2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
In memory of Braddock: Tony Buba’s portraits of working-class life
Mass media images of ruin and the politics of the “familial gaze”
On November 20, 1980, the Carnegie Museum of Art published a poster for Tony Buba’s omnibus film presentation as part of their ongoing Visiting Filmmaker Series. The poster featured a large, sepia-toned photograph of Sal Carulli, star of Sweet Sal, smiling into the camera. The photograph is enclosed by a picture “frame” made from scrolling text announcing the other titles from Buba series: Sweet Sal; J Roy – New and Used Furniture; Betty’s Corner Café; Washing Walls with Mrs. G; and “other works” to be announced at the event. Sal Carulli’s handwritten note, “Regards from Braddock” adorns the bottom of the picture, in the manner of a signed letter or postcard.
Reimagined as a photographic object, the movie poster resembles the sentimental ornament people might hang in their bedrooms or destined for some other domestic space. As such it invites ritualistic looking: one does not look at the figure once then turn away; rather, we are encouraged to dwell with the figure, looking often. The scrolling text of the other film portraits suggests, finally, an intertextual connection between Sweet Sal and the other works. Sal is the face of the “big long structure,” the network of familial and sentimental looks undergirding Buba’s filmic portraiture. The movie poster, in short, encapsulates Buba’s desire to humanize the milltown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and its inhabitants.
Buba’s concept of the film portrait — a loving image of a person developed over multiple films, across multiple years — was born at a time when deindustrialization ravaged Western Pennsylvania. In the popular visual culture, a battle of ideas and images was waged over the identity of cities like Pittsburgh. A “boomlet” of popular documentary films, like the Business of America (1984) and The Fighting Ministers (1986), and nationally broadcast TV shows, like Skag (1980),suggested that industrial United States as a whole was irreversibly changing and its working class people were out of step with an increasingly globalized economy. The steel mill, once wedded powerfully to the identity of cities like Youngstown or Pittsburgh, was shown on the nightly news disintegrating in a fiery explosion and disappearing into a cloud of darkened smoke.
Buba’s portraits of working class life were forged out of his wish to challenge historical forgetting and to enrich representations of industrial decline. A director of 36 films since 1972 and a Guggenheim Grant recipient in 1985, his film/video works span genres and modes as disparate as social documentaries, music videos, an interactive website, sponsored educational films, and fiction films. He has received most attention for a handful of documentaries and videos he made in the 1980s and 1990s that address the history and decline of the steel working industry in Western Pennsylvania. In particular, his 1996 Struggles in Steel examines the African American community’s fight to gain employment in steel working and industrial sectors. Throughout his career, Buba has contributed to the creation of a “storehouse of memory,” in Dolores Hayden’s words, for working-class communities that are still grappling with the closure of mills, mines, and factories.
Analyzing several notable film portraits from the Braddock Chronicles, I assert that Buba pursued a somewhat counterintuitive path to challenge and redefine the mediascape of deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s. He made a wide variety of home movies that documented the changing conditions of his hometown, and he tracked the reverberations of economic disaster through the perspective of the ordinary person. Though Buba is conventionally linked with more well-known documentarians, such as Michael Moore, and scholars have previously argued that his visual style and rhetorical position as a filmmaker often bears a resemblance to postmodern aesthetics of so-called “New Documentary” in the 1970s and 1980s, I want to push away from these accounts and instead consider the centrality of family in his films. More than fashionable postmodern irony, his emphasis on family and familial relationships makes Buba unique as a socially conscious, Leftist documentarian. As I will show, family and family relationships arise throughout his work both as a recurring visual subject — his films center on family and familial dynamics — and as a mode of address to his audience. Through humor, intimacy and sentimentality, he tries to position his own audience as if they were extended family, rather than as detached, anonymous observers learning about an abstract topic.
