Justice for George and Solidarity in the Twin Cities

|Matt Levine|

Photo by Matt Levine

There are few parts of my country in which I can take pride as an American. Not its healthcare system nor gun control laws, both so nonexistent that they blur the lines between barbarism and civilization. Certainly not its oligarchy parading as democracy, by which the whims and desires of the wealthy and powerful leave us with few political options (a dire choice American voters will now have to face two elections in a row – we know how that worked out last time). And most obviously not the many ways in which institutional racism continues to oppress and threaten communities of color, manifested through this country’s systems of education, employment, housing, mass incarceration, and – unmistakable in light of recent events – police brutality. This is the plague spread by America’s criminal justice system that makes it a dangerous act for people of color simply to live their lives. It would be the shame of this nation if the United States weren’t built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans forcibly taken from their land.

One thing I could take pride in for the last decade was Minneapolis, my adopted hometown since 2010. Previously I had lived in Milwaukee, Madison, and Atlanta – all beautiful (and flawed) cities in their own right. But the Twin Cities were something else, a glimmer of progressivism in a country so often intent on looking backward. The parks, biking, public transportation, and majestic landscape were an everyday haven, allowing me to drag myself from my home in Near North to my job in Edina on a nearly daily basis without a car. The music, film, theatre, and literature scenes were vibrant and thriving; Twin Cities residents have always known that art is alive and well in the Midwest. Communities seemed diverse and harmonious: you could rely on neighbors and strangers for help, or at least a sympathetic conversation, if you needed it.

I know now this rosy view of Minneapolis was a reflection of my white privilege. I suspected as much at the time; you’d have to be severely myopic to see the way cops lingered around the intersection of Broadway and Lyndale (but ignored most kinds of drunken mayhem in Uptown) and pretend everything was okay. But I wanted to believe, in the years of Barack Obama’s presidency, that Minneapolis was a sign of where America was going: suffering from a difficult past but working towards progress, visibly unequal but trying to right those wrongs. I wanted to believe that the city’s pseudo-liberal leadership and my semi-diverse (i.e., gentrifying) neighborhood were proof that things were okay and would only get better. The ease with which I convinced myself of that weighs heavily on my shoulders, as it does for a great many white residents of Minneapolis.

To state the obvious: the last few weeks have made it disturbingly clear how stupid my assumptions were. When Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng murdered 46-year-old George Floyd, the city’s noxious history of police violence and racial inequality was thrust violently into the national spotlight. Floyd, who was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina and raised in Houston, was a star tight end and basketball player in high school and college. A rapper and musician, the father of two moved to Minnesota in 2014 and served as a security guard at several venues throughout the Twin Cities. “Knowing my brother is to love my brother,” said George’s brother Philonise. When police were called because Floyd allegedly paid with a counterfeit $20 bill, he did not resist arrest. He begged his murderer, Derek Chauvin, to release his knee from his neck and said, in a phrase that has come to encapsulate America’s racism, “I can’t breathe.” A preliminary autopsy (conducted by a state-led criminal justice system complicit in the ongoing slaughter of black and brown people) suggested that underlying health conditions and “potential intoxicants” led to his death (fucking potential – they’re not even trying to cover up the victim-blaming). An independent autopsy arranged by Floyd’s family later revealed that his death was “a homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain” – asphyxia that lasted nearly nine minutes as Derek Chauvin’s knee stayed pressed against George Floyd’s throat.

Black people are 13 times more likely to be killed by Minnesota police than white people, accounting for more than sixty percent of the victims of police shootings since 2009. Merely remembering the names Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Thurman Blevins gives human faces to those statistics. (And the killings of Justine Ruszczyk and Chiasher Fong Vue make it clear that the MPD’s bloodlust is not strictly colorblind.) Racial inequality is more pronounced here than almost anywhere else in the country, as the typical black family earns less than half as much as the typical white family in Minneapolis. In the wake of Floyd’s death, national news outlets have made these facts known to the world – facts that should have been unavoidable long beforehand, and which more of the community (myself included) should have worked to resist.

