June 26, 1998
Look, I don’t want to brag, but in 1998 I was twenty years younger than I am now. I had the youth. The vigor. The open-mindedness and enthusiasm for things that seemed new and different. I had less of the anger toward people who get on lawns – if I had had a lawn I would’ve invited the youths to hang out on it and talk about youth stuff like did you know Lauryn Hill is doing a solo album or what is up with these Furbies or have you heard about this new WB show coming out in the fall they’re calling it “Ally McBeal in college” I don’t think I’ll watch it but it’s something I read about.
What I’m trying to do here is establish why it’s a good thing that in 1998 BUFFALO ’66 seemed like a great movie. I mean, I haven’t entirely turned my back on it. It’s still interesting. It has many positive qualities. But I definitely question it more now.
It’s easy to see what was appealing in that moment. Star/director/co-writer/composer Vincent Gallo plays Billy Brown, a just-released convict who looks like he inspired half the dudes who were in American Apparel ads (I mean, look at that striped muscle shirt). With cinematographer Lance Acord (first feature for the music video d.p.) he shoots scuzzy locations that seem like the stale refuse of the ’60s and ’70s: cracked parking lots, a bowling alley, a motel, a tiny house decorated in Buffalo Bills memorabilia. Chic, magazine ad ugly. I’m actually kind of surprised it’s not in black and white, but the muted color palette is one of its most striking features.
The supporting cast is A+ cool: Anjelica Huston (CAPTAIN EO) as his mom, Ben Gazzara (ROAD HOUSE) as his dad, Rosanna Arquette (SILVERADO) in one scene as a girl he used to know. Mickey Rourke is in one scene as a bookie, and it’s not one of his great performances, but give Gallo credit for wanting him in the movie before his career resurgence (though after DOUBLE TEAM). Jan-Michael Vincent (THE MECHANIC) has a scene as the manager of the bowling alley, and I found it pretty moving to see him as the old friend who has clearly been through the wringer. Kevin Corrigan (UNSTOPPABLE, HENRY FOOL) has a more substantial role as a weird old friend who timidly tries to finally stand up to Billy, who treats him like shit and ignores his demands to be called “Rocky” instead of “Goon.” Most of his scenes are in his underwear on a bed surrounded by guinea pig cages. He was apparently uncomfortable with the role, and asked to be uncredited. (He’s good, though.)
The music (which is by Gallo) is cool. Even the typography is cool. The end credits don’t scroll, they’re black type on white cards. The filmatism is mostly raw and simple, then he throws in a couple film student show-off experiments: flashbacks that appear in little picture-in-picture screens, a climax that uses an analog version of a pre-BLADE, pre-MATRIX (but post LOST IN SPACE) bullet time type technique. (It’s two different shots; one I think is just live action with the actor standing still with a bloodspray sculpture attached to his head. The other one I have no idea how they did it.)
I guess the big difference between 1998 Vern and 2018 Vern is my level of patience and interest for watching a charmless dirtbag whining, berating a defenselesss teen and (worst of all) feeling sorry for himself. Technically it’s about an ex-con kidnapping a young girl and then planning to assassinate an ex-NFL star. But it’s not a crime movie, it’s a character piece – TAXI DRIVER for people who don’t drive taxis. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just saying this time around I’m less sure about the importance of wallowing in the mundane existence of this specific character.
I always thought it was a funny idea that this is all kicked off by him having to piss real bad. He gets out of the joint and then has to pee and tries to get the guard to let him back in. Still funny. He goes around failing to find a public restroom until he barges into a tap dancing class, where he argues with and then abducts Layla (recent child star Christina Ricci in her third grown up movie of the summer [see FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and THE OPPOSITE OF SEX]). He makes her drive him in her car and also come with him to his parents’ house to pretend to be his wife. She plays along, even pretends to adore him, never to his satisfaction.
The interaction with his parents is full of weirdness. Mom seems to suffer from mild dementia and severe football fever. Dad seems angry and pervy. Both smother Layla with love and praise (dad is always looking for a hug or kiss), but they can barely muster a conversation with their son.
