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Review: 'Buffalo 66' plumbs depths of cinematic worth

Web posted on: Wednesday, July 08, 1998 5:28:53 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I don't have a dictionary close by, but, as far as I can remember, "different" has never been a synonym for "great." You wouldn't know that, though, from reading writer/director Vincent Gallo's recent interviews promoting his laughably repetitive (and blatantly pretentious) debut movie, "Buffalo 66."

Gallo, who's done some acting but is best known as a heroin-chic model in one of those controversial Calvin Klein ads, has, to say the least, a tendency towards self-promotion. There's certainly nothing wrong with that -- especially when you consider how hard it is for independent filmmakers to dent the modern marketplace -- but before this guy blows his own horn any harder, I think I should inform the unsuspecting public of exactly what they're getting into.

Clip: "Is this a shifter car?"
2.4Mb QuickTime movie

Clip: "I just got out of jail..."
2.8Mb QuickTime movie

Clip: "You're pointing that knife at me!"
2.2Mb QuickTime movie

Clip: "We span time together, we just don't touch each other"
2.7Mb QuickTime movie

The movie seems to have been directed by Gallo's ego while his brain was taking a nap. Its sundry indignities are supposedly steeped in autobiography, although, if you ask me, the pivotal moment in the film comes when Gallo (starring as a just-released convict named Billy) assaults a high school kid who's glanced over in the men's room and is astonished at how well-endowed our hero is.

To some degree all movies are pretentious; the very idea that the events in our lives have pronounced trajectories is pivotal to the story-telling process while having very little to do with reality. It's also no leap to suggest that the impetus for creating art is ego-based.

Things have definitely gotten out of hand, though, when characters start pointlessly gasping out loud at the writer/director's enormous willie.

Gallo is a director of the "obscure filth is brave and truthful" variety, not unlike Gus Van Sant when he's in his "My Own Private Idaho" mode. David Lynch is also one of the brethren, possibly the most ludicrously misguided director to ever pick an infected scab. And don't even get me going on Harmony Korine. The difference in Gallo's approach is that he's right there, front-and-center, so you can never forget who's actually stinking up the joint.

I will say that "Buffalo 66" is extremely beautifully photographed (Gallo, much to his credit, insisted on old film stock to get the washed-out look), but that's about it. Robert Mapplethorpe could've shot the movie, and you'd still have to deal with the actors and appalling dialogue.

A distressed ex-con

At the beginning of the film, Billy is released from prison, but he's obviously distressed by the possibilities of his life now that he's out of the slammer.

It's not long before we get our first ridiculous (and ridiculously lengthy) sequence, during which Billy runs around his hometown of Buffalo, unsuccessfully looking for somewhere to urinate. The bathroom at the bus depot is closed. Then he gets kicked out of a diner because it, too, is closed. He then tries to go behind a car in a near-empty parking lot, but gives up when the owner appears. This eventually leads him to a dance school, and the encounter with that unfortunate high schooler. I only wrote this out to give you some idea of how riveting it all is.

"Actor/director Gallo is right there, front-and-center, so you can never forget who's actually stinking up the joint."

Billy then kidnaps a young woman named Layla (Christina Ricci, who definitely has guts, but deserves far better than this) from a tap-dancing class. It's a little hard to miss that Ricci is now a young woman, what with her sporting a blue baby-doll dress that's so low-cut her breasts look like they're being served up to the audience on a platter. She looks great, but the vague whiff of pedophilia seems to be the sole motivation behind her get-up; it's hard to imagine an outfit that would be less conducive to tap dancing.

After literally dragging her to her car, Billy quite unbelievably convinces Layla to accompany him on a trip to his parents house. He needs someone to pose as his wife, as a ruse to impress Mom and Dad (Ben Gazarra and Angelica Huston). Dad is a brutish, lecherous lout who once strangled Billy's puppy, and Mom is obsessed with the Buffalo Bills -- so obsessed, as a matter of fact, that she very loudly hates Billy for having been born on the day when the Bills won the AFL Championship back in 1966. She missed the big moment, and now carries a grudge against her son.

A snarling family

This all cues a long sequence in which Billy growls at, snarls at, and badgers his parents while they take turns watching a Bills game on videotape and returning the abuse in kind. The idea that these folks can't communicate is established in, oh, about 90 seconds, but the sequence runs on forever, with more arguing than "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," but with far less emotional undercurrent.

The meandering quarrel verges on pointlessly weird for no good reason other than something has to be going on. It feels a whole lot like the scene where Henry meets his girlfriend's parents in "Eraserhead," except that during this one there's a gooey serving of tripe instead of blood-spewing, oven-roasted chickens.

After Billy's hellish upbringing is established ad nauseam, he and Layla go bowling. It turns out that Billy (or, more precisely, Gallo) is a super-duper fantastic bowler, gloating arrogantly while he rolls strike after strike. I couldn't say for sure, though, whether the huge member that he has zipped up in his britches has anything to do with it.

Then Layla performs a forlorn tap dance in a spotlight that suddenly pops up in front of the alley, just like the spotlight that appeared back home when Billy's dad started crooning to an old Nelson Riddle record. Eventually, Billy will start planning a murder, but the herky-jerky editing and frame-within-the-frame inserts depicting his childhood can't disguise the vacuity of what you're looking at, or, outside of Ricci, the actors' annoyingly garrulous attempts to convey emotional complexity.

A script of screams

Gallo was at the helm, of course, but the director who seems to be jerking the actors around more than any other is John Cassavetes. Though his movies were inarguably groundbreaking, and he (occasionally) pulled superb work out of his cast, Cassavetes seemed married to a very specific rule when it came to dialogue -- anything that's worth saying once is worth saying over-and-over again, hopefully with everybody screaming at each other at the top of their lungs.

I don't know if Gallo encouraged improvising on his set, but, if he didn't, it couldn't have taken all that long to write this stuff. If phrases like "look at me" or "do you understand" had been stated once during an ear-splitting conversation, then dropped, the entire movie would be 12 minutes long. It's like -- DO YOU HEAR ME -- the script is -- LOOK AT ME -- everything is -- SHUT UP -- everything is written -- YOU'RE DISGUSTING -- with an eye on the -- I HATE YOU -- Tourette's demographic -- DON'T TOUCH ME. This kind of thing, of course, is brave and truthful.

Gallo obviously means what he's saying, and that's far more than you get from most directors these days. But the message is nowhere near as deep or heart-rending as he seems to think it is. You could take one look at these characters and nothing even needs to be said. They're so obviously screwed up, no amount of knock-down, drag-out bickering is going to illuminate the chaos in their heads; all that distracting flash with the editing just calls attention to the fact that nothing is going on thematically. Watching the movie is like seeing a dead-end coming for nearly two hours, but there's no room to turn the car around.

"Buffalo 66" contains the questionable use of a tarted-up Ricci as the ultimate teen-age grope icon. There's gobs of bad language, not to mention bad dialogue, and sexual situations. WARNING: Contains Mickey Rourke, as a side order of puffy-and-sweaty. Not rated. 110 minutes.

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