The multitude of violent, chaotic forces besieging our city is staggering. White supremacists roam the streets after “curfew,” trying to stoke fear and hatred. Friends and loved ones who live in neighborhoods throughout south Minneapolis find weapons, supplies for committing arson, suspicious vehicles, deluded white men who think their toys lend them some kind of legitimacy. These diversionary tactics are meant to delegitimize the revolutionary force of the movement, distracting from activists in the Twin Cities who employ property damage and expropriation to foment an uprising. The chaos is heightened instead of alleviated by the murderous pigs who have little interest in restoring law and order. (Some people, I’m sure, will take issue with the word “pigs.” I agree it’s not very accurate. American Nazis? The modern-day KKK? A 21st-century lynch mob? There are more appropriate options.) The reasons why the Minneapolis police ignore their supposed duty of upholding peace – instead opting to shoot tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at primarily peaceful protesters – are obvious: the agendas of the American police and white supremacists are generally the same. The MPD has done nothing to convince us this isn’t the case. 

And yet my pride in Minneapolis continues to grow. What I’ve seen in the aftermath are peaceful protests at which people come together, undivided by race or by attempts to stoke further animosity; they kneel or chant or march in unison because they refuse to live in a country like this. I’ve seen people converge on Lake Street or Bloomington Avenue armed only with brooms and rubber gloves and trash bags, working together to clean up the mess. I’ve seen people donate money and food and cleaning supplies and homes and vehicles, people that may have not been mobilized in the past. I’ve seen and heard a lot of traumatic things, but also neighbors who stay up all night to keep watch over their street, and business owners who would rather see their property damaged in an act of public demonstration than be complicit. Yes, I had a naïve view of Minneapolis as a blissful city that welcomed everybody, and on the political level that probably was never true; but at the street level, where so many of us are afraid and furious but still working together, that is the Minneapolis I’m seeing now.

If ever there was a clear indication of the time to abolish the police, it’s now. Protests throughout the United States and the world have ignited in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the police have demonstrated, time and time again, their despotic brutality. An eight-year-old girl maced in Seattle. Elderly activists shoved to the ground in Salt Lake City and Buffalo. Peaceful protesters bludgeoned and killed in the street in too many cities to name. To believe that the police are a necessary institution that provides protection and justice is to operate under an assumption of white privilege. For large parts of the American population, the police exacerbate instead of mitigate violence in our communities, and the last week has proven that in shocking, highly visible ways that the people of this country will never forget.  

Photo by Matt Levine

It may seem insignificant to talk about art at a time like this – particularly movies, which have consumed my passion for so much of my life. But this is exactly the time when we need great, radical, angry art to mobilize us, to keep us pissed off at an unjust world. I remember applying to volunteer at the Trylon Cinema the very first week I moved to Minneapolis. I didn’t know anything about it; I saw its schedule online and was blown away by its programming, which included so many political and volatile films. My love for Minneapolis, its art and its people, has been synonymous with my time at the Trylon, which has lasted the entire time I’ve been in this city.

I remember seeing The Battle of Algiers there. Gillo Pontecorvo’s influential 1966 film depicts the resistance of Algerians and the FLN (National Liberation Front) against French colonizers. Used as a lesson in insurgent warfare (and the suppression of it) by both resistance movements and political authorities, The Battle of Algiers systematically portrays how freedom fighters can take down occupying forces (which the American police are). Both sides commit violent actions (with Algerian bombings in the European sector serving as responses to French torture and mass execution), but it’s obvious where the film’s sympathies lie: a coda declares that Algeria ultimately wrested its independence from the French military, presaging decolonization wars in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Mauritania and other countries. The Black Panthers and Palestinian Liberation Organization, among others, used The Battle of Algiers as a textbook of sorts. To see it with an audience at the Trylon was to feel a buzz of insurgency in the air.

At the Trylon, I also saw The Spook Who Sat by the Door, an undervalued 1973 film by Ivan Dixon about the C.I.A.’s first black operative, who drops out of the agency and uses his expertise to train young black freedom fighters in Chicago; and Uptight, Jules Dassin’s late-career masterpiece about a disillusioned young man who, in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, is shunned by his fellow black militants (he favors pacifism over armed resistance) and decides to rat them out to the cops. Both films depict the intense emotional and psychological toll that political resistance takes on individuals, as well as the violent suppression of such tactics by colonizing forces such as the police and military.

