Beautiful Losers

Open your heart and let this fool rush in: Writer-director-star Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66

Buffalo '66
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Driver 23
U Film Society, Bell Auditorium,
nightly at 7:15 p.m.; starts Friday

If Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, and Abel Ferrara took turns directing scenes of a film written by and starring Jerry Lewis, it might resemble actor-director Vincent Gallo's wonderfully perverse, hugely entertaining Buffalo '66. Essentially the story of a beautiful loser who behaves like a jerk until, suddenly, he finds salvation, Buffalo '66 mixes familiar tics of the above auteurs into one uniquely pathological whole: Call it A Bad, Nutty, Raging Bull Under the Influence. Like Scorsese and Ferrara, Gallo is interested in masochism leading to redemption. Like Cassavetes, his aesthetic M.O. involves pushing realism to artificial extremes, using actors who play characters who act like performers. And, like Lewis, Gallo is his own favorite star, shoving his comically arrogant persona in your face until you either cry uncle or call him a genius. Make no mistake: Gallo may be something of a pastiche artist but he's no copycat, and his film is no Boogie Nights-style hip-hugger. Rather, Buffalo '66 seems a daring experiment in a number of ways, not least in testing the viewer's tolerance for humor as horror and vice versa.

Gallo's directorial debut reads as his overdetermined attempt to win the audience's love--but he has a funny way of going about it. Introduced as a greasy, tight-clothed, and seriously high-strung cross between a junkie and a pimp, Gallo's Billy Brown takes all of two minutes' screen time to bend over and expose his butt crack--an early clue that this will be a film about naked self-expression. Just sprung from a five-year stint in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Billy soon yearns to go back in--he's gotta take a wicked piss. But no dice. Reduced to hopping around the streets of downtown Buffalo in search of a toilet, hunched over in pain and clutching his dick, the poor man finally finds a public restroom. But when some guy at the next urinal leans over and exclaims, "It's just so big!" (even other creeps adore him), he becomes so pissed that he forgets all about peeing. Instead, he impulsively kidnaps a bleach-blond waif (Christina Ricci) in a baby-blue nightgown, forcing her to pose as his wife for the benefit of his cruelly maladjusted parents (Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston)--who, over a bloodcurdling meal of chocolate donuts and tripe, reveal themselves as the obvious cause of their son', special personality.

But enough about the plot. With his silly red boots and piercing blue eyes, his nasal voice pinched into a snarl and his gaunt frame coiled tight like a cat ready to pounce, Gallo is a truly bestial screen presence and a marvel to behold. And given how heavily Gallo the director stacks the deck against his ability as an actor to worm his way into our favor, that animalistic allure is essential to the whole project. Coaching Ricci's wide-eyed Layla on how to act in front of his parents, Billy purrs his direction: "You adore me, you love me, you cherish me--Jesus Christ, you can't live without me." It's practically a kind of hypnosis. And although the ex-con eventually pledges to assassinate the Buffalo Bills placekicker-turned-strip-club-owner whose missed field-goal indirectly caused his jail term (thus completing the film's comic riff on Taxi Driver), Gallo gives Billy the body language of someone who's also extremely vulnerable--whether curled atop a cold bench in the fetal position or lying perfectly stiff on a hotel bed like an interred mummy.

Appropriate to this nearly bipolar character, Buffalo '66 brims with alternately drab and oversaturated colors, its gorgeously kitschy faux-'70s bric-a-brac rendered in the grainiest possible film stock. The director's unheard-of decision to shoot on reversal film (which had to be specially cut by Kodak into thousand-foot rolls and then processed using a machine that was invented precisely for the task) is an innovation matched only by his creative solution to the problem of how to represent gun violence in a unique way (no small feat). Striving always for the kooky camera angle, Gallo thinks nothing of positioning his character's head in the lower left corner of the frame so as to make Billy seem even more incidental to his parents' world. Mock home-movie snippets and other painful flashbacks are presented as mini-frames within the frame, reflecting an even more elaborate hall of mirrors in the film proper. To wit: Christina Ricci plays Layla playing Billy's fictional wife Wendy, taking direction from Gallo, Billy, and her own muse. And as the beauty who comes to love the beast, Ricci/Layla/Wendy also represents the audience Gallo is hoping for.

Yet another layer of allusions has suggested Gallo's film as autobiographical--or maybe it's just a case of aptly perverted PR. An excruciating conversation between Gallo and Ricci recently printed in the Village Voice basically recapitulates the Billy/Layla dynamic, with Gallo whining ad infinitum about how the young actress doesn't love him, until finally she capitulates: "Oh, Vincent--so many people love you... we always loved you." Near the movie's climax, Layla puts it this way: "You're the sweetest guy in the world--and the most handsome." And the audience? Only time will tell. As this unparalleled narcissist compels only the most extreme reactions, I'd say Buffalo '66 is some kind of sick masterpiece and Vincent Gallo, well, he's a fucking genius.  

No less highly self-regarded than Billy Brown (or Vincent Gallo), the Minneapolitan subject of the documentary Driver 23 may not be an artist but he's definitely a performer. Courier by day and rocker by night, Dan Cleveland is a full-time one-man band, although, in his glory days, he did serve as frontman in the group Dark Horse, a "progressive metal" outfit modeled on Queensrÿche and renowned for having headlined a show at Ryan's. Say this for Cleveland: He's dedicated to his craft. Designing an elaborate (and woefully ineffective) rope-and-pulley system to lug his gear out of the cramped basement where he rehearses, medicating himself with a specially calibrated mix of Zoloft and Prozac, shrieking into the mic like a man possessed, and determining to record his debut album by any means necessary, the long-haired frontman philosophizes his career every backward step of the way. "It's kinda weird to quote scripture," he says at one point, before likening his iron will to that of the prophet Ezekiel.

Director Rolf Belgum is just as driven but, infinitely more talented, he seems to be going places. Shot on video for a grand total of $700, Driver 23 has continued to build up speed since its local premiere at the Fine Line in February of '97. If you haven't already heard, legend has it that Eddie Vedder was fond of screening the tape on the Pearl Jam tour bus, and indie-film guru John Pierson recently stumped for the movie on an episode of his Split Screen cable series. And after its one-night-only showing at Intermedia Arts four months ago, another celebrity fan, U Film director Al Milgrom, helped convince Belgum to bump his video master up to 35mm for a slot in the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival--all of which the filmmaker has used to stimulate interest among national distributors (including, coincidentally, Lions Gate Films, the indie company behind Buffalo '66).

Conversely, Driver 23's protagonist remains stuck in first gear. Hobbled by a history of leg problems, clogged sinuses, tension-related gastritis, apparent hypochondria, and abundant bad taste, Cleveland nevertheless credits his depressive "disorder" as a musical influence. While his white-haired mother looks on politely, the rocker unleashes his mistitled "Schizophrenia," a squealing din that, as he says, "switches back and forth rather violently between moods." Later, when Dark Horse bites the dust, Cleveland reveals his optimistic side. "It's not a dead end, it's a turn," he says. "It's like hitting a dead end but, see, that's where people sometimes screw up. They see this dead end in front of them but it's not really a dead end, it just looks like one. If they turn..." Driver 23 is as funny a rockumentary as the fabricated Spinal Tap, not least for the tragicomedy of Cleveland's failure to notice that his most deeply personal feelings are being rendered in half-formed musical clichés and one overwrought metaphor after another.

Which is to say that this hilarious nonfiction is also plenty melodramatic. Like Buffalo '66, Driver 23 downshifts in its third act to become a poignant love story, as Cleveland goes off the meds while his lighthearted wife, Shelly, a part-time clown laid off from her job, ponders a move out West. Still, Belgum remains in command of the narrative through his penetrating questions from behind the camera ("Would you say that the CD is more important than the marriage right now?") and his razor-sharp editing. A scene of Cleveland's dog taunting his pet ferret clinches the film's Darwinian theme as surely as Belgum casts doubt upon the rocker's biochemical instability by cutting to his mom's recollection of her harsh disciplinary methods. (As in Buffalo '66, the narcissist's parentage appears a major factor.) Then there's the bravura sequence that weds Cleveland's Ezekiel quotation to the image of him weightlifting with arms outstretched, Belgum's overhead shot likening these exercises to a Jesus Christ pose.

Speaking of divine masochism, only Scorsese's The King of Comedy digs deeper into the flailing artist's delusions of grandeur--and that's a work of fiction. Cleveland is the genuine article as well as a truly inventive character: Like Comedy's Rupert Pupkin, the frontman creates an entire world in his basement, and if he can't quite lug it above ground, well, he can at least remain the king of his own dank castle. And damned if that dominion isn't the thing that keeps him going. Belgum clearly respects Cleveland's endurance, never puncturing his fantasy by, say, interviewing the half-dozen Ryan's patrons present at his big show. So who's to say this man is not a brilliant artist? And who knows: Might the success of Driver 23 give rise to the rocker's cellar dreamscape, delivering the courier back to the stage? To borrow a phrase from another Minneapolitan character: Maybe Dan Cleveland is gonna make it after all.  

Dan Cleveland will appear in person at Town Hall Brewery on Friday and Saturday at 9:30 p.m. following U Film's 7:15 p.m. screenings of Driver 23; for more information, see A List, p. 46.

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