My analysis focuses on the familial gaze he constructs in three of his films: To My Family (1972), Sweet Sal (1979), and Voices From a Steeltown (1983). My use of the phrase “familial gaze” comes from Marianne Hirsch’s innovative research on the representation of family, memory, and history in postwar visual culture. Hirsch argues that the familial gaze refers to an “imaginary cohesion,” a desire for wholeness and a wish for belonging that arises in visual depictions of groups of people defined as a family. She considers examples ranging from the 1955 photo exhibition Family of Man, to the Holocaust graphic-novel memoirs of Art Spiegelman, to the parodic self-portraits of North American visual artist Cindy Sherman. Hirsch reminds us that family is socially constructed and historically specific. The parameters of who counts as “family” is shaped by factors (ideology, nationality, religious status, and geography, to name a few) that are not always obvious to ordinary people creating narratives about themselves.
Reproducible technologies, such as photography and film, are especially powerful tools in regards to how we imagine ourselves and others. Given their presumed status of being a simple transcription of real life, film and photography tend to manufacture idealized images of family as though they were definitive, honest, and transparent. Tensions between siblings, parents and children, or extended families can be masked in a single stroke: saying Cheese! and smiling for the camera. In conventionalized form such as the simple photo album, the familial image can repress the existential and relational complexity of the album’s depicted individuals. Conventional images can distort the messy and diverse nature of lived reality, reducing lives into stereotypical (and normative) constructions of happiness and static harmony. At their worst, conventional images tend to universalize one hegemonic kind of familial organization — most often the heterosexual, patriarchal, nuclear family unit — at the expense of other ways of being, relating and remembering. Many scholars (including Hirsch herself) are therefore rightly skeptical toward the conservative and ideological implications underlying images of family in contemporary media.
Yet it is also important to recognize that not all images of family, or “familiality” (to borrow another of Hirsch’s terms), are by their nature ideologically conservative. Nor is it the case that the visual depiction of family is innately hostile to historical consciousness, that the family must always be a form of forgetting or pernicious wish fulfillment. One need only look at the proliferation of recent artwork that challenges the State-imposed status of “social death” around the undocumented migrant. In order to contest the xenophobic ideology that frames immigrants as a seething, dangerous mass that threatens the bounded nation-state, documentarians have relied heavily upon family narratives, personal testimony, and visual remembrances to restore to these individuals a sense of cohesive identity and memory that would otherwise be at risk.
At its most radical, familial representation, with its empathetic regard for the Other and its backward-looking glance towards the past, can redefine the boundaries of what is considered a proper citizen or even a proper human. And despite (or perhaps because of) the ongoing social and technological redefinition of what it means to be a family or a community, the desire to comprehend one’s place in the world and to form intimate, familial or quasi-familial connections with others seems to be only growing stronger. This desire is manifested all around us in the current era of selfies, social media photography, digital portraiture and Snapchat ephemeral storytelling. As long as we feel a strong need to belong, feel loved, be seen and recognized by others on a personal level, familial images are here to stay.
Accordingly, my main claim in this essay is that Buba’s filmmaking deploys aesthetics of familiality for progressive ends. Rather than try to conceal processes of history-making or the reality of cultural difference, Buba develops an aesthetic around familiality in order to visualize dynamics of forgetting and remembrance, and to apprehend marginal groups that populated his industrial hometown. These groups were largely invisible in the public discourse. As Buba and his colleagues often complained, there was a dearth of “indigenous” perspectives on deindustrialization that reflected the views of people most affected by it. He sought to change that by recasting deindustrialization through images of family, with a focus on the plight of ethnic immigrant groups. This did not result in a monolithic image of sameness but instead unleashed representing the diversity of how economic change was being internalized and experienced by people living in the same town. This critical recuperation of familial portraiture pushed against a tendency in mass media and so-called “New Documentary” films to objectify the newly unemployed working classes as oddities, objects of pity, or victims of global capitalism.
To refine how I analyze Buba’s use of a familial gaze, I cite his interest in real and imagined family relationships; his frequent entwinement of space and memory, or what Guiliana Bruno calls “geopsychic” space, as a motif running in his film portraits; and his use of recurring characters across multiple films, which signals an awareness of historical discontinuity and change. These techniques not only challenge documentary protocols of the era, they more importantly add a sense of permanence and recovery to his portraits of Braddock in decline.