Earlier this year, as part of the Trylon’s volunteer programmer series, I had the honor of selecting Peter Watkins’ pseudo-documentary Punishment Park (1971) as my volunteer selection. The first time I saw it, about ten years ago, was a formative political experience for me: I had never seen a movie that so explicitly voiced the atrocities the United States had committed since its foundation and the flimsy rationale for continuing to perpetrate those atrocities into the 1970s. In the film, a group of countercultural prisoners, ranging from black militants to conscientious objectors to academics, artists, and Communists, are rounded up and forced to flee across the California desert. If they make it to a predetermined goal alive, they earn their freedom; but the odds are stacked against them, as the police and military are armed with vehicles, weapons, food and water, and have the right to shoot the prisoners on the spot. Bitterly furious and utterly cynical, the film clearly identifies with the outrage of the pursued leftists, who denounce the Vietnam War and police brutality as riots erupt throughout the country in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination and the suppression of the Civil Rights Movement. The conflict between a small number of dissidents who try to behave justly, and large forces of trigger-happy cowards who take human life instead of dealing with divergent opinions, is portrayed in all of its appropriate fury. But that negativity is only more catalyzing for the audience, who can’t bear to leave the theater and reenter a world so inconceivably cruel. Seeing this film at the Trylon, and then having a tense but cathartic conversation about it in the lobby afterward, was a political awakening all over again: this is a film for our times, as seething in its indignation as 2020 deserves.

It’s not only the Trylon, obviously. There were Mr. Freedom and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Take One) at the Walker, innovative films about gung-ho American xenophobia and the conflicted, persecuted construction of black identity. There was Crime + Punishment at the Capri, the best documentary I’ve seen about systemic corruption in American police departments and the minute, insidious ways that racism is not only tolerated but enforced within its sphere. There was T-Men at the Heights, which uses a gritty film noir storyline to imply that cops and criminals operate in the same exact ways despite the police department’s veneer of justice (and its impunity to kill at will).

The point is not to commemorate these physical places and the walls that construct them (though obviously, like everyone else, I long for the day when we can return to them). There are countless restaurants, bars, art centers, local stores, and community hangouts that are endangered or already damaged or destroyed, either due to instigators trying to sabotage the movement or to a genuine outpouring of anger and grief at the failed society that America has become (has always been). As James Baldwin said, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it.” The destruction of physical property can be intense, but bricks feel no pain; the destruction of human life by state-sanctioned forces of white supremacy is unforgivable, and that pain is felt by countless people and generations in its wake.

The point is that in commemorating George Floyd and Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Iyanna Dior and Jamar Clark and Thurman Blevins and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and thousands of others … in commemorating them and trying to protect our city, we look to the friendships and pieces of art and conversations that have formed our ideas of justice and solidarity. For me personally, many of those ideas come from movies – the films that radicalized me, shouted furiously at me in the audience, told me never to accept my country’s failures and the racist cops patrolling its streets. These films are what helped instill such boundless pride in my city, which offered to me provocative and demanding viewing experiences on a nearly nightly basis. But from there, my pride and love only grew by deepening relationships with some of the strongest, most dedicated artists, freedom fighters, activists, friends and neighbors I’ve ever known. It’s those people who are now fighting for equality and fending off thuggish cops, white supremacists, forces of hate and divisiveness that have defined this country for too long. I see those activists, friends, and neighbors in this wounded city and believe we can start to be known for something else.

James Baldwin said another thing that bears repeating right now: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”

Edited by Michelle Baroody

What’s the Point of the Trylon Anyway?

Artwork by Alexis Politz (https://alexispolitz.com/)

|Ben Savard|

At the time of this essay’s start, life is unstable and uncertain. Half One Over four million people have been diagnosed with a novel and serious virus; that number is still growing. The response has been a series of contradictions. The world has been brought to a standstill as it frantically works on testing, treating, surviving. Time is running out quickly even as every second in isolation feels longer than the last. We all need to stay distant, we all need to work together. 

Such a resonant disruption to life has forced our society to answer many questions that it had been ignoring. What is the value of “unskilled” labor? Which workers are truly essential for a community to go on? Whose life is saved when resources are scarce? It has also raised questions few had ever thought to ask. How often do I touch my face? How long can I go without human touch? Are sports still fun without a live crowd in the background? Is live music still meaningful without an audience? In the age of Netflix and widescreen TVs, what’s the point of a movie theater anyway?