Not that I feel that sorry for him. He bitches and complains even when there’s no reason to. He makes no attempt to improve the situation other than to lie in a transparent attempt to impress them. There are plenty of people who have shittier parents than this who still have the ability to be pleasant to be around.
One bizarre tangent involves dad claiming to be a singer. Layla gets him to perform for her – he plays a supposedly instrumental record of Sinatra songs, clears his throat, then lip syncs. Since the voice is credited as Vincent Gallo Sr. I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s supposed to really be singing, but while watching it I thought he was supposed to be pathetically trying to trick her into thinking he was, with her playing along to be nice. I suppose either way it has the desired oddness.
An aspect that I remember bothering me back then is the way they shoot the long scene of the four of them sitting at a square table. There are straight on shots from different sides, with whichever actor would be in the foreground missing. It’s not in the right place to be a POV shot and you would see their arms on the table if they were there. So pretty much every edit throughout this sequence caused me to be disoriented, thinking that one character had left the room. I remember complaining about it at the time and being told no, it’s intentional, it’s experimental, it’s a tribute to Ozu, and I do think those things are true, but it still doesn’t work for me.
Also back then, though, I somehow didn’t recognize Huston and thought she was some first time actor like maybe his real mom or something. But now I think she does some good stuff here, though there are awkward moments.
I couldn’t remember the plot at all, so I was worried they would never leave that house. Also I kept thinking it was weird that his outfit seemed kind of similar to Jesus Quintana, another ex-con-who-is-attracted-to-children character in another 1998 release that has Ben Gazzara in it. And I had completely forgotten that later he goes bowling and it’s his main (or only) hobby.
The thing I always remember from Gallo’s second film THE BROWN BUNNY that cracks me up is when he’s trying to get a bunny and he has somebody lead him to some cages of bunnies and he asks “Are these the bunnies?” This is such a true and recognizable depiction of a certain type of person who’s exhausting to be around. Yes, these bunnies are the bunnies. Stop saying every word that comes into your brain.
Billy is the same way. He’ll shout across a courtyard to some employee of some business asking where the bathroom is and then narrate his walk to the bathroom and his discovery that it’s closed and then he’ll feel the need to loop back and yell to the person that it’s closed, seeming to blame them. This is the person who always sits behind me at movies and reads signs and t-shirts out loud and describes what’s going on as it happens.
Part of what’s kind of funny but also annoying about the movie is his habit of repeating phrases over and over and over and fucking over again. He feels the need to talk and instruct and explain and criticize the nearest person to him, and this requires alot of saying the same thing multiple times as if they don’t get it when it’s actually him who doesn’t get that they’re just so disgusted with what a fucking piece of shit he is that they would rather glare at him than respond to his endless jibber jabber.
There’s a scene where he makes Layla pose with him in a photo both. He wants her to act like she’s in love with him, which she does (a rare chance for Ricci to come alive in the movie, after mostly being an empty vessel for Billy’s fantasies) while he sits emotionless, and then he keeps telling her she’s doing it wrong. He wants to pretend the photos were taken on different days, so he tells her they need to “span time” and then he keeps saying that phrase the way Seagal keeps saying “you’re a man, right?” and “cupcake” in the bar fight in ON DEADLY GROUND. Okay, we’re going to span time. Okay? Span time. Let’s span time. Spanning time, here we go.
I’m not saying SPOILER I wanted him to really die at the end, but these days it bothers me more that this guy magically gets a happy ending. I know there’s Stockholm syndrome and everything but the idea of Layla having any affection for this abusive slimeball kidnapper is creepy, and it’s treated like an exciting eureka moment when he decides he likes her and finally buys her the hot chocolate she’s been requesting for half the movie. Maybe it’s supposed to be kind of sarcastic, to treat this one small gesture as a turning point and pretend like there’s not a 150% chance he’s still gonna treat her like garbage. Doesn’t play that way to me, though.