Geopsychic space, in Bruno’s usage, refers to the intersection of cartography, imagination, remembrance, and shared identity in a physical site. Emotionally charged spaces and places such as churches, street corners, cemeteries, homes, backyards, libraries, schools and stadiums all function as powerful storehouses of memory. Captured on film, these spaces can transform into hubs for visualizing, collecting, and comprehending images of family against the capitalist march of “progress.” In these films, Buba shows people both remembering spaces and remembering in and around certain physical sites that mattered to them (whether those spaces are still intact or not), restoring a sense of familial belonging across space and time. Buba’s film career performs a kind of “geopsychic site-seeing” on his hometown of Braddock, generating a complex relation to time distinct from the simplified temporalities suggested by images of deindustrial ruin circulating at the time.
“A steel town’s chronicler and conscience”: On Buba’s film portraits
Buba’s earliest films, dubbed “The Braddock Chronicles,” took the form of short, 5-20 minute film portraits, which he shot on 16mm and Super 8mm cameras while still a graduate student of film at Ohio University. The films that comprise this body of work include: To My Family (1972, 3 minutes); J. Roy – New and Used Furniture (1974, 10 minutes); Shutdown (1975, 12 minutes); Betty’s Corner Café (1976, 11 minutes); Sweet Sal (1979, 25 minutes); Home Movies (1980, 3 minutes); Homage to a Mill Town (1980, 2 minutes); Washing Walls with Mrs. G (1980, 6 minutes); Mill Hunk Herald (1981, 13 minutes); Peabody and Friends (1983, 7 minutes); Voices from a Steel Town (1983, 28 minutes); Braddock Food Bank (1985, 4.5 minutes); and Birthday Party (1985, 5.5 minutes).
The film portraits focus on friends and acquaintances living in Buba’s hometown of Braddock. Lasting only several minutes, they pack emotional punch without overstaying their welcome. As described by one local critic,
“For Tony Buba’s [portrait] films, a more character-oriented style is added to vérité [style filmmaking], and his own portrait-type documentary emerges…Tony’s camera records the sincerity, jive talk, and the random philosophy of his subjects in a cross-section of his hometown; we’re permitted a keyhole view of unrehearsed human drama that turns with pathos and hilarity.”
These films feature little to no didactic framing material (i.e., talking head interviews, title cards, etc.). All but one or two portraits employ a stark, black-and-white palette. Though budget rather than aesthetics was probably the main factor here, these monochromatic images carry, retrospectively, an unexpected resonance with the urgency and immediacy of agitprop newsreel films. The short film is often associated with other amateur visual forms, such as the home movie, photographic portraits and family albums. These visual forms, as Marianne Hirsch argues, are organized by a “familial gaze.” As Hirsch writes,
“When we look at one another within what we think of as our families, we are also the objects of an external gaze…the powerful gaze of familiality which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which ‘frames’ the family in both senses of the term.”
Hirsch argues that forms of portraiture also are problematic forms of stability. However, in Buba’s films, the attributes of stability, conventionality, and familiarity exist in opposition to the temporal decay, discontinuity, rupture, and isolation perpetuated by deindustrialization.
Buba created several film portraits as “sponsored” films to support the workers’ struggles in Braddock. In Mill Hunk Herald, 1981, Buba blends vérité interviews of worker organizers with an accordion-led musical performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Braddock High School marching band. Another sponsored film, Braddock Food Bank, 1985, is a silent piece that asks, via intertitles, whether it is better to make a movie about the poor or give them money directly.
