Film analysis: SWEET SAL (1979, 25 min)

After his first film, Buba began to train his camera-eye away from himself and onto Braddock citizens. In broadening the sociological focus of his camera, these film portraits still retain a familial orientation. The films take place in domestic spaces and involve characters recounting lost connections to family members. Sweet Sal, another black-and-white short film, depicts a day in the life of middle-aged, streetwise hustler Sal Carulli, as he interacts with passers-by on the street, friends, acquaintances, shop owners, and his ex-wife. The film culminates in a visit to his deceased father’s grave.

The film is noteworthy for its spectral treatment of a familial gaze, focused on a subject who seems at first to resist any need for family or social support, but who gradually reveals a deep and unfulfilled longing for love. I call this familial gaze “spectral” because the familial embedding and the “imaginary cohesion” which Sal desires only exists in his memory, revealing itself in fragmentary ways.

Sal tours the streets of Braddock. Sweet Sal, 1979, directed by Tony Buba.

Buba does not tease out Sal’s unconscious desire for familiality directly, but through a variety of visual strategies, most of all through a group-portrait framing of Sal. That is, Sal is deliberately placed within the camera frame (using wide and medium shots) alongside many other individuals in Braddock. Buba frequently places the camera on bustling street corners to capture the fading streetwise gangster in a lively urban habitat. In these moments, Buba’s camera remains positioned to the subjects as close as possible, creating a sometimes claustrophobic jumble of multiple figures in the movie frame that recall the epic, quasi-mythic scope of the Mexican murals of Diego Rivera. The crowded, peculiar framing of Sal reduces him in stature, providing a visual counterpoint to his self-presentation. It hints at his repressed yearning for a “familial look” of recognition, and his increasing isolation within the wider community of which he claims to be a part.

The rising tension around family, communal belonging, and self-recognition reaches its climax in the penultimate scene. Sal takes Buba and film crew to the graveyard where his father is buried. The camera tracks Sal, bundled up in a coat, walking up along the steep side of the cemetery toward the grave of his father, Francesco Carulli. Standing above the grave, Sal tearfully addresses the camera: “He’s in a place right here. Here’s where I want to be.”

Sal visits his father’s gravestone in the cemetery. He shakes his fist, wishing aloud that he could be dead, and his father still alive.
As he bends down to kiss the gravestone, the macho working-class exteriority of Sal crumbles. And it becomes clear, as he gets up to leave, that he is a man haunted by the memory of the dead.

As Hirsch explains, family photographs and home movies “show us what we wish our family to be, and therefore what, most frequently, it is not.”[20] Similarly, in this moment at the grave site Sweet Sal documents a Braddock man’s desire for a familial structure no longer available to him: he is alone. We have seen that Sal strives to present himself to the world as a self-composed, powerful, independent person. But we have also seen moments where Sal’s exterior crumbles a bit. Indeed, Buba’s searching camera, his poignant framing of Sal in social situations, and the penultimate shot of the film at the graveyard all point toward a deep and abiding loss that defines Sal over and against this external projection of masculine strength. Through Buba’s camera the viewer witnesses the loss that Sal feels when he gazes at the tombstone of his father. Furthermore, the shot forces out an aspect implicit in all familial looking: that when we look to a parent or sibling, we desire to be looked at in return. That is to say, Sal’s desire is to recognize not only his father but himself, to be recognized by a parent.

The film dramatizes the quest for reciprocity that motivates much familial imagery. Hirsch elaborates on this aspect of reciprocity as a fundamental condition of the familial gaze in general. She does so by paraphrasing Roland Barthes’ key work on photography[21], where he spends considerable time analyzing the traces of an affiliative and identificatory bond with his photographed grandmother. Looking at a portrait of his grandmother, Barthes reveals a general dynamic of all familial looking: “Within the family, as I look I am always also looked at, seen, scrutinized, surveyed, monitored.”[22] Like Barthes seeking traces of himself in his grandmother’s portrait, Sal hustles the streets in the hope that he, too, could be “seen, scrutinized, surveyed, monitored,” so that his wandering look is reciprocated by someone who truly knows who he is.

