One man’s Career of Quirky Short Films- and one Unforgettable Feature- are Forged in the Slow Decay of a Pittsburgh Borough.
DIRECTED BY TONY BUBA/1972-2019
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 24, 2020/KINO LORBER/ZEITGEIST FILMS
For those of us in the Midwest and several decades removed from when the bulk of the content gathered for this comprehensive two-disc Blu-ray set was created, the name Tony Buba (pronounced “Booba”) requires some introduction. As an independent filmmaker in the Pittsburgh area in the 1970s and ‘80s, the camera-jockeying everyman rose to regional prominence as the go-to chronicler of the tragic demise of his hometown of Braddock, located roughly six miles outside the city.
The steel mills were closing and with them, the area’s economic infrastructure and solvency were quickly crumbling. Buba’s short films of the time focus on colorful individuals and the surrounding dilapidation in process. These are brief black and white affairs, realized on inexpensive 16mm film; impressionistic pieces which serve as focused windows to the souls of the people caught in the erosion.
With them comes Buba’s no-holds-barred tour de force feature film, Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy. This is where Buba steps beyond merely being a promotor of causes nor a chronicler of his town. Here, he is revealed to be a bona fide filmmaker, evidenced in his inability to resist doing that thing that all self-respecting filmmakers do eventually: self-indulge.
Though this film, bearing the distinction of being the filmmaker’s best-known work, headlines this collection, one would be well advised to consider taking in all of the short films on the first disc beforehand, and maybe a few of the early ones on the second disc for good measure. Lightning Over Braddock, which is technically capable of standing alone as its own singular experience, is actually something of a retrospective on said short films, with many clips and denizens recycled and re-contextualized. This is Buba’s onion-skinning high-wire act wherein he comes to question his whole methodology and career as a “socially liberal” documentarian, wherein his success trajectory lies proportionately in line with the town’s misfortune.
Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy
Late in Lightning Over Braddock (1988), Buba, operating as its director, central focus, and narrator, shares a revelation that anyone who pursues filmmaking must buy into the American Dream on some level. You are pursuing a risky but potentially self-aggrandizing profession convinced that you can make it on your own terms.
Meanwhile, all around him, his hometown of Braddock is withering away, one steel mill at a time. For the thousands of people who worked these mills, there is no happy ending or triumph of the human spirit. Buba is no stranger to this reality, as documenting the town’s decline had been his bread and butter for fifteen years prior to the completion of his feature-length debut, the fevered retrospective of sorts, Lightning Over Braddock. Buba smartly pushes that tension to the center of the film, embracing an experimental narrative that both renders the making of the film we’re watching central while never veering away from its core social reality.
The surreal pastiche of old news reports (filmed off a TV screen resulting in prolonged frame-rate flicker that may agitate some viewers), Buba’s previous films and newly filmed ultra-low-budget scenes, happenings, and moments make for a deeply personal eighty or so minutes. For a shoestring chronicle from the guy who chronicled the demise of a once-thriving Pittsburgh-area town, this level of gut-wrenching soul searching is admittedly unexpected. The reoccurring motif of Buba’s answering machine fielding calls while he’s away suggests a kind of absentee artist, always out scrambling for that next buck.
But Buba’s unwaking self-portrait is also teaming with quirk. Chuck Jones said that when he finds the quirk about something, he can then understand it. Enter “Sweet” Sal Carulli, an uneasy street hustler if there ever was one. Bearing the gruesome cargo of a lifetime of treacherous self-myth and unstable delusion, Sal is the kind of rail-thin muttering Italian scowler who wouldn’t be out of place in a Ralph Bakski animated street film. According to Buba, his precarious relationship with the guy revolves mainly around him driving Sal around town in search of his’s ex-wife whom he’s convinced is having an affair.
Though Buba presents himself as the ordinary working-joe who’s stumbled into occasional opportunity and Sal as the wild-eyed unpredictable one (and there’s no reason to doubt either depiction), their shared bond seems that of obsession. Specifically, the kind of obsession only found in film people. The difference is, Buba understands and is honest about his place in the sphere; Sal feels that the world (and by extension, Buba) owes him something. And that makes him dangerous.
