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The ancients run through the north country, through Ithaca and Albany, Syracuse to Rome. But Buffalo, far to the West and almost Canada, has been awaiting its Odysseus. Hardscrabble, sandy of soil and steady of soul, upstate towns are the Detroits and Flints of New York State. Where Detroit had cars, Rochester had Eastman Kodak. Where Detroit had Motown, Buffalo just had Rick James. Lowing on the shores of Lake Erie, Buffalo. Slouching toward Bethlehem, Buffalo. In need of a brave, Buffalo.
There was however one thing of which Buffalo could boast, at least since 1964: Buffalo wings. Often spicy, heavily sauced, slathered in vinegar and peppery spice, fried but not breaded, Buffalo wings are the little useless chicken appendages that could. Fruit of accident, they were first invented at the Anchor Bar, by Teressa Bellisimo, a foul mouthed Sicilian immigrant, after a mistaken delivery of wings. Since then Buffalo wings have proliferated from upstate New York across the country and indeed the world. These small bony things, obsolescent in vivo but delicious deceased, have their own legion of fanatics. Chief among them is Matt Reynolds, the director and star of The Great Chicken Wing Hunt, a new and hugely enjoyable documentary.
This is Reynolds' first film. Before embarking on the hunt, he was living in Bratislava with his Slovakian girlfriend, Lucie Mayerova, working as a journalist. [His story for the New York Times on Bratislava's renaissance is gem of the "Eastern Europe Isn't In Fact A Festering Backwater" genre.] But he's from Buffalo, grew up on Buffalo wings and brought Buffalo wings like the Paul did the Gospel to formerly wingless Slovaks. They were pleased.
Locally a Buffalo wing savior but adrift and unhappy, Reynolds decides he needs a good hunt. Reynolds readies himself to find the "perfect" Buffalo wing. Mayerova wisely counsels perhaps he should set his sights on "best." Reynolds wants perfection and this tension — between absolutism and relative measures — is just one of the deep issues touched upon in a film ostensibly about spicy snacks. Other issues include human empathy (see below), the limits of politesse and the nature of love.
For his journey, Reynolds recruits a hobgoblin crew of outsized characters ripped from Gargantua and Pantagruel to judge and accompany him on his journey. These men, who devote nearly a month of their life and lead their bodies to ruin — though by their ample proportions the argument could be made their bodies were already halfway there — include a ponytailed and bearded beast who goes by the moniker Thor, a cerebral Hawaiian named Ric; an old white hair hippie named Al and a bow-and-arrow hunting enthusiast named Ron. Ken Kesey couldn't have asked for a merrier band of pranksters. The men, united by their love of Buffalo Wings, are joined by a largely Slovakian film crew including a wise spitfire woman named Zuza Piussi and Mayerova, Reynold's inamorata and who may be an angel and certainly the story's Cinderella. Whether Matt Reynolds is Prince Charming depends on one's view of monomania. I for one think it's a winning quality.
And so the journey begins. The crew traipses through New York State's wing belt, visiting wing huts starting in New York City (Atomic Wings, good; Firehouse, bad) and meandering through the state ending in Buffalo. They use a pretty legitimate-seeming judging criteria created by statisticians at "Michigan University" and rank each on a scale of 1 through 10. For their trip, Reynolds defines a Buffalo wing thusly: "A deep-fried unbreaded wing, coated in pepper-vinegar sauce and butter."
Buffalo wings, as Reynolds notes, are beautiful for they are promulgated by the disenfranchised and lead not to bigger and greater things, more restaurants and licensing deals but simply more Buffalo wings. Buffalo Wings are the Myth of Sisyphus for line cooks, a futile yet meaningful quest. After finding a Buffalo wing savant named Freedom at Shifty's in Syracuse, Reynolds says, "In the world of wings, it's just guys like Freedom who decided that they care enough to make better hot sauce. He doesn't own the restaurant. He doesn't have a stake in the restaurant. There's something pure about it that way."
The same can be said about the film itself, which is much like a Buffalo wing, an utterly charming and compelling work of an amateur. Though well structured, it's woolly. It's both the archetypal journey story and a meandering brook. The latter half of the film is largely consumed by what is essentially an ontological discussion as to what constitutes a Buffalo wing versus a Novelty Buffalo wing, the judgement of which will thereby determine the World's Greatest Buffalo wing. It is a debate that would pique the interest of any jurist or logistician.
Though the debate is nuanced, but neither it nor the film is dry. Though barely touched upon, enough glimpse is given into these men's lives to see they are each, in their own way, spectacular. Old Al, the guitar-playing hippie, lives in an old ramshackle house he built himself, crammed with beautiful objects. "I had a lot of big dreams going for me, my kids ain't growing up or anything. Now seems like anything I'd do know would go to waste. So many plans," he says, "but now with no children here, I fear anything I create will go to waste." Sentimental and sweet, he gives every place they visit a ten. Thor, a competitive eater, hosts biannual themed parties with belly dancers on his farm. He seems like a joke but emerges as a tender hero. Ron, the hunter, has watched one friend after another fired from Eastman Kodak and finally, literally, watches the implosion of its Rochester headquarters. A company man without the company.
There are spoilers I shall not mention, but the men do find the best Buffalo wing in the country and it's not in Buffalo. And the matter of whether it's perfect or simply the best fades in importance. A tremendous heart and tender vulnerability animate the film, for love of a Buffalo wing is, when all the pepper-and-vinegar is stripped away, just love. And The Great Chicken Wing Hunt, after the chicken wing is captured, is just great.
Rating: 5/5 Stars