Many have tried to find the words to describe Vincent Gallo, but no epithet could do him as much justice as the artist’s portrayal of himself. This is a man who sells both his sperm and his body — advertised as a “wish, dream or fantasy with Vincent Gallo, ladies only” — on his website, using both items as awkward excuses to go on catastrophic tangents relating to penis size and eugenics. His love for such outrageous, combative statements has long-defined his celebrity, with his most-cited moment occurring when, after receiving a scathing review from Roger Ebert at Cannes, he wished colon cancer on the critic and stated that he had “the physique of a slave-trader.”
Having reached reality tv levels of shock value before reality tv was even an established cultural phenomenon, the sheer audacity of his persona has attracted a deluge of reporters over the decades. Search for “Vincent Gallo interview” on YouTube, and every entry promises to be better than the last; actually, watch these videos, and you will feel, overwhelmingly, as if this must be some attention-grabbing, at least semi-ironic act. He is unbelievably bitter, packed full of spite, discontent, an obsession with his own honor, and the way in which he expresses these sentiments is markedly fierce and uncouth. With this cursory glance, it seems like this simply has to be some elaborate, attention-grabbing performance; a Paris Hilton-like masterminded stunt that obscures any chance of understanding the true Gallo lurking underneath.
There is, however, one major difference between Hilton and Gallo: only one of them is worth $300 million, and it doesn’t take a genius to guess which one’s which. Hilton’s pink-clad, ditzy persona was a perfect capitalization on the 2000s’ late-Third Wave surge in liberated sexualities and reclamation of girlhood; Gallo, meanwhile, always seemed to cling desperately to everything that was broken and male about America’s ‘80s and ‘90s. Such a masculine disaster may be absolutely blinding underneath the limelight, but, like any mediocre street performance, the enjoyment is too fleeting and too strange for anyone to actually dig into their pockets and start looking for spare change.
Chances are, however, that he likes it this way. If not profit-motivated, then this performance must instead stem from some personal, inner desire, whether it be a grab for attention or an inside joke. Surely enough, the more of his content that you consume, the more this sliver of inner truth widens and grows. It shines through the forthrightness of Gallo’s manner of speech, full of blunt, uncensored language spoken in repeated cadences that are unique to those being desperately, profoundly honest. The conviction with which he delivers each line, staring with a wild, terrifying insistence into the eyes of his conversation partner, is riveting. More than the shock value of his words, really, it is this promise of the naked truth that draws interviewers to Gallo’s door like desert-trekkers in search of water (making the critic, fittingly, the vulture that attempts to observe everything from overhead). Shock value in the journalistic world, at this point, is cheaper than a dime a dozen, but such a stark, honest dedication to delivering it is a rare find indeed.
Gallo’s career, as such, exists in a strange realm of half-truth. It is a careful performance that exposes a deeper aspect of his character. It is certainly delivered with a heavy dose of irony (especially in these later, mellower years of Gallo’s life) but it is also laced with a deep-seated conviction. As much disbelief as his bizarre statements may garner at first, their extraordinary nature means that they are a unique manifestation of his mind and his mind alone. Existing in this dim gradient between truth and performance, Gallo’s celebrity is an enigmatic union between his inner and outer self.
It is no surprise then that Gallo’s debut feature, Buffalo 66, is such a pronounced experiment in transposing reality onto fiction. The film follows the course of Billy Brown’s first day out of prison, where he was kept to repay his debt to a bookie after wagering an absurd, un-repayable amount of money that the Buffalo Bills would win the Super Bowl. Wasting no time, within those 24 hours Billy kidnaps a young girl, has her pretend to be his fiancée at his parents’ house, and plans the murder of Scott Woods, the player who effectively sent him to prison by missing what could’ve been a game-winning field goal.
The entire premise is, of course, based on the reality of the city of Buffalo and its miserably unlucky football team, and Gallo’s own childhood played no small part in the film, either. He grew up in Buffalo, and a vast portion of the film was reportedly shot inside his own childhood home (as cited in The Public). Furthermore, Gallo’s parents served as the basis for Billy’s family: both the real-life Vincent Gallo Sr. and his fictional counterpart, Jimmy (Ben Gazzara), are volcanic, angry men with a hidden talent for singing, while both Janet Gallo and the imaginatively named Jan (Angelica Huston) harbor a deep obsession with the Buffalo Bills. Gallo even cast himself as Billy, keeping both his bitterly masculine persona and his remarkably unabashed, but evasive manner of speaking while playing the character. According to New York Times reporter Kuczynski, this inspiration is so candid that in a premiere screening attended by those who personally knew the filmmaker, the audience continually burst out laughing in recognition of the family.
