Buffalo ’66 (Review)

Buffalo ’66
(7 out of 10) edit: change from 6
dir. Vincent Gallo
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Angelica Huston and Ben Gazzara

After three attempts, I’ve finally seen this film.

Should You See the Film

I think the answer depends on the mood you’re in. You could like this film a lot more depending on your sense of humor.

Type of film:
This is an independent film, the kind that focuses on losers that Hollywood would almost never feature as the main character. There are some creative filmmaking techniques that some may find appealing.

General plot:
A man gets out of prison and has two things on his agenda: 1. he wants to see his parents and show them that he is somebody; 2. he wants to kill the Buffalo Bills kicker that intentionally lost a game he bet on. To prove that he is someone, he finds a to pretend to be his friend.

Personal Comments

Rarely, do I see films where the ending really changes my whole perception of the film. This is one of those films. My own perception of the film until the end paralleled Billy’s. I’m going to go over that in this review. To begin, let me go over some initial problems I had with the film.

Initially, I felt the character’s behavior was just over-the-top and unbelievable. For example, Billy’s kidnapping of Layla (Christiana Ricci) and his yelling, tough talk. At first this behavior was so over-the-top that it was funny, but later it seemed silly and the film started losing me because this. Later, when we see Billy parents, Billy’s behavior becomes a little more understandable and believable. Billy’s parents (played by Ben Gazarra and Angelica Huston) are so insensitive and cruel that they seem like cartoonish characters out of a Saturday Night Live farce.

At the end of the film I saw the film and the behavior in a much different way. While Gallo may not have effectively established the plausibility and realism of the character’s behavior, I don’t believe that was the point of the film, nor was it necessary. We don’t really need to understand the reason for the behavior of Billy’s parents (and when I think about it a little more, their behavior, sadly, is not so unbelievable; although I still think that Angelica Huston’s acting was phony and lacked subtlety) or Layla’s. We don’t know the reason Layla allows Billy to kidnap her and then pretend to be his wife. The point that Gallo wants to make is that sometimes we can get so bogged down and blinded by a poor self-esteem (especially if self-loathing) that we cannot see when something good serendipitously comes into our lives.

In this film that good thing is Layla. She comes into Billy’s life out of the blue. No, that’s not entirely correct. Billy kidnaps Layla into his life, and for some inexplicable reason she allows him to. She is even kind to him, despite his yelling and rough treatment. This was hard to swallow (particularly the slightly comic kidnapping scene). Clearly, Layla has a lot of opportunities to run away, but she stays because she wants to. Except under very unusual circumstances (which a filmmaker would have establish) a real person wouldn’t respond to Billy the way Layla did. But Gallo doesn’t explain her behavior because she represents grace. Grace is unexplainable. That’s what makes it grace. No matter how badly Billy treats her, she stays with him. Billy will bark orders at her, and she’ll calmly obey. Billy does or says something mean, apologizes and Layla forgives him.

When I think about my relationship with God, I see a lot of myself in Billy. When I am in a desperate situation, I demand (and if I could I would probably try to “force”) God to help me. Of course, I can’t force God to do anything, and trying would be blasphemous—but God stays with me anyway, just as Layla does. I can also want God for comfort and guidance, in one moment, and push Him away and be left alone in the next. (Billy treats Layla in this ambivalent way throughout the film.) Thankfully, God puts up with me, doesn’t give up on me in these times. This is what Layla does. Of course, I don’t think Layla is a saint. Her motives for sticking with Billy have more to do with her own loneliness and neediness, then some deeper love.

The spiritual slant could be taken further in some of the other scenes. For example, when Billy goes to take a bath he fills the tub and wants to be alone. Layla wants to be in the bathroom with him. Billy doesn’t want this, but finally gives in under the condition that she not look at him. You could interpret Layla as the spirit of God, and Billy not wanting to be so vulnerable before God. The water in the tub (he took a bath not a shower) represents baptism. Layla coming sitting in the tub is the spirit participating in the baptism. (The scene is not ual at all. Layla gets , but she sits away from Billy.) . When they leave the bathroom they lay down together, but not touching each other. Layla reaches for Billy’s hand, and Billy holds on, but then let’s go. They stare at each other and then look away. This happens for a while until Billy finally curls up into a fetal position and lets Layla hold him. Again, the scene is not ual in nature.

However, I think Gallo has a more pagan conception of Layla: namely, Layla is a kind of fairy—or “moonchild.” In the scene where Layla dances at the bowling alley, she dances to a song called, “Moonchild.” She’s also dressed up like a fairy: make-up and glittery shoes, and her dancing outfit/tights. Ricci also looks like a cherub. She is like a magical creature that has come into Billy’s angst ridden life.

