Last September, for Buffalo Spree’s “all-time greatest” issue, I pondered two great films shot here in the Queen City: “Buffalo 66” and “The Natural.” In light of the WNY Heritage article I discussed earlier this week, let’s take a look.
There is a scene in Vincent Gallo’s dark masterpiece “Buffalo 66” that captures the ennui of low-scale small-city life as well as any film ever made.
Billy Brown (Gallo), a fresh out of prison deadbeat, has forced tap dancer Layla to pretend to be his wife in order to impress his sour parents in dreary, cold Buffalo. After a family dinner from hell and a jaunt to the bowling alley, Billy drags Layla to Denny’s. It’s an old-style Denny’s, and it’s grim. (The last few Denny’s I’ve been in were completely redone, so don’t take offense, Denny’s of America.)
He orders a water, she orders a hot chocolate. Typically, he knows the woman who walks in the front door—it’s his old crush. In fact, Wendy Balsam (Rosanna Arquette) sits directly across the aisle. “Weren’t you in my third-grade class?” she asks. “Yes,” he mutters, head down.
It may seem a throwaway scene; in fact, it might be. But it captures a certain piece of Western New York that is not often captured on celluloid. It’s the lower-class, late-night, where-else-can-we-go?, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?, world come to life. In a real movie. One that takes place—and was shot—in Buffalo. I can remember spending pre-legal-drinking-age mornings—2, 3 a.m.—in a Denny’s just like this one, drinking coffee with my motley friends and hoping that the Wendy Balsams of my past would not be wandering in. If you grew up here, there’s a good chance you watched this scene play out often, and you were the star.
The Denny’s sequence accounts for four or five minutes of “Buffalo 66”, but it is the moment that seals the deal: Gallo’s sad, flawed character study is the greatest Buffalo-set film ever made. (Note the word “set.”)
It’s also uncomfortably homophobic, often wildly pretentious, and downright cruel. Its vision of Buffalo occasionally feels like a kick to the groin for those who love this city. And it requires that one can tolerate Gallo, the provocateur as known for receiving onscreen oral sex (in his directorial follow-up, “The Brown Bunny”) and wishing cancer upon a film critic (Roger Ebert) as he is for being a truly strong director and actor. (See Francis Coppola’s underrated “Tetro.”) It also means sitting through lots of Yes on the soundtrack, or as I like to call them, “No.” But the level of insight makes the flaws worth it.
Consider the feel-bad “Buffalo 66” the antithesis of “The Natural”, which is the more obvious “greatest Buffalo film” pick. Of course, “The Natural” was simply filmed here—it does not take place in the Queen City. But it’s the Buffalo of our sepia-toned dreams, featuring a Central Terminal packed with travelers, a gussied-up Parkside Candy on Main Street, and the Rockpile, in all its glory. Let’s call it the greatest Buffalo-shot film ever made, then.
“The Natural”’s ending is the finest sport-gasm ever filmed, with Roy Hobbs’s scoreboard-smashing home run set to Randy Newman’s swelling score. It is gorgeous, and heartwarming, and beautiful, and despite betraying the dark ending of Bernard Malamud’s book in every way, it remains the favorite movie of just about every dad in WNY, and carries an air of nostalgia for the time Redford and Hollywood came, saw, and loved our city. (The website forgottenbuffalo.com features a breakdown of all the film’s Buffalo locations.)
I’d hate to see a breakdown of the depressing locations in Gallo’s film. But the ugliness is part of the plan. And there is a nice inversion of this thematic unattractiveness in a subplot I’ve yet to mention.
Billy was imprisoned after placing a $10,000 bet on the Buffalo Bills, who, of course, lost the Super Bowl when kicker “Scotty Wood” missed the game-winning kick. (He took the blame for a crime he did not commit in lieu of paying his debt, or seeing “bad things happen.”) In essence, then, the entire film is predicated on the lingering effects of this moment, one played out endlessly in the minds of many (if not most) Buffalonians for the past twenty years. Watching the film again for the first time in several years, I was stunned by the equanimity of its ending, in which Billy decides not to kill Wood—yes, he was going to kill him—and instead recalls, “He kicked good that season … He missed one measly field goal.” So at heart, “Buffalo 66” is an ode to moving on, and that’s something Buffalonians have been forced to do with regularity.
Let’s end on the wisdom of Mickey Rourke’s bookie: “If Buffalo ever makes it back to the Super Bowl … bet against them.”
Image from Buffalo Spree; Redford photo courtesy of Buffalo History Museum