Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 05, 2004 9:46 pm 
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Crude portrait of a lovelorn vagabond

Though it’s built on a trip cross-country, Vincent Gallo’s 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 Hellman’s cultish 1971 Two Lane Blacktop, it’s not till the scene between Gallo and Chloë Sevigny at the end that we’re finally in the movies – entering what seems a macho LA version of Andy Warhol country.

Gallo’s edge comes from a willingness – assuming he has an alternative -- to work close to the style of home movies. His weakness is that the self-sufficiency of his methods (he’s 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. He’s not peaceful; he’s depressed. And that’s 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 (“Please. . . .please. . .”) to come to California with him. When the girl puts a note on the gas station door and jumps in, but as she’s picking something up at home Bud just drives off, the gesture reads as a witty narrative device: it’s a surprise deletion of a conventional narrative line. The ruling principle isn’t yet Bud’s pathology. But it soon will be, as we sink into a monotonous longing for a lost girlfriend named Daisy (Chloë Sevigny).

As in Buffalo 66, Vincent stops to see an old married couple sitting at a table, this time Daisy’s parents. The conversation is desultory and almost inaudible, the mother can’t remember him, and he soon moves on. There’s a brown bunny by the table in a cage, her pet, it seems. And there's your title. Terminally unsatisfying as all Bud’s sporadic encounters are, they’re 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 film’s obvious assumption that women can’t 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 they’re certainly long minutes -- including a spin on the motorcycle at the Utah Salt Flats and a motel and a couple of refuelings. Processes aren’t observed fully or precisely; you don’t see him pay for the gas he’s 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.

Gallo’s editing doesn’t 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 aren’t blurred or veiled as prior press had described them: they’re 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 he’s 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 Daisy’s 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 Chloë Sevigny makes sense out of all that’s 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 Bud’s pathetic whining complaint and quick flashbacks afterward we learn how the relationship was destroyed. Then there’s a nifty twist when Daisy says, “I died,” a shot of Bud alone on his bed follows, and the whole scene with the girl, the film’s only life, dissolves into a sad, lonely fantasy. It’s 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 there’s 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 there’s an even greater anomie and disconnectedness in Gallo's world. Van Sant’s Bela Tarr-influenced Gerry is another reference that comes to mind -- there's some of the same tedious lostness. Gallo’s movie is derivative of multiple sources without transcending them, yet it’s memorable as some film school efforts can be. (One I’ve watched a number of times is Everett Lewis’ 1990 The Natural History of Parking Lots.) There can be a welcome rawness about such efforts: even in what they can’t 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, it’s 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, “like watching paint dry,” cruelly applied to Eric Rohmer’s films, works better here, but if Warhol’s Blowjob and eight-hour Sleep deserve a place in film history, so does this.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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