In the fall of 2016, I moved to Minneapolis with a close friend. I knew some people around the city and was even friendly with some of my new housemates, but for all intents and purposes, I felt myself to be in a community of only two people. Just a few weeks after unloading the last cardboard box out of my car, I drove to a movie theater that I heard was playing Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I walked past strangers chatting in a dark hall. I bought my ticket from a stranger who patiently waited for me to find cash, lost deep in my bag. Another stranger grabbed me water, scooped my popcorn, and buttered it with a smile. I asked a stranger perched at the front of the booth if the movie was 35mm. It was. I sat in the back row, overtopping a dozen more strangers softly talking, adjusting their coats. And then the lights went down. Quiet darkness enveloped us all. 

Two hours later I walked out, surrounded by people I could no longer call strangers. We had gone through something together. I could now turn to anyone in the hallway and have footing to get to know them. And I did. People who had seen it half a dozen times talked about the moments they had still remembered, what surprised them this time, and the scenes they cherished. They listened to my thoughts in turn, and when I told them it was my first viewing, they reminisced about where and when they had first watched it. I doubt anyone remembered my name, but how could any of the people still be strangers? In a world continually growing more solitary, we all had a shared experience. Even just the fact we had sought out this film and this place meant we already had a common interest: something upon which we could start to build community. On my way out, I gave the projectionist my contact information, in case someday they needed more volunteers. The wait list was six months deep, but I didn’t care. I left that night with the first inkling that I might someday be at home in this new city. 

Within a year, I became a volunteer at the Trylon. Within two, my original friend moved away, but I could weather the storm because I felt myself fully integrated into my new communities, including the Tylon. Between volunteering and seeing movies on my own, I can always count on new conversations about art and life and history and the merits of licorice. I have friends to bounce ideas off of, friends to show me new interpretations of old stories, and friends to challenge my ways of understanding. Every week I know I can have a communal experience. Every trip to the Trylon expands or strengthens my feeling of community. 

Today, everything is on hold. No one knows exactly when we will return to the gathering places of life. We may have access to a seemingly limitless library of titles to watch at our convenience, but the movies as an experience exist only in our memories and hopes for the future. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch things, but I’ll miss the bonds created in the flickering dark of the Trylon. And I know some Monday not far off, I’ll be back behind the counter welcoming in people as strangers and saying goodnight to them as new members of this community we share.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art”: DOWNTOWN 81 as Graffiti

|Brad Stiffler|

There is undoubtedly a lot of graffiti in Downtown 81. Featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat just before he began his meteoric ascent in the world of galleries and museums, the film captures the height of his public graffiti-writing period with numerous scenes of him spray painting walls and defacing cars (“I was part of the landscape, I’m an artist”). Within the first fifteen minutes, Basquiat runs into Fab Five Freddy (later of Yo!: MTV Raps fame) and Lee Quiñones (who later appeared in Wild Style) painting a “legal” mural (“I’m a tax payer, I can paint anywhere I want”). Beyond these direct depictions of graffiti writing, the background is filled with the stuff. Filmed on location in Manhattan in 1980, there is no shortage of tags, stencils, elaborate murals, and artistically defaced property (“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art… neon literature”).

There are also some slightly less obvious forms of graffiti in the film. In a perhaps-too-symbolic scene, Basquiat takes a sharpie to a book of Man Ray photographs in a rich patron’s swanky apartment, vandalizing a stand-in for the institutional art world as if it were just another concrete wall holding up a bank or a police station. Or, thinking more abstractly, Basquiat and his loose crew of artists, musicians, and freaks represent a kind of cultural graffiti, marring the streets of a metropolis built for the stuffed suits of Wall St., the mass culture hucksters of Times Square, and the elite denizens of the art world, represented by the imposing background image of the Guggenheim in the opening sequence. By offering a distinctly racialized vision of NYC, where black, Latinx, and other marginalized artists were central actors in a subcultural scene that wasn’t striving for mainstream success or museum prestige, the film leaves its mark on the shining image of America’s cultural capital (“I wanted to paint the town red, paint the town black”).  