However, Billy doesn’t realize this until the very end of the film. He can’t get past his self-hatred and confusion, and Gallo spends the majority of the film showing him trapped in this state. His behavior is manic even a little violent, but when we get to the scene at his parent’s house we learn that Billy’s parents are responsible for creating this prison.

The way Gallo shoots this scene is interesting, too. There are four characters in the scene—Billy, mom, dad and Layla—sitting around a table. Gallo has a camera in the place of each character that shows the sitting relationship of the other three characters. It requires a lot of editing and it reminded me of the way Ozu would edit the shots in a scene involving conversation between characters. (Gallo did a good job of making this flow, but I’m not sure what the approach signified, however.)

From this episode we learn about the cruelty of his father—i.e. Billy’s puppy; accusing Billy of pointing a table-knife at him during dinner. We see the mother’s callous indifference to Billy, forgetting that he is allergic to chocolate. (in one of those scenes that is either comical or too over-the-top to be funny). But the most devastating detail is that Billy’s mom cares more about the Buffalo Bills than she does her own son, at one point exclaiming that she wished she never had Billy because his birth caused her to miss the last championship the Bills won. (I have mixed feelings about the way he used the appearance of another screen to show flashbacks. It was clever, but not it drew attention to itself and I don’t know if it added very much to the film.)

To complicate matters, we learn that Billy lost a large bet on a Bills game and had to serve a jail term for a friend of the bookie Billy couldn’t pay. In addition, while in prison, Billy learns that the Bills’ kicker, Scott Wood, intentionally missed the field goal that would have won the game. Billy decides that he will kill Woods, and this becomes the purpose in his life. It’s almost as if has directed all his bitterness and blame on Woods. For example, in the scene at Denny’s when Layla tries to convince Billy that he is better than Wendy (his old “girlfriend”), Billy starts muttering that he is going to kill Scott Woods.

Because of these things Billy is constantly on edge and confused. He is lost. He wants to please his parents, but doesn’t know how. After getting out of prison he wants to bring over a woman who loves him and will make him “look good” in front of his parents. But he is miserable, confused and frustrated at the dinner table despite Layla’s praise. He is also incapable of receiving any kind of praise or affection. Just as his mother and father either ignore or do not believe anything positive about Billy, Billy can’t believe it himself. In addition, when Layla tries to show physical affection he reacts strongly against it.

Billy doesn’t realize that Layla is an opportunity for him to escape from his loser life. She is a nice, attractive person who actually likes him—for no good reason! (Ricci is good for this role, too because she’s attractive, but not in a super-glamorous way.) There are many comical moments when Layla is kind to Billy, but he can’t see it.

Layla: (genuinely) Are you alright?
Billy: (turns around) What did I tell you? Alright? Just behave right.
(Well, she is behaving alright, you idiot!)

In the picture-taking scene, Billy tells Layla to act like she likes him, and Layla says that she does like him. Billy replies, But act like you like me like we’re a married couple. He can’t recognize that she does sort of like him in that way. In what way does he think she likes him? (His facial reaction while they’re taking pictures is pretty funny. “Act like we’re in love and spanning time together.” And he gives a Buster Keaton expression.)

Part of what prevents him from recognizing this is that he is trapped and confused in his own past. That past includes Wendy Balsam–a he liked in school who treated him cruelly. He can’t get past Wendy, and he wants Layla to become Wendy. (He tells Layla her name is “Wendy Balsam” before going to his parent’s house.)

Billy eventually does realize that Wendy is a gift, and he gets out of the prison of his past. I liked the way Gallo constructs the scene that helps him realize this: the imaginary of Wood and himself; and the imaginary scene of his mother and father at his grave; and then using the smaller frame and shrinking it out of sight to return back to real world. Billy stands before Wood and Wood pours a drink and offers it to him. He is offering a kind of gift to Billy; Wood seems to be a decent person. Billy still confused, but he is slowly coming out of the fog. He stands outside of the bar and thinks about what’s going on. Finally, it hits him: someone good has come into his life. He calls his best friend and tells him that a great has come into his life. This coming out of the fog of his past is my favorite part of the film. Everything is changed—the sun has broken through the clouds, and you can see that in his expression. It’s not unlike the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey runs through the town realizing he is alive.

There is an earlier scene that recalls It’s a Wonderful Life, too. Billy gets into a fight with Layla and goes to the bathroom and starts crying, calling out to God, and saying he doesn’t want to live. This was like the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey prays at the bar. Like George, Billy eventually sees the light. If Billy were religious he might think that Layla is God’s gift and an answer to prayer. The film also reminded me of the “Footprints” story: Layla is there with him for most of the film, but Billy never realizes it until the end.

Some questions:

What was the scene where Billy’s dad sings to Layla all about?

