[Marxism] Tony Buba retrospective

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 3 10:08:49 MDT 2012

NY Times June 1, 2012
A Steel Town’s Chronicler and Conscience

HAVING grown up in the steel-mill town of Braddock, Pa., during the 
Berlin Wall crisis, the Suez crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, the 
filmmaker-to-be Tony Buba was suffering from “existential fatalism” by 
the end of high school. “I thought I’d be dead by 21,” Mr. Buba 
recalled. He joined the National Guard. He got a job in a mill. “Then, 
suddenly, I’m 24, working on an assembly line and thinking, ‘Jeez, I’m 
not dead yet.’ ” So he took money he had saved to buy a Corvette and 
went to college.

 From there an outsider film career was born, one that ignored Hollywood 
and instead concentrated on his blue-collar hometown, and a body of work 
that will be celebrated beginning Friday at Anthology Film Archives in 
New York with Tony Buba: The Bard of Braddock. The series will showcase 
documentary features, shorts and one bona fide fiction film.

To differentiate between genres, however, is to miss the point: 
celebrated for chronicling the life and death of Braddock, and by 
extension the economic infrastructure of America, Mr. Buba (pronounced 
BOO-ba) was making experimental cinema long before the 21st-century 
“hybrid doc” was smelting narrative and nonfiction in pursuit of an alloy.

“It was sort of my own thing,” Mr. Buba said. “I wanted to do something 
accessible for people in Braddock, but which could also work on another 
level too, play in a museum space, for instance, and go back and forth.” 
As an undergraduate he studied psychology, then went to Ohio University 
for film. “Ohio was an interesting place at that time, 1970, ’72.” The 
chairman of the grad program was “an unusual character: he basically 
accepted anyone with a funny-sounding name. He said, ‘I just wanted to 
see what a Buba looked like.’ ”

Mr. Buba’s influences were typical. “You don’t steal, of course, you 
‘pay homage to,’ ” he said, laughing. “But I saw Godard and Buñuel, 
there was a Stan Brakhage period, Third World Newsreel, Black Panther 
films. And there was this explosion of 16 millimeter, which was ‘the 
people’s medium’ at that time. And a lot of the motivation was politics. 
I wanted to make political documentaries.”

Which he did. His early shorts include “Shutdown,” a vérité account of a 
1975 independent truckers strike; the hallucinatory “Mill Hunk Herald” 
(1981), in which the story of a steelworkers’ newspaper segues into an 
accordion-led version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” accompanied by a high 
school marching band; and “Braddock Food Bank” (1985), a sardonic silent 
that asks whether the money spent to make a documentary about poor 
people might be better spent on poor people.

“His work has no parallel in American cinema,” said Jed Rapfogel, film 
programmer for Anthology. “It’s this incredible combination of very 
committed, serious political commitment, and this bizarre comic 
sensibility.” He said Mr. Buba’s work would feel like the “wacky 
humorous wing” of a healthy political film movement, if the United 
States had such a movement.

“In a perfect world there would be a sizable portion of American cinema 
with a deep interest in the lives of working people,” Mr. Rapfogel said. 
“Tony is making the sorts of films I wish other people were making, but 
he doesn’t stint on the comedy, they’re not overly earnest, they reflect 
his charismatic personality, and yet they’re about things that are 
pretty tragic.” (The Buba program is linked to Anthology’s Sometimes 
Cities series, about neglected urban centers.)

The centerpiece of the retrospective, and perhaps Mr. Buba’s oeuvre, is 
“Lightning Over Braddock: A Rust Belt Fantasy,” which is partly about 
the city’s woes and partly about efforts to make a movie about a local 
street hustler, the real-life Sal Carulli, who had starred in Mr. Buba’s 
earlier short “Sweet Sal.” The self-reflexive nature of Mr. Buba’s work, 
its political savvy and technical sophistication — continuing a 
soundtrack as the image changes, for instance, and the poetic use of 
working-class imagery — make Mr. Buba ripe for rediscovery, as does the 
prescience of his movies: the foreshadowing of the Occupy and Tea Party 
movements seem unmistakable in “Lightning Over Braddock,” despite its 
place and time. In 1988 the critic J. Hoberman called it “one of the few 
regional movies to successfully and unsentimentally peel off the 
national smile button.”

Mr. Buba is amused by the new relevance of his older films. “They really 
address cyclical nature of capitalism,” he said. “I’ll be 69 in October, 
but I’m not fading away.” He credits the support of a Braddock-born 
activist and photographer, Latoya Ruby Frazier, who invited him to join 
her in a talk she gave during this year’s Whitney Biennial, and with 
whom he’s made other appearances. (“She’s very generous in her praise of 
me,” he said.) Both joined the unsuccessful fight against the closing of 
the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center at Braddock, an issue that 
has distracted Mr. Buba from filmmaking, although he has put footage 
related to the protest on YouTube and hopes to complete a documentary on 
the topic, yet another work with Braddock at its core.

When the New York distributor Zeitgeist Films was starting out in 1988, 
one of the first films it acquired was “Lightning Over Braddock.” “He’d 
made all these interesting short films,” said the Zeitgeist co-president 
Nancy Gerstman, “and people didn’t do that sort of thing then — staying 
in their hometowns and making films with so much local detail. It was a 
cool way of celebrating the place he grew up in, and the people he loved.”

He is also “a pure documentarian,” Ms. Gerstman said. “There’s not a lot 
of opinion. He accepts people for who they are and doesn’t judge. And 
that’s so typical of Tony.”

In “Braddock Food Bank,” a title inserted into the frame reads, “Being a 
documentary filmmaker, I’m not used to making moral decisions.” It’s a 
statement characteristic of a filmmaker who combines acerbic wit with 
political conscience, class sympathy with ironic distance, and whose 
sensibility seems to have staying power. Recently Mr. Buba and 
“Lightning Over Braddock” were invited to the Brooklyn microcinema Light 
Industry, which Mr. Buba said reminded him of earlier independent 
cinemas, those “run by old hippies.” But the Light Industry people were 
young and made Mr. Buba feel optimistic about the fate of political cinema.

“It’s strange,” he said. “You make this stuff and think it’s going to be 
dated. I’m sort of amazed myself.”

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