Lightning Over Braddock is a unique achievement, to be sure. Buba, for all his humility and everyman demeanor, is often referred to respectfully in print as “The Bard of Braddock”. In the excellent booklet essay by Seattle critic and programmer Steve MacFarlane, in which he expertly unpacks the density of Lightning Over Braddock and calls it “the most inspired buddy comedy of the 1980s.”
Buba’s early short films are included, spread across two Blu-ray discs and grouped into three sub-menus. The first of these is the “Braddock Chronicles: Volume I”, which consists of Buba’s films from 1972 to 1980. These films demonstrate from the outset a certain doom-laden reality. The black and white film-stock takes on an ashen quality, symbiotic with the aged and troubled individuals he documents.
Of course, crisis and hardship are the reasons these films exist in the first place, but their success- and the justification for their current high definition restoration and curation, not to mention watching them all these decades on- lies in Buba’s subtle use of the techniques and technology at his disposal. 1976’s Shutdown, documenting a heated labor dispute between regional truckers, utilities an audio montage technique alongside of its carefully assorted shots of angry and desperate drivers and associates soaking in their conundrum. Betty’s Corner Café depicts a longstanding eatery that’s become more or a less a tavern for the rapidly-aging struggling would-be workforce of Braddock. It displays a depressing camaraderie, if a camaraderie, nonetheless.
Paramount to Lightning Over Braddock is 1974’s J. Roy: New and Used Furniture, which spotlights a braggadocio shop-owner gives his two employees a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” pep talk. In the feature, Buba informs us that J. Roy has failed dozen times in business, yet nevertheless, nevertheless, nevertheless…. Yet even on its own, this short goes a long way in flagging up the futility of J. Roy’s rugged individualist line in the face of the newly walloped town.
Sweet Sal (1979), it’s fair to say, probably bears the most direct influence on Lightning Over Braddock, as it is Buba’s 25-minute spotlight debut of none other than “Sweet” Sal Carulli. This is said to be the short film that “put Buba on the map”, earning the admiration of no less than Werner Herzog himself. The feature film released nearly ten years later (though it took five years to complete) makes it clear that Sal became a fixture in Buba’s life from this point onward if he wasn’t already.
The difference is that by then, the relationship had grown rather toxic, with Sal streaming a blend of spite and neediness towards Buba. Here, we are presented with the initial version of Sal, untainted with smalltime film fame if also no less the hustler. Sal never stops his slickster act for a second, even as the whole of the short manages to muster a sympathetic view of the guy. We watch as he talks smack to the camera, goes shopping for jeans, hangs around in a bar, and visits his father’s grave. Sal is most likely dead now, so we can criticize without fear of his fiery retaliation. (He literally burns a negative review of this short while on stage before an audience in the feature). But this being one of the better shorts in the set, such a worry would be moot anyhow.
The second grouping of shorts takes us into the 1980s as Braddock’s downward spiral continues. Across the span of all the applicable films, Buba maintains a strong parallel between the rise of Ronald Reagan and the decline of the Braddock steel industry. This is strongly pronounced in the nearly 30-minute Voices from a Steeltown, a somber cataloging of random people on the street affected by the numerous catastrophic mill closures.
Lighter in tone yet consistent with the theme is 1981’s wonderful Mill Hunk Herald. Following several minutes of the usual talking-head travails, the film unexpectedly bursts to life as musician Steve Pellegrino launches into a rollicking version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on his accordion. From here, Buba shifts into full-on musical mode, complete with bright color, different angles, and the appearance of a marching band. This is as effectively fanciful as these shorts get and exemplifies Buba at his very best. His use of the same performance in Lightning Over Braddock is forced to drop the audio, replaced with the director’s exclamation that The Rolling Stones wanted $15,000 for the use of the song. In the short film, we are treated to the actual thing.
The third of the three sections of shorts, housing Buba’s work from 1983 to 2019, is a hit and miss array. A terrific standout is 2019’s The Barber of New Kensington, spotlighting a colorful 95-year-old town barber as he recollects the good old days, his life, and even gets a little choked up at the end. In this section we also get some interesting if not cinematically groundbreaking cooking segments with some wizened older local Italians. Clearly Buba enjoys every facet of these shoots. Perhaps he’s relieved that there’s no closed down mill or store going out of business as their focus?
