Reality and fantasy do a little do-si-do in Tony Buba's Lightning Over Braddock, which screens at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22, at 4070 UW Vilas Hall with Buba in attendance. More than a little reminiscent of Michael Moore's Roger & Me, which also came out in 1989, Lightning Over Braddock is one of those newfangled documentaries in which the filmmaker is one of the stars of the show. The difference is that Moore stuck to his mission of tracking down the head of General Motors while enjoying the scenery along the way, whereas Buba keeps getting buried in scenery. I mean that in a good way. The cinematic poet laureate of Braddock, Pa., which turned from steel to rust in the 1970s, Buba wanted to show us a town that had been crushed like trash in a compactor. And he wanted to show us what happens when people get squeezed.
They act out in various ways, if Lightning Over Braddock is to be trusted. And it's not that I don't trust Buba, it's that he keeps mixing reality and fantasy, documentary and fiction. And he keeps us wondering whether and when he's pulling our leg. The movie introduces us to people who seem to have arrived in Braddock from another planet. Steve Pellegrino does a rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on his accordion. Jimmy Roy does a rendition of Frank Sinatra doing a rendition of "New York, New York," only with music and lyrics adapted to the steel town that time forgot. And "Sweet Sal" Caru, whose whole life seems like an outtake from Prizzi's Honor, does renditions of what I imagine to be himself, a hustler who'd like to be an actor who'd like to be a hustler. Mostly, he'd like to get paid.
Everybody in Lightning Over Braddock would like to get paid; one in three are out of work. And, as Buba points out, everyone else's fortunes had gone down while his ' thanks to government grants and MOMA screenings of his documentary shorts ' had gone up. He structures Lightning as a film about the making of a film, his attempt to shape Sal and his surroundings into something Hollywood might be interested in. But the movie's really about the paralyzing effect of layoffs and shutdowns, the way life can suddenly turn into one crackpot scheme after another. There's a sense of giddy desperation in this chronicle of a town on its way down, and you have to wonder, some 12 years later, whether the lightning ever stopped striking over Braddock.