The film evokes a still-resonant family history, figured as a ghost haunting the living. It suggests that the “imaginary cohesion” of familiality need not always signify complacency with an ideological status quo. Especially in times of crisis, such a foregrounding of family memorializes a lost social bond and, in turn, it critiques the conditions of the present moment where people are unable to make space for remembering.

Film Analysis: Voices from a Steeltown (1983, 28 min)

Voices from a Steeltown, a 28-minute color documentary, is the most refined instance of Buba’s film portrait model. As the title suggests, the film is a metaportrait, consisting of not one but multiple “voices,” perspectives, and communities of immigrants and minorities who find their realities shaken by the economic catastrophes of the 1980s. Characters we once saw in earlier black-and-white portraits, in J. Roy (1974), Sweet Sal (1979), and Mill Hunk Herald (1980), make return appearances. Buba does this expecting that the experienced viewer will suddenly feel a gentle sense of recall, of déjà vu.

A television shows Braddock in a state of decay. From Voices from a Steeltown, 1983. The architectural wreckage of urban blight. Voices from a Steeltown.

The returning characters in Voices from a Steeltown stand in a distanced relation to Braddock. In this film, they speak directly to the camera and offer an explanation for the town’s now-undeniable ruin. We might say his subjects have become aware of themselves as images; this awareness is evident in how they relate to Buba. They are alternately reticent and open about the town’s fading history, not quite sure how the camera will depict them to the audience.

Further, by showing Braddock citizens reflecting on the past and placing them in ruined and wasted spaces that still retain importance in their lives, his documentary subjects come closer to the contemplative, nostalgic position that Buba himself occupied in To My Family. They are much like the European survivor of World War II, depicted in Italian Neo-Realist films as a wandering character defined by passivity (rather than heroism), an individual who felt the need to feel and observe the changes wrought by warfare. So too Buba presents his subjects here as thinking, feeling and reflective beings in a manner that Gilles Deleuze once described as the position of the “seer” of a new cinema, rather than the “doer” of classical cinema.[23] Thus, an essential part of Buba’s project of portraiture is to show that Braddock citizens change in relation to the camera that records them and that they practice various forms of remembering to activate a relation to space and place.

In Voices from a Steeltown, Buba turns his camera to historic or civic institutions that in the present moment carry scars of neglect or commercial repurposing in their very architectural being. To the outside observer, such “wasted spaces” may not be worthy of more than a passing glance. The film is organized around several landmarks in particular: the Braddock library, the Braddock High School, and the Buba family farm.[24]

The Carnegie Free Library of Braddock. The Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

In the film’s most significant sequence, we are taken to Braddock High School. A group of black youths wander through the tall grass around the back of the former school, which has been sealed and condemned for only two years but which now seems like a place haunted by ghosts. Before thrusting us into the darkened building, the film gives us a montage of historic news clippings celebrating the accomplishments of Braddock football and other sports teams. As if nodding to his previous work, To My Family, which presented his grandfather’s repair store through idealized advertising images before showing the space derelict and ready for demolition, here Buba similarly uses a before/after editing technique. He shows how the school was remembered (given a rose-tinted glow through newspaper headlines and joyous sports commentary from decades past) then shows in real time how it functions today as an abandoned space.

After wandering over tall grass, a group of five or six children lead the film crew to an opening in the fence where they enter and access the building through the side on the upper floor. The cameraman enters a darkened doorway. In the next shot, we see the children laughing and standing about in an empty hallway. Only sunlight illuminates the children’s silhouettes; behind them, the building remains too dark to see, illegible. According to one child: “It [the high school] was so nice, but everybody messed it up now. 1981, it was all nice; 1982, look at it. It’s all messed up.”

