Why are independent movies so important to the film industry nowadays? Look closer and you’ll see that before and after 9/11 independent movies began to emerge onto the big stage. In the last few years there’s been three independent Best Picture winners; Moonlight, Spotlight and Birdman. Among other Oscar winning movies in recent years you have Room, Whiplash, Boyhood, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ex Machina, Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and many, many more. It is evident that something must have happened within the industry and the way people, celebrities and critics react to low budget movies for independent cinema to become so popular and well liked. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Academy has changed its available slots for Best Picture (used to be five, now it is ten) and has allowed more room for the nominees, more flexibility. It can also be the outcome of better distribution and marketing, or maybe the importance of independently-oriented film festivals such as Sundance or Telluride has grown significantly in recent years.
Everything comes down to where it all started. What movie initiated this? I think I have an idea of what it was. When it came out it wasn’t popular at all, it made little to no money, it was shot on reversal 16mm, a very underused lens even in today’s age of experimental arthouse cinema, and it didn’t have any big name actors aside from a couple of fading stars. In other words, it was the epitome of what an independent film should be. The movie I’ve decided to write about is Buffalo ’66, a little gem from 1998, a true game-changer that made people realize how unique an independent movie (aside from low budget documentaries) can really be in order to stand out in a money-ruled industry.
Buffalo ’66 is getting more and more recognition as the years go by. It launched a short but lively career for actress Christina Ricci and introduced the mysterious, unstable figure of Vincent Gallo to the world of media. It established a certain artsy quality, the one you could find in French New Wave cinema, to independent filmmaking and represented a ‘return to the roots’ similar to the first low budget films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi).
Billy, played by Gallo himself, is your average Joe who spent the last few years in prison for a crime he did not commit but for some strange reason took upon himself, ruining his own life, drifting further away from his family and what he knew as the real world. Once he comes out, everything seems to have changed. It’s colder, the streets are covered with snow, the city is deserted, nothing is quite the way it used to be. He decides to avenge his past suffering by killing the man who was responsible for making him lose the bet that changed his whole life for the worse – a football player for the Buffalo Bills that failed to make the game-winning field goal in the Superbowl and is now the owner of a prominent strip club in Woodlawn, New York. But first, he has to do the one thing that really pains him and that is – visit his parents. In order to do this he kidnaps Layla (played by the once beautiful Christina Ricci) and forces her to act as his beloved wife, making him look good in front of his judgmental father (Ben Gazzara) and his absent, football-loving mother (Anjelica Huston).
What at first glance seems to be your traditional crime drama soon turns your expectations upside down and you can be sure of it, steals your heart. Because Buffalo ’66 is not about guns, fights and tough character. It is precisely about the opposite; about feelings, innocence and the lost masculinity of the average American man. It is pretty ironic how Vincent Gallo mistreated Christina Ricci, verbally abusing her on set, criticized the film’s cinematographer, taking all the credit for his work and all around behaved like a bully. But sometimes artists are the opposite of perfect. Buffalo ’66 accurately depicts the message Gallo wanted to transmit. The character of Billy acts tough, curses and plays the part of the ex-con but at the heart of it, he is one of the most vulnerable and insecure characters ever portrayed on screen. Think of it, even the name ‘Billy’ is not the name you’d expect from someone who uses the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence and kidnaps a girl for odd reasons. As he emerges from the prison building, Billy appears to be a very slim man, his long arms and long legs make him look like a cartoon character more than a cinematic one. His body language is that of a man who hasn’t fully grown yet, haunted by bad memories, a troubled childhood and an unknown future. He wanders outside the state penitentiary with his arms crossed, shaking because of the cold, and in need of a quick visit to the bathroom. In other words, Billy doesn’t come off as glamorous and confident, instead he is the character we usually tend to expect to be playing a supporting role. Well, now here he is, says Gallo, this loser is your protagonist, deal with it.
Layla, on the other hand, is not your traditional leading female character. She is just a teenager, with the features, as pointed out by Billy’s father, of a grown woman (lovely face, large, firm breasts) but the spirit of a young, untamed schoolgirl. Layla’s existence is a statement from Gallo against conventional cinema, the expectations it builds up and usually fails to deliver. What starts off as a sloppy kidnapping, slowly but effectively turns into a story about two souls who really do not fit this earth, no matter what they do. Their actions are unreasonable, they are unable to communicate, and it feels like they live in a transparent bubble, locked away from the ‘normal’ American citizens. In some way or another, Billy and Layla represent independent filmmaking. They do not fit the system, they do not have friends, lovers nor reliable relatives. They are on their own, fighting against the odds with minimal expectations for a positive outcome.
Billy’s actions have no real goal. His visit to his family home in Buffalo turns out to be a total disaster. He stops at on the front porch, kneels down and starts to feel dizzy. Memories rush to his head. Layla is unable to help him. She tries to comfort him but he swats her hand away, telling her he’s absolutely fine. And yet there he is, sitting next to his kidnapped victim, twisting in pain and looking more miserable than ever. Once he decides to step in and ring the door bell everything goes from bad to worse. His father is a nervous wreck, bored with his life, lacking anything to show for it; his mother is a football fanatic that operates like a robot and doesn’t leave the TV set for a split second. Both parents have absolutely wiped out any sort of memory from Billy’s troubled childhood. In fact, they only one photograph of him from when he was a little boy.
The whole scene at the family dinner table is shot like a scene from a movie by Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, with the static camera placed on the same level as the characters, making it all look even less cinematic. It is against Hollywood conventions, it throws the awkwardness of the scene, the difficulty of communication between parents and son and the ridiculousness of the characters right at you. At times it can turn out to be hilarious and yet it also feels painful to watch. It’s drama wrapped in comedy and heartache. Like independent filmmaking, the visit to the family place represents a risk. It is a challenge that an average Joe like Billy has to face in order to make things right or as he says to Layla, ‘Make it look good, make me look good.’ For Billy even the slightest incident or remark from Layla’s or his parents’ part is a genuine difficulty and represents a threat to his own story, his own existence. Billy is not William. He is still the innocent child who has trouble keeping up with the adults. It’s the small time director having trouble keeping up with the blockbusters at the box office. It’s art having trouble keeping up with the wake of modern technology such as portable camcorders, mobile phones and computers.
Buffalo ’66 is the struggle of the crook, the criminal, the blue collar worker. And that is why it is so gripping, painful and unique. It deals with palpable subject matters, it is about the real world and real characters. It is about vulnerability, and who the hell in the 90s, a time of Tarantino movies and Schwarzenegger action blockbusters, had any interest mentioning that ‘girly’ stuff? Well, independent cinema thought otherwise. And perhaps that is the reason why today’s independent movies like Little Miss Sunshine with its family of misfits, Moonlight with its insecure, black gay protagonist, and Birdman, with its washed up actor, make it big by telling unconventional stories. They all aspire, without even knowing, to the simplicity of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.