"Lightning Over Braddock: A Rust Bowl Fantasy" (at the Monica 4-Plex on weekends) is a movie with flesh, sweat and a warm grip. You can sense a human being behind it. As you watch, you begin to see as he sees, hear as he hears.
Shot over four years on a budget of about $40,000, "Lightning" is the first feature of Tony Buba, a 44-year-old quirk documentarian. Buba sets it in his hometown, a once-thriving Pittsburgh suburb called Braddock. Over the last 15 years, he has made a dozen short films about its people: a smoothly engaging macho bantam street hustler named Sal Caru, a union organizer-rock accordionist named Steve Pellegrino and a constantly failing but eternally buoyant local entrepreneur named Jim Roy. All of them are in this film too.
And now, since his town, along with the rest of the area, is dying--its population down by almost 75%, the nearby Dorothy Six mill about to be closed, businesses and movie theaters shuttered, the school gone--Buba's become a chronicler of the disintegration of the American Dream.
The movie is reflexive. We see "Lightning" being shot, dreams of Tony and Sal, parodies of "Gandhi" and "Rambo," wildly enthusiastic reviews on TV. But it's clear that this collaboration will fall apart, that an anticipated Hollywood contract will never arrive. Meanwhile, outside, the mills close, the streets empty, the ex-workers demonstrate. Life subverts the macho fantasies of the movie: pipe-dreams incarnated in the smooth, goombah-goombah Sinatra-inflected badinage of Sweet Sal, the way his baritone drags on "yeaaah," the profanity and braggadocio that rolls off his tongue like honeyed cough drops.
As Buba shows us a parade of clowns and victims, marchers and kvetchers, he makes it clear that he does not stand apart from them. Like his neighbors, he is watching a world and a way of life collapse. Like them, he tries whatever he can, in some small way, to prevent the inevitable. And like them, he dreams foolish, glamorous, violent dreams of success, romance and revenge.
Unlike them, he can record those dreams, play them back. A recurrent image of "Lightning" is the mustachioed Buba--looking something like a cheerful, sloppy Pittsburgh Zapata--hunched over his movieola, contemplating the film he's shot, trying to make sense of it. But he can't. The order he finds is the one he's imposed. The region that is dying will die whatever he does.
"Lightning's" major flaw is the fantasy sequences, too tacky for the overall vision. And there are substantial elements to that vision. "Lightning Over Braddock" is about dreaming as your world dies around you. It's a central theme of American literature, but Buba jokes it up, concentrates on these three dreamers whose wild energy and bounding hope survive even the most ridiculous context.
The ex-student radical Buba ruminates on the possibility that, when he dies, he will be greeted at the gate not by Peter but by Sacco and Vanzetti. Sal rages in his room at the stardom and wealth being denied him. Pellegrino sings "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on his accordion--without sound, since there was no money for music rights. "Braddock, city of magic, where have you gone?" croons Jimmy Roy, in a melancholy lounge-lizard voice, against a backdrop of dying urban glitter. That is the core of this modestly immodest, expansively humble, objectively subjective, gigantic little film: lost magic.
In its ragged perfection and wise silliness, "Lightning Over Braddock" (Times-rated: Mature for language) invites us to dream and wake up at the same time.