American Buffalo opened at the Boston Film Festival on 8 September in advance of its screening in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the home of director Michael Corrente where the film was shot in the summer of 1995. Both the Pawtucket screening and the New York premiere on 12 September were billed as fundraising events for distribution.
Boston Film Festival, 8 September 1996.
The long awaited filmed version of American Buffalo opened at the Boston Film Festival on 8 September in advance of its screening in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the home of director Michael Corrente where the film was shot in the summer of 1995. Both the Pawtucket screening and the New York premiere on 12 September were billed as fundraising events for distribution. Introducing his film at this prestigious film festival, where Glengarry Glen Ross also premiered, Corrente encouraged the audience to be understanding of the unsavory characters and events they were about witness, as I wondered if Corrente, whose first film was Federal Hill, was up to the task of bringing Mamet's classic drama to the screen. Neither he nor I had reason for concern. Shot in a mere twenty-eight days and for only 3 1/2 million dollars American Buffalo is a marvel of minimalism--a dazzling resonant, compelling film.
As the opening credits roll, poker chips drop on a card table music blaring as we catch the barest glimpse of Teach's empty wallet. The camera moves outside to capture Dennis Franz as Donny walking down the street toward his junk shop on the bright morning after, casually talking about this and that with Bobby wonderfully played by twelve year-old Sean Nelson. Continuing throughout his morning shoe shine and preparations for the day's business, Donny's life lessons comprise the credible, quotidian conversation between him and his surrogate son. This big bear of a man's occasionally throwing his arm around Bobby's slight frame effectively confirms the closeness of their relationship, providing visual evidence of his inclinations to protect and defend the boy. As Donny goes though the process of opening up, Franz's girth and tone convey a quiet steadiness and substantiality, a discernible concern for Bobby, a local teenager, younger by eight-to-ten years than W.H. Macy in the play's 1975 premiere. From the first, Franz uses his size to impose himself between Teach and Bobby, to throw his full weight—physical, emotional and moral—behind his ward. When Teach joins the pair, reciting his fuckin' Ruthie story, it, too, is in the natural flow of conversation, Teach appearing to be speaking as much to himself as to Donny while eyeing the Riv in full view of Don's shop, the scene of the crime against him. These directorial choices, surprising and absolutely credible, are on the money, quietly announcing the subtlety and skill with which Corrente treats Mamet's minimalist screenplay. "If you decide, as some people have, that American Buffalo is really about a madman named Teach," Gregory Mosher wrote in 1982, "you cannot do a good production of that play.... [It] has to be about the destruction of the relationship between two men, between a father and a son. That's the story." And, in Corrente's brilliant film it is.Although the director was chosen for his handling of the neighborhood streets in Federal Hill, Corrente wisely keeps the action indoors with the exception of a memorable early shot of Teach's shabby car where the two would-be thieves plan their caper and an effective scene in which Donny takes Bobby outside to assure their privacy from Teach while he awkwardly tells the boy that he's out of the thing. The marvelously cluttered junk shop, complete with chairs hanging from the ceiling—apparently a nod to Michael Merritt's set for the premiere production at the Goodman Theatre—serves as a claustrophobic ludic space for this family. The chaos of "the home fort" makes it all the more amazing that the mark sighted a valuable coin among this detritus.
Corrente uses the interior space exceeding well to enhance awareness of the action both within and outside the shop, both literal and psychic. While Donny typically anchors the fort from behind his desk, Teach keeps a sharp eye on the street from his vantage point at the window. And, where Al Pacino paced the stage and seemed to own the space in Arvin Brown's unforgettable production, Dustin Hoffman lets his fingers do the walking, fingering everything, amply foreshadowing his laying hands on Bobby. Great moments include his use of a pair of binoculars, apparently in an attempt to catch Ruth and Gracie in his sights, his repeatedly coifing his hair, his fiddling with the pig sticker, and his toying with numerous objects on Donny's desk as Donny anxiously tries to track down Fletcher. Wordlessly Donny moves everything out of harm's reach to prevent it from breakage, everything, that is, with the exception of Bobby.
In counterpoint with Dustin Hoffman, who has never been better, Dennis Franz is a revelation. A Chicago actor who coincidentally was at the Organic the night that Mamet first heard the play read by actors, Franz's performance as Donny evokes what Macy recalls of J.J. Johnston's suggestion of an individual firmly in control of the space and the action, a man with the ability to "say with a word, 'Heh Teach, settle down."' The play's Beckettian echoes are also clearly perceptible in this film--the waiting for Fletch, the passing the time, the absent characters, the running narrative. Hoffman and Franz make a wonderful Beckettian couple in their own right: Franz's girth juxtaposed with Hoffman's slight build, Don's good humor and solidity opposed to Teach's quick temper and agitation, his laconism in contrast to Teach's prolixity.
Corrente skillfully captures the power of this tragedy in close-ups—or in the sights of those binoculars—permitting the audience to view Donny caught on the horns of dilemma where many a Mamet character finds himself. One example should suffice. In Buffalo's inquisitional scene Corrente positions Teach in Donny's chair, which he menacingly rolls back and forth as he builds to an explosive pitch. Grabbing the nearest object, Teach smashes the unsuspecting, innocent Bobby with the telephone, while Donny, seated on the couch opposite the desk, observes the action. Anguished by what he has sanctioned, Donny seems to shrink before our eyes. The swiftness of the act and clarity of the reverberant image are stunning. In 1988 Mamet told Henry Schvey, "because he [Donny] abdicated a moral position for one moment in favor of some monetary gain. he has let anarchy into his life and has come close to killing the thing he loves." And, this penultimate scene makes it impossible to doubt this fact.
In the aftermath of the violence, we find Teach once again peering out of the window and then into the mirror, his ridiculous paper hat on his head. Teach provides brief comic relief as Don repeatedly coerces him to get his car in the pouring rain to take Bobby to the hospital. "Some day," says Teach: his few words, in sharp contrast to his former loquacity, speak volumes. The audience, exhausted and exhilarated, presumably concurred: as the credits rolled, not a sound was heard, no one moved. We sat in the darkness a long time before applauding Corrente's powerful film and dispersing in a light rain. If you admire Mamet's work, do not miss this film.
Westfield State College