What Does This Movie Mean? Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ‘66” (1998)
Synopsis: The protagonist, a thirty-something man named Billy Brown, has just been released from prison after serving his sentence, having been framed for some kind of fraud. Angry and otherwise profoundly disturbed, he kidnaps Layla, a teenage ballet student, in order to pass her off as his wife to his terrible parents. In the course of a day of aimless meandering, filled with Billy Brown threatening and berating Layla, it becomes clear that the young man has been traumatized by his dysfunctional upbringing, his friend’s betrayal, and a history of romantic rejection. Believing he has nothing to live for, Billy is going to let Layla go and kill the man who had framed him. Ultimately, however, Billy and Layla fall for each other, and Billy decides not to kill the man.
What it’s supposed to mean: The kind, insightful Layla quickly realizes that Billy is not a monster. Rather, underneath all that brutish, violent exterior is a scared little boy who just wants to be loved. She understands that when all is said and done, he is a victim of circumstances and various bad people, and she has a chance to heal him and help him be a better person. Whereas a more shallow, less intelligent woman would have talked back to Billy, run away or called the police, Layla wisely submits to Billy’s never-ending stream of abuse with dignity and calm, until such time as Billy’s soul-searching leads him to change his behavior and realize he has a second chance at life with Layla.
What it really means: Let’s start from the fact that the movie asks us to suspend disbelief where it really shouldn’t. Letting an abuser go on abusing does not lead him to realize that abuse is bad. Assholes are never ashamed of anything they can get away with.
After watching this movie, I went to Wikipedia to get some idea about its screenwriter, director and lead, and was not really that surprised to learn that Vincent Gallo identifies as a “radical” Republican. Because OF COURSE he does. Because underneath all the bohemian trappings and the by-now tired conventions of indie cinema, Buffalo ‘66 is drenched in misogynistic romanticism. It creates precisely that mythical universe in which a woman’s highest calling is to serve as an emotional punching bag to a man who feels he needs one.
The story of “Beauty and the Beast” can be understood in two ways: as a classic fairytale and as a cultural trope. As the former, most versions of “Beauty and the Beast” (Disney’s excepted) are wonderful, moving, and provide a refreshing break from most of classic children’s literature, where each character’s personality and importance to the story correspond to his or her physical appearance. (Disney does not entirely depart from that paradigm: its Beast changes into a gentler, better person and his physical transformation follows, reinforcing the notion that looks and personality are supposed to match. That’s not the case in all versions. In the Russian version of the fairy tale, for example, the Beast is a kind, noble, considerate, generous person from the very beginning, and the point of the story is that few people are actually capable of looking past his deformed shell. In one of the German versions, no actual transformation takes place at all; the Beast becomes beautiful in Beauty’s eyes only. But I digress.) As a cultural trope, “Beauty and the Beast” is toxic, not the least because it is relentlessly gendered: only the woman is ever called upon to put aside her pride and her instincts, and to look beyond appearances to see the person inside; the man, however, invariably gets a woman who is physically perfect as well as kind, generous and (non-threateningly) intelligent. The original
“Shrek” tried to tweak story somewhat, but never quite turned it on its head.
The grown-up variation of “Beauty and the Beast” is, of course, a story where the man is a Beast in a metaphorical sense: i.e. an abuser, or, at the very least, an insensitive lout. And boy, does Vincent Gallo’s “Billy Brown” fit the bill. Seconds after kidnapping Layla, he berates her about her car being a stick-shift model. He informs her that unless she do exactly as he says, he will chew her face off and kill her. He spends an entire day upbraiding and threatening her, telling her to shut up, telling her she is stupid, or ignorant, or otherwise worthless. She endures it all with nary a complaint and this is supposed to … inspire us? Buffalo ‘66 is the ultimate narcissistic male fantasy: at its center is a woman who is ethereally beautiful and perfectly compliant, one that our hero can subject to any degree of emotional cruelty, any insult, completely consequence-free; one who will always absolve her man of any responsibility for his brutish behavior, one who will forgive anything, and at the end of many hours of relentless abuse, will still welcome him to sob self-pityingly into her ample bosoms. And for all this, she gets a cookie.
That’s another thing — Gallo caps off Buffalo ‘66 by adding insult to the injury, Billy Brown buying his new girlfriend a heart-shaped cookie. The payoff is infinitesimal compared to what she has given up. It is built, clearly, on the tired old notion that women’s needs in love can be met perfectly well with chotchkies. Habitually rude behavior? A dozen roses should be able to take care of that. Infidelity? A piece of jewelry will make it all better. A lifetime of bitterness and inconsideration? Just buy her a new washer and send her on a Carnival cruise. I am not generally against gifts, but I have always been very suspicious of token presents being used to signal “a new beginning” or some form of making up for porcine behavior: the effect is to put the other person in the position of having to express gratitude by continuing in a terrible relationship. How can you slap a man in the face, metaphorically speaking, just as he is being thoughtful? So Billy Brown gets Layla a heart-shaped sugar cookie, because that’s what Gallo estimates to be the price of Layla’s dignity and peace of mind. That’s our happy ending.
Because when it comes to women, there is no wound so painful or so deep that won’t instantly heal, no wrong so egregious that won’t be compensated, no dream so cherished that can’t be fulfilled with a timely purchase of appropriately shaped baked goods. Amirite?