The completed family portrait is a stark realist one, a strange performance of Gallo’s own experiences in which he is evidently playing a version of himself. As Gallo stated in an interview with Dazed and Confused, conducted in 1997 before Buffalo ’66 had even finished production, “Well, most of the character himself, his feelings are true to things I’ve felt, and most of the situation with his family is very similar to how my mother and father are, and the concept that l would want to make someone love me, even if by force, is not that far-fetched. But it’s not purely autobiographical: there’s also a very clever screenplay there.” Gallo has further elaborated when interviewed by Elvis Mitchell, that he is “playing my father, or what I would’ve become if I let my father’s heavy impact stay in my life . . . and what I play in the last five minutes of the film is me on a really good day.” These brief reflections, though they may be somewhat evasive and cajoling, are also incredibly apt and forthright, illustrating how the impulses of Billy Brown come from some deeply personal, masculine aspect of his psyche.
More than enough has been written, however, about the various crises of masculinity that exist between Vincent Gallo and his alter ego. In a film populated by such strange, transplanted realities, not enough attention is drawn to the truly strange places, where Gallo abandons reality and engages with pure fantasy instead. So where can such invention be found?
Out of those who do turn their attention to the woman Billy kidnaps, Layla (Christina Ricci), many label her a “manic pixie dream girl.” But the truth is that Layla embodies almost every single female paradigm in existence, all the way from virgin to temptress, except for that one overused term; with every line of dialogue and subtle movement, she shifts into a new persona to become either the femme fatale or the angelic child or the brat, but never the manic pixie dream girl. To call her the latter is a purely confused association, on one level an attempt to explain why she puts up with Billy’s unpleasant behavior, and on another to match the most chaotic of the female archetypes with the chaos of a character who contains so many irregularities. Really, it is not Layla’s character that is manic, but her construction: she is pure, improbable, conflicting invention. In many ways, it is a miracle that she does not spill apart at the seams.
From the moment Layla appears onscreen, there is something unreal about her. The light angelically beams down on her white sweater, highlights her blonde hair, and outlines the way in which her chest, always kept awkwardly in frame, rises and falls with the movements she is practicing in her dance class. She becomes both a Holy Virgin and an object of sexuality, her baby-blue leotard simultaneously childlike and low-cut, her pantyhose both cutely pastel and seductive, all in stark contrast to the dark leggings and sports tops that the rest of the dance class is wearing. This is no short-term ideation, but the core of her character: Layla never changes out of this dance costuming, keeping it, along with its connotations of innocence and sexuality, for the entirety of the film.
In contrast with this outward appearance, her first lines of dialogue are snarky and brattish. “Watch your mouth,” she tells Billy as she stands in the doorway with a femme fatale contrapposto, and later quips, “Don’t you say ‘thanks?’” when he borrows a quarter without the appropriate pleasantries. When he begins to call home, Layla heads into the bathroom and listens in with an unanticipated serenity, becoming an expression of holy, round-cheeked compassion as Billy’s lies to his mother become increasingly desperate. Gone is any trace of sexuality, the bathroom stall cutting her off at the neck and transforming her into an achingly cherubic, but undeniably fabricated deus ex machina that, hearing his pain, will soon change his life. When she comes back down to earth, she regains the flippant and sexual sway to her walk, once again becoming a tempting brat, and when she is ultimately abducted, she is a kicking and flailing damsel in distress. In just those mere several minutes, Layla’s character is rip-corded through six or eight different identities, a fluctuating variable of sexuality and compassion (or lack thereof). Such a variable cannot be read as a real, grounded human character; instead, she is clearly a collection of conflicting male fabrications.
Indeed, Layla’s femininity, consisting of so many improbable facets, is constantly tested and redefined by a man’s perception — Billy Brown’s and, by extension, Vincent Gallo’s. She exists within the world of the film only in relation to him, having been violently introduced to the plot by Billy’s abduction and given no consistent personality, backstory, or character arc. Throughout the film itself, Billy constantly pelts her with contradicting, overly sensitive admonishments: “just be good,” he repeatedly tells her before they enter his parents’ house, equating her false engagement to him to a certain ‘goodness.’ But when Billy later elaborates on this morality, he lets Layla know that “Girls stink. They stink. They’re evil. They’re all bad. All of them.” Yet he is obviously dependent on them, from the fiancée-related needs of his present to his past, which is stained by an unrequited infatuation with a classmate. In short, his needs for a feminine presence are irreconcilable from his fears of it, the childishly perceived “evil” of that fear eclipsing the “good” that could be found in redemptive feminine love.