But is the film itself a kind of graffiti? Does it capture the essence of this mode of criminal art-making in its form? Does it offer an example of cinema as graffiti? As the examples above demonstrate, it certainly holds out the promise that we might experience something of the sort. And if the sounds made from stolen samples played over looped break beats in some of the early hip hop featured in the film, or the No Wave stylings of DNA that tried to deconstruct rock music, might be said to constitute a kind of musical or sonic graffiti, why shouldn’t we expect the filmmaking to capture the same spirit? Or if TV Party, the riotous early cable access program where Basquiat, writer Glenn O’Brien, co-star Debbie Harry, and numerous others in the film worked together before, could be said to have defaced television with its conflict-filled call-in sessions and on-air pot smoking, might we reasonably expect this film to find a uniquely cinematic form of disruptive expression?

I won’t try to evaluate its success or failure in that project here. Go and see it and decide for yourself. I will, though, leave you with one more thought on the topic. Near the middle of the film, Basquiat happens across a piece of his own graffiti, massive black letters on a brick wall: WHICH ONE OF THE FOLLOWING INSTITUTIONS HAS THE MOST POLITICAL INFLUENCE?    ⃤TELEVISION ⃤THE CHURCH ⃤SAMO ⃤MCDONALDS. He steps back and takes a photograph of it (“I’ve made my mark in the world”). The potentially interactive form of the piece holds out the real promise of graffiti: the world isn’t built for you but you can leave your mark. By taking a picture of it from afar, Basquiat defuses it, turning it into an image to be consumed or enjoyed rather than a provocation to go out and find your own way to deface the world. As a “document” and set of images attempting to capture the unique avant-garde constellation of street art, early hip hop, punk/post-punk, video art, community media, and political discontent of the Downtown scene, I worry the film (especially when viewed forty years later) might be more like that photograph than the graffiti on the wall.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

A brand new 35mm print of Downtown 81 screens at the Trylon from Friday, February to Sunday, February 23. Purchase tickets and learn more at trylon.org.

What GUMMO Wasn’t

|Olga Tchepikova-Treon|

Gummo has been around for more than twenty years, so there are not many new insights I feel I can offer about its position in and contribution to cinema history, or its significance in Harmony Korine’s filmmaking trajectory. Korine earned his directorial debut—this very Gummo—with the tremendous success of writing Kids for Larry Clark in 1994. Gummo, however, takes the urban teen life realism aesthetic established through Kids into a rural and, perhaps more significantly, disaster and poverty-struck environment. To sum up the consensus: Gummo’s praise (as well as dismissal) often emphasizes the film’s intermingling of cinematic techniques, oscillation between truth and fiction in setting, characters and action, and above all, the emotional confusion it provokes in audiences because of this technical, narrative, and aesthetic chaos. Some say Gummo is hard to watch. Others say it’s beautiful. Most likely, it is both. But really, I am not necessarily invested in making a case for either—you probably already know where you stand, or you will find out very soon. What I am, or became invested in upon engaging with Gummo over and over again is the more speculative question of what it could have been, but wasn’t.

There are a few resources that speak to this speculative question: First, Gummo’s official screenplay, published a few years after the film’s theatrical release.[1] Then, there’s a video installation Korine put together from predominantly unused footage filmed for Gummo, called The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II.[2]And finally, as a side note, there is Korine’s frequent re-use of audio-visual materials—including those that made it into Gummo proper—for different projects in varying media formats.[3] Unfortunately, The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II has not been released in any accessible format, so unless you saw it playing in a gallery (I have not), there is no way to speculate in this direction. So I’m bringing up the latter two resources here mainly to aid those who are interested in venturing out on their own research. What I will focus on is a partial illustration of what was planned but not executed in Gummo according to the screenplay. I do this not to point fingers at inaccuracy but to suggest how some of the changes that happened made Gummo a more ambivalent portrait of a small town in the wake of a devastating tornado. I will mainly reference alterations made to characters that did end up in the screen version, as I think a discussion of those changes will elucidate their impact on the tone and mood of the film, without significantly altering the action or story logic (if Gummo’s fragmented narrative setup can even accommodate a claim that there is any of such logic).

In the screenplay, Korine paints some of Gummo’s characters as far more cruel and hostile than they ultimately appear in the film. Still, the film that Gummo became can hardly be called completely cruelty free. Indeed, we watch many characters being unkind toward themselves, each other, animals, individuals with sensory, physical or mental disabilities, and terminally ill persons. However, most of the time, the perpetrators do not seem to overtly indulge or enjoy this behavior. Rather, their actions and sentiments are portrayed as an almost annoyingly boring part of their daily routine—it is simply the way things are in Xenia, Ohio.

