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On Masculinity as a Carceral Construct and Buffalo ’66

“[People] feel that I’m probably playing myself in the film. What I’m actually playing is, I’m playing my father or what I would have become if I let my father’s heavy impact stay in my life. And what I play in the last five minutes of the film is me on a really good day.”
-Vincent Gallo

When pursuing an artistic appraisal on the corpus of Vincent Gallo, it seems almost impossible to separate the art from the antics. A creative mind of mythic origin, Gallo fashioned himself as the renaissance man at the end of history — acclaimed painter, musician and bandmate of Jean Michel Basquiat, heroin chic heartthrob, essayist, prestige actor, sneaky real estate mogul, and actor-director all count themselves among his achievements. But much like his films, for every positive, there seems to be an equal negative. Outspoken conservative, spiteful and petty to his artistic peers, Trump Tower resident, and general provocateur. From 30,000 feet, Gallo’s artistic output seems to be at direct odds with his personal statements — a firebrand fueled by personal spite against anyone richer or more famous colliding against radically vulnerable films fixated on the collateral damage of performing the abrasive masculinity he cloaks himself in offscreen. His semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Buffalo ’66, encapsulates this perfectly. A self-described musical that operates in a fairy tale framework more than the arthouse modus operandi, Gallo makes his grand statement on masculinity as a carceral construct through a thoughtful exploration of male survivorship under the same abusive structures they perpetuate, presenting radical vulnerability as its panacea, and in the process creating the zenith of 90s American independent cinema. 

While containing multitudes, the film’s general framework is remarkably simple — recently released convict must make his homecoming, produce the fictitious wife his parents have been sold on, and keep up the facade of a confidential government job used as an alibi for absence. In spite of its premise approaching screwball sensibility, Gallo’s radical stylistic choices and penchant for emotional intimation provide depth. From frenetic jump cuts in its opening scenes, its breaking of the 180 degree rule throughout the homecoming, to strip clubs rendered in schizoid, Francophilic color palettes, Gallo’s love of cinema and general chops begin to show through. His insistence to shoot the film on reversal stock, attempting to recreate archival NFL footage, saturates every frame, providing high color contrasts and making every composition striking despite the purposefully drab settings of Buffalo. This commitment to reverse stock mirrors the world of its protagonist: obsolete in form, volatile and unpredictable, seeing the world in saturated extremes of expression. Although credited to cinematographer Lance Accord (known more widely for his collaborations with Spike Jonze), Gallo’s painterly background is unmistakably behind the film’s aesthetic preoccupations, recalling David Lynch’s Eraserhead in images having more in common with carefully constructed tableaus than cinematic compositions. 

At the center of it all is the film’s protagonist Billy Brown, an embodiment of masculinity’s faults, a vat of rage constantly boiling over, with the film’s first act reading more as horror than the working-class Wes Anderson whimsy that follows. The opening frame of the film is Billy as a young boy, spelling out his name, birthdate, place of birth, directory information that reads more as inmate intake than biography. As this is digested, soft guitar leads pluck away as Gallo’s pubescent voice creaks out “all my life I’ve been a lonely boy”, communicating the literal prison Billy will be released from is not the primary concern — but rather the metaphysical prison of loneliness. No matter where he goes, he cannot be offered shelter from the storm. The antidote to this loneliness is Christina Ricci’s eminently charming turn as Layla, emerging radiant and sprite-like, making the film function as a children’s fairytale with her full embodiment of love and acceptance. 

Despite Billy’s placement as the protagonist of Buffalo ’66, it is Layla that allows the film’s thesis to cohere. At the other side of the dialectic, she fulfills both the role of anthesis and spirit guide, his Virgil on the journey to self-acceptance. Layla finds herself drawn to the things Billy hates, and vice versa. An avowed vegetarian forced to stomach tripe in the promises of being “my best [Billy’s] friend”, this imagery finds a match in her love for hot chocolate — a substance her captor has the strongest of allergies to. In this exchange, Buffalo ’66 reveals its central statement on the radical possibilities of domesticity, forging a kinship with the American modernism of William Carlos Williams, a vision where “the business of love is cruelty/ which/ by our wills/ we transform/ to live together.”

