n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Long before Vincent Gallo's career as a filmmaker and media provocateur, he was a musician. At the age of 12, he was in a prog-influenced garage band, and as a habitué of the downtown New York art scene in the early 1980s, he played clubs with painting ingenue Jean-Michel Basquiat under the name Gray. (The band broke up when Basquiat's art stock began to rise.) There's also, of course, the solo record that Gallo released several years ago, entitled When. So it's not especially surprising that music plays such an integral role in the two feature-length films he has acted in and directed.
Buffalo '66, the first of the two, tells the story of Billy Brown (Gallo), who has just been released from prison where he served another man's sentence in exchange for a clear debt on a losing Super Bowl bet. Upon his release Billy has a vague determination to hunt down Scott Norwood, the placekicker whose missed field goal at the last minute cost the Buffalo Bills the game, but first he's promised his parents a visit. They've been unaware of his imprisonment, and in order to fool them into thinking that he's happy and successful, Billy manages to kidnap a girl named Layla (Christina Ricci) from a tap-dance class and have her pose as his wife. This sounds like a recipe for high comedy, and indeed there's a streak of bitter humor in the scenes with Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara as the absurdly clueless and unsupportive parents. But from here the film focuses on the sweetly awkward relationship between Billy, who's never so much as kissed a girl, and Layla, who inexplicably carries out her doting act after they leave and her initial obligation ends. (You'd assume that she's fallen for him, but he's so hostile and uncharming that it seems impossible; her own character remains a cypher.) In the end Billy must choose between exacting revenge on Wood, and possibly going back to prison, and sticking with the only girl who's ever cared about him; romantics will be pleased to know that the girl wins out.
I first saw Buffalo '66 at the height of my Christina Ricci fixation (within the same twelve-month period she had been in The Ice Storm, The Opposite of Sex, and Pecker) but left more impressed with Gallo's confidently mixed tone and varied style. The film has its share of vérité moments (nonprofessional actors, unfiltered noise, long takes) but these are balanced by inventive editing tricks: he sometimes shoots from directly overhead, and he indicates flashbacks through a frame that expands from the center and overtakes the existing frame. In an odd way, Gallo's music often tends to embody this same contradiction between intimate realism and formalist experimentation: When alternates between starkly pretty confessional poems that showcase Gallo's pure, vulnerable tenor, and dreamy, abstractly textured instrumentals. In both media, an interesting tension is achieved between an essential emotional rawness and more artful distancing effects.
One of Gallo's own songs is, in fact, the first thing we hear in Buffalo '66: set to a still photo of a seven-year-old Billy Brown, Gallo sings, with the colorless innocence of Chet Baker, "All forgotten yesterdays / School days remind me of when I was a boy / All my life I've been this lonely boy." Of course, the lines nicely set up the film's central theme from the start. But Gallo is not a director who imposes wall-to-wall sound on his films, and apart from a few hazy incidental sketches, music only arises in the most deliberate ways thereafter.
Three scenes in particular are worth noting. The first is at Billy's parents' house, when his father reveals he was once a nightclub singer and treats Layla to a karaoke rendition of "Fools Rush In" over a Nelson Riddle arrangement. The artifice of this scene could not be more plain: not only is Gazzara's face suddenly illuminated with a spotlight, he's also clearly lip-syncing. (The actual voice belongs to Gallo's real-life father, Vincent Gallo Sr.) Later in the film, Billy takes Layla to a run-down bowling alley, probably the only place he has ever experienced any glory. While he's busy rolling strikes, she nonchalantly gets up and, with a spotlight again descending, performs a glum tap routine to King Crimson's lyrical, wistful "Moonchild." In their theatricality, both of these performances feel out of time somehow and, as such, hint at a melancholy more pervasive than the mere scenes from which they arise.
The third scene is similarly disconnected, but the mood is tense and chaotic rather than plaintive. In slow motion, Billy enters the strip club that Scott Wood owns, intending to kill him; soon the soundtrack is overtaken with the frazzled energy of Yes's "Heart of the Sunrise," with Chris Squire's thick, frenetic bass racing up and down scales. As Billy unloads his gun on Wood and then himself, everything freezes and goes silent, and the two men's blood-splattered faces suddenly turn into cartoonish plasticine models. But none of this is real, only fantasy. The song's mellow vocal section starts as Billy snaps out of it and turns around to walk out of the club.
All of these musical moments certainly add to the surreal quality of Buffalo '66, but I also want to highlight a more subtle example of music-as-artifice in the film. As Billy makes his first genuine overtures of affection toward Layla, on a motel room bed shortly before he leaves for the strip club, we hear the sumptuous strains of Stan Getz's "I Remember When." It's a perfect accompaniment to the urgency of the scene: the mellifluous sax and drifting strings seem to conjure a classic Technicolor film from the golden age of cinema, the epitome of idealized romance.
It's clear that Gallo is drawn to such unabashedly sentimental and nostalgic material; his second film, The Brown Bunny, while containing even less music overall, finds room for two other soulful jazz compositions, as well as Gordon Lightfoot's sappily bittersweet "Beautiful," which plays uninterrupted as the camera stays trained on rain washing over a windshield. And yet because these selections are used within the context of such compelling and cleverly told stories, they never feel gratuitous. In fact, like most of the music Gallo uses, sooner or later they just seem like variations on his lonely mood.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-12-02