Open Wound: ‘Buffalo 66’ (Vincent Gallo, 1998)
Mary Schuler DeWitt
I decided that my last review as a doctoral candidate would be the film, Buffalo 66 (1998), directed by and starring Vincent Gallo — a bit of a throwback from the 90s, but a nice break from the mainstream films that are so often reviewed. I had heard a lot about this movie yet never saw it until recently.
Gallo was born in 1961 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. He left home and moved to New York City in 1978, and began playing in the experimental musical group, Gray, with artist Jean Michel Basquiat. After leaving that band , he formed another one, Bohack, and recorded the highly regarded avant-garde industrial noise album, It Took Several Wives. In 2001 he recorded the CD, When. The music in Buffalo 66 reflects his boho, pop culture past.
Gallo also has a performance art background. He became known in New York City for his very unusual, spontaneously executed street happenings (e.g., The One-Armed Man, The Man with No Face, Sandman, Boy Hit by a Car, and Boy Cries in Restaurant Window). These radical public performances, which often included invited guests, were intentionally upsetting, disturbing, and thought-provoking. *
Buffalo 66 can be thought of in a similar “outside the box” context. It is broken into scenes that provide separate conceptual pieces for the viewer. Like Gallo’s other works, it views like a painting.
It precedes his notorious, erotic film with Chloe Sevigny, The Brown Bunny (2003), which is summarized in imdb as follows: “Professional motorcycle racer Bud Clay (Gallo) heads from New Hampshire to California to race again. Along the way he meets various needy women who provide him with the cure to his own loneliness, but only a certain woman from his past will truly satisfy him.”
In Buffalo 66, Gallo likewise stars as the protagonist, this time named “Billy Brown,” along with Christina Ricci, who plays “Layla,” his love interest. The film is shot in Gallo’s home town, being partly an auto-biographical piece. He appears to be “non-acting” in the film. He has claimed, “I never wanted to be an actor. I never want to be an actor. I want to be a movie star. The whole idea of having to act is too gruesome. It’s too ambitious for me “(Gallo, 2013). Here he seems to imply that being a movie star is being himself, which conflicts with his style of pushing to extremes in his various arts. Later on in the same piece he remarks that this equation of self and movie star is a mistake. He argues that actors all want to “act out a character fantasy that involves themselves.” All this seems to add up to some confusion on his part about his role.
Although, Gallo is thought of as doing autobiographical work. his life is presented to the viewer in Buffalo 66 as a non-linear film that goes back and forth between the past and present of Billy Brown’s life. The movie begins with a childhood photograph of Billy, in Buffalo age 7, holding his dog Bingo ,THAT SAYS HE WAS (?) born on December 26, 1966. An external shot of a snow covered prison flashes across the screen. The adult Billy is then seen sitting on a bench, flooded with memories of prison. Depressed but wearing bright red shoes, (cf. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), he gets on a bus to a new life.
Gallo looks gaunt; “I look like someone who takes drugs,” he says. He’s a hustler who hustles all the other characters in the story. Layla — a young, curvaceous teenage girl-next-door is in the midst of a tap dancing class when Brown comes into the studio to use the bathroom. He makes a call to his mother telling her that he and his “new wife” are in a nearby hotel and insists on visiting. Layla is then kidnapped by Billy in order to play the role of his wife, “Wendy”. They are off to a pretty rough start: Billy only knows how to drive an automatic trans-mission and Layla’s car is manual.
The next scene, featuring Billy’s parents, is filled with dark humor. Gallo points fun at the conversation of the American Family and the ignorance that is born out of it. The viewer is presented with memories of Billy’s childhood via the conventional family photo album. His over-the-top Mother is played by, Anjelica Huston and his father is played by Ben Gazzara. Billy and Layla sit at the typical kitchen table awaiting a family dinner. Layla, who is vegetarian, soon finds herself eating animal intestines in order to play the “nice wife”. Gallo sits, disgusted, staring into space. Eventually, the meal ends with the parents completely ignoring their guests to watch the Bills in the Superbowl. Layla’s compliments about Billy are drowned out. His mother reveals that the last time the Bills won the Superbowl she missed it, because she was busy giving birth to Billy. She adds that she wishes she had never had him.
It is important to note that 1966 was not only Billy’s birth-year (and, incidentally, Gallo’s) but also the birth-year of the Superbowl – or the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, as it was then called, marking the historic merger agreement between the NFL and the AFL.
In a flashback, we see Billy placing a $10k Superbowl bet on the Bills five years earlier. He lost his bet because of a field goal missed by a kicker named “Scott Woods” who had been bought off. The phrase, to “deliberately miss a field goal” is used in the context of his mother’s “deliberately missing the game..” It transpires that the jail-time Billy served was taking the fall for the bookie (Mickey Rourke) he couldn’t repay.
Still in flashback, we see Billy inside, explaining the months of the year to a younger friend and how he should go about mailing things ahead in order for them to arrive on time, especially his mother’s birthday gift. He also tells him about the Buffalo kicker’s bribe and claims he will kill Woods (and himself) when he gets out.
We are taken back to the present and we see Billy, Layla, and his parents at dinner. Billy calls “Goon,” his younger friend, and describes how he wants to find Woods in order to kill him. He goes to the strip club Woods owns. He gets upset because Goon won’t help and tells him people call him Goon because he is dumb. Layla tells Billy’s parents she is going to have a baby but doesn’t want Billy to know but his mother can’t keep a secret and gives it away. There is a long winded goodbye from Billy’s parents.
Back in the car Billy and Layla argue over what she should and shouldn’t have said to make him look good. He is mad because he knows his parents did not believe her when she said he worked for the CIA. They decide to go bowling at a local alley that Billy frequented before his jail-time. He picks up his bowling ball as if no time has gone by, but the bowling experience is less than joyful as Billy realizes he is not the same bowler. He imagines Layla tap dancing in the middle of the bowling alley, seeming to view her nostalgically as the girlfriend from school he never had.
Billy gets the number of Woods’ night club but when he calls all he gets is the answering machine. When he goes to his locker, we see a photo of his supposed ex-girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) among other memorabilia. At the bottom of the locker is a gun that he puts in his pocket. It may occur to the viewer that there is some sexual reference here, as there is more obviously in the idea of Woods as the owner of a strip club.
Billy and Layla decide to take pictures together in a photo booth. She starts out being goofy, as if trying to help Billy loosen up. He tells her that the photos are not meant to be goofy but, rather, conventional, showing the two of them together in love, married, and spanning time together. He tells her that she needs to send a photograph to his parents every Christmas. He calls the night club again but Woods is still not there.
Back in the car, Billy tells Layla not to get her hopes up, since he may not lay down with her. That’s too bad, she tells him, because she wanted to. They pull into a Denny’s because she wants a hot chocolate. In the diner, Billy encounters his childhood schoolmate, the real Wendy. She tells Billy that she remembers him walking past her house every day and then introduces him to her fiancé. Layla points out that the woman looks like the photo of the girl in his locker. She tells him he’s too good for her. He replies that he doesn’t care about her (Layla) or her hot chocolate ; girls stink and are evil.
Billy leaves the diner abruptly to use a nearby convenience store bathroom. He looks at himself in the mirror and begins to cry. He goes back and apologizes to Layla. They get back in the car. Layla asks if he wants to get a room and take a bath. There is an innocent and genuine quality to her request, which may surprise the viewer, taking into consideration that Layla is the victim of kidnapping.
They arrive at the hotel and sit on the bed. Layla asks if Billy actually went out with Wendy. He says he did and that he’s known her since kindergarten. He claims he hated school and his mother had to drag him there. However, once he saw Wendy he fantasized about her every day.
Billy proceeds to take a bath. Layla complains that she is lonely and cold in the room by herself. She enters the bathroom promising Billy she won’t look at him in the bath. She tells him he looks like a little boy in the bathtub. Then she says she’s freezing and wants to get in the tub with him. He tells her not to, but after a while we see them in the tub together. Some parallel seems to be suggested here between Layla taking off her clothes and Woods’ strip club.
Afterwards, they lie on the bed together holding hands. Billy does not want to be touched which may be traced back to his guilt for his mother missing the Superbowl . After many attempts at intimacy, Layla. holds him and they fall asleep
Billy wakes up and puts the gun in his pants. Layla wakes too and asks where he’s going. He tells her he‘s going to get coffee. She wants hot chocolate. She tells him that she’s afraid he will not come back and that she really likes him. He reassures her he will return, giving her a hug and kiss before he leaves. She tells him she thinks he is the sweetest, most handsome guy in the world, and that she loves him.
Billy calls his younger friend, Goon, and he tells him he’s going to be away for a long time. He goes to the night club (“Solid Gold”) where he sees Woods taking liquor shots with the strippers. Other than connoting sleaziness or misogynism, the strip club may justify killing Woods to save the women there from exploitation — even though it would put them out of a job. Billy aims the gun at Woods, shoots him, and then shoots himself. As he does so, there is a bright light above his head, as though there were some sort of act of redemption. He has decided to kill himself in a strip club perhaps to show how he has internalized his mother’s hatred of him and her desire that he never existed. We see Billy’s parents at his graveside, yelling like they did at the Bills’ game –as if this is what Billy’s life amounted to in the end.
In what seems to be a parallel narrative, we then see a high spirited Billy on the phone with his friend, defending Woods (and thereby siding against his parents). He also speaks highly of Layla and goes to a local convenience store to get her hot chocolate and a cookie. In the end, we see her with Billy and the song cues “She brings sunshine to a rainy afternoon.” Killing Woods and himself, it appears, was all a fantasy.
I have to say I liked this film not just because it was offbeat and could be considered a “bleak, comically surreal romance,” but because it takes viewers to places where they may not necessarily want to go. It makes them uncomfortable because they can no longer categorize or marginalize the moments – a similar effect to Gallo’s street performances. This awkward space that Gallo provides somehow allows one to witness the open wounds left from his child hood. The overall message is that he cared so much about his parents’ fandom for the Buffalo team that he wanted to side with them and wreak revenge on Woods, as they would have wished — even though his mother denies his existence because she missed the game to give birth to him.
Gallo’s performance as the ‘abandoned child’ can be summed up with this quote from Brecht (2013):
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”
Brecht, Bertolt (2013). Retrieved from: http://thecabinet.tumblr.com/post/2372580994/bert-heller-portrait-of-bertolt-brecht-1955-56 on 2/17/2013.
Gallo, Vincent (2013). Retrieved from: http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0001252/quotes on 2/17/2013.
* For an interview featuring Vincent Gallo on his critics check out: http://vimeo.com/m/48789248