Kino Lorber, with Zeitgeist Films, has gone the distance with this set, assuring a high definition archive and availability of these telling and often very compelling films for years to come. This new Blu-ray set is absolutely loaded with content, as listed here:
Lightning Over Braddock (1988)
To My Family (1972)
J. Roy: New and Used Furniture (1974)
Betty’s Corner Café (1976)
Sweet Sal (1979)
Washing Walls with Mrs. G. (1980)
Home Movies (1980)
Homage to a Mill Town (1980)
Mill Hunk Herald (1981)
Peabody & Friends (1983)
Voices from a Steeltown (1983)
Braddock Food Bank (1985)
Birthday Party (1985)
Fade Out (1998)
Year on the Throne (2007)
Ode to a Steeltown (2007)
“The Fall” 1980 (2009)
The Cot Club: Braddock Hospital (2012)
Pirozzi’s Barber Shop (2017)
Welcome to Sgambati’s (2017)
The Barber of New Kensington (2019)
The Last Pawn Shop in Braddock (2019)
Making Soppressata with Dom and the Guys (2019)
Pasta Lesson: A Sunday in Rabatana (2019)
– Lightning Over Braddock audio commentary by director Tony Buba and film critic Nick Pinkerton
– Booklet essay by film critic and programmer Steve MacFarlane
– Optional English SDH subtitles for Lightning Over Braddock
That commentary track is particularly good, as Pinkerton allows Buba to take the lead in his good-natured recollection of his sole feature film as director. Being the cinephile that he is, Pinkerton does press the subject of that other titan of Pittsburgh filmmaking, George Romero. This avenue is appreciated, as the Pittsburgh industrial film vibe of much of Romero’s for-hire day-job work is all over the films of Buba. The Latent Image, the decidedly non-glamorous commercial company that Romero co-owned, even turns up in the credits of one or two of the 1970s shorts.
Buba was a friend of Romero, discussing how he would get work as a crew member on Dawn of the Dead (1978) and others. (Buba has a small part in Dawn besides serving in its sound department. He credits that film’s gore maestro, Tom Savini, with the handful of gore effects he utilized in Lightning Over Braddock. Pinkerton also explores the film’s peripheral connection to New German Cinema via its motif of Herzog as well as its titular inspiration from Wim Wenders’s 1979 documentary Lightning Over Water, on the decline and death of director Nicholas Ray. Studs Terkel and Harvey Pekar are also chatted up as influences on Buba, who, across a loose body of work, succeeded tremendously in cultivating a quirky Braddock pocket universe of memorable characters and places. Sweet Sal… J. Roy… Steve Pellegrino… One comes away from Lightning Over Braddock with indelibly odd lingering impressions of all of them. Or perhaps it’s more of a latent Image…
Buba’s tenacity as a supposed big fish in a small pond, as well as his enduring artistic and political persistence across decades is admirable even as it’s not always 100% successful. It’s interesting to be able to watch one man’s presumed filmmaking entirety over the course of one weekend. As Buba’s later work makes the expected transition from film to videotape and then again to HD desktop post-production, he manages to carry his leftist crusade well into the era of George W. Bush. As exponentially appalling as the current Trump era is in comparison to Buba’s past presidential targets, it’s actually a bit of a welcome reprieve when the director opts to go in for old-timer cooking demos instead.
As this disc is released, the U.S. and much of the rest of the world finds itself in quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Each day the death rate climbs alarmingly, and an economy that was heathy two weeks ago has suddenly been revealed to be rusted fragile. Consequently, a deep dive such as this into the socially fatalistic films of Tony Buba might not be the best mental health choice for many in this uncertain time. Yet, we can let the filmmaker’s persistent humor as well as his perseverance and scrappy commitment to Braddock inspire us going forward. If the worst comes to pass and all of America is left a kind of “rust belt fantasy”, we will know how to (and how not to) document it going forward. As it is heard in Buba’s 2007 offering, Ode for a Steeltown, “For one brief shining moment, there was a place known as Braddock”. This is its story (1972-2019).