In the screenplay, however, their sentiments are often actively vicious and hateful. Bunny Boy—the film’s non-speaking, impassive and most mysterious character—blows up frogs with fire crackers and, smilingly, talks about suicide and hating the world. The skinhead brothers were set to be filmed spitting into the camera, all the while one of them sports a swastika tattoo on his forehead. Cole—the late-teen who pimps out his younger sister with Down Syndrome to willing ‘clients’ like Solomon and Tummler—goes on a jealous rant about his “little devious bitch” of a girlfriend, but also acknowledges that she was sexually abused by her father. Finally, the Midget (indeed credited in the screenplay as “Midget”) explains at length how he hates himself and his life because he is short and gay. Further screenplay ideas that were tossed include a chubby teenage girl who hangs herself as a result of bullying, and an anonymous boy cutting the word XENIA into his arm.[4]

None of these initially-planned sequences seem surprising given the broader setting of Gummo—a town left behind, where casual expressions of racist and homophobic tendencies ring from run-down house porches, where middle-school-aged boys in cowboy costumes shout all the bad words they know from the top of their lungs, and where a majority of living spaces look like seriously health-hazardous environments. But the choice to ultimately abstain from portrayals of indulgent cruelty and hatred pokes deep holes into the cliché of a destitute, or white trash population whose types we think we know so well.

Maybe Gummo would have penetrated the cinematic mainstream a little further if those cruel intentions had remained in the final cut. After all, this would have significantly simplified our judgment of its film world. Everything about a screenplay-faithful Gummo would have played into and confirmed the mostly negative image of poor, white, rural America perpetrated through redneck horror films, tabloid talk shows and reality TV. It would have made it easy to make sense (or fun) of the film and its characters. But without such elements of frolicking hostility, we necessarily catch ourselves making assumptions about Gummo’s characters without any solid grounding.

So maybe in that sense, Gummo is hard to watch indeed—not because of its staggering impression of authenticity and realism, but because we are cheated out of a commonplace film watching experience. Gummo does not leave us with a sense that its character population can be distinctly classified into heroes and villains. Maybe this is because we want some of the characters to be both and praise them for their complexity. More likely, however, all of the characters are actually neither and thus, remain somewhat impenetrable. So what we are left with is a circumstantial skepticism toward the very stereotypes we want to believe in while watching Gummo. And this, significantly, may yield a shift in the schadenfreude-drenched voyeurism that often makes up watching film characters that we think we can feel superior to. A less cruel Gummo may keep us more honest about the ill logic of personal judgments directed at people on film screens as well as in real life. And life, as Solomon says, is great—without it you’d be dead.


[1] Harmony Korine, Collected Screenplays 1 (London: faber and faber, 2002).

[2] See a breakdown of the installation’s exhibition history for further details.

[3] For a comprehensive overview, see the Images section on Korine’s unofficial fan site.

[4] Though the film offers an alternative to this in the brief sequence where we see an arm freshly cut with the letters SLAYER.

Edited by Ben Savard

Gummo screens at the Trylon from Friday, Jan. 31 to Sunday, Feb. 2. Buy tickets and learn more about the screening at trylon.org.

BUFFALO ‘66: Desperate times call for magical style

|Ann Romine|

Five minutes into Buffalo ‘66, Billy Brown needs to find a bathroom. To remedy this situation, he decides to return to the prison from which he was just released, a move that immediately characterizes the film’s protagonist as a lost soul. 

On a winter day in Buffalo, New York, a misty glow emanates from the overcast sky while high contrast reveals saturated colors. This scene provides the setting for Buffalo ‘66. Shot on reversal 35mm film, the effect in Vincent Gallo’s 1998 movie––both vintage and other-wordly––blurs the line between Billy’s internal struggle and his external reality. Although we can deduce the story takes place during the mid to late 1990s, the film’s sets and costumes obscure the time period in Buffalo ‘66; for example, a 1960s radio and dial phone sit on a motel nightstand, lending a dreamlike atmosphere to this darkly comic melodrama. 

The film’s narrative poses a central question: why does Billy Brown bet on the Buffalo Bills to win Super Bowl XXV, knowing the consequences of losing? Resigning himself to the reality of his situation, Billy admits, “I’m fucked. And I’m dead.”  The bet is an act of desperation rivalled only by his attempt to reconnect with his emotionally unavailable parents.

