Actor / director Vincent Gallo is the man behind what has been hailed as the worst film ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival: this year’s The Brown Bunny. I can’t comment on that, but his reputation has more to do with Buffalo ’66, a film I personally got a lot from when I saw it on its release in 1998. I watched it again last night, and its understated emotional power is still there. The bulk of the soundtrack – always a factor in my appreciation of a film – is by Gallo himself; a true music geek, he has released a few albums of his own, to critical approval.
It’s a simple tale, I suppose: Billy Brown (Gallo) grew up with his eccentric and abusive football-mad parents, was left unprepared for real life, and ends up taking someone’s fall to cover a gambling debt. The film is set on the day he comes out of prison with two things on his mind. Three, actually, but the first problem is easily solved, if he can just find a toilet, or at least a tree.
While he was locked up, in a prison close to his parents’ home in Buffalo NY, he excused his absence by claiming to work for the CIA, and even claimed he got married. To keep up the cover, he impulsively kidnaps Layla (a luminous Christina Ricci) from her tap-dance class, and clumsily coerces her into acting as his wife when he visits his parents. Her response to this inept abduction is the start of the real story; she could easily escape, but instead plays along, possibly out of boredom at first, but she soon sees something in Billy that he wouldn’t suspect.
During the visit, Layla learns more about why Billy is the way he is, such as how his father (Ben Gazzara) may have a great singing voice, but explodes into rage at the slightest provocation, even at a guest. Or how his mother (Angelica Huston) is more interested in a football game she’s watched on videotape innumerable times before, than in talking to her son and his new “wife”.
We see more of Billy’s wasted potential when we visit the local bowling alley, his former second home – or was it his first? Billy’s old locker there is stuffed with trophies, and his favourite lane is reserved for him. He was a champion, and he clearly still has the skill. Layla’s own agenda kicks in, starting with a tap-dance to King Crimson’s Moonchild; when Billy tries to let her go, she’s not leaving him. Angry and demoralized by his meeting with his parents, and focused on the second part of his plan, it takes him some time to grasp just what is being offered to him.
That plan involves revenge against the local football player who missed a crucial kick, for which he has been apologizing ever since. The same kick indirectly cost Billy all those years in prison, since he took someone else’s fall to cover his gambling losses on the game. The footballer now runs a nude bar, the scene for a showdown with Billy, which doesn’t turn out as Billy (or I) imagined. This sequence is set to a song I am very familiar with – Heart of the Sunrise, by Yes – but totally failed to recognize at first, because the scene is so at odds with the song’s lyrics and style.
Some critics had the temerity to call Buffalo ’66 self-indulgent, “a hymn to male self-pity”, as a Sunday Times reviewer put it. It’s definitely a young person’s film, since it simmers with “Generation X” emotions and questions lost on middle-aged boomers. I didn’t wonder about Gallo’s motives in writing a role in which he could cuddle up with Christina Ricci – nothing odd about that. Unlike the similarly edgy Kids, Buffalo ’66 ends on a hopeful note, a personal statement from a director who could so easily have taken the cynical way out.
I have to applaud Gallo’s use of music that no-one in Hollywood would even recognize. Actually, there is at least one exception to that statement: Trevor Rabin, the former Yes member, who hooked up with Simpson and Bruckheimer in the mid 90’s. He’s worked on some of their most outrageous projects, including Con Air and Gone in 60 Seconds, as well as the schmaltzy Jack Frost. No, I wasn’t impressed by those soundtracks either, but some of Rabin’s old influences finally came through when he worked on The 6th Day, a futuristic thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I borrowed the DVD of that film, which included a music-only track with commentary from Rabin.
Not only do we hear some of his African influences; more importantly, the guitar sounds like him again. Good, because Rabin’s solo albums, especially Can’t Look Away, showed he has a true personal style, which should not be submerged beneath Hollywood brutality. (While Rabin won a Grammy award for a song on that album, it wasn’t for the song, but for Best Rock Video, strangely.)
The Hollywood soundtrack machine, like its movie machine, can take promising individual talents and somehow commoditize them. Danny Elfman’s 80’s work on Beetlejuice, The Witches of Eastwick and the original Batman were remarkable, but he has since sounded less individual. James Newton Howard, John Williams and James Horner rule the classical roost, though Hans Zimmer, previously known for his electronic work, did a great job on the orchestral scores for Gladiator and The Lord Of The Rings. Elliot Goldenthal is something of a dark horse; long associated with director Michael Mann, his score for Heat delved into the avant-garde and served as inspiration to less talented newcomers, but he also worked on the risible Batman and Robin.
This is a field I continue to keep one ear on, since I’m amazed that there is such a wide variance in soundtrack quality, when it is genuinely crucial to the critical success of a film.