The impression of familiality, familiarity and intimacy works like a filter or veil over which Buba makes sense of his Braddock surroundings. As Carnegie Museum of Art film curator Bill Judson explains, “Critics find it essential to consider Buba as a person when writing about his films, because they recognize shared constellations of identity in the man, the town, and the films.” Washing Walls with Mrs. G is shot exclusively inside the kitchen of his grandmother. Static long shots show his grandmother speaking about her migration to Braddock decades ago, in a heavy Italian accent (semi-translated with Buba’s own subtitles). Meanwhile Buba, shown partially out of the frame, scrubs and cleans the walls. As Buba has said, succinctly, of the film: “The title describes the film.” A sense of familiality emerges in the fact that his depicted subject (his grandmother) is presented not as a stranger but a close and knowable person.
Buba wished to have the viewer occupy and feel time itself through his films “with a sense of loss.” Thus, he revisited and re-filmed the same individuals after many years, in order to catch up with them and to show how they’d changed along with him. Through the repeated exposure to the same individuals across different films, we see individuals “age” until the point of their death. Several individuals in particular tend to reappear – Sal Carulli, J. Roy, Margie Strosser, LeRoi, several salesmen, and unnamed by-standers. Seeing these reappearing characters produces a sense of déjà vu for viewers, a curiosity about how they live when they are not filmed, and a sense of loss as they aged, especially as some of the older characters died soon after Buba completed his filming.
Buba, finally, sought to create a web of connectivity across the portrait films. He accomplished this by screening them in an omnibus format, showing six or seven film portraits in a single event. While Buba believed that each film could be enjoyed individually, he has said in interviews that they were meant to be comprehended as part of what he called “a big long structure.” The omnibus presentation format (placing the films in a series) lends a peculiar sort of connective tissue to them. Much like the Sweet Sal movie poster, which weaves the narratives of disparate Braddock citizens through the figure of Sal, the omnibus presentation format juxtaposes different individuals of varying class, gender and racial positions. This juxtaposition enables a “familial” form of looking: it establishes connections as well as differences between film subjects, and fosters “a series of ‘looks’ that both create and consolidate the familial relations among the individuals involved, fostering an unmistakable sense of mutual recognition.”
But just as much as the serial nature of the films’ presentation suggests presence and familial continuity, it suggests loss as well. The absence and gradual disappearance of certain characters, temporal gaps in between each film’s production, and visible changes in Braddock’s health as a town are constant reminders of a brutal fact: that time persists. The omnibus format, far from perpetuating an illusion of plentitude and wholeness, brings forth the painful reality of discontinuity. As Braddock’s economic prospects fade and worsen, so too the subjects of the film portraits appear more pensive and reflective about their lives as they re-appear across Buba’s films.
Film analysis: To My Family (1972, 3 min)
The first film of the Braddock Chronicles demonstrates most clearly Buba’s statement on documentary film: it is a process involving the production of memory-images that alternately shock and console us into recollecting a lost past. Produced at Ohio University in 1972-1973, To My Family is a three-minute, black-and-white film, depicting Buba’s grandfather’s Braddock shoe-repair shop prior to its demolition.
The film opens with a long shot depicting his mother’s kitchen, eerily empty, with natural light shining through a far window. Next, in a point-of-view shot we look over an unkempt backyard, with a common, first-generation Catholic immigrant lawn statue commemorating the Virgin Mary. As the camera pans slowly across the yard, revealing nothing but empty lawn, the audio track plays a voice-over conversation between Tony and a woman, presumably his mother, in which they discuss the impending demolition of his grandfather’s store.
In the second segment, the family’s off-screen conversation triggers an abrupt transition that transports us away from the Braddock home, in a kind of mental flashback, to Buba’s grandfather’s shoe repair store. From here, a montage sequence follows: a snapshot of the exterior of the storefront; a store sign, with Coca-Cola advertisement, naively inviting affordable and “expert” shoe-shine sessions; a photographic image of Buba’s grandfather; and a poster of a proverbial shoe maker. The shoemaker is a white, elderly, bespectacled, but muscular man, proudly hammering into finished form a simple shoe, against a sign that reads, “Get Longer Wear by Shoe Repair.”
