist’s own vision.

In interviews Gallo seems to indicate that his primary, indeed only intention with Buffalo ’66 was to get the damn thing made, despite the obstacles created for him by producers or technicians—he insisted on shooting in difficult-to-print 35mm reversal stock—or even by his parents, who told him years ago that he’d never be an actor because he was too ugly; Buffalo ’66 is, as much as anything, a monument to the idea of artistic perseverance. But, above all, it’s a testament to Gallo’s inability to be consumed by his own work. In a way, Gallo’s parents were right: he can’t act. Rather, he poses, and in place of actorly, manufactured emotion instead projects authenticity. This might seem introspective, perhaps simply solipsistic, but it’s not really either of those things. It is, rather, private, the secret testimonial of someone who sees himself as a monster who inspires hatred from almost everyone he meets, but who, to the enlightened few, is, as Layla tells Billy, “the nicest man in the world.” It’s not true, of course, but still, it’s good to hear the words.

Dale Peck’s third novel, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, was recently published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.