The last bit of film-related news that I heard out of Braddock, Pennsylvania, came in 2009 Times piece of the city’s tatted-up mayor: Looking for a setting that fit the postapocalyptic America of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, director John Hillcoat found downtown Braddock just right.
A long-ailing mill town in the Monongahela Valley less than 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, Braddock has seen its picturesque desolation honored on-screen before. Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero shot his film Martin there in the ’70s, taking advantage of the town’s soot-darkened churches and the parental home of Braddock’s most famous cineaste, Tony Buba.
Martin will play Anthology Film Archives as a sidebar to a five-day program of Buba’s work, including his opus, 1988’s “Rust Bowl fantasy” Lightning Over Braddock. Buba, prodded by Catholic guilt, measures his own professional rise against Braddock’s decline, with protests of regional mill closures offsetting the ongoing drama of Buba’s thorny relationship with Sal Carulli, a former subject, self-described street hustler, and star of a 1979 documentary short, Sweet Sal—after hearing his screen presence praised by Werner Herzog, Carulli imagines that Buba is cheating him out of fame and fortune. A jocular career-crossroads self-analysis, Lightning finds Buba trying to steer his own course between the twin mountains of Herzog and the frequently referenced Sly Stallone, epitome of Italian-American hustle and politically opportunistic working-class kitsch.
Lightning is a summing up of Buba’s then-15-year career as Braddock’s present-tense historian, recording the reversed fortunes of the city and its people in a series of short subjects. Grouped together as “The Braddock Chronicles,” these quietly attentive and politically engaged shorts, which Buba began making while in Ohio University’s graduate film program, suggest him as something like his hometown’s Harvey Pekar or Studs Terkel. “I try to let the people take over the film,” Buba says in Lightning of his unobtrusive approach.
From the first, Buba’s interest has been in capitalism’s also-rans. 1974’s J. Roy: New and Used Furniture documents the Grand Opening of an ambitious car lot/antique store by a local businessman who remains fervently optimistic despite his previous 12 grand openings having all ended in failure. J. Roy gives Dale Carnegie pep talks to the salesmen and sings the Depression-era anthem “Pennies From Heaven.” If you want the things you love, you must have showers—and Buba soaks them up: 1976’s Betty’s Corner Café hangs with the castoffs swilling Schmidt’s at a local watering hole; 1983’s Peabody and Friends follows a neighborhood guy who has never been quite the same since somersaulting out of the faulty sixth-story window of some shoddy subsidized housing; and in Sweet Sal, the filmmaker takes full advantage of finding a born raconteur and bullshit artist for a subject.
“I make it, and I blow it,” Sal muses over his father’s grave—the overarching boom-and-bust narrative of Buba’s films, in brief. Beginning with images of his grandfather’s just-demolished shoe-repair shop in 1972’s To My Family, Buba’s shorts describe the transformation of a blue-collar town—and, by extension, industrial America as a whole—as filtered through the particularities of his experience (Italian, left-wing, Catholic).
“Dying media towns were a hot media subject,” Buba says in Lightning. “I thought this was the perfect time to be a political filmmaker.” He’s right, but it was Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, released year after Lightning, that cashed in. A mixture of his die-hard provincialism, anti-careerism, and genuine limitations—of Buba’s fiction feature, 1994’s No Pets, the less said the better—kept Buba from ever becoming a franchise, but one suspects that today, he is exactly what he set out to be: a local institution.