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A prodigal son has returned to Buffalo, not only to shoot and film, but also to set down roots once more. No it isn’t Vincent Gallo. For all the controversy that native filmmaker receives—who, let’s be honest, really grew into an artist post-high school in NYC— it was refreshing to see a full house for a Western New York premiere screening at the Market Arcade. Friends, family, film fans, and fans of their city all came out to see, as writer/director/star Peter McGennis said before the show, all those latent treasures Buffalo has to offer. Having completed a wonderful collaborative experience in NOLA for his first feature, Buffalo Bushido saw him come home to do it again as the memories washed over and a three-year odyssey materialized onscreen. Talking about how his ‘process equals his product’ and that he can start on a path as an indie filmmaker free from the constraints of the Hollywood system, you begin to understand his deep-rooted connection to Buffalo. With a dark, personal tale to tell, McGennis chose to stay loyal and ‘paint on the wonderful canvas of this city’. If his creativity and fearlessness in building a unique vision—complete with animated vignettes from Jeremy Appelbaum—is any indication here, In and the currently filming Queen City have found their way on my to-see list.

Tragedy seems to be at the core of this project, from its inception straight through to the premiere, unfortunately missing his wife, unable to attend due to a death in the family. The idea of the movie itself came from an interior need to honor an old friend who died too young, Brendan Pfalzstaff, the little brother of a friend with whom he still remains in contact. Not until an early scene, hearing the screeching of tires and seeing the hockey helmet tumble down the street, do we realize how personal a tale it really is. Taking his surname by calling the lead role Davis Pfalz, Buffalo Bushido concerns two lost souls forever connected through childhood hardship—split apart after horrific events changed their lives, one working through her troubles to make a life for herself as a nurse while the other moved in and out of his own mind, both cosmically knowing that some day they would meet again. It may have taken fifteen years, but Davis finally decided he needed to come home and face the cataclysmic moments that altered his perspective on life, rendering him to be an introverted and intense beast, allowing a simple thing like the word ‘retard’ to cause all self-control to cease and the red of anger take over.

That sort of aggression is almost necessary to wake up and begin to feel again, especially when one has been numb for so long on drugs, sex, and depression. The time locked up allowed him the opportunity to read up on philosophy and eastern traditions, returning to the samurai way that his father instilled in he and his younger brother Brendan early on. It became a purpose to his existence, a set of laws he needed to follow in order to lead a proper life. A pilgrimage home to Buffalo was the final step; to confront his friends Shawn and Sadie, to remember all the good times and the bad, and to face Torchy, the punk who along with he and his two friends was involved in Brendan’s demise. Guilt has been projected, has been falsely placed on them all, and no one has ever truly gotten out from under it. It was the defining moment that led each character on the path of some hellish years; only when Davis comes back to forgive those he has harbored anger towards can he once and for all forgive himself. As a result, there are multiple instances of tear-stained confessions and emotional outbursts to allow all the pent-up feelings free, forming a powerful film despite some flaws.

You get an idea of McGennis’s love for Buffalo right from the start. Utilizing a ton of flashbacks throughout the film in order to slowly uncover secrets as characters unearth each, the opening credit sequence is the motherload of montage time transitions. We are shown street signs that hold more meaning to a local than anyone else, Forest Lawn Cemetery shooting by, and the inside of an NFTA bus bringing McGennis’s Davis into town. Cinematographer Chris Santucci does wonders with some great abstract framing of the bus driver’s hands and McGennis’s torso cropped free of his head or his head disembodied with the cityscape showing through the window behind. The aesthetic remains throughout, making many scenes memorable for their beauty of composition, showing exactly what we need to see in close-up, oftentimes in silence to let the visuals be absorbed. Along with that come great transitions between reality, memory, and hallucination as events spark Davis’s mind to wander away into his subconscious or his imagination, allowing for one of my favorite performances to exist—Bruce Glover’s Soup/Javier. He is an old homeless man that’s been around forever, a sort of mystical visage of sage wisdom, the samurai life-instructor of Davis, cropping up on the streets and as the fictional desk clerk of the long-closed Lennox Hotel.

And here is where my biggest problem with the film lies. I could nitpick McGennis as an actor, but once you realize the sort of schizophrenic and all-around messed up creature he is, the performance works in its robotic delivery and serene matter-of-fact attitude, even if it always seems a bit off. What stood out was how despite the brilliant job McGennis does at making sure the audience knows what is real and what is not—if you think Javier is really working at the hotel and all those buckets and plastic tarps are just ‘remodeling’ accoutrements, then you’re as batty as Davis—he still finds it necessary to shove the ‘revelation’ down our throats with repetition and a Fight Club montage of previous scenes unfiltered by the lead’s mind. He does so well to not pander to us, letting the story unravel in due course and get us invested in how far Davis will go to close the book on his brother’s death for the most part, but it is all slightly ruined by his heavy-handed slap across the side of the head as though we had sleep-walked through everything before. He does redeem himself with an amazingly authentic and appropriate ending that only a film devoid of big studio cash could get away with.

To get to that finale, though, the journey down the rabbit hole needs to occur. We must discover what happened with Sadie and Shawn during the fifteen years previous and the truth behind their idyllic stories fed to Davis. Jesse L. Martin, another Buffalo native, shines as the grown-up version of one and Leila Arcieri steals the show as the other. Her Sadie is a jumble of emotion with so many feelings that have been hidden too long coming to the surface as soon as she sets eye on her old friend, not only looking to help him through whatever is going on, but to also get closure for her own troubles stemming from Brendan’s death. John Savage comes into play as an over-the-top parole officer that’s a bit off his rocker too, but entertaining nonetheless and Lord Jamar is great in a pivotal scene as the elder Torchy. But the true star is Buffalo and the sites put on display like the Lennox, Symphony Circle, Children’s Hospital, and the Peace Bridge in a very important, cyclical role. It’s rare to see Buffalo depicted without another city standing in, and despite the dark, depressive themes to the film, does show through with a positive sheen. Credit for that lies with McGennis, one more product this city has spawned with the creative juices to do some great things. If Buffalo Bushido is one step on his continued growth as a filmmaker, I’d be happy to continue on the journey with him.

Buffalo Bushido 7/10

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photography:
[1] John Savage (Vendetti) and Peter McGennis (Davis)
[2] Bruce Glover (Javier)

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