Buzzard (Joel Potrykus, 2014)
Film festivals are double-edged propositions, particularly the Chicago International Film Festival, where so many films have already been vetted ad nauseum following their preceding debuts in Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, etc. Heightened expectations have the uncanny ability to lead to disappointment. Moreover, a film festival experience tends to underscore the patterns found between films. There are plenty of unified themes and ideas to be found in between meager microbudget films like Stephen Cone’s This Afternoon and Cannes powerhouses like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter’s Sleep. While these films all tackle their ideas in different ways, redundancies prove unavoidable. You’d figure a film like Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard would fall within a similar holding pattern. After all, it is clearly indebted to a diverse range of films, from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to Richard Linklater’s Slacker. But this cocktail of a film ends being one of the most bombastic releases of the year. It is a big deal.
The titular buzzard is a young man named Marty. He’s a temp worker in an ordinary office. Florescent lighting highlights the banalities of office life without blatantly poking fun at its workers - the people who work here are generally courteous and grateful for their wage. But Marty is not impressed. The humor that’s derived from Buzzard is how Marty’s perception of escaping this minimum wage mundanity is through petty cons. He closes a checking account every six months and opens one immediately to take advantage of a bank’s fifty-dollar promotion. He orders office supplies and returns them to a local Staples for cash. This will be his gateway to success. The opportunity to cash office checks in his name, checks that amount to a little more than a couple thousand of dollars, is his big time score.
There’s a lot to be said about this sort of person, the one that an audience may feel inherently superior to. This sense of superiority is the suggestion that Potrykus initially makes, but his intentions are far denser. For one, there’s a sense of unreality, or parallel realities at play. Perhaps its Marty’s fascination with Freddy Kruger (he fashions the character’s glove using a Nintendo Power Glove), the Travis Bickle-esque sense of alienation, or the many allusions to The Matrix, but the film is in a constant fight between reality and the surreal. This struggle promotes a perpetual sense of unease, whereby moments of absurd violence are given surreal intensity. And with a character like Marty, it’s no small feat that Potrykus never ridicules his actions. Despite his obvious cruelty and disenchantment with the normative boredom of an office, we never lose sight of him as an emphatic character. His rough-around-the-edges demeanor functions in response to the cruelty that’s afflicted on him.
Buzzard switches locales halfway through the film, from its observations of office life to the ruins of Detroit. The symbolic implications are obvious. But Potrykus opts for portraying Detorit in a different way. He gives Detroit a sense of romantic intrigue, a technique utilized to great effect in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. Marty roams the decrepit city for refuge, and in the film’s coup d'etat, finds a hotel to live the life of royalty. It’s the sort of delusional majesty that feeds into Buzzard’s dark tunnel of schizophrenic humor. In a scene that recalls Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Marty consumes a plate of spaghetti, fanatically. For one night, dressed in white, he can have that plate of spaghetti. It’s a small gesture that has the biggest implications in Marty’s mind.
The cumulative effect to Buzzard may strike some as an example of America’s indie fears of capitalism. That’s certainly a component, as money is the instigator of action. But Potrykus expands the thematic plain through his use of surreal imagery and hyper naturalism. It’s not often that a film can posses the inherently realism of a young man contending with the boredom of life while wielding a Freddy Kruger glove. Call it American Neo-surrealism.