Lightning Over Braddock

In 2009, when producers were seeking locations for their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic cannibalism nightmare The Road, they found their ideal wasteland not in the Australian outback, the Ozark nether regions, or the northern Canadian tundra, but a few miles outside of Pittsburgh in the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. A flourishing Carnegie steel town with a population close to 20,000 in the postwar years, and with a robust retail trade (it was known as “Pittsburgh's shopping center”), Braddock saw its fortunes plummet with the decline of the steel industry in the 70s and 80s and a concurrent crack cocaine epidemic. The picture has since only grown bleaker. Now with a population of barely 2,000 souls, Braddock is a state-declared “distressed municipality” (read: bankrupt ghost town), a standing symbol of What Used to Be and the country's current prideless economic frailty. (The vigorous, imposing, heavily tattooed mayor John Fetterman has received some press recently for doing his best to resuscitate the corpse.)

Filmmaker Tony Buba is the native resident poet who has been chronicling Braddock's history, travails, and inhabitants since the mid-70s, in numerous soulful and informative documentary and narrative films. While the news they deliver is usually discouraging, a necessity of the setting and general subject matter, all are marked by a unique humanism and goofy wit that flow from Buba's own personality. The films are pro-labor and populist at heart, but there's not a shrill jeremiad in the lot; Buba instead gets his points across with non-decorative naturalism and honest portraiture. His films are pleasurable (without being soft or escapist) even when the news is enraging or depressing. 

Buba got his start working for the campus TV station and film unit as an undergrad at Pennsylvania's Edinboro University. He then applied to Ohio University's graduate film program, where he told me he was accepted only because the department chair was a “character” who favored applicants with unique last names (and, apparently, alliteration: his classmates included “Tom Tucker, Tommy Tuttle, and Kathy Kodak”). At Ohio U., in addition to the cinematic canon, Buba was exposed to and inspired by work by Third World Newsreel and the Canadian Film Board, and documentaries like Grierson’s Night Mail. In particular, Luis Buñuel's avant-garde, ethnographic study of Spain's poverty-ravaged Las Hurdes region Land Without Bread helped convince Buba that he could make movies of an eccentric stripe about his own hometown.

Back in Braddock, Buba was able to make a living documenting his town thanks in part to his job as a maker of industrial videos, and to multiple collaborations with fellow Pennsylvanian George Romero, whose Martin was shot in Braddock and is also being shown in Anthology Film Archives' Buba series. Buba went on to work on sound for a few of Romero's films, and played the “Motorcycle Raider” whose arm is yanked off in Dawn of the Dead.

Betty's Corner Café

The Braddock Chronicles is the title given to a collection of 12 short films Buba made between 1972 and 1985. Even though some were shot elsewhere, the spirit of the town haunts them all. They belong together because of their shared unadorned style and affecting empathy. “Braddock did and still does have a lot of characters,” Buba said, and several of these shorts take one or a number as their subject. In J. Roy: New and Used Furniture, the titular shop owner explains his wish to open a drive-through car and antique shop on the upper floor of his store, and is shown dispensing motivational homilies to his newly-hired salesmen. In Betty's Corner Café, we meet the sweet, aging owner and bartendress who's never left town, and the garrulous career boozers who benignly while away days at the tiny dive sipping bottles of Schlitz and Rolling Rock.

Washing Walls with Mrs. G. is nothing more nor less than Buba doing just that with the chatty Italian immigrant whose accent is so thick she's subtitled. When she launches into a particularly long anecdote, Buba writes that he's too lazy to transcribe this one—a characteristically silly gag. Humor is a balm in Buba's films, and he honed his chops playing them by the dozen as a kid.

“Most Braddonians,” he said, “have faced hard times and humor is the only way to maintain your sanity. Working in a mill or doing repetitive factory work – which I did for three years – you needed to find the humor and absurdity in what you were doing to survive.”

Voices From a Steeltown

From Truffaut and Bergman, Buba learned the power of reusing actors and subjects so that loyal viewers can observe how they've aged and appreciate the time that's passed. One of J. Roy's new hires reappears in 1983's Voices From a Steeltown still working at the shop, now a seasoned salesman. Another recurring presence is Sal Carulli, the hammy, entertaining subject of Sweet Sal (1979). A part-time actor (he had a bit part in Romero's Knightriders) and full-time bullshitter, Carulli is a self-consciously suave one-man Rat Pack who plays a mean game of pool and for whom the Braddock streets are a stage. “Wake up. Walk around. Same garbage.” is how Carulli summarizes his days. His “elegant” façade seems to melt when he's shown breaking down over his beloved father's tombstone, but the soliloquy should be taken with skepticism: on the car ride there, he notes that he's “always been an actor.” Carulli is simultaneously absurd and dignified, and he's as watchable a screen presence as Steven Prince, the hustler Martin Scorsese captured in American Boy.

Although Buba's “exploded documentaries” show little reverence for the strictures of rigid vérité, 1994's No Pets is straight narrative fiction, in which a factory-working bachelor with arrested development issues is being forced by his prissy landlord to give away his best friend—a golden retriever named Bud. Though based on a short story by Jim Daniels, No Pets is about some of the people Buba lived and worked with, toilers whose “growth stopped at high school because they started drinking or taking too many drugs in their teen years, then became too depressed to move on with their lives.” Buba cheekily regrets not including more intrigue and action, which would've made it even more like Blue Collar, to which it already bears a resemblance. Some jarring awkwardly amateurish flair added in the editing suite, but No Pets is pregnant with touching, lifelike moments, and an excellent performance by young Martin Sheen–ish lead John Amplas, star of Romero's Martin.

The director had been busy of late making Thunder Over Braddock, the follow-up to 1988's Lightning Over Braddock, which starred Buba himself and Carulli, playing a street hustler (named Sal) not drastically unlike himself. Thunder's on hold, though, because during production, “the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center closed the Braddock Hospital and left the community without emergency healthcare.” So in addition to organizing protests, Buba has been shooting and cutting a documentary on the subject, pointedly titled We Are Still Alive. Once done, he'll return to Thunder, which, he said, “will probably be my last film about Braddock.” And so it will cap one of the more extraordinary and loyal filmmaker–city relationships in American film.

Tony Buba: The Bard of Braddock runs June 8 – 12 at Anthology Film Archives in New York