Context is everything. Some folks live for the sun. Others (like myself) prefer overcast skies. But the former will still be grateful for a downpour in the middle of a drought, while the latter can find a tiny sliver of sunlight peeking through the clouds magical after endless weeks of nonstop drizzle. And movies work much the same way, to the point where your best chance of being clobbered by a given emotion is often to seek out its opposite. Not always, of course: If you’re looking to be horrified, few comedies are gonna deliver, except maybe in that Sandleresque “and he’s also Jill!” sort of way. But it’s especially true of what we might call the Hallmark sentiments: kindness, compassion, bravery, nobility, tenderness, etc. Make one or more these your focus and you’re liable to produce treacle; detonate one in the middle of an otherwise nihilistic assault and suddenly grown men start weeping furtively. Such moments are moving in direct proportion to how violently they catch you off guard. They fill a nearly unbearable void.
Vincent Gallo’s directorial feature debut, Buffalo ’66, is one such exercise in paradox. On its surface, it’s one of the most narcissistic movies ever made—the story of an arrested adolescent (Gallo) obsessed with avenging an ancient, ridiculous grudge against a Bills placekicker. Early on, Gallo impulsively kidnaps a young woman (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pose as his wife for the benefit of his parents, spending pretty much the entire movie berating her in his signature repetitive whine, oblivious to her inexplicable fondness for him. If you find Gallo insufferable—and I can understand why many do—it must be torture. But the character’s self-absorption shouldn’t be confused with the filmmaker’s, and Gallo repeatedly finds ways to provide the other people onscreen with a spotlight of their own, quite literally. At one point, Gallo takes Ricci to a bowling alley he used to frequent, looking to recapture pathetic past glories, and the failure of the automated pinsetter triggers an interlude so unexpected and lovely that it feels like a dream.
Buffalo ’66 was in theaters around the same time as The Big Lebowski, so it was a real bowling bonanza. And there’s a pronounced similarity in the way the Coens and Gallo use slow motion as a comic device, though here the tone is less jaunty (it’s not the opening credits), and the humor predicated more on the incongruity of hushed awe as applied to some squirrelly dude reliving his childhood triumphs. At the same time, though, there’s a genuinely stirring aspect to Gallo’s preparations, especially as he approaches the lane. The shot of his bowling shoes walking left to right past Ricci’s sparkly tap shoes, which are seen out of focus and positioned at a specific turned-in angle, has a certain chintzy grandeur. The series of shots that follow could serve as their own master class in film editing: the lane from Gallo’s POV; Gallo head-on preparing to roll; a two-shot with the lower half of Gallo’s body at right and Ricci watching at left, her tap shoes still at that same turned-in angle; and finally both of them seen from the far end of the lane. Whatever your objections to Buffalo ’66, you can’t tell me that it isn’t beautifully constructed.
Ricci then disappears from view for a while as we watch Gallo bowl strike after strike, celebrating each one with upraised arms and increasingly labored variations of “Oh!” She hasn’t yet spoken in the scene—indeed, she rarely speaks throughout the entire movie, though that’s largely because Gallo rarely shuts up. She’s a fantasy figure, a plot device. But that doesn’t mean she can’t have a privileged moment of her own. As a visibly worse-for-wear Jan-Michael Vincent trudges off to fix the broken lane, and Gallo rudely shanghais her seat, she quietly wanders over to the next lane… where the lights abruptly dim, a spotlight comes up, and the opening movement of King Crimson’s epic “Moonchild” emerges from the jukebox of her mind. Her subsequent tap dance doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, as Gallo initially bumped into her at a tap class (that’s why she’s wearing those shoes), but it’s plenty surreal nonetheless, one of several indications that we’re not meant to perceive Buffalo ’66 as a real-world narrative.
Two things about Ricci’s dance stand out. The first is its deliberate awkwardness, which makes it all the more touching. This isn’t one of those garish Precious fantasies in which everything’s impossibly wonderful (in too-pointed contrast to the dreamer’s miserable existence); Ricci performs the halting steps of a girl who’s taken several weeks of introductory classes, and her facial expression suggests not rapture but just idle daydreaming. It’s the most desultory fantasy dance sequence imaginable, deriving its power from the sudden intrusion of theatrical elements into a naturalistic setting, as well as from the sudden intrusion of lyrical beauty into a harsh, bizarrely abusive context. Had Ricci previously delivered an impassioned speech about her love for tap, or had she not spent the last hour being lambasted for such mortal sins as driving a car with a stick shift (“I drive cars that shift themselves. My cars shift themselves. They’re luxury cars. They shift themselves”), her routine might seem overly affected. Instead, it’s just the right combination of unexpected and humdrum to slip its way past whatever defenses viewers have erected.
The other notable aspect of Ricci’s dance is the extent to which Gallo figures in it: scarcely at all. It’s not a performance for his benefit. The sequence never cuts to him, Ricci glances at him only once (with an expression that’s hard to read), and when the lights come up and she wanders back over, he doesn’t acknowledge that it happened—except to order her to stop dancing, which she still vaguely is. (Dig the perfect timing on the bowling ball’s return, given that the last several minutes are a single shot.) Essentially, the film stops cold for a while to give one of its supporting characters a solo, then resumes. That’s happened once in the film already, actually, with Ben Gazzara as Gallo’s dad lip-synching to a recording of Gallo’s actual father singing, also in an impossible spotlight. But the halfhearted loneliness of Ricci’s tapping combined with Crimson’s plangent prog-ballad truly creates a brief window into a sad alternate universe. It’s as if she wanders out of the movie for a moment, like an employee taking a smoke break. And it’s the vast tonal gulf between movie and “intermission” that lends the latter its aching quality. Only by being so intentionally abrasive can a film like Buffalo ’66 deliver a sucker-punch with such melancholic grace.