Layla exists at the exact cusp between that contextual good and evil. When she plays the fiancée at dinner with his parents, the very role she was kidnapped/created for, she treads dangerous ground. She invents increasingly unbelievable lies about Billy’s life like a job at the CIA and an office full of swooning coworkers. Whether she is overhyping Billy out of genuine cluelessness or deliberate malice is left ambivalent, as it is the effect of her lies on Billy that is more important, of course. No matter what, he is sure to scold her for them afterward, catching her in the female archetype of the conniving social mastermind, or “gossip.” The morality of her character is polarized, becoming an unresolved conflict between the positivity of her loving attentions and the negativity of Billy’s fear of them. Perhaps the most illuminating moment of this crisis occurs towards the end of the film when Layla asks for a kiss goodbye and Billy replies with an achingly misguided admonishment: “No! . . . Don’t start trouble. Don’t st- Don’t start evil.” In this way, her actions are perceived as simultaneously adoring and malignant, her female presence as much a threat as it is a desire.
On one level, this could perhaps simply be a manifestation of Billy’s trauma-induced, avoidant approach to intimacy, rendering Layla’s gender irrelevant. Before entering his childhood home, Billy asks Layla to give him comfort — “Would you hold me?” — but, in a classic trauma response, immediately recoils when she agrees. “Don’t touch me.” All of Layla’s interferences, from the way she imagines their fake engagement to her desire for intimacy, cut him just a touch too deep, illuminating how the compassionate aspects of her character are molded to his issues with intimacy. Though compassion is definitely a classic hallmark of femininity, it is a non-unique one, making a reading of her as specifically feminine seemingly unnecessary.
Billy’s trauma, however, is uniquely tied to his sexuality and experience of mothering. Though his father is certainly not blameless with regards to Billy’s damaged psyche, it is his mother’s lack of parenting that the film depends on most. Its namesake, after all, refers to Jan’s obsession with the Buffalo Bills, as does the central, inciting incident that lands Billy in jail: why else would he ever bet on the Bills, of all sports teams, to win? In many ways, it is the driving force behind his character, motivating every crucial decision that he makes, from the bad bet to the murder of Scott Woods.
Jan’s femininity is a void, empty of compassionate mothering and instead filled with her fervent love for the Bills. Throughout the entirety of the lengthy dinner scene, she consistently disregards Billy in favor of the nonstop chatter of the television, which is loudly blaring Bills footage in the corner. The casting of Huston, forever known for the gothically distant “anti-mother,” Morticia Addams, is a perfect channel for this void of motherhood, her characteristic coldness always glimmering beneath her matronly hairdo and oversized Bills jacket.
This anti-mothering is made clearest in her bedroom, where Billy retreats to make a call to his friend Rocky. He enters a clinical, but distinctly female world of pale pink monochrome, the exact hue of it sickeningly evocative of human insides, perhaps even womblike. Gloomy pictures of flowers decorate the walls, and Billy sits on an uncomfortably prim bed to pick up a pink telephone. The allusions to femininity are present, but they are horribly sterile and off-putting, affording no comfort and oppressing Billy; at times, the environment practically squeezes him out of the frame, relegating him to the bottom quarter of the screen. Several cuts to Rocky and the fleshy expanse of his beer gut further reinforce this strange, inverted womanhood, combining the disquieting femininity of the room with the repulsion of being so close to Rocky’s pale, pudgy skin. It is as infantile as it is repellant, a perfect evocation of the coldness of Billy’s childhood.
It may be an unpleasant, negative vision of womanhood, but it is still an incredibly consistent one. There is no crisis or contradiction here, as Jan has a steady, clearly defined character that persists outside of Billy’s assessment of her, as well as a real-life counterpart that lives outside of Gallo’s imagination. Layla’s inconsistency, on the other hand, marks her as a desperate attempt to reconcile all of the ways in which the female sex has failed Billy. Her large bosom and soft, outstretched palms offer the motherly comfort that is absent from Jan’s bedroom, while her occasionally snarky, meddling attitude reflects Billy’s anxieties towards that proffered intimacy. She is a clear response to his romantic misfortunes as well, with Billy making her go by “Wendy Balsam,” the name of his childhood crush when she plays his fiancée.
