The Brown Bunny
Director : Vincent Gallo
Screenplay : Vincent Gallo
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Vincent Gallo (Bud Clay), Chloë Sevigny (Daisy), Cheryl Tiegs (Lilly), Elizabeth Blake (Rose), Anna Vareschi (Violet), Mary Morasky (Mrs. Lemon)
There is no title card in The Brown Bunny, but there are two opening credits, both of which are for Vincent Gallo: The first announces that this is a “Vincent Gallo production,” and the second, almost as if were providing evidence for the first, lists Gallo as writer, producer, director, and editor. We have to wait until the final credits, however, for Gallo to take his acting credit and also to inform us that he shot much of the film himself.
Therefore, we can only assume that it is Vincent Gallo--and Vincent Gallo alone--who is responsible for The Brown Bunny being such a pretentious, silly bore of a would-be existential art film. Gallo is not a bad filmmaker. In fact, his first film, 1998’s Buffalo ’66, was a strikingly original, sometimes funny, sometimes sad experiment in weirdness that captivated, rather than alienated. There was just as much narcissism and despair in that film as there is in The Brown Bunny, but it felt strangely alive. The Brown Bunny, on the other hand, has no quirky dementia, just bland pathos, and it wallows so deeply in its inexpressive desolation that it constantly threatens to put you to sleep.
As most already know, the film caused a major stir at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, where it received the lowest votes of any film in the festival’s history and film critic Roger Ebert made headlines with his harsh condemnation of its utter wretchedness. There was a period when everyone believed The Brown Bunny would never be seen--that it would disappear into the mysterious ether and join the ranks of infamously awful, but never seen films, perhaps taking its place alongside Jerry Lewis’ Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried (1972).
But, no, Gallo took the criticism and went back to the editing room, removing 26 minutes of footage in order to produce a more streamlined, though still ponderous ode to moping. The Brown Bunny may be shorter than it was at Cannes, but it still feels extremely long. As there is virtually no narrative until the final 15 minutes, Gallo’s removal of nearly half an hour of footage--almost one-fourth of the film’s original length--probably had no effect whatsoever on the storyline.
The first two-thirds of the film follows Gallo’s character, Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer who loses a race in New Hampshire, loads his bike into the back of his black van, and then drives cross-country to a race in Los Angeles. Gallo draws these passages out slowly, setting his static camera to either catch Bud’s profile as he drives along or look out the increasingly bug-splattered window at the bland flatlands that apparently comprise every mile between the east and west coasts. You can sense Gallo reaching vainly for artistic statement here, as if depicting the monotony of driving silently for thousands of miles by reproducing it for the audience is some kind of grand achievement.
Along the way, Bud meets three different women (Cheryl Tiegs, Elizabeth Blake, Anna Vareschi), each of whom is in a greatly different place in life, but they all share the (I suppose) symbolically important connection that they are named after flowers--Lilly, Rose, and Violet. Although Bud looks dour and unkempt, each of these women is attracted to him, but Gallo isn’t much interested in explaining why, unless it’s to further underscore his myopic point about the pathetic nature of existence.
The real flower Bud seeks is Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), a former girlfriend who he hasn’t seen in a long time, but whose absence is apparently the core of his misery. Bud stops by Daisy’s parents’ house, but they don’t seem to remember him, even though he grew up next door. Once in Los Angeles, he goes by her house and leaves a note on the door, and she later appears in his hotel room. She slips into the bathroom twice to smoke crack, and then pleads with Bud to let her hug him. Bud is, not surprisingly, miserly, but vaguely accommodating, and once Daisy starts unbuckling his jeans, he turns morbidly demanding. At this point, The Brown Bunny morphs into a hard-core porn film, with Sevigny shown in close-up fellating Gallo. However, it’s not just the unmistakable image of unsimulated penetration that makes this scene pornographic; the cinematography goes soft and fuzzy, as if Gallo shifted from 35mm to 16mm, and the entire scene takes on the cheap vibe of ’70s porn.
Many will wonder what purpose a graphic sex scene like this serves, and Gallo has an answer, though not a particularly enthralling one. The hotel scene leads into a grainy flashback that explains what happened between Bud and Daisy, giving the film a melodramatic tug that almost works on a purely emotional level. There is a dreamlike quality to it, with Bud asking questions of Daisy that she could not under ordinary circumstances possibly answer. It’s an emotionally stirring, phantasmagoric rupture in an otherwise painfully dull film. Thankfully, Gallo realizes that he’s hit the climax (so to speak), and he ends the film quickly thereafter, rather than dragging us through another interminable meditation on the American landscape as metaphor for the empty soul.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Wellspring Media