It's rarely a good sign when the noise around a movie threatens to drown out the work itself, especially when most of the bellowing comes from the auteur himself. Since The Brown Bunny—which follows a lovesick man's drive across America in what feels like real time—played to boos, hisses and the occasional lonely cheer at Cannes last year, Vincent Gallo (who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the picture, and very likely did the dishes) has been doing his own brand of publicity with one highly visible tantrum after another, apparently to shield the purity of his vision from thick-headed critics who beg to differ. He called Roger Ebert, who pronounced the movie the worst he'd ever seen, a "fat pig" and claimed to have brought on Ebert's cancer by putting a hex on his colon. This is less the mark of a mad artist than of a thoroughbred jerk who thrives on giving and receiving offense. But no one would deny that Gallo also has marketing savvy to burn. The infamous billboard that materialized without warning on Sunset Boulevard earlier this month, a garden-variety porn shot, discreetly blurred, of actress Chlo Sevigny giving Gallo head—which he put up with his own money, allegedly to take the movie in a "more mainstream" direction—came down just as swiftly, but not before attracting generous coverage in both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. His distributor, Wellspring, known for its slate of adventurous independent movies, has taken a lenient, even supportive, view of Gallo's shenanigans, doubtless on the principle that there's no such thing as too much publicity. But I can't imagine that Wellspring was thrilled when, last week, its new star pulled his three-page essay on The Brown Bunny from our sister paper The Village Voicebecause the editor decided to run a hot still from the movie rather than Gallo's own photo self-portrait.
Behind all the advance fuss around The Brown Bunny lies some heavy-duty psychological dysfunction, as Gallo would be the first to brag about. In his work as in his life, Gallo's continuing obsession is himself in all his rage and chronic ambivalence about who he is and what he does. Gallo's mostly unsolicited denials in interviews that he's an artist—the self-proclaimed right-wing Republican seems driven to differentiate himself even from the arty downtown Manhattan crowd he's run with since the late 1970s—suggests the high-flying anxiety of a born hysteric. In fact, whatever one may think of his work, Gallo is by almost any yardstick an artist—he's a gifted photographer, painter and musician, for starters. But it may be that his greatest gift is the monster ego he keeps permanently on public display, and which is the subject of his two feature films. Nothing unusual about that—cinema history is littered with self-inflating heads. And the line between narcissism and art has always been fuzzy, as Gallo himself proved in his 1998 movie, Buffalo 66, a semiautobiographical spew of domestic and romantic loathing (with a surprisingly sweet ending) that I expected to hate, and which instead made a convert out of me.
So I can forgive Gallo his histrionics, which are entertaining enough when they're not downright vicious. What I can't forgive is his boring me silly. Gallo's billboard blithely gave away his ending, so I'll feel free to tell you that it's the only salacious action you'll see in The Brown Bunny, a minutely observed tour of Gallo's billowing self-regard, his abject self-hatred, his fine upstanding member and, by extension, his manly motorbike. The movie's structure is pristinely simple: a motorcycle racer named Bud Clay—played, it goes without saying, by Gallo—drives across the country from New Hampshire to Los Angeles in a black van, trying to get over or recover (we're never quite sure) a lost love. He drops by his hometown for a hilariously brief visit to his former girlfriend's parents, who are taking care of her brown bunny and wondering why they haven't heard from her lately. He stops by a pet shop to stroke kittens. (Mercifully, kissing babies is not on the agenda.) He spends a lot of time on the freeway, or grooming the bike, which he occasionally rolls out of the van to roar around local beauty spots. Handsomely shot and composed, The Brown Bunny wrings a weepy beauty from all available landscapes (though Gallo ritually bristles at any suggestion of cinematic influence, the movie reminded me of Bruno Dumont's equally elliptical and finally unsatisfying 2003 movie, Twentynine Palms, another Wellspring release). This is hardly the first road movie to observe America through desperate eyes, but Ohio has never looked so damply romantic, or the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah more magnificently intimidating. Nor has Gallo himself, who appears in the corner of almost every frame, an arresting figure with his mad blue eyes and ax-murderer's jaw. He is his own favorite subject, and his surroundings are meant to reflect his bleak mood. Unlike most road movies, which seek escape from ordinary life, The Brown Bunny merges America with Gallo's inner turmoil. That's a fair enough project, but unlike Buffalo 66, The Brown Bunny doesn't breathe. It just sits there looking sad and pretty.
Eighty minutes of this (the movie is now a good 20 minutes shorter than the version screened at Cannes), and you're screaming for something to happen. It already has, after a fashion. Over the course of his journey, Bud picks up, toys with and drops three passively receptive women. The first, a dewy-eyed underage gas-station attendant named Violet, he invites to travel with him, then drives away while she's in her parents' house packing. At a rest area he approaches the lost soul Lilly (played by former supermodel Cheryl Tiegs with an air of faint surprise, as if she's wondering how she got here), makes out with her briefly, then abruptly takes off without saying a word. And in Las Vegas he cruises several blocks' worth of hookers before picking one up, buying her a hamburger, driving her around, then dumping her on the sidewalk. Bud is always the one in control, cupping the women's faces with his cadaver's hands, gazing into their eyes, then abandoning them without explanation. Hair-trigger feminists will likely jump all over this movie for its demeaning treatment of women. They will not be entirely wrong—it's impossible to imagine a Vincent Gallo movie without hatred of women rearing its ugly head, just as it's impossible to imagine him making a movie that is not, finally, all about himself and only tangentially about the women he dominates. Gallo is clearly trying to say something about the nature of male sexuality in all its unsavory glory, but unlike Buffalo 66, in which he had a saving sense of himself and those he deemed responsible for his misery as comic figures, he has no distance from the alter ego he's created. Auteurists will doubtless see this as an asset, but there's something smug and self-congratulatory, even self-righteous, about the insidiously soft-spoken Bud Clay that makes this movie unwittingly funny precisely when it reaches for tragedy. When Bud's lost love, Daisy (Sevigny), shows up at last in a Los Angeles motel, matters come to a head, as it were, in ways that wouldn't look amiss on a daytime soap, never mind your local porn channel. At this point someone I've never met leaned over and hissed in my ear, "So now we know that Vincent Gallo has a big dick." Actually, we know a little more than that. But not much.
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The Brown Bunny was directed, written and produced by Vincent Gallo; and Stars Gallo, Chlo Sevigny and Cheryl Tiegs. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.