How Rust Belt Americans Spanned Time

By Jake Slowik · 20 May 2023

The Rust Belt Trilogy: Slap Shot, Buffalo 66’, and The Humans

The first shot of the Rust Belt in Slap Shot (1977) surveys a local steel mill which is shutting down and throwing ten thousand workers out of a job. Observing the scene, aging minor league hockey player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) asks his younger teammate Ned Braeden (Michael Ontkean), “What are they gonna do with them?” Ned replies: “It’s every sucker for himself.”

Slap Shot goes on to examine how these men respond. At first everything appears to be holding together — downtown “Charlestown” still sports boutique stores and pedestrians — but the childish behavior of the team, itself facing collapse, heralds the coming social disintegration. Players get drunk, piss on the ice and start fights during the National Anthem. As the team travels from one Rust Belt city to another, the common refrain is that the party is over, but nobody’s facing it. Ned shuts down and his girlfriend tries to flee. Reggie feeds his players and fans false hope, spectacle, and distraction. Finally, he tracks down team owner Anita McCambridge, who coldly explains that, although pleased with the team’s resurgence, she’s chosen to take a tax loss and fold. Besides, she won’t let her kids watch hockey, so what’s the point?

McCambridge is the only adult depicted as a responsible parent, a plot point that introduces a new theme for the film’s final act. In the very next scene, a player defends his buffoonery and charges that the influence of parents, rather than an hour of hockey fighting per week, is to be blamed for the behavioral ills which befall the young Chiefs fans.

Reggie comes clean with the team, but just like efforts to save his marriage, it’s too little, too late. The crowd boos mercilessly as their opponents beat them to a pulp. Slap Shot’s most famous scene remains the on-ice striptease, Ned’s middle finger to the final game’s fighting circus. But the actual closing scene, perhaps the saddest parade ever shot, is more lasting and complex.

The scene begins with WW2 veterans marching to Yankee Doodle Dandy. The Chiefs are on floats, drunk and surrounded by groupies. Reggie’s wife drives through the parade in a station wagon towing a trailer. She’s closing up her clothing boutique and heading to New York. Reggie pleads with her to come to Minnesota — colder, darker, more isolated — and the location of his new coaching gig. As she burns rubber out of town, beyond the shadow of the mill, the camera focuses on the child spectators. They’re rooted to the spot as the rusting sets-in. Whatever is about to happen, they’re going to witness it all. We’ve seen what the adults have been doing and it isn’t pretty. The final shot leaves us wondering, what chance do these kids have?

Twenty years later, Buffalo ’66 (1998) answered this parting question with a deranged misadventure set in motion by a Rust Best survivor/victim/criminal. Tragicomedy plays through Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo), who came of age while the adults were preoccupied with hopeless sports teams and impotent rage. Billy could have been a child spectator in the Slap Shot parade. But now he’s an adult, ending a five-year prison stint and trying to convince his parents he isn’t a failure by plotting a delusional revenge mission that proves nothing else. He kidnaps Layla (Christina Ricci) and compels her into acting “nice” during a dinner with his parents (Angelica Huston, Ben Gazzara). Billy’s threat loses menace as his vulnerability is revealed scene by scene. Billy repeats himself often, and at dinner we learn why. He asks Mom for a glass of water. Lapsing into parental habit, she instead offers him soda pop. He practically screams at her before she gives him the water.

Mom’s religion is the Buffalo Bills football team. She admits she would rather have gone to the Bills 1966 championship than give birth to Billy, who was born during the game. Dad, for his part, treats Billy as a bitter reminder of his short-lived career as a lounge singer. He explodes over dinner, accusing Billy of pointing a steak knife at him. We have no clue what either parent does for work or for money.

The bleak Buffalo winter setting shows how fast things have changed from the still vibrant downtown scenes of Slap Shot. Mid-90s Buffalo is deserted, grey, brown and dirty. Shots draw attention to brown carpeting, and moldy linoleum walls. The only vibrant colors are the Bills’ red and blue.

We learn that Billy’s wayward years began when he bet money that he didn’t have on the Bills’ winning the 1991 Superbowl: a bet that he lost when their last kick sailed wide. To discharge his debt, Billy takes the rap for another man’s crime. Our glimpse of his hellish prison life comes through a feminine, heart-shaped pendant dangling chillingly from Billy’s neck while he plots to kill the Bills’ kicker. Later, an organ donation billboard hovers over Billy in the final third. He’s lost hope, but is it revenge or salvation that he’s searching for?

Billy didn’t count on Layla falling in love with him. Getting to know her, the film also may be showing us that kidnappers don’t choose victims at random. Observing his erratic awkwardness, we infer Billy never experienced healthy expressions of love. Emotionally neglected, he’s developed a fragile belief in total self-reliance. Billy spews bile — he doesn’t need anyone, he’s going to kill the kicker, and women are evil backstabbers. Watching him, the plight and destiny of the Rust Belt is personified. Feeling neglected and abandoned by government, elites, and corporates, individuals turned insular: a recipe for dysfunction and violence. Billy wants water, but Mom offers soda. Struggling communities wanted jobs, but got welfare checks and Wal-Mart.

After hitting emotional bottom, Billy apologizes to Layla. As he leaves to fulfill his death wish, Layla says she likes him, she wants him to return, and she’d be sad if he didn’t. Face to face with the kicker, Billy has a moment of clarity — another sad sap like himself. Billy’s able to recognize that his act of vengeance and his death would change nothing, especially his parents.

