Peter McGennis Jr.’s “Queen City” gives us plenty to be thankful for:
• Its debut screening at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre will be followed immediately by an all-star jam across the street in the Tralf featuring its extraordinary musical performers Sharon Jones, James Cotton, Toni Lynn Washington, the Buffalo Shuffle and others.
• It’s a film about Buffalo, for Buffalo and filmed in Buffalo by Buffalonian McGennis, whose previous films include “Buffalo Bushido.” Identifiable Buffalo locations are wall-to-wall. So are identifiable performers, even if some of those in the film are profoundly distinguished visitors.
The high point of the film, to this watcher, is the moment when the great New Orleans piano master and producer Allen Toussaint sits down and plays some blues. Its high point in wit is that Maria Muldaur has a cameo, quite literally playing a waitress in a doughnut shop, the title of one of her albums and one of her most famous songs. (See, too, Sharon Jones, Magic Slim and the Average White Band.)
• Not only is it a tour of stellar Buffalo locations from the Colored Musicians Club to the Edward M. Cotter fireboat all through the film, its adoration and reverence for Buffalo culture is conspicuous and immense, whether we’re talking about swatches of the magnificent photography of Milton Rogovin or cameos by some of our finest local actors and musicians (Vincent O’Neill and Josephine Hogan among the actors).
• The performances of its professional actors with national careers – most significantly Vivica A. Fox as a singer named Lady Midnight and Peter Jason as a tough cop and the lead character’s father-in-law – are on a very high level for the kind of micro-budget local project that it is. You have to assume that McGennis’ gratitude in his innermost parts is immense and profound. Recompense was certainly inadequate otherwise.
None of this is to indicate that the film is especially good, because that simply wouldn’t be the truth. It’s an uneasy mix of professionalism, semiprofessionalism and amateur zest that can only be watched with audience indulgence and kindness because its Buffalo locations are so pronounced, so raw and so genuine.
Because it’s set during a ’70s Buffalo winter and concerns a cop avenging the deaths of his father and partner and fighting a corrupt mobster/developer/businessman who brings nothing but blight and ships money to Florida, Buffalo is seen at its physically grungiest. The filmmaking ethic here is another world entirely from the Burton sisters’ passionate desire to show the incongruous beauty of Buffalo all through their film “Manna From Heaven,” which similarly (and more successfully) mixed different levels of professionalism.
The result, of course, is that some viewers may be downright puzzled. In a film that makes so much use of Buffalo Police Headquarters, why is it that the very first thing you see is a naked prostitute climbing into a hot tub with a couple of older clients? (A good chance here that permissions were obtained without key people reading a script. Then again, one can never underestimate local indulgence of local enterprise.)
In a film whose photographic values are often pitched well beneath those of ’70s blaxploitation films that, in part, inspired McGennis, isn’t the use of Rogovin’s profoundly moving art an exploitation that, to understate, ought to have been avoided?
“Queen City” is an ego trip to be sure. Its star, writer, director and music composer are all one person. The important thing to say about such ego trips, though, is that in the absence of money – which required “Queen City” to be a long time in the making – ego is probably the only fuel powerful enough to keep such a project going.
McGennis’ loves – Buffalo culture, African-American music – couldn’t be more authentic, enormous and self-evident all through his film. None of them presupposes a talent even within shouting distance of a Rogovin or Toussaint, but that’s not a reasonable expectation here.
Some may wonder if the dialogue needed to be far more full of adolescent locker room scatology than adult male obscenity (micro-budget indie film lesson No.1: Make friends with writers).
And the McGennis lyrics to songs bring forth astonishing conviction from performers that don’t really seem deserved. I have no doubt singer/actress Fox found much to portray dramatically in this: “I’ve loved enough to last a lifetime/But I’ve never loved myself/Thinking that real love is too high on the shelf/Beyond my grasp/Above this place/Dim the lights that stole this pretty face.”
You could indulge the actress writing such lyrics. That doesn’t mean listening to her sing it is the same as listening to Fox singing real blues – or, for that matter, Cole Porter.
Maybe so much love for Buffalo, and for jazz, blues and R&B ought to be enough.
A lot of things in life, after all, are very high up on the shelf. You can only grasp what you can.