Tony Buba spent his career exploring his hometown of Braddock, PA, through film in unconventional ways. Lily Ekimian takes a fresh look at his magnum opus, Lightning Over Braddock, and the brutal honesty with which he presents his home and himself.
Braddock, city of magic
Braddock, city of light
Braddock, where have you gone?
When Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy (1988) opens with a postcard from director Tony Buba to his brother, Buba reveals to us the partial nature of his documentary, that this will be Buba’s own telling of his hometown. But, before he tells us his version, he pivots to a factual contextualization of his film: Pittsburgh’s renaissance in the 1980s favored “high technology” and overseas labor, leaving mill towns, like Pittsburgh’s neighboring borough Braddock, hopeless. With the steel mill closures, over 100,000 people left the Pittsburgh area. Unemployment in Braddock was at 37% and its per capita income was under $5,000. “There was a lot of poverty, a lot of anger and a lot of daydreaming,” Buba narrates. He was one of those daydreamers.
A sort of theme song is then performed, with Steve Pellegrino, the film’s composer, on the accordion, and Jimmy Roy, a salesman and former documentary subject of Buba’s, singing. The set design is lonely, with Roy performing on a dark, misty stage under a partially-finished brick archway, quaint string lights blinking in the distance. Pellegrino stands atop the arch with his accordion, almost hidden in the shadows. The song laments the decline of Braddock and asks of the city: “Where have you gone?” Buba’s narration interrupts the song to ask the same question, and the film that follows is a wonderfully convoluted answer.
I did not know much about Braddock prior to seeing Buba’s film. As with most places you’ve never been, the human aspect of it was missing; it was a location on a map and not much more. But Buba’s film doesn’t take you on a simple tour of Braddock. It doesn’t give you the highlights and make a case for it as a destination spot. This is really a movie about Buba, and the town he happens to be from. We are given musical interludes – the opening ode to Braddock as well as a steel mill-themed rock number. We watch fantasies. We see scenes of movies both real and fake. The film is a collage of style and technique, mixing the real with the fantasy in auditory, visual, and musical forms, all tying back to the town of Braddock in one way or another.
A comic yet strikingly poignant scene that exhibits this play with the technical side of filmmaking shows Pellegrino, in a clip from Buba’s short documentary The Mill Hunk Herald, playing his accordion and singing The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin Jack Flash” to an enthusiastic crowd in a bar. But that’s all it does, show the performance, because, as Buba explains in voiceover, to acquire the rights for Pellegrino to actually sing the song, it would cost $15,000. Maybe another director would have scrambled for cash to get the rights to the song, or maybe just cut the scene out completely. Buba does neither. Defiantly, Buba plays the scene muted, narrating his thoughts on the situation, and how paying that kind of money for a song would not be “politically correct” considering the state of Braddock. He even suggests in his cheeky manner that we talk to the person sitting next to us and try to remember how the song goes, and sing along with Pellegrino. “It’s alright,” Buba prompts. “In fact, it’s a gas.” As the unheard music moves outside, a high school band joins in. Buba tells us that this was in fact the band’s last performance, as even the town’s own high school couldn’t continue to be supported. What this scene tells us about Braddock, and about Buba’s relation to it, is that in spite of all the neglect and instability the town faces, it carries on.
But there is also another way we can view the Braddock of Buba’s film: as a person. Specifically, that person is “Sweet” Sal. Sal is the kind of character you’d expect to find in a campy Italian-American gangster film, except far more realistic, nonsensical, and manic. He was a friend of Buba’s cousin, and Buba knew him mostly through doing him favors. Sal first appeared in a short documentary by Buba, which caught the attention of director Werner Herzog. Because of this, Sal credits himself with Buba’s success as a filmmaker. Buba, on the other hand, seems quick to avoid Sal at every opportunity. They have a strange relationship – perhaps not unlike Herzog’s contentious relationship to his frequent collaborator, Klaus Kinski. Buba wants nothing to do with him, yet keeps using him as a subject. They seem to have no choice but to feed off of each other. When Buba is given an opportunity to go to Hollywood, he is told Sal must be part of the deal. But Buba also voluntarily brings Sal along to university speaking engagements, letting Sal go on stage with his cat and set papers on fire. They are forever tethered. This sounds a lot like Buba’s relationship to Braddock, and the love-hate conflict that fuels him. Of the town, Buba says, “The ironic thing is, as Braddock and the Mon Valley declined, my fortunes increased.” But perhaps this is true of Sal as well: the more he unravels, the more Buba benefits. Now consider this next passage on Sal, as though it were in reference to Braddock itself. In a scene that mixes narration with a TV interview, Buba says:
“But I had one problem far worse than my guilt. Remember Sal? I should never have made that film on him. After Herzog saw my film, I started to get some national recognition. Sal thought he was totally responsible for my success. Besides that, he was broke. He thought I owed him. So he started calling me all the time. He became obsessed with the idea that he made me.”
When we cut from this scene, we are in Sal’s bedroom. Sal is alone; he sits beside his bed, rocking back and forth in the dark, grumbling about Buba to his cat and leaving the filmmaker threatening voicemails. Indeed, the recorded message on Buba’s voicemail is even in part addressed to Sal. Is Sal bad for Buba? Is Buba good for Sal? The same questions could be asked regarding the town. More likely, as we see at the end of the film, both Sal and Braddock will be his demise.
The film is a reflection on Buba’s past, present and future as a filmmaker in Braddock, and the people with whom he makes those films. It is his fixation with the medium of filmmaking that is the main thrust of the documentary. But ultimately, how does Buba feel about Braddock? In a voiceover, he tells us, “The one question I was always asked was, ‘Do you ever think about moving?’ Of course, the one answer I never give is that, no, I like being a big fish in a little city.” His starkly honest answer, that neither compliments nor criticizes the town, says as much about Braddock as it does about himself – which is to say, a lot. Braddock is very much a living entity for Buba, one that shifts and paces in its boredom and frustration. Where has it gone? It’s both lost forever and right where Buba left it – chain-smoking in an armchair, obsessively fantasizing about what used to be and what could have been. This may sound harsh but, beneath its playful reimagings, reenactments, and narration, the very reality of Lightning Over Braddock is harsh. The frankness with which Buba films his subjects – living and inanimate – is harsh. And especially harsh (and rare!) is the frankness with which Buba turns the camera on himself. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!
*Wikimedia Commons attribution: smallcurio, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons