At the end of "The Brown Bunny," my wife turned to me and said, "Next time we hear somebody say they've just seen the worst movie ever made, let's make a beeline for it, because chances are, it's going to be pretty good."
"The worst movie ever made" was the general consensus after the film was shown at last year's Cannes Film Festival (in a version about 30 minutes longer than the one now in release), not just from Roger Ebert, who got into a public spat with the movie's writer/producer/director/star Vincent Gallo (since patched up), but from most critics, and from the audience that hooted and booed its way through the Cannes screening.
At the press conference following the screening, and in the interviews he gave, Gallo (who also acted as director of photography and editor) had inflamed the already fierce reception with the combative obnoxiousness that's come to define his public persona.
After Cannes, there had been predictions that the movie would never open. To get the movie into theaters, Gallo had to put on even more hats, acting as pretty much his own booker and publicist. When "The Brown Bunny" finally did open a few weeks back, the surprise is that many of the reviews were very appreciative.
I still dragged my feet going to see it, not just because of Gallo's public behavior, but because that same hostility was all over his first film as director, "Buffalo 66." That picture felt like an art-house put-on, with the audience as the butt of the joke. Shortly after Ben Gazzara, as Gallo's father, strangled a puppy, I walked out.
So none of the good reviews for "The Brown Bunny" surprised me as much as my own reaction. Gallo's second feature turns out to be a gentle, lyrical road movie -- the sort of picture American indie cinema was supposed to nurture and support.
It's easy to see what annoys people about "The Brown Bunny." Gallo stubbornly sticks to his own sense of pacing. There is a story, as well as dramatic conflict, but Gallo refuses to push either. The movie is shot in a consciously muted naturalistic style that can easily be mistaken for meandering. For most of it, we're watching, with Gallo, through the smeared or rain-streaked windshield of his black van as he drives cross-country from New Hampshire to Los Angeles. Or looking at Gallo's sharp-nosed, unshaven profile, held in close-up to convey the masked turmoil in his character's solitude. Even when other characters enter the movie, the dialogue is sparse, the interaction subdued, tentative.
Gallo plays Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer who loses a meet in New Hampshire and sets out for his next competition in California. Variety is provided by the women Bud meets along the way: a teenage gas-station cashier (Anna Vareschi), a middle-aged woman at a truck stop (Cheryl Tiegs), a young street hooker (Elizabeth Blake) in Las Vegas -- all three of them drawn to him.
There's an element of narcissism to "The Brown Bunny" -- perhaps inescapable in a movie where one person takes on so many tasks and appears alone on-screen for most of it. And Gallo's conception of Bud, a tortured, baby-macho loner familiar to us from other American road movies and from the Beats, has too much spiritual self-absorption to it. It's an invitation to make a show of the character's sensitivity and hurt feelings.
The movie doesn't drown in that, though. Finally, "The Brown Bunny" feels more self-effacing. In many of his close-ups Gallo is to the side of the screen, as if he's directing our attention less to him than to having us see what Bud is seeing. Often the camera is placed behind Gallo so we