PITTSBURGH MADE: Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy (1988)

Braddock has been in the news a lot lately, being the adopted home of John Fetterman. Yet for years, Tony Buba has been there, making documentaries about the former steeltown where he was born and continued to live, all while working in movies, doing sound for George Romero films and showing up with his brother Pasquale as drug dealers in Martin and bikers in Dawn of the Dead.

Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy takes place at the end of the eighties, a time when so much of America gave up on Pittsburgh and its surrounding mill towns. Where once Braddock was Pittsburgh’s shopping center with seven movie theaters, by the time of this movie it was falling to pieces — it would get worse — as the mills in Homestead were being closed by U.S. Steel, who said they were in the business of making money, not steel.

I grew up directly between Pittsburgh and Youngstown with a grandfather who spent his whole life in the blast furnace after liberating concentration camps. He used to tell me about getting frostbite on one side of his body and a suntan on the other as he worked at J&L in Aliquippa and would come home covered in dirt and grime in the small hours of the day, sleeping when everyone else was awake and then going back the very next day and doing it all over again.

Buba plays himself, trying to make a movie with Sal Caru, a local character who was also in one of his shorts Sweet Sal. Except that Sal thinks that just because Werner Herzog liked the movie, Tony is going to leave Braddock behind, just like the steelworkers did when they started making money. He’s ready to battle everyone in his way, leaving rambling explentative-filled answering machine messages demanding an audience.

There’s a moment before his confession that Tony looks at an animated card of Jesus and times when he thinks about how expensive Hollywood things are, how the rich men running the mills spend as much in a day as people in Braddock make in a year and how he can’t waste anything. He feels guilty about things like wanting to leave his hometown behind for Hollywood before realizing this is where he belongs.

While I’m a transplant to the greater Pittsburgh area, living in Mount Oliver, Edgewood, Allentown, Homestead, Dravosburg, West Mifflin, McKeesport and now Monongahela in my life, I feel such an emotional tug to this place. You can look at the Waterfront shopping area built on the top of the dead Carrie 6 furnace and see that even though this town is now about tech, we haven’t forgotten the past. I still miss Alexander Graham Bell’s bar on 8th, a place in Homestead where every table had a telephone and you could call table to table. I’ve hunted down where the old drive-ins were, the defunct movie theaters, the places that Pittsburgh used to be.

The struggles within this film of the steelworkers are long gone. So many of us have forgotten them, so many are gone now to be honest. My grandfather has been dead twenty years by now and I miss him and those stories every day. But Pittsburgh trudges on, even as one of the few mills still open is right down the street from my house now, the Clairton works, making the air itself the worst in the state. It smells like eggs on a foggy day, but once you couldn’t wash your clothes outside if you lived above the mills and Homestead ceremony is filled with the bodies of union men and the Pinkertons who got off boats to try and break their line, one of the largest instances of armed warfare inside our country.

I came away from this knowing why Tony Buba loves Pittsburgh because I think sure, we might complain about it, we might wish it were different, but we love everything about this town. We’re lifers. I couldn’t imagine caring about anywhere else.

You can buy this from Kino Lorber.

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