Movie Review 89: Buffalo '66 (1998)

Ep. 284. I give this film a 8.155 out of 10.000!

OK, here is the full original review re-printed. I cleaned it up with some light edits and embedded the footnotes smoothly back into the text:


This is clearly the greatest film in which much-maligned Buffalo Bills placekicker Scott Norwood is re-imagined as a sparkly bow-tied, gluttonous and shirtless fatso who never left town a year removed from having booted the most famous missed field goal in NFL history (as he did in real life), but who rather stayed in the snowy upstate New York town, continuing to miss important field goals and becoming the purveyor of a seedy strip club in which he laughs maniacally whilst donning what appears to be a diaper. That this weird factoid is such a focal point of the story—both as a driving plot force and on a more symbolic level—can lead us to qualify Buffalo ’66 as a member of the "Alternate History" genre. There’s more going on, for sure, but swallow that first: This is an Alternate History movie, and the alternate history is simply, “Scott Norwood doesn’t retire from the NFL in 1991.” Holy shit. Was not expecting that.

So there is a lot to like about this film, both despite of its many flaws and because of them. I enjoy the lack of creativity that went into the handling of the football stuff: the Scott Norwood character has quite brilliantly been renamed Scott Wood, the Buffalo Bills logo is rethought as a simple block-letter “B” (they obviously didn’t have the rights to the actual bison design—-not the current one flying through space with the red dash protruding from its eyeball, or the more sedate, and ungulate-realistic, OJ-era version—also, the team is never directly referred to as the Bills); and lastly, the game footage—-supposedly from the early and mid-90s—-is all grainy and black & white, with players wearing gear that dates them to at the very latest sometime in the 1960s. These inaccuracies and overly simplistic renderings give the odd football backdrop a vibe that is indicative of the entire film. Something's just not right. This is a troublesome yet very real world seen through a broken kaleidoscope, or perhaps just the filter of its clearly tortured and egomaniacal creator, writer-director-star, Vincent Gallo, himself born in Buffalo, 1961. (It’s unclear why—-other than perhaps "66" being a 'cool-looking' number-—that Gallo decided to alter this obviously autobiographical detail of his protagonist Billy Brown, a detail which just happens to double as the film’s title. But that it is a part of the title leads one to believe that it isn’t so insignificant. I can only posture that shaving five years off his proxy’s age (If that's what we are to take the "66" to represent) has something to do with Gallo’s own insecurities. They manifest in so many ways, his insecurities: both disgustingly overt and slyly subtle. But more on this later.)

It's not just that the characters are odd, it's that they're broken, sympathetic and willing, and that being odd is a last resort. Take for instance, early on when Christina Ricci’s Layla reacts to being violently abducted from her dance class with calm excitement. A fraction of this sequence, shot from above in a parking lot, sums this up nicely: Layla has multiple chances to escape, but doesn’t. Billy Brown is not armed and throws her in the passenger side seat of her car and then walks around the car to get in the driver’s seat. When he realizes it is a stick shift (he cannot drive a "shifter car," as he calls it) this Chinese fire drill is repeated.

The movie begins with Billy Brown having just been released from prison. He wanders around Buffalo in a painful and frustrating search to find a bathroom before stumbling into the dance studio. Right before he can resolve this urinary conflict, a large effeminate man in the next stall over, a dancer we presume, is caught glancing at Billy's dick. Billy Brown, agitated, tells the guy to fuck off, tells him to look the other way. But the large effeminate man is too enamored by this dick and cannot, and responds, looking again at the dick, “It’s just so… big.” This of course throws the recently emancipated Billy Brown for a complete loop. He very nearly punches the large effeminate man, calling him a faggot multiple times in the process, before barreling out into the hallway to meet a very hot and very 18-year old Christina Ricci for the first time. He doesn't piss.

Ricci has said, “Buffalo ‘66 was the most beautiful example of self-absorption I've ever seen in my life. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, but I wouldn't take that kind of abuse ever again.” There are two things happening here. For starters—-and maybe Christina Ricci is being 100% sarcastic and I’m way off base-—she seems to be conceding that this level of arrogance is so astounding that it somehow at some point becomes something beautiful. If this is what Christina Ricci is intending to mean, then I would agree. There is nothing beautiful about that early scene in the bathroom, a scene in which Gallo’s highly autobiographical character lets the audience know that A) his dick is huge, and B) he’s OK with shooting off homophobic language on camera. He lets them know this before anything else. But beauty, or something akin to beauty, abounds, eventually, in the slow unveiling of Billy Brown’s tortured psyche, from the flashback of his father killing his puppy for pissing in the house, to his final, optimistic take on the Scott Wood situation: he’s completely fucked up. And fucked-up people are allowed to act out, in movies especially. They’re allowed to bet $10,000 bucks of Monopoly money on the Bills to win Super Bowl XXV. They’re allowed to leave prison in red cowboy boots. And they’re allowed to create totally unrealistic female characters because, shit, its fiction and they deserve a girl like that.

In one of my favorite moments of the film, Billy Brown calls up his friend Goon (played by the ever-present and awesome Kevin Corrigan) outside of Scott Woods’ strip joint to tell him that he did not in fact murder Scott Wood, that in fact Scott Wood is a pretty good guy, who kicked a lot of field goals that year and if it wasn’t for him Buffalo would never have even made the Super Bowl to begin with. I loved that part because it was all true: Scott Norwood was a pretty reliable kicker before that miss, and this sequence totally justified including the narrative. This wasn't just some random pop culture reference. Vincent Gallo gets it. He truly gets what Scott Norwood means, not just to Buffalo Bills fans, but to anyone with experience losing, or just feeling like a loser.

But that Ricci felt “abused,” and Gallo has been quoted as calling her “a puppet that did what she was told," should probably be addressed. Or should it? Well, let’s say you’re a painter. And you paint a painting using only your penis. This is undoubtedly something that—-while in many ways meaningless to one’s enjoyment of the final product on the canvas (on a purely visual level)—-you would want to make clear. You would definitely want them to know about your penis being used as a paint brush because why go to the trouble of using your penis as a paintbrush. So of course we can talk about method. I'm just not sure we should ever let it sway how we think of the final product on its own.

Because, while this film works for a variety of reasons, its portrayal of the everyday, lower class life of a downtrodden, foolish criminal is the most important. And to make the plot, which, taken strictly at face value, sounds like a bad comedy--A lost schlep from Buffalo puts money he doesn't have on the hometown team, then they lose, then a bookie forces him to go to prison for five years for some other criminal because that has been determined to be an acceptable substitute for $10,000, then this guy gets out and decides he needs to murder the losing team's placekicker who is not only still the placekicker but also the owner of a local strip club, but only after he of course first kidnaps a lady and forces her to pretend to be his wife because his dreadful, horrible parents think he was getting married to a teenager and working top secret for the government these past five years...--to make that plot come across moody, surreal, at times dangerous, manic and sad (but also really funny at times too!), that's no easy task.

In fact, descriptions of the movie are horribly misleading. They highlight the parental interaction like this is indeed some sort of traditional black comedy, as if tricking his mom and dad into believing he's really married is what this film is about-—the tagline actually reads, "Billy Brown just got out of jail. Now he's going to serve some real time. He's going home" (9)—what is that shit? (I mean, it's great, don't get me wrong. But it's either the work of some horribly misguided executive, or they were just trying to fuck with people.) Ultimately though, this film is impossible to define.

And maybe that's because this is basically what Vincent Gallo's mind is like. He wants you to know he's a guy with a really big dick, but also that he's a scared little kid who can't even use that dick to pee when he really has to.

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