Monday, February 1, 2016


There’s a famous story/myth/half-truth/pre-internet rumor about Werner Herzog calling up a young Harmony Korine and praising him for his film Gummo (apparently Herzog said something along the lines of “I have just seen your film Gummo. You are the last foot soldier”). But a similar exchange happened between Herzog & Braddock, PA-based filmmaker Tony Buba about a decade prior to that. Apparently Herzog saw a bunch of Buba's films in the mid-80's and fell instantly in love.
It makes sense that a filmmaker like Herzog would be drawn to the work of Tony Buba. Buba’s films aren’t “nice & neat” (he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty), he shines a spotlight on folks who don’t necessarily have a voice or a podium of their own (like the folks of Braddock, PA), and his relationship with collaborator “Sweet Sal” mirrors that of Herzog & Klaus Kinski in an abstract kind of way.

In my personal opinion, Tony Buba is the true "foot soldier” as he still continues to make films about/around his hometown when so many other folks turn a blind eye or show little/no interest.

Last summer the Brooklyn Academy Of Music put together an excellent retrospective of American indie films from the 1980’s and Tony Buba’s Lightning Over Braddock was, without a doubt, the highlight of the program for me (for years this was one of those films I always read about but never had the opportunity to see). Lightning Over Braddock is the perfect mixture of non-fiction, fiction, comedy & drama (there's even a musical aspect to the film). Imagine a collaboration between F For Fake-era Orson Welles & Werner Herzog in his prime (even more recent works like Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder continue down the path that Lightning Over Braddock helped to make). If those references don't do anything for you, picture a slightly more serious iteration of comedy central’s Nathan For You (like Nathan For You, Lightning Over Braddock is a partly scripted/part reality-based project). 

In the film we follow Tony Buba as he documents the decline of his hometown (over the years Braddock Pennsylvania went from a prominent steel town to a struggling post-industrial town). The film melds together statistics, footage of worker union rallies, interviews with local residents, musical sequences, and (partly fictional) news footage chronicling Buba’s rise as a filmmaker. 
Additionally, Lightning Over Braddock follows the strange & contentious relationship between Buba and his collaborator Sweet Sal – an actor with dreams of making it big in Hollywood who thinks Tony is screwing him out of money (Sweet Sal is one of the most unique & original characters to appear in a modern film).
This hybrid of a film branches off in to quite a few directions, but at the end of the day it’s an abstract love letter from Buba to his hometown in the same way Roger & Me was to Michael Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan.
Not only is Lightning Over Braddock a love letter to Braddock PA, but it’s also a personal (video) journal into the mind of a filmmaker. Using voiceover narration, Buba expresses his ambitions, goals, guilt & insecurities about his career.

(this documentary quietly features some great standalone imagery)

Lightning Over Braddock also falls in line with something like Williams Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm as both films are partially about the convoluted idea of making a film inside of a film inside of a film (for those who haven’t seen the Greaves documentary, I highly recommend checking out the criterion disc). 
And I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but Tony Buba manages to (subconsciously) tip his hat to filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein…

Lightning Over Braddock / Strike
...and the aforementioned Herzog...
The Accordion in Stroszek, Lightning Over Braddock & Gummo: a potential link between the films of Herzog, Buba & Korine?

Some might say Tony Buba was doing a bit of "trolling" with Lightning Over Braddock but when your hometown is suffering tremendously and no one on the outside seems to care, sometimes you have to resort to original/unique measures in order to get attention (when it comes to the idea of a struggling steel town - especially in cinema - most folks tend to think of Pittsburgh or Detroit first not realizing there are plenty of other towns & cities throughout the midwest & east coast with the same struggles). Before & after the release of Lightning Over Braddock, Buba managed to get the attention of the national news, the academic world (part of the film chronicles Buba receiving the Pennsylvania media artist of the year award from a local university), as well as the film world (many critics consider Lightning Over Braddock to be Buba's "opus").

While Tony Buba’s film has plenty of humor and realistic quirkiness, underneath all that humor & quirkiness are layers upon layers of serious socio-economic struggle specific only to America. 
I imagine at this point Tony Buba might be sick of all the Roger & Me/Michael Moore comparisons when it comes to Lighting (Buba’s film came out first), but the comparison is so fitting. In a way, Roger & Me is to Lightning Over Braddock what Depalma is to Hitchcock or early Von Trier to Tarkovsky..

No matter how much Buba (intentionally) confuses the audience as to what’s real and what’s fake, what is clear is that Braddock Pennsylvania was (still is) suffering and nothing was being done about it. And what’s even more of a slap in the face is that places like Braddock & Detroit are being “used” by the movie industry (both indie & mainstream) for what little resources they have left to serve as backdrops for recent movies like; Out Of The Furnace (Braddock), One For The Money (Braddock), Only Lovers Left Alive (Detroit), Brick Towers (Detroit) & Lost River (Detroit) because apparently desolate steel towns are "cool", "edgy" & "authentic".

While I don’t consider myself to be a flag-waving Patriot, its films like Lightning Over Braddock that bring out my concerns with this country (I also sometimes take it personal when other countries criticize America as if they don’t have genocidal skeletons in their own closets). I can’t help but question why so much time & money is spent to send "aid" to certain countries (that often times don’t even want our help) and get involved in issues that have nothing to do with us when parts of America are still facing hard times. I mean, why would you try to clean someone else’s house (again – most times when they don’t even ask for your help) before cleaning up your own home first?
I certainly have a ton of pride for my own hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts (I still wear my high school track & field ring after almost 17 years), so I can only imagine the heartbreak & frustration Buba (and other emotionally invested residents) must feel when, even today, the first news articles that pop-up on Google concerning Braddock are still tinged with worry and/or pessimism often from outsiders looking in. Perhaps it’s my own tremendous hometown pride that draws me to Lightning Over Braddock as I always enjoy seeing other folks who aren’t afraid to confess their love for the place that helped to shape them.


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