We’re left wondering, does Billy transcend his situation, or is he doomed to repeat it? Layla saw something in him, but he’s still a loser, like his father. Billy’s not going to blow his brains out, but what will become of him? Is Layla’s love enough? Enough for what? He didn’t descend, and he didn’t ascend, but will he endure? Will he span time?

Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66’" (1998) and Stephen Karam's "The Humans" (2021)

Twenty years after Buffalo ’66, The Humans (2021) begins by looking up through an interior courtyard of a tenement-style apartment building, a cross-shaped opening of clear blue sky. The shot tees up the spiritual struggles that Buffalo ‘66 leaves us wondering about: they now plague the Blake family, who gather inside one of those apartments, newly occupied by youngest daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Rich (Steven Yeun).

Sports are now an afterthought; a crutch which father Erik (Richard Jenkins) uses as an ice breaker, but no more. Living in Scranton with his wife and mother, Erik often looks out the window and fixates on the unsettling apartment: creaks and groans, water stains, rust, bad lighting. He’s nervous about confessing something that his wife says that he has to share before the evening’s end.

Brigid, emotional bridge and family truth teller, is pursuing her so-far unrequited dream of being an orchestral composer. Yet she’s afraid to confront the upstairs neighbor about the thudding. Rich, who’s own family is notably absent, gives off signifiers of wealth: cooking with shallots, criticizing cruises, and demonstrating an inability to connect when Erik raises money as a topic of conversation. Elder sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) is a corporate lawyer, recently passed over for partner and dumped by her girlfriend. She needs surgery for ulcerative colitis and confides in Brigid her fears of being alone.

Mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) suppresses her own feelings and stoically bears the burden of her commitments — ferrying relatives to medical appointments, a forty-year stint in a menial job and volunteer work with Bhutanese refugees. When she gives the hosts a Virgin Mary statue and speaks of recent apparitions, her secular daughters dismiss it as her mental disorder.

The crappy apartment is ironic compared to contemporary films which tend to show stylish, modern spaces unaffordable for actual middle-class families. It’s also noteworthy in that we’ve left the Rust Belt. Erik’s mother “Momo,” an Irish-Catholic immigrant, almost “killed herself” getting out of the tenements; two generations later, Brigid is back in the old neighborhood. Shots of grime and noises accentuate the Blakes visiting the cramped bathroom. As the night proceeds, the family discharges emotions, but they’re also nourished. The most vibrant colors are the foods served by Rich and the Blake sisters.

Finances are a shared point of stress. When Brigid criticizes the sedation of Momo, Deirdre snaps back that they can’t afford live-in help. Dad criticizes Brigid for the shoddy apartment, Brigid snaps back that he didn’t give her any rent money. Aimee didn’t make partner. Brigid is languishing in retail employment. Rich can’t access his trust fund until his fortieth birthday. “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” muses Erik.

Religion and spirituality feature prominently. Rich opens up about his mental health struggles. Erik claims, “in our family we just don’t have that kind of depression.” Aimee pushes back but Erik persists, “Faith is not perfect, but it’s a kind of an antidepressant.” We learn Erik took Aimee for an interview in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and he only survived because the observation deck didn’t open until 9:30 am. Erik admits that the shock wasn’t enough to keep him faithful.

Amid this unfolding catharsis, there is tender support. Erik consoles Aimee. Rich and Brigid share affections. Deirdre patiently helps Momo to the bathroom. The highlight is Momo’s email to the children from her early days of dementia, recited again this night. Her wisdom is thus: “I wish I could’ve known that most of the stuff I did spend my life worrying about wasn’t so bad.”

Erik’s confession tests their bonds. They have to sell the family house and move into an apartment. He’s been fired without pension for violating the school’s morality code by having an affair with another teacher. The family scatters and cries, but gradually comes back together. They will all ride to Penn Station to see off Erik, Deirdre, and Momo. In the closing shot, Erik’s crisis of faith unfolds as he struggles to get through the apartment hall, fearful, breaking down under the groans, creaks, and thumps. He sits and recites a Hail Mary. Brigid calls for him. The door to the hall is open. There is family and light straight ahead.

The fact that most reviews of The Humans treat it as family horror or dystopian says more about American critics than it does about the actual film and characters. The wisest person in the family, who’s seen it all, says, do not fear. The apartment is dark, but the family is bright. The walls may crumble, but the Blakes have what they need for a nice Thanksgiving. Brigid is pursuing her dream, Momo is not in a nursing home, Aimee is not alone, Rich has a warm family, and Erik and Deirdre are still married, still leaning on each other, and supporting the next generation of Blakes.

The family has endured. They have spanned time, like Billy Brown said in the bowling alley photo booth, ordering Layla to fake a smile as he snapped shots intended for posthumous delivery to his parents. The Blake’s faith has been shaken, but through reliance on each other, they have survived.

In all three of these films we see external shocks — economy, government, war, and terrorism — but we also see what Rust Belt Americans did to cope. While the partiers have died out, the elites have moved on. While many turned inward to violence, crime and drugs, these quiet, faithful families are still there.

At the end of Slap Shot, the children have to stay. At the end of Buffalo ’66, Billy decides to stay. In The Humans, with geography and place ceasing to function as an enclosure, the family manages to stay together. This trilogy illustrates how difficult spanning time has been in the Rust Belt. But with faith and with family, there remains light up ahead.

Jake Slowik is a writer who was born and raised in Syracuse, New York.

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