Inside, we see the once-proud shoe store vacated of all human presence: half-empty shelves, torn strips of wallpaper hanging haphazardly in all directions, a workbench overstuffed with tools, boxes, and untold devices of industry. Heavy shadows give an impression of desertion, desolation: we are in a ruined site. Buba’s camera lingers curiously over work tools, including a sewing machine and shoe-shine chair. Some of these objects trigger nondiegetic sounds of production (hammering) on the soundtrack, as if haunted by ghosts. The sewing machine casts a frightening shadow against the wall, and the chair’s shining platform protrudes into space like a spire or prehistoric megalith. In other instances, the camera is positioned so close to the object that the only discernible visual is a tangle of chords and metallic fingers, suggesting the fossil of a long-dead creature, something no longer of this world.
In the third and last segment, the repair-store flashback abruptly terminates. We return to the familiar shot of a second-story window, looking below onto the backyard. We hear, off-screen, Mother: “Hey Butch, your coffee’s getting cold…” The film then cuts to a pair of white intertitles: “to my family / Produced at Ohio U., 1972-73.”
As a historical record, the film is not about the shoe making industry or his grandfather, but rather is about the filmmaker’s exploring his own increasing distance from these things. The film manifests his fear that an attenuated connection to family history will one day be completely severed. A metaphorical passage from adulthood to childhood occurs in the film’s middle section. The viewer is aligned with adult Buba in the home, at the film’s start, signaled by the high-angle shot which looks out onto the yard. Conversely, during the flashback to the shoe store, numerous low-angle, close-up shots of machines and tools place us in a fantasmatic position of Buba-as-child. In this child-like position, the world’s objects loom large before us, overwhelming both the frame and our possibility of comprehension, not unlike how the adult world may appear unknowable, and threatening, to the young.
In this child-like position, the “found” objects in the repair shop are characterized by lingering, spectral traces of the shoe-worker’s labor. The ghostly sounds of industry, ambiguous and opaque, give a sharp edge to Buba’s exercise in memory-making: a viewer’s awareness and consideration of the tools does not bridge the temporal distance that these objects represent. Indeed, Buba aestheticizes that distance as a major cinematic strategy. For example, the sounds are fragmentary, incomplete, eerie; as such, they can only materialize his alienation from a previous generation.
And yet, Buba’s careful attention to a “wasted space” before its demolition shows how powerful and generative his approach to the past can be. He adopts a reverent and exploratory attitude to spatial ruin. The shoe-repair-store-as-ruin is not forgotten, but is simultaneously enriched and haunted by traces of the past. As demonstrated in the film, these past traces have a special agency all their own which exceeds textbook historical treatment. That is, the false copy of the store-in-memory (and its falsified sounds of hammering, shining, and shoe-repair production) nevertheless brings a reorientation of oneself to the past. A revivifying sensation is registered and affirmed through the viewer’s body, aligned with Buba-as-child: “something cross-temporal, something affective, and something affirmative circulates. Something is touched.” Even if the memory-image of the empty store is not the same as the store itself, it is “not not the thing”, to borrow a formulation by Rebecca Schneider, in her writing on the paradoxical productivity of the double negative of historical reenactment.
The store’s disappearance, then, becomes a timely occasion for Buba’s familial recovery and for the artistic creation of an investigative/forensic relationship to the past. Buba thus embarks on a model of documentary filmmaking heavily layered with a sense of “geopsychic” space — Giuliana Bruno’s term for a folding together of memory and real concrete space, “a place where social geography and psychic paths are written together in a phantasmatic construction of the present.” This theme of real and imagined space and time folding together, in To My Family, becomes explicit through the stylistic contrast of nondiegetic sound and visual stillness. Later in subsequent portraits the pursuit of geopsychic space becomes the occasion for breakdowns in style and blurring of formal categories.
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.
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.”
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.” 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, 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.” 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
1. For further discussion of mass media images of Rust Belt deindustrialization, see Allen Dieterich-Ward, Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania, 2016): 215-223.