11 Responses to “Buffalo ’66 (Review)”


  1. Mitchell

    Vincent Gallo is the director, writer, and star of The Brown Bunny, that infamous movie that was called the worst ever shown at Cannes. When Gallo re-edited the film, Roger Ebert says he turned it from an awful movie to a good movie; I’m interested in seeing some of his work, although maybe not The Brown Bunny.

  2. Reid

    I think they were showing that re-edited version in NYC when we were there. I think there’s a chance you will like Buffalo ’66.

  3. Chris Magnusson

    I think Mitchell might give this movie more in the range of 8/10 stars. It’s really good.

    Max, are there an movies in the stereotypical American Indie genre (if it really is a genre) that you are very very well disposed toward? The Sunset movies come to mind . . . but it seems like a world you are pretty hard on . . .

  4. Mitchell

    “It sounds like a world you are pretty hard on?” That describes ANYthing Reid has an opinion about!

  5. Reid

    Max,

    I was wavering between a “6” and a “7”, if that matters any. I’d like to hear what you thought of my review.

    As for indy films that I liked, you mentioned Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Here are some others off the top of my head:

    Ghost World
    Hard-Eight
    Raising Victor Vargas
    Charlotte Sometimes
    Run Lola Run
    Roger and Me (in my top ten)

    I could probably think of a lot more (Tender Mercies is independent before the term was coined, and I love that film.) While I may seem especially harsh on independent films, remember that I watch a lot more independent films than Hollywood films. The fact that I don’t want to see those films is a harsher criticism in a way. In general, I think Mitchell is right: I’m more critical about things in general. You know that.

  6. Chris Magnusson

    Max.

    You know, looking at your list, Max, I see Ghostworld as the only movie that is firmly in this “Virtual Genre” I have in mind but can’t quite put my finger on. I really liked this movie, as we both know, but remember being a little surprised (pleasantly, by the way) that you liked it so much.

    I think what is behind this, perhaps, is the cultural association I have with these pessimistic or dark comedies that often have their basis in a surburban/urban white-boy ‘just try to to impress me’ kind of vibe. The music of this world — the shoegazer dorky white guy independent music — doesn’t impress you too much, so maybe neither do the movies? Just trying to figure out my own response.

    I liked all the movies in your list above, by the way.

    Chris

  7. Reid

    Max,

    Can you think of other films in this “genre?” Are you saying that the soundtrack is a big reason you like these films?

    I agree that the music of that world doesn’t really grab me, but I don’t think that’s the reason I’m not always enthusiastic about the films. Maybe the subject matter and vibe don’t resonate with me as much as it does with you. And maybe, for you, getting that vibe, seeing characters in that mode and themes that you mentioned above, are enough to satisfy you. To me, if the film has a fairly conventional story and characters (read: not an experimental or art fim), I want the story to be really good and the characters really appealing. Often indy films that don’t quite make it for me, seem incomplete or the story doesn’t seem strong enough. It almost feels like the director feels that dealing with odd-ball characters and their world is enough. While I appreciate that there are directors willing to explore these characters and their world, that’s not enough for me.

    Let me give you an example that relates to me. If there were a sub=genre of films that dealt with twenty-something local people from suburban Hawaii, I would really like that on one level. But if the stories weren’t really good or the characters really interesting (besides being people that I can really identify with), I’m probably not going to be too enthusiastic about those films either. In other words, there has to be more than featuring local Hawaii characters that touch on local Hawaii themes. How are those characters drawn? How do they deal with those themes? Is the story compelling for those who are not from Hawaii? But maybe this analogy doesn’t is not apt for your own perspective on these indy films.

    Oh, here’s another independent film that I really enjoyed and felt that it was a movie that fell through the cracks: Tully. Did you see that? It’s more of a rural, Midwestern family/coming-of-age (20 something) drama. Ebert really liked it, and so did I. I don’t think this fits the genre you’re talking about though.

    I enjoyed Roger Dodger, too–particuarly for Campbell Scott’s performance. But again, there were flaws in that movie, and my score reflected those flaws.

    I like a lot of the indy films just for the fact that they’re dealing with subject matter that is not addressed by mainstream Hollywood. And after seeing a film, I don’t often ask myself why the filmmakers even bothered making the picture. That’s a big thing for me–BUT not enough for me to love the fiilm.

    Btw, I didn’t disklike Buffalo ’66. I think my review is pretty favorable. I wouldn’t strongly object an 8 out of 10 rating.

    I think a big part of my reservation has to do with the acting. I didn’t think Gallo’s acting was really great, and I just found Angelica Huston’s acting ham-fisted. Her acting was almost no different than a Saturday Night Live over-the-top parody. The acting in the whole dinner scene just seemed a bit conspicuous and unnatural.

