Tonight is opening night for a retrospective of the films of Tony Buba at the Anthology Film Archives in NY that ends on June 12th. Put this on your calendar since the “Bard of Braddock” is more tuned in to the American class system than any director I’ve run across in over 15 years of film reviewing.
As Michael Moore is to Flint, and Harvey Pekar was to Cleveland, that’s what Tony Buba is to Braddock, a town that was once home to steel mills, a prosperous working class, cultural attractions including 5 movie theaters, and all the other features that have largely disappeared from such rust belt towns and cities.
Buba actually combines the best of Michael Moore and Harvey Pekar in his most celebrated film, “Lightning Over Braddock” that will be shown this evening. Like Moore in “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the film is a tribute to an America that has almost disappeared, a blue-collar semi-paradise that enabled working class kids like Buba and Michael Moore to go to college and catch lightning in a bottle. (I am not exactly sure why the film has lightning in the title, but this would make about as much sense as any other explanation I can think of.)
Made in 1988, the film is a genre-bending affair that combines the kind of guerrilla film-making that Buba’s reputation rests on as well as farcical elements of a Sylvester Stallone comes to Braddock type film that represents the temptation of “selling out”. As a lapsed (or perhaps good) Catholic, Buba knows what it means to be tempted by the devil. In one scene, he confesses to a priest in an effort perhaps to put his Hollywood dreams behind him.
While he affects a humble son of the working class persona (or maybe pretends to affect), the scenario underlying “Lightning Over Braddock” is quite sophisticated in the way that it grapples with the perpetual dilemma facing film-makers: how do you keep art and mammon separated? I would say that “Lightning Over Braddock” does about as good a job of addressing this hoary issue as anything I have seen since Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece “Contempt”, a film whose producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine hoped would appeal to a broad audience, while exploiting their “edgy” young director’s notoriety. They were interested in a “product” that would sell in art-houses and shopping malls. Godard resisted them every step of the way and turned the film itself into a brilliant satire on Hollywood stupidity and greed, subverting the intentions of his producers.
Like Harvey Pekar, Buba has a great affection for the “characters” that he grew up with and who serve as a kind of repertory company in the same manner as Max Von Sydow and company once did for Ingmar Bergman. Instead of trained actors, Buba relies on the likes of Sal Carollo, a local street hustler who sticks out like a sore thumb in much of “Lightning Over Braddock”, a film whose preoccupations with art and politics Carollo mocks. His main concern is “getting paid” for his part in Buba’s films, either through cash on the barrel or press notices. Carollo is a rail-thin, scabrous-looking character who brags about being a mafia hit man at one point in his life. We must conclude that Buba’s attraction to Carollo defies an easy explanation, just as Harvey Pekar’s friendship with Toby, the attention-seeking “nerd” in “American Splendor”, does. The inclusion of the unlikely Sol Carollo, despite his often-grating interventions, is what in fact makes this film so compelling. It is Buba’s way of telling the audience to leave their conventional expectations of radical documentary in the theater lobby.
As I told Buba in a phone conversation last night, this was the first time I had interviewed a director in 15 years of reviewing films on Rotten Tomatoes as a member of New York Film Critics Online. It is standard practice for publicists to invite me to interview someone in town for a publicity tour, but I have never taken them up on it. Buba, on the other hand, was somebody I really wanted to talk to. Like Harvey Pekar, and like Michael Moore before he became a macher, this was an American original worth knowing.
The first question I had for him was how he reacted to a story in the NY Post yesterday about trade unionists voting for Scott Walker in Wisconsin, that despite the paper’s Murdoch ownership, does ring true:
Tom Fabitz, 66, a retired machinist and member of the United Steel Workers Union, said he voted for Walker because he brought taxes and spending under control. “Walker is saving the state money. You have to trim the fat someplace,” said Fabitz, a Marine vet and football fanatic.
This led to an exchange that confirmed for me that Buba was one of the sharper analysts of the class that he emerged from. He attributed Fabitz’s lack of solidarity to the biggest vulnerability of the working-class in the U.S., namely the rampant individualism that enables the rulers to divide and conquer. Unlike Michael Moore, and many of his co-thinkers at MSNBC like Ed Schultz, Buba does not romanticize the working class. He understands its failings, but at the same time puts the onus on the class that dominates it, the capitalists.
