A short while ago, a friend of mine, passionate about and deeply involved in film, told me to watch the 1998 independent film Buffalo 66. Trusting his expertise as a confidence- worthy connoisseur, I kept his recommendation in mind and on a rainy day, pulled out my laptop, set it up on my desk and gave the movie a shot. I could never have guessed how much of an impact this indie film would have on me. Buffalo 66 is not your typical box-office flic and it is far beyond the realm of evening activity possibilities for someone craving a 21 Jump Street– esque slideshow. Buffalo 66 requires a conscious effort to appreciate the artful cinematography and to grasp the powerful and genuinely heart-wrenching meaning of the plot and all that lies beneath it. Born from Vincent Gallo, the film’s lunatic director, producer and protagonist, Buffalo 66 is truly a cinematic masterpiece.
This film tells the story of Billy Brown, an ex-con named after the Buffalo Billsand a lifelong victim of a lack of love. The movie begins with him being released from prison, after serving time for a crime he did not commit in order to pay off a debt on an unwise gamble in favor of the Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl victory he had made many years earlier. Already viewed as a misfit by his family, he keeps his illegitimate incarceration a secret, claiming to have moved to another city with his wife. He then visits his parents, kidnapping a teenage Barbie, Layla, from her tap-dancing class and coercing her to impersonate his wife for the visit – what any rational man would do. Upon their arrival, the father refers to Billy as only his wife’s son and the mother, barely recognising her son, has difficulty registering that the name “Billy” refers to her child. The way they welcome Layla, however, is something out of a storybook: they shower her with compliments, speak to her in the sweetest of voices and immediately refer to her as “their little girl”, but despite her greatest efforts to make Billy seem like a perfect husband and person, the parents’ skewed and disparaging view of their son will not budge. The source of the bad relationship is unveiled and it becomes clear that Billy never stood a chance at a respectable relationship with his parents: “Thirty years! And the one time they won the Super Bowl, I missed it ‘cause I was having Billy! Yes, Billy was born the day Buffalo won the 1966 Super Bowl. I wish I never had him!”: classic tragedy.
Vincent Gallo sets the stage as an angry, aggressive man easily falling into the category of a felon and borderline abuser; “I’m asking you to come there and make me look good. Alright? And if you make a fool out of me, I swear to God, I’ll kill you right there. Boom! Right in front of Mommy and Daddy.” Quickly, however, the monster on the outside is revealed to be nothing more than an insecure, damaged inner little boy who never recovered form his mangled childhood but who clearly would never hurt a fly: “And I’ll tell you something else, you make me look bad… I will never, ever, talk to you again, ever. But if you do a good job, well, then you can be my best friend. My best friend that I’ve ever had. You hear me?”. Billy Brown is so desperately seeking love and support but the fear of being hurt once more, as did his parents and the only girl he ever loved, stops him from being able to open up. He hides his pain by casting a shadow of hatred upon others, sending an alpha-dog message: you can’t hurt me…anymore. As Layla starts to understand him she begins to fall in love and grows truly attached to her abuser. It is the relationship of trust that Layla establishes with Billy that fuels his psychological evolution towards the end of the film. Billy Brown had plans to kill the man he held responsible for his misfortune – the kicker who cost the Bills the win and incurred Billy’s debt – but when Layla tells him she loves him, he is able to let go of all the emotion he has held in for so long and transform into someone good, performing random acts of kindness and offering apologies to those he had harmed in the past.
Though the plot is a work of art in itself, the cinematography presented in this film is the icing on the cake. The way the movie is filmed and assembled contrasts the attitude of Billy’s parents towards him versus the one they adopt towards his (fake) wife. At the dinner table, for instance, the camera shifts between showing only the parents and Billy at the table and showing only the parents with the young girl, Layla. This viewpoint depicts the the table as a three-seat arrangement; when the family members are alone in the frame, the tone of the conversation is loud, angry and could be described as a flow of insults, disinterest and sheer cruelty on the parents’ part. When the camera shifts, however Mr. and Mrs. Brown mutate into the world’s sweetest old hick couple and dream parents-in-law. With Layla, they are gentle, loving and kind and make a point of showing Billy that they consider her more their child than they ever have or will Billy.
Another notable cinematographic component of this widely acclaimed independent film is the use of a split screen to show flashbacks and visual representation of thought process. At the dinner table, evidence of Billy’s polluted and almost inhumane childhood is provided to the viewer and towards the end of the movie, a forecast of Billy’s actions and their repercussions is brought forward. These windows to the past and the future allow the viewer to grow attached to the main character, drawing the viewer into the protagonist’s thoughts, momentarily distancing Billy from the other characters and establishing a relationship of trust and confidence with the viewer. Art is also handled with an interesting approach: when the father performs a song, and when Layla tap dances in the bowling alley, a red curtain is inserted behind the figure and the performer is glorified, as if nothing else mattered. For the father, this occurs when he remembers his glory days back when he was happy and in a band, and for Layla, it is reminiscing a time when she was free and just an ordinary girl at a tap dancing class. These unusual aspects enhance the film’s ultimate value as a cinematic experience of unique quality.
Buffalo 66 is a story depicting the struggle for love and self-acceptance. Vincent Gallo created a gem that deserves all the applause it received, notably thanks to his outstanding plot and his original filmmaking abilities and strengths. I highly recommend this movie whose artistic differences and abnormalities set it on a separate and superior playing field in the usual world of cinematics.
By – Madeleine Bienvenu
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