    I did like the Ricci’s presence in the film. She’s an interesting actor to me–sort of like a Jennifer Jason Leigh, except not psychotic. She’s interesting, but seems to just fall short of me calling the performances I’ve seen really great. A part of me wants to say she should get nominated for an Academy Award, but something holds me back. (I felt the same way about her performance in Monster, a good independent film.)

    Did you find yourself cracking up in the movie? There were some laugh-out-loud moments for me, but I stopped laughing after a while.

    (Spoiler)

    What did you think of my analysis of Ricci and what she represented? Did you basically see the film in the same way I did (besides the difference in enthusiasm)?

  8. Mitchell

    I don’t see how what you wrote is a spoiler, Reid.

    About the music: I don’t think what Chris is suggesting is that you aren’t impressed with the films because you’re not impressed with the music of that world, which is how it seems you’ve interpreted it. It sounds like Chris is suggesting that you probably don’t love films such as the ones he’s describing for the same reason that you aren’t overly fond of music that comes from the same place. This is a great observation, by the way, because:

    You seem to put a heavy emphasis on story (and don’t get offended; I’m not looking down upon you for that) in film, and that makes sense; it’s a timed, sequential medium and story is huge. However, a lot of these films are trying not to focus so much on story, and I think one of the reasons I enjoy this approach is because it’s extremely challenging, for film-makers and film-watchers. If a film puts story near the bottom of its intentions, you’re just not going to be in love with the film. Totally fine.

    I think your approach to music is a good comparison; I don’t know exactly WHY you listen to music or what you hope to get out of it, but there’s no doubt that it’s different from what the shoe-gazers are trying to communicate.

    I think I connect more with the character studies, because I’ve always been more interested in them; musically, too, I have a strong affinity for songwriters who approach songs from this character-analysis standpoint: Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Woodie Guthrie leap to mind.

    Chris, have you seen Smoke? Would you put that film in the genre you’re talking about?

  9. Reid

    Mitchell,

    The spoiler warning is just my erring on the side of caution. You know how I can be sensitive about hearing or revealing too much about a film.

    You could be right about Chris’ use of the comparison between “shoe-gazing” songs and the indy films he’s talking about. If so, I don’t know if the comparison and your anslysis fits. My lack of enthusiasm for those songs does not stem from a lack of strong narrative in those songs (if indeed those songs lack a strong narrative). Generally, I don’t care for songs that tell a story. As you know, I prefer listening to instrumental music to music with lyrics. And of the music I like with lyrics, it’s usually not the character sketch or story oriented ones that rank high on my list. (There are songs written that way that I would respect, and if read the lyrics while listening, I may like the song a lot, but I’m generally non-interested in hearing a story or character sketch when I want to listen to music.) Furthermore, I often don’t care for the non-lyrical elements of the music as well–which is no small matter.

    As for my emphasis on strong narratives in film, as I mentioned in the post above yours, I expect a stronger story from conventional films (not art or experimental films). I can appreciate and enjoy films that are primarily character studies (Man on a Train is an excellent example of this), if the characters are well-developed and interesting. Of course, what I consider a well-developed and interesting character may be more demanding than others. But this also applies to my definition of a good story. For me, the key questions are what are the director’s objectives, and did they succeed in accomplishing these objectives?

    Doesn’t the main difference come back to how easy or difficult it is to satisfy us with regard to latter(not a rhetorical question)? Or do you really think my need for story in film is that much greater than yours?

  10. Chris

    This is all very interesting, and requires more thought and care than I have available now. Some kind of response has been in my mind — hopefully I’ll get to composing it. I don’t want to be the guy who opens up a can of worms, and then won’t eat his share.

    C

  11. Reid

    Max,

    I know you’re busy, but please do post your thoughts when you have the time. Mitchell and I are struggling to figure your point of view out.

    But I want to take a stab at what kind of “virtual genre” you’re thinking of. It sounds like you’re thinking of films about young people who are outcasts of their peer group (the nerds or “weirdos”); they’re outcasts, but they’re often intelligent or even hip; sometimes they’re just total losers/slackers, too.

    I’m thinking of films like My Own Private Idaho, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Matt Dillon filims like Drugstore Cowboy, Jesus’ Son and All the Real Girls. (If you didnt’ see the latter, I think you would probably like it. I didn’t. 🙂

    I haven’t seen some of the films, but I have an idea about what they’re about.

    I don’t feel a strong affinity for the milieu and he type of characters in these films, but i don’t think that’s a huge barrier to enjoying the films for me. I love Ghostworld because I thought the characters were really great, especially the chemistry between Enid and Seymour. The complexity in the relationship and the way they portrayed that complexity really impressed me. The ending also satisfied me without giving any pat solutions. This is the kind of thing that I would like in any type of film, though.

    OK, I don’t know if I’m understanding your point of view correctly. But, at the very least, if Mitchell and I are mucking up your POV, that will encourage you to post soon. 🙂

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