While it may be easy to dismiss Billy’s flaws as a digestion of the gospel of misogyny (with a dash of homophobia thrown in there too), a more apt reading of the film is that of survivorship, with Billy reeling from a lifetime of abuse and an inability to achieve bodily autonomy. Upon homecoming, he is immediately triggered, reduced to a sniveling child crying out “Don’t touch me!” and taking on a defensive posture. This remains a refrain for the rest of the film, always in moments of vulnerability that suggest drifting into the sexual. Billy’s father begins to complete the puzzle with his Elektra-in-law fixation on Layla, wooing her with Sinatra renditions (lip-synced to recordings of Gallo’s own father, reminiscent of Dean Stockwell’s “In Dreams” routine in Blue Velvet) and doting annunciations of “daddy’s little girl” arriving home, put in context by Ricci and Gallo’s mutual expressions of discomfort. A flashback, rendered as a tableau vivant exploding from Billy’s head (one of the cleverest stylistic choices in a picture chock full of them) given life, we see his canine companion murdered for urinating within the house. This symbol of prelapsarian beauty destroyed for refusing to control its urges, a vulgar metaphor begins to form, intimating the abuse and loss of bodily autonomy that formed the broken man we meet at the film’s start. He is not alone in this exercise of repeated exposure, finding a compatriot in his mother. She refuses to live in the realm of reality, clothing herself in the same Starter jackets Billy dons in flashback, pacifying herself with photo albums of Bills memorabilia, a surrogate family to mask the failure of her own. On the living room television, footage of Wood’s missed field goal repeats on a tape loop, sending her into dining table hysterics, a parallel drawn with Billy’s lingering traumas, never knowing when the next reminder will make itself known.

It is only when Billy is in control of his bodily functions we ever see him able to control his emotions and perform vulnerability. Throughout the film, bathrooms serve as a cathartic oasis for Billy, providing the viewer a brief glimpse into his psyche (something that repeats throughout the Gallo auteur project). After a tear of violence that results in Layla’s abduction spurred by denial of a bathroom (that very space blocked off by a corral in the shape of small children, touching on childhood trauma being a rub on the path to vulnerability), he finds roadside relief by a tree, reestablishing his control over his own faculties before the tenderness underneath surfaces. Gallo constructs his Garden of Gethsemane moment in a diner bathroom, breaking down after encountering an unrequited love whom recounts his past, delivering incantations he “do[esn’t] want to live anymore” between sobs (it becomes irresistible to make biblical parallels when Gallo himself bears such a resemblance to the anglicized Christ). On the other hand, the viewer is treated to Billy’s worst tendencies whenever this autonomy (in his perception) is denied. An unfortunate encounter with a urinal gazer sends Billy off on a tirade to “get your face out of my pants” peppered with homophobic slurs and rhythmic stamping. It is this loss of privacy that sets off this invective, less an expression of pure hate than it is a triggering in what was thought to be a safe space (the rhetoric inexcusable all the same). Combining this with the film’s phallic fixations, encompassing Billy’s red rocket boots, the “blue bird” bus that shuttles him from the prison, the inability to handle the masturbatory performance of a manual transmission, and a mission to murder Scott “Wood” for ruining his life, this motif finds its way into every crack of the narrative. 

Within its final act, the focus moves beyond that of singular suffering, of triggering experiences, to a screed finding beauty in connection, loving the ugly and the mundane, digesting the tradition of Whitman repurposed to post-industrial exteriors. Finding himself in a run-down hotel room, he finds himself in a possibly intimate situation for the first time with Layla. His response — to decry the dirtiness of the bed and flee into the bathroom to clean himself. Unlike other instances earlier in the film, Layla joins him. He winces at the mention of resembling a “little boy in that tub,” met with pleading whines of “don’t look at me,” Billy afraid to bear his shame, that he was victimized by the very same construct he finds himself trapped in. In this union, bringing her into Billy’s safe space, their romantic etiolation occurs. With this newfound trust, symbolically disclosing his trauma and struggle to regain autonomy, Billy can face his fear — masculine performance. He enters Wood’s strip club (the film’s first foray into explicit sexuality) with a comically undersized pistol, intended as a tool to reclaim his pride from the masculine ideal (strapping athlete, rich man, prolific philanderer) in Wood. However, the ideal is far from the reality. Wood is a pudgy schlub, an emperor wearing no clothes save for a gaudy bow tie. It is only with this newly discovered vulnerability he can see the futility of his sacrifice, the violence brought on by the phallic substitute destroying his own life, rendering his face unrecognizable in suicide. Toxic masculinity warps Billy into a completely different person in the literal sense, and leads him only to destruction.

Once this pentecost falls, Billy is Lazarus risen, uncorrupted by the leprosy of anger and hate that once ate away at him. Like the fool in love his father so tenderly sang, Billy rushes in. Gallo portrays this rebirth with a puerile joy, his hissing anger turned manic logorrhea, running to acquire the hot chocolate for Layla he once loathed with all his being. The ideological project of the picture comes together in its final moments as he is mystified by a heart cookie, knowing that after a lifetime of alienation and othering, he encounters a totem of shared experience. For all the horrors and aesthetic wonders that proceed this moment, it all leads to this. No matter what follows you, a choice to be open and loving can be your salvation, all you have to do is make a little room in a cramped bathtub, and over time maybe your heart can too. 

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