His desperation is revealed in a tableau-style dinner scene, where the recently kidnapped Layla (Christina Ricci) shines with sharp wit as Billy’s new “wife,”  inventing the tale of Billy’s success in the CIA and the story of how the young couple fell in love. Magically lit in a shimmering blue dress, Layla is a light that illuminates the dark oblivion of Billy’s home. Jan Brown’s (Angelica Huston) hilarious fanaticism for the Buffalo Bills (their home is a virtual shrine) raises  the tension of the homecoming scene while Jimmy Brown’s (Ben Gazarra) torch-light-song sung in spotlight adds an element of surrealism.

Almost an exaggeration of bully, Billy’s behavior toward both Layla and his friend Rocky (aka Goon) is cruel and abusive, but not surprising. What really stands out is how they respond to him. Layla observes Billy’s behavior and reacts to his controlling anger, but never with fear or feelings of subjugation. Staying true to herself, Layla seems to function as a mirror for Billy; her character allows the protagonist to see himself and his value.

Resisting Billy’s aggressive demands, Rocky protests when Billy calls him Goon: “I don’t want people to call me that no more, even you,” he asserts, as he refuses to help Billy locate the Bills’ kicker who missed the winning field goal, Scott Wood. “You shouldn’t go down there,” Rocky advises, “don’t go down there. Don’t do bad things.” 

In contrast, the bowling alley scene provides slow motion close ups of Billy and Layla as they settle in, creating a meditative feel and depicting a shift in the film’s mood. The feel-good scene shows Billy and Layla performing in turns––Billy, “The King,” bowls strike after strike, and Layla performs an iconic tap dance to the sad sexy song “Moonchild” by King Crimson. 

Toward the end of the film, the slow-motion and freeze-frame shots (which precede similar techniques used in The Matrix) at Scott Wood’s strip club build stylized suspense, intensified by the driving sounds of “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes. Confronted with his ultimate dilemma, Billy’s vision of his potential future is imagined in a Dickensesque way, and he  virtually explodes with emotion in the final throes.
In the end, Billy seems to take to heart the message from the billboard towering over the bowling alley parking lot, and it’s hard not to be happy for him.

Buffalo ’66 screens at Trylon on Thursday, November 7 as part of the Volunteer Programmer’s series. The film was programmed by Ann Romine, Trylon volunteer since 2009. Find details and more info about the screening on our website.

Why Charles Burnett Turned His Back On Blaxploitation: An Interview with the Filmmaker

|Todd Melby|

Working freelance doesn’t pay much, but it does afford one time. A couple of years ago, I used my ample time to create a film podcast. I titled it The Drunk Projectionist. The name sounds cool, but when it comes to movies, I’m quite sober. My movie pod hustle resulted in seven episodes, including an in-depth interview with Charles Burnett, the African-American director of Killer of Sheep, screening on 35mm to open the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series on Nov. 3.

I saw Killer of Sheep during its commercial, art house release. Its images of children playing underneath railroad cars, jumping between buildings, riding bicycles and hanging around adults fixing sinks took my breath away. Everything felt so real. That’s because it was a reflection of Burnett’s life. Unlike his white University of Southern California classmates, Burnett grew up in Watts. While they fretted about labor unions and sexual revolution, Burnett turned his camera on his neighborhood, spending weekends filming the story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker struggling with depression, his children and his wife.

Frustrated by money problems, Stan finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a teacup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor.

Critic Terrence Rafferty of GQ called Killer of Sheep “one of the most striking debuts in movie history.” The film was shot in roughly a year of weekends on a budget of less than $10,000, paid for partially by a $3,000 grant, and also out of the pocket of Burnett himself. Shot on location, the film offers an episodic narrative with gritty documentary-style cinematography. Killer of Sheep won the critic’s prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival and was named to the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.

According to Sally Hubbard, who wrote the program notes to the film at the 10th Festival of Preservation, “Killer of Sheep was almost impossible to see for many years, and was available only on poor quality 16mm prints. This 35mm restoration was made from the deteriorated original 16mm negative, and 16mm and 35mm soundtracks.”

— Todd Melby is a Trylon volunteer. He’s writing a book about Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. Learn more about his interpretation of Fargo here.

See the entire schedule for the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series here.