The camera takes in views of empty classrooms, torn-up wallpaper, broken windows, and a desolate scene of a classroom with its windows smashed in and a single chair and desk isolated in the center. On the soundtrack, we hear polka music, a sonic counterpoint to the grim imagery and a nod to the East European immigrants who settled there. Buba shows another news clipping of the historic sports teams, then in a wide shot zooms out to show the entrance of Braddock High School. Its regal faceplate and neoclassical archway contrasts sharply with the rows of broken windows that face the streets outside.

The window frame, again, serves as a symbolic device for Buba. As in To My Family the closed window overlooking his mother’s backyard provided an occasion for an involuntary memory, in Voices From a Steeltown the image of a broken window similarly triggers a sentimental attachment to the past. The school once carried forward a sense of pride in the town. It exists now as a crossroads where two temporalities, two generations of residents, co-exist but do not ever meet in mutual recognition. This time, when Buba’s camera looks outside a window, it only shows more broken windows.

Children take us on a tour inside the recently closed Braddock High School. A librarian discusses the history of the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock. From Voices from a Steeltown.

Like Buba’s To My Family, Voices from a Steeltown is especially concerned with geopsychic space. In Steeltown, Buba asks his subjects to give him tours of formerly significant spaces of industrial production or civic spaces that have become ruins (such as the library). Here the choice is to hand over the film, figuratively speaking, to the Braddock-resident-cum-tour-guide. This role causes the Braddock citizens very quickly to alternate from an empirical description of the site to a more memory-driven and imaginative conception of what the space means to them personally. Mental spaces of memory and material spaces of history collide. In turn, the viewer shuttles back and forth from the speaker’s imagination and the physical environment that surrounds him/her.

This method, of course, is one we first witnessed in Buba’s To My Family, where Buba’s conversation with his mother in his Braddock home is momentarily, but powerfully, interrupted by his point-of-view involuntary recollection of his grandfather’s repair shop. Voices of a Steeltown brings us full circle. Instead of an interior journey into one’s own mind (formally constituted as a montage), Buba here evolves that conceit by broadening his canvas. He provides a series of itineraries with a diverse cast of Braddock residents, whose testimonials bring the space to life. In effect, while they tour the city, they also tour the psychology of their own minds. Likewise, while they contrast how the facilities were used historically versus their current non-use, they perform a critique of urban geography under the conditions of neoliberal life. This is Buba as both self-portraitist and psychogeographer of a steeltown’s unconscious.

Buba’s meta-portrait film, by the end, does not offer any consciousness-raising resolution, nor does Buba explicitly politicize issues of labor struggle. Nevertheless, a political dimension to the project emerges. He allows the film audience to be taken on a tour by diverse residents of Braddock. He alternates from black youths, to elderly individuals, to people who worked at the facilities that now lie in a state of disarray (the librarian for Andrew Carnegie’s Free Library). Buba does this to generate a dynamic, dialectical relationship with time itself, an oscillation between an evidently “dead” or wasted space and an encounter with people or objects in that space who retain the power to render it anew, if only imaginatively. In the above sections, I have tried to show that this memory-making process is at the heart of Buba’s political activity around Braddock.

Afterimages of a steeltown: conclusion

A familial gaze is clearly at work in Buba’s filmmaking: the presence of child-like characters who reflect on family; the appearance of private/public landmarks in various states of decomposition; the use of familiar, recurring characters; and the framing of multiple residents in group-shots which suggests an affinity between them. However, the reliance on familial images in the Braddock Chronicles is not aimed at a fantasy of harmony, ideological closure or continuity. His point is to show deindustrialization never ends but is an ongoing reality, one that changes people and families as they, too, change.

Betty’s Café Corner, 1976, is a portrait film about a “family” of unemployed steelworkers who spend their days at the local bar. We see bar owner Betty caring for the patrons as she would her own.
The intimacy of the bar resembles that of a home more than a place of business. In spite of the economic precarity they face in Braddock, the portrait makes explicit the connectivity, nostalgia, and playfulness of the patrons.

