Crude portrait of a lovelorn vagabond

Vincent Gallo: Brown Bunny (2003)

by Chris Knipp

Though itís built on a trip cross-country, Vincent Galloís Brown Bunny has an inert, motionless quality. More than it evokes prior films it brings to mind still photographers of American vernacular landscape like Robert Adams, Todd Papageorge, or Stephen Shore, and the sleazy encounters evoke the autobiographical snapshots of Nan Golden. Despite a premise that superficially resembles Monte Hellmanís cultish 1971 Two Lane Blacktop, itís not till the scene between Gallo and ChloŽ Sevigny at the end that weíre finally in the movies Ė entering what seems a macho LA version of Andy Warhol country.

Galloís edge comes from a willingness Ė assuming he has an alternative -- to work close to the style of home movies. His weakness is that the self-sufficiency of his methods (heís photographer, producer, director, and star) moves him very close to solipsism. The world of Brown Bunny is numbingly claustrophobic. The emptiness seems very Zen and meditative for a while -- till you realize how sick and unenlightened this world is. Heís not peaceful; heís depressed. And thatís not Zen.

At the beginning Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo) loses his motorcycle race (which we watch, from the middle distance, far beyond the limits of comfort or economy) and then heads West in his van via a road stop where he begs the girl attendant (ďPlease. . . .please. . .Ē) to come to California with him. When the girl puts a note on the gas station door and jumps in, but as sheís picking something up at home Bud just drives off, the gesture reads as a witty narrative device: itís a surprise deletion of a conventional narrative line. The ruling principle isnít yet Budís pathology. But it soon will be, as we sink into a monotonous longing for a lost girlfriend named Daisy (ChloŽ Sevigny).

As in Buffalo 66, Vincent stops to see an old married couple sitting at a table, this time Daisyís parents. The conversation is desultory and almost inaudible, the mother canít remember him, and he soon moves on. Thereís a brown bunny by the table in a cage, her pet, it seems. And there's your title. Terminally unsatisfying as all Budís sporadic encounters are, theyíre magnified by the emptiness that surrounds them.

The road trip continues, on and on and on. Bud sees a woman sitting at a roadside rest stop table (a ravaged Cheryl Tiegs), sits down beside her, and as with the road stop girl immediately starts smooching, a weird scene unless you accept the filmís obvious assumption that women canít resist him. Again he suddenly departs in the van.

The movie captures a sense of boredom and monotony and endless roads without creating a sense of real time. The drive to California takes only 47 minutes -- though theyíre certainly long minutes -- including a spin on the motorcycle at the Utah Salt Flats and a motel and a couple of refuelings. Processes arenít observed fully or precisely; you donít see him pay for the gas heís pumped, a shower lasts only six seconds, he never eats, and only one motel room is shown without a calibration of how many days this all takes.

Galloís editing doesnít capture the rhythm of cross-country driving very well, but the scenes evoking still landscape photography are nonetheless fine. You get the rich variety of highways and spaces around them, the ugly-beautiful look of American panoramas seen through a spotted windscreen. Those shots arenít blurred or veiled as prior press had described them: theyíre clear and sharp, despite the spots, the color bright and precise. There's a freshness there, even as the images suggest views we've all seen. As others have noted, Gallo, who confesses heís rarely read a book in his life, is far more sophisticated visually than narratively.

After Bud gets to LA and has his cycle checked by race officials, he goes by Daisyís house, leaves her a note, and after cruising by some street hookers, returns to his motel room to wait. The famous blowjob: is it a cry for attention, a publicity device? Perhaps; but it also has a valid narrative function, and this final scene with ChloŽ Sevigny makes sense out of all thatís come before; makes this a film. The blowjob is part of one of those scenes where two people who no longer can be together try to pretend they still can by having sex. In Budís pathetic whining complaint and quick flashbacks afterward we learn how the relationship was destroyed. Then thereís a nifty twist when Daisy says, ďI died,Ē a shot of Bud alone on his bed follows, and the whole scene with the girl, the filmís only life, dissolves into a sad, lonely fantasy. Itís only a writing-class trick, but it makes instant sense of the whole film's mood.

References to Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop are superficial, because thereís not even its lonely kind of fellowship in this portrait of a lost, sad man. The dead-end life, the mechanical, graphic sex, the mental dysfunction all suggest the films of Bruno Dumont, but if anything thereís an even greater anomie and disconnectedness in Gallo's world. Van Santís Bela Tarr-influenced Gerry is another reference that comes to mind -- there's some of the same tedious lostness. Galloís movie is derivative of multiple sources without transcending them, yet itís memorable as some film school efforts can be. (One Iíve watched a number of times is Everett Lewisí 1990 The Natural History of Parking Lots.) There can be a welcome rawness about such efforts: even in what they canít bring off they sometimes leave a stronger, more personal impression than more polished efforts. Gallo has delivered his soul on a shingle, and though it may be ugly, itís real.

The audience giggled, fidgeted, walked out, or stayed and fidgeted some more and grew quiet only for the hardcore blowjob. Somebody will call it (the movie, not the blowjob) a masterpiece. Since the booing at Cannes and the tiff with Roger Ebert, Ebert has revised his opinion based on this general release version, which has lost thirty unnecessary minutes. The term, ďlike watching paint dry,Ē cruelly applied to Eric Rohmerís films, works better here, but if Warholís Blowjob and eight-hour Sleep deserve a place in film history, so does this.