Also, unlike Moore, Buba does not hold out hope that some savior will come along any time soon to “rescue” the poor and the downtrodden. He says that the last time he voted for a Democrat was when LBJ ran in 1964, an experience identical to my own.
In many ways, Buba’s tough love for the working class is akin to Michael Yates’s. Yates is also a son of the Pittsburgh region working class who has seen first-hand how workers can defy rosy-hued “socialist realism” images and act as self-destructively as many oppressed groups have throughout history. For a literary counterpart to Buba’s documentaries, I can’t recommend Yates’s collection of stories “In and Out of the Working Class” highly enough. When I crossposted a NY Times article on the Buba retrospective to the Marxism mailing list, Yates had this to say:
Karen [Michael's better half] and I have met Tony Buba and seen some of his films. He is an exceptional filmmaker and a truly nice guy. It is great to see him get this kind of recognition. He told us that Michael Moore asked him to work on Roger and Me, but Tony was busy at the time with another project. He was his typical self-deprecating self about the irony of this. We went to a screening in Pittsburgh of a film he made. Many of his friends and family were there, and (no doubt) the women made good ethnic food for everyone.
The Tony Buba retrospective, be there or be square.
Also opening tonight at the Cinema Village in New York is the outstanding documentary on mega-dams versus the people titled “Patagonia Rising”. Directed by Brian Lilla, the film takes you into the windswept, rugged and isolated region of Chile (shared by Argentina) that serves as the corporate logo of a clothing company that sought to dramatize the sturdiness of its gear. This is not the most outrageous case of branding I can think of, considering the real human beings who exist beneath the label.
The film opens with a gaucho on horseback on his ranch in Patagonia that is surrounded by majestic mountains. Lilla has a real feel for the raw beauty of the region that makes the film appealing on a visual basis alone, even though the real aim is to educate viewers about the threat to the people who live there.
The villain of “Patagonia Rising” is HydroAysen, a Spanish energy company, with minority Chilean ownership, that seeks to build five huge hydroelectric dams. To his credit, and to the usefulness of the film as a true investigation of the issues, Lilla allows a corporate spokesman to make the company’s case throughout the film. (Of course, he follows up with rebuttals from experts, particularly Chilean scientists who are mobilizing to stop HydroAysen in its tracks.) He also interviews a farmer from Patagonia who candidly admits that he supports the corporation because it will benefit him. He hopes to sell his land at a premium and move to a better location.
Sitting through this masterful documentary, I could not help but think of the uses of “Greenmail” throughout the world, including my home county growing up in upstate N.Y. There the issue is “fracking”, an unwise method of drilling for natural gas that has awful consequences, including the spread of carcinogens in the water supply as well as making water the coming out of your tap ignitable by a cigarette lighter as was dramatically illustrated in the documentary “Gasland“. No matter how baleful the consequences, you will always find land-owners—particularly those who are economically distressed—ready to sell out.
Just as is the case with the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the consequences of mega-dams in Patagonia will not be confined to the people living in the affected area. You will learn from Patrick McCully, one of the film’s most expert witnesses, that when a river is dammed, the ocean loses a source of fresh water and nutrients. The impact of a loss of such rejuvenation cannot be gauged completely at this point, but the risks to future sustainability are obviously immense. The ocean is rapidly becoming depleted of marine life, all because some big corporations seek profits in the same way that vampires seek blood. Something is deeply wrong.
On June sixth an article titled “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere“ appeared in Nature Magazine. It stated “Humans now dominate Earth, changing it in ways that threaten its ability to sustain us and other species”. While articles such as this have a way of changing attitudes, there is nothing like a good film to drive the point home since in the 21st century, as was the case in much of the 20th, that, TV, and radio is where ordinary citizens get their ideas about the world.
Mark Lilla deserves a lot of credit for making a valuable work such as this and I urge my readers in New York to see “Patagonia Rising” and spread the word.