Still, that’s my favorite scene, the last one, where Billy visits a donut shop. He’s in a good mood for the only time in the entire movie and he’s buying the hot chocolate and a cookie and trying to joke around with the old timer behind the counter and another one who’s a customer. He’s being a total goofball and trying to connect with an older generation and I imagine it’s similar to how Gallo really behaves sometimes in real life. I’ve experienced countless weirdos like this as a person with many years behind a counter, and this reminds me of the more positive and entertaining ones. Of course, you can get a laugh from a short interaction with somebody like that but not want to then spend the day with them, or a full movie, especially if they’re gonna be a dick the rest of the time.
Back then we didn’t know much about Gallo, but he had a New York art guy mystique. In the early ’80s he was in a noise band called Gray with Jean-Michel Basquiat. And he was in a rap duo called Trouble Deuce. I’ve seen him on the DVD of the legendary old school hip hop pilot Graffiti Rock, calling himself “Prince Vince.” In 1985 he and Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Junior all debuted in the same film, a no budget black and white comedy called THE WAY IT IS. And he was briefly in GOODFELLAS and then ARIZONA DREAM and THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS and THE FUNERAL and TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M., but he definitely wasn’t known as a cinematic troll until he made THE BROWN BUNNY (which I liked) and later offered his sperm for in-vitro fertilization in the merchandise section of his websight (which I thought was funny). And since he’s playing such a loser – even his gun is tiny and pathetic and not cool – I didn’t think of this as that much of a vanity project. He has to have some understanding that this Billy character is terrible and that we’re laughing at him.
But even back then, and moreso now, it’s hard to explain away the scene where he finally does get to pee, and then a guy at the urinal next to him stares at his dick in awe. Billy unleashes homophobic slurs on the guy and he still has to say “But it’s so big!” I mean, I don’t think there’s a possible explanation for putting that in other than the obvious, ridiculous one that he wanted to declare to the world that he had a glorious dick. It’s a very personal story, you see.
Gallo goes out of his way to show Billy having no sexual interest in Layla. You know how it is, ladies throwing themselves at you constantly and you’re like come on, leave me alone. She tries to talk to him, hug him, lay on a bed with him, kiss him, but he keeps rejecting her. When she talks him into letting her get in the bath tub with him not only does no sexual activity seem to take place, but he puts on his undershirt. Such a gentleman kidnapper. He finally does give her a small kiss near the end of the movie, but only after curling up in a fetal position next to her. In another scene he goes into a restroom and cries and mutters “I don’t want to live” to himself. You know, I get this weird feeling we’re supposed to feel sorry for the motherfucker.
Sometimes I do like movies that show the humanity of assholes. It can be less a glorification of shittiness and more an act of unconditional empathy. Reading up on the movie I’ve seen reports of Gallo being mean to people on set but only because he’s playing a mean character. Ricci – who was 17 and making her first low budget movie and (at Gallo’s insistence) her first movie without her mother on set, – says in a Conan O’Brien interview from the time that he yelled at and insulted her but really “he’s a sweetheart.” Courtney Cox said in 2007 that he destroyed their friendship for years by being mean to her while filming GET WELL SOON, but that it turns out he was just being Method and he was great to her on an episode of Dirt.
He seems to be pretty Method in interviews too. Among his IMDb personal quotes you can find him saying that Steven Soderbergh and Wes Anderson “suck,” calling Sofia Coppola “a parasite,” Francis Ford Coppola a “fat pig,” Martin Scorsese “an egomaniac has-been,” Spike Jonze “the biggest fraud out there,” and George W. Bush “a good president.” To the New York Post he called Ricci “an ungrateful c—” and “basically a puppet” and claimed that she was an alcoholic or on cough syrup and that she lost 17 pounds during filming because he “only let her eat one whole pizza pie every day.” In other interviews he disparages Acord as someone who takes credit for the movie but just did what he was told. Complaining about Huston in an interview with Walter Chaw, Gallo said, “And at some point I told her some things like, ‘Listen, baby. We got your name, that’s all I needed, I got my money. I’ll put your wig on a fat truck driver and shoot him from the back.’ And that’s when we had a falling out.”