The extent to which this reflects on Gallo’s own nature must, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. For someone who is so often interviewed, he has offered astoundingly few thoughts on this beguiling and contradictory vision of femininity. The chaos of her construction is certainly his doing, but she was also created during the excision of some of the darkest parts of his masculinity. Rather than waste time delineating the two, Gallo’s internal motivations and Billy’s external actions can be considered together as one, yielding a larger concept of masculine identity and, in turn, a broader vision of femininity that is fabricated in response to male trauma.
It is not as if such fabrications of gender are unique to Gallo, either, expanding that vision into a still greater sphere of male ideation. After all, femininity has been conflictingly and falsely constructed ever since there were men around to project their needs and anxieties onto the female form. From Eve to Pandora, “first women” in Western mythology were often both an enticing gift from the Gods and the primary speller of mankind’s doom, and later icons such as the terribly beautiful Helen of Troy were hardly different. Consider only the writings of any foundational male philosopher, such as Plato, Nietzche, Freud, Kant, etc., on women: they are riddled with strange combinations of adorations for female beauty and fears of women having any other function but male attention. Gallo has a long line of predecessors, and it was from centuries of their fabrications that Layla was created, making her a culminating pinnacle of a patriarchal culture’s approach to constructing femininity.
By way of conclusion, allow me to examine what I consider to be the two most poetic scenes in Buffalo 66: the performances of Jimmy and Layla. After all, I’ve repeatedly argued that performance is a conduit for greater, broader truth, and it would be remiss to omit the moments where the film itself acknowledges this. True to form, the first display decisively reveals Jimmy’s reality, the harsh spotlight on his face revealing the texture of his skin and the haggard way in which he raises his arm to begin his serenade. Most compellingly, Gallo even dubs his own father’s singing in place of Gazzara’s, unleashing the character’s “true voice” and underlining his origins. But what about Layla, who has no real-life counterpart?
Immediately before her performance, Layla mocks Billy, slipping into some bratty, “evil” version of womanhood for a brief moment. She teases him for his bowling, which, from the intimate shots of them undressing to the way Billy had carefully thread his fingers into the two holes of the bowling ball, had been identified as a rare outpouring of his sexual confidence. Sending a fake ball down the lane, she turns around in mock cheer, taking a lighthearted, but painful shot at Billy’s masculinity. To make her point even clearer, she turns her head to the side and sticks her tongue out at him with winking defiance. Finally dropping that act, she walks up to a pole that holds up the ceiling, tentatively swings around it, and begins to dance.
In this moment, the hurtful aspects of her womanhood dissolve into an outpouring of her innocence and sensuality, capturing her character in a moment of delicate flux. A crystallization of Layla’s many conflicting facets, it is a scene of pure, weightless magic. Glittering at just the edge of the spotlight fixed upon her, her tap shoes shine a brilliant, entrancing silver that seems to leap, improbably, from the dark. Their shine, caught in the half-light just so, obscures her movements in a way that heightens them to an almost mythical level of unreality, untethering them from the traditional bounds of perception. In fact, Layla’s feet do not always even seem to connect with the floor, with the expected accompanying sounds of crisp, harshly metallic tap-dancing manipulated to echo, repeat, and reverberate, just so, against the melodic swells of King Crimson’s “Moonchild.” “Call her moonchild,” the music croons, “Dancing in the shallows of a river. Lonely moonchild . . . ” as the wide-eyed, milk-white Ricci is made even paler by the beaming spotlight fixed upon her, transforming her, with all purity and sensuality, into that very “moonchild.” It should not be lost, also, that the song directs the listener to “call” her something, once again framing her in terms of an outsider’s perception. Her dancing, meanwhile, is both bashful, her eyes cast to the ground, and undeniably sensual, the sway of her hips clearly cut against the dark by the white gleam of her pantyhose. Instead of grounding her further in actuality, as occurred in Jimmy’s case, this tap scene catapults Layla into the entirely dreamlike, fantastical world in which she belongs. She is a moonchild, an invented, fanciful, unreal being, an elusive waif whose movements are childlike and alluringly sexual in equal measure. Fictional and contradictory, she sways in the light, a crisis of constructed femininity. •