With few exceptions, the filmmaker refrained from overt political statements. Buba has been criticized in this regard, notably in John Hess’s review of Voices from a Steeltown in JUMP CUT no. 31. As Hess points out, in a largely favorable review of the film, Buba is different from other left-wing documentarians who made working-class images in the 1970s, such as Ross Devenish’s Do Something!, 1970, or Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, 1976. Namely, there is a lack of radicalism or any didacticism whatsoever in Buba’s work. This is problematic because, without giving his own authorial explanation for what is happening, Buba potentially leads viewers to misunderstand deindustrialization. Hess states,

“[B]y foregoing any commentary, spoken or otherwise, Buba forgoes the opportunity to clarify what happened. He does not choose among the people's explanations or appear to favor any individuals in the film. He makes no effort to offer his own explanation of what happened or what might be done. He consistently remains dependent on what his subjects say. The result reflects their confusion. People have their various theories, but there is no way for us, the viewers, to assess these theories.”

This criticism is understandable but misses the point. As discussed in the opening section of this essay, I argue it is most profitable to view Buba’s films as photo albums, home movies, or forms of filmic portraiture concerned with family. Along these lines, Hirsch warns that there is always the risk that images of family will obliterate historical understanding in place of a normative and sentimentalized notion of imaginary cohesion, detached from the vicissitudes of sociocultural change or the complexity of reality itself. Family images are, more often than not, ideologically conservative. But in saying that Buba focuses too much on the personal instead of the political, that he allows his subjects to speak and theorize too much, that he is in essence “too close” to his subjects (too familial or intimate toward them), Hess fails to see the progressive potential inherent in creating images of family. At no point does he step back and ask why Buba might find it valuable to shape his films through familial connections at this precise moment of crisis, at a time when newspapers in Pittsburgh are literally applauding the demise of the manufacturing sector and calling for people to forget about steel-making and move on.[26] Without noticing the considerable lack of attention in the mass media to how families experience deindustrialization and cope with it, is it any wonder that Hess fails to recognize the restorative power of sentimentalism, nostalgia, and the desire for familial connection as a way of coping with the destruction of working-class communities?

Putting family front and center is a way of capturing fragments of memory and historical specificity that would be invisible otherwise. The idea of family, both as a visual subject and as a mode of address to the audience, enables a different way of relating, distinct from an overtly politicized discourse that frames experience in dichotomized terms of the oppressed and the oppressor. Adopting the perspective of familial imagery on U.S. deindustrialization asks the viewer to empathize first and foremost, to see what they (on screen) see, to remember what they remember, with them. The audience is encouraged to relate to the Other on an immediate and intersubjective level, rather than to compartmentalize people by class, gender, race, or sexuality while seeking out abstract cause-and-effect explanations of economic change and decline. Like the poster-portrait of Sal Carulli with which I opened this essay, the viewer of Buba’s films is implicitly invited to look and stay awhile. To linger with the person or place and know them within a domain of affect, memory, and loss. In contrast, the compulsive desire for explanation (as if that will help anyone directly affected) quickly takes us away from the ordinary people who are being impacted by forces outside their control. We very easily forget them.

Indeed, Buba rejected political analysis and instead found it more effective to create dense, shifting temporal relationships with people and landmarks of the place he called home. Moreover, the film portraits draw upon the medium’s photographic basis as a memorializing technology, its implicit association with “that-has-been.” Film and photography excel as art forms of visual immediacy. Non-Braddock residents — viewers — all over the world were thus given an opportunity to envision life in this little town with the filmmaker as though they knew it themselves.

Buba’s investigative relation to “geopsychic” space, his camera’s searching approach to the optical unconscious of his documentary subjects, and his child-like reverence to the places and people of Braddock’s past, all make him a key figure in Pittsburgh film history. Buba, much like “New Documentarians” of the 1970s and 1980s like Michael Moore, made possible a form of filmmaking that was both memorializing and politicizing. But perhaps more than any other filmmaker, his films operating together in an intertextual web function as a kind of cognitive mapping of de-industrial United States, a form of history-making from below.