His bio on IMDb claims that “Misinterpretation of this work is common and Gallo is often incorrectly categorized as a racist, sexist, homophobe” and that “Gallo is one of the most misunderstood, misquoted, misrepresented talents in the past 25 years.”
(I wonder who it was that was so much more misquoted 26 years ago?)
And wouldn’t you fuckin know it, right on cue Gallo says he likes Trump in a long magazine essay where he also claims “I am not a provocateur” and in the next paragraph “I do not believe in equality.” He immediately repeats that phrase, because the essay includes a bit of Billy Brown style pushy repetition.
Sometimes I feel like the white people who were involved in the early hip hop scene don’t get enough credit, but then I read about somebody like this who has the audacity to come from that background and still give a high-five to racism. You think Trump would’ve see any difference between the Central Park Five he wanted executed even after they were proven innocent, and your old friends Basquiat or the New York City Breakers? He’s the fucking bad guy, and now you are too, Prince Vince.
In his reoccurring fights with critics, one of Gallo’s themes is that it shouldn’t get personal, the criticism has to be removed from the person. And sure, sometimes that is possible. But he knows film is profoundly personal – that little house is the one he grew up in, for christ’s sake. When the artist’s personality comes through in the movie that’s part of the movie. Of course there are plenty of great movies by assholes, but this is one where the movie itself is an asshole.
And really, would he have to say that if he was nice to everybody? Why don’t you go start a charity for artists who are misunderstood and misinterpreted just because they spend decades degrading and insulting everybody they work with or come across. The Foundation for Consequence-Free Assholery.
I guess technically BUFFALO ’66 was even smaller than MR. JEALOUSY and HENRY FOOL. It opened on 2 screens and expanded to 25 in its second week. But it got much more word-of-mouth attention and had a cult following, probly still does. Rolling Stone placed it at #98 (above CLERKS) on a list of “The 100 Greatest Movies of the Nineties.” In 2012 Mike D’Angelo still considered it “one of the most stunning debuts of all time.”
Roger Ebert would famously pan BROWN BUNNY at Cannes, become Gallo’s nemesis, then make up with him and the movie, only to be trashed by him again after death. But Ebert wrote a very positive review of BUFFALO ’66 that compared it to “improvisational jazz,” called Ricci’s performance “astonishing” and ended by saying “There’s not a thing conventional about this movie.”
It seems to have gotten very positive reviews, but that didn’t stop Gallo from being childishly combative with critics. Here he is on a weird show where the host insults three critics, then tricks them into discussing the movie without knowing that Gallo is there listening. It seems like a failed experiment when all three of them say mostly positive things, but then Gallo comes out and is still an abrasive dick, acting like he just busted them on To Catch a Predator or something.
He also brings up Ricci’s still-in-theaters movie THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, calls it “a TV movie” and claims people only say they like it because it has gay characters.
BUFFALO ’66 would later be nominated for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and lose to THE OPPOSITE OF SEX.
Despite Gallo’s disparagement, Acord went on to great work with Spike Jonze (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) and Sofia Coppola (LOST IN TRANSLATION, MARIE ANTOINETTE). Co-writer Allison Bagnall – who Gallo says converted his improvised pitch into a script because he didn’t know how to spell – became writer/director of PIGGIE (2003), THE DISH & THE SPOON (2011) and FUNNY BUNNY (2015).
Though rarely in the spotlight anymore, Gallo has continued to do his thing in his various disciplines. As a musician, he released albums in 2001 and 2002. As an artist, he sells undershirts that he wrote his name on with Sharpie. As a director he has done some shorts, plus THE BROWN BUNNY (2003) and an unreleased feature called PROMISES WRITTEN ON WATER (2010). As an actor he received acclaim for TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001), TETRO (2009) and ESSENTIAL KILLING (2010). A friend of Rick Rubin, he also appears in Jay-Z’s classic “99 Problems” video. But this cool looking movie where he has to pee and is mad at everybody might be what he’s remembered for most.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.