2.Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA, 1997).
3. For a comparative analysis of Buba and Moore as practitioners of a postmodern attitude toward documentary truth and conventionality, see Louise Spence’s “Working-Class Hero: Michael Moore’s Authorial Voice and Persona,” The Journal of Popular Culture Vol 43.2 (2010): 368 – 380.
4. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997): 57.
5. There have been a number of recent documentaries that adopt a familial gaze to make sense of the experience of being undocumented in the U.S., including Llevate Mis Amores (2014) about women living in La Patrona, a Mexican village, who help give food and water to migrants traveling by freight train to the United States; or the Oscar-winning short film Inocente (2012) about a homeless, 15-year-old undocumented girl who creates art to imagine a better future for herself and to create a new “family,” an identity of her own.
6. See Don Hopey, “Roll ‘em: Films set here capture milltowns’ plight,” The Pittsburgh Press, March 24, 1985, A1, A30-31; and Cathy D. Miller, “Braddock’s Skag: Film Maker Tony Buba,” Pittsburgh New Sun, February 21, 1980, 2.
7. Guiliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (London: Verso, 2002): 253.
8. Linda Blackaby, a film programmer in Philadelphia, named his films “The Braddock Chronicles” when he visited in the mid-1970s; the name has stuck ever since. Personal interview with Tony Buba, Pittsburgh, June 14, 2016.
9. Jim Duffy, “Filmmaker Tony Buba’s Portrait-Type Documentary,” Pittsburgh New Sun, April 17, 1980.
10. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997): 11.
11. Program notes, “Tony Buba in person,” Identities & Obsessions: Department of Film and Video, Carnegie Museum of Art, Thursday March 12, 1998, 1.
12. Having to wash walls is also a subtle reference to the reality of living in an industrial town with pollution. Many thanks to Chuck Kleinhans for pointing this out.
13. “Artists Record the Death of the Mill’s Way of Life,” The New York Times, July 1, 1985. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/07/01/us/artists-record-the-death-of-the-mill-s-way-of-life.html
14. As film reviewer Pat Politano noted, six months after the completion of Buba’s portrait film, Betty’s Corner Café, the elderly bar owner retired and passed away. See Politano, “Braddock streets provide fodder for films,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec 31, 1980, 54.
15. The co-existence of these portraits, in a single viewing, had significant intertextual effects. As Buba states: “I wanted to make each film work as a short film. But then, I wanted to them to show together as a long piece, so each one was short but then also it shows as a big long structure. You watch them age. You watch Natalka get older. You watch me get older. You see them all aging through this process until we’re dead.” Quoted in personal interview with Tony Buba, Pittsburgh, June 14, 2016.
16. Hirsch, 2.
17. Schneider, 43.
18. Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011): 8.
19. Bruno, 253.
20. Hirsch, 8.
21. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1982).
22. Hirsch, 9.
23. In positioning himself and others as a character who sees, but does not act, one whose main activity is to think the past, Buba evokes the Deleuzian “seer” of the time-image, identified with Italian neorealist films of the postwar period. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (London: Athlone, 1989): 73.
24. Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American industrialist and one of the richest Americans ever. He was a philanthropist who gave several “gifts” to the workers he employed in his factories, in the form of civic spaces. The Carnegie Library in Braddock, established in 1889 to serve the employees of the steel mill, temporarily closed in the 1970s due to dilapidated condition and lack of funding. A community effort reopened the library in the mid-1980s. Braddock High closed in 1981. The Buba family farmed nearly 100 acres until WWII. Today, a Giant Eagle grocery store sits there.
25. Hess, “Voices from a Steeltown: Fighting for community,” JUMP CUT: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 31 (March 1986): 43. https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC31folder/VoicesSteeltown.html
26. In 1985, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a widely criticized editorial which suggested that the population loss of 40,000 residents among towns in the Mon Valley should be seen as “a blessing that should be accepted and built upon.” See Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “No Growth a Blessing”, lead editorial, May 29, 1985: 8.