Between Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson (1997) and Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, local filmgoers are treated to a mini-festival of idiosyncratic and shamelessly self-centred movies that straddle a border between docu-drama re-enactment and pure wish-fulfilment fantasy.
Gallo – a memorable acting presence in films including Arizona Dream (1993), U.S. Go Home (1995) and The Funeral (1996) – is much younger than Potter, and his exercise in introspection and self-dramatization has an accordingly softer, more indulgent feel. Singing on the soundtrack and granting himself many protracted, moody close-ups, Gallo at moments seems to imagine himself as a glorious superstar in a lazy, Warholian reverie.
Mercifully, however, there is a rawer, angrier, more desperate edge to Buffalo 66. At its simplest level, it is a rather disconcerting payback fantasy in which Gallo (playing a character named Billy Brown) dishes the dirt on his formative years – particularly his parents, rendered as insensitive, uncultured monsters by guest performers Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston.
Buffalo 66 is not exactly plot-driven, but its main lines of intrigue involve Billy's dream of exacting revenge against those who caused him to waste part of his life in jail, and his nabbing of innocent bystander Layla (Christina Ricci) as his pretend-girlfriend. Layla will surely disappoint anyone seeking a feminist role model: cute and girlish, she lets herself be bullied into submission by Billy and then inexplicably begins caring for this often irritating lug.
Gallo's first effort at direction wavers strangely between ultra-hip drollness and disarming naïveté. Many scenes begin as fey jokes and slowly evolve into something more captivating. Often, the project comes on like a shambling parody of every young-soul-rebel movie of the American independent cinema from Five Easy Pieces (1970) onward.
Even Gallo's rough-hewn visual style yokes opposing impulses together. Precisely decentred, Antonioni-esque angles compete, in the jagged editing of the film, with long, time-killing takes. Much of the dialogue has the hit-and-miss quality of an improvisation exercise: key words (like "spending time") swirl around and around relentlessly as the actors bark questions and provocations at each other.
Nonetheless, Gallo's arty collage has its own unique momentum, intensity and energy. Almost miraculously, in its final third it suddenly becomes an agonising and tender drama, as we start to really care about Billy's moral path in life and the sweet dream of his love affair with Layla.
It may seem an odd tribute, but Buffalo 66 is a wonderful testament to everything that is gloriously superficial in cinema. It pays endless homage to a certain tawdry but unmistakable screen glamour that finds its quintessence in every look, gesture and fold of clothing attached to its two stars. Gallo and Ricci form a breathtakingly beautiful couple – their photogenic, spectacular qualities taking precedence over paltry considerations like character psychology or believability.
Buffalo 66 is an original, compelling film that nails perfectly the kinky, surprising sensibility of its supremely self-interested auteur. In fact, the finest and most refreshing coup of the project is the leap it manages to ultimately make from narcissism and cultivated hipness to the chaste, fairy tale atmosphere of a simple but affecting romance. Sally Potter's surreal closing song in The Tango Lesson could just as aptly run over the final credits here: "One is one, and one are two ...".
© Adrian Martin October 1998