Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Brown Bunny (Gallo, 2003)

Vincent’s Gallo’s much-derided film, The Brown Bunny, received a response so negative after being screened at the Cannes Film Festival that the filmmaker vowed in a press conference never to make another film as long as he lived. Roger Ebert famously declared that he would much rather witness his own colonoscopy again than sit through another viewing of The Brown Bunny. This led to a very nasty, very public feud, followed by a rather awkward conciliation between the involved parties and, miraculously enough, another Ebert screening of a heavily re-edited Brown Bunny which yielded a positive three-star rating. At the time of this writing, no word has been received in regards to whether or not Ebert’s Colonoscopy Redux will receive two thumbs up.

Let it be said first that Gallo’s film is indeed a sincere, legitimate artistic gesture. Because Gallo cast himself in the lead role and receives a rather explicit sexual favor from Academy-award nominee, Chloe Sevigny in the film’s most notorious scene, much noise has been made about The Brown Bunny being the ultimate vanity project, a colossal joke of a film created by a man who has always seemed a couple steps removed from sanity anyway. Is the film indulgent? Absolutely. But not overly so. I suspect that Gallo has placed himself at the center of this film not simply for the benefit of his own ego, but because the mood and tone he wants to convey with this film is so specific that it would be very difficult to coax from another actor. It also results in a film that feels exceptionally personal and intimate. Gallo puts himself on the line without much support in the way of witty dialogue or clever plot twists. He performs mostly opposite people who I assume must be non-actors. Gallo does not manipulate his central role in order to showcase his own performance abilities. His acting choices are muted and honest, supporting the minimalist aesthetic that permeates the entire project. When he shares the screen with another actor, he is able to give focus, rather than selfishly pushing the action along or drawing undue attention to himself. In short, he demonstrates a passion for his work that I personally find admirable.

The Brown Bunny does have a linear series of events that could be called a story, I suppose, but it really is not wise to think of the film in terms of plot. Instead, Gallo’s film is a poetic expression of a state of mind. Using the expansive landscape of middle America, Gallo documents a long, lonely cross-country motorcycle trip. To be sure, Gallo tests the viewer’s patience with long shots of the open highway, often seen through a bug-splattered windshield; however, the long, labored pacing does indeed serve a purpose. It helps to convey Bud’s sense of deep melancholy and disconnectedness. Though we will not comprehend the depth of his desperation until later in the film, the moments where he makes human contact consequently take on an added charge. Though I occasionally felt restless while I was watching the film’s first hour, I had to admit in the end that the film’s climax was greatly aided by the journey that preceded it.

Like his former lover, who serves as the impetus for his long journey, three of the women that Bud encounters along the way are named after flowers. They clearly do not know Bud, but it seems as if Bud knows them, or at least thinks he does. Perhaps he does not know them entirely, but recognizes pieces of them. With each, he shares a brief moment of connection, at varying levels of intensity. With each, he leaves at increasing levels of dissatisfaction and emptiness. Finally, he arrives in California and encounters his former lover in a scene of remarkable rawness, sensitivity and fluctuating emotions. Surely the amount of people who will download the juicer parts of this scene on the internet exceeds the amount of people who will actually see it in context many times over. In the former case, it must surely seem coarse and exploitative. In the latter case, it does not, moving from tenderness to despair and, yes, actually legitimately contributing to the film’s overall thematic purpose.

It’s easy to see how a much longer cut of The Brown Bunny would be a disaster. Gallo rides a fine line between minimalism and barrenness as it is. However, to this viewer, the cut now available on DVD seems just fine, demanding patience, but also offering a fair share of rewards in return. It is also easy to see how the infamous sex scene created a furor. Gallo and Sevigny are easy targets because they are risk-takers unafraid of putting themselves into unflattering situations. I wonder if most of all, the quality that most caused derision amongst those early viewers at Cannes was the film’s unabashed sincerity. The Brown Bunny is not witty, ironic, or politically savvy. It strives instead to create a simple expression of despair and loneliness. And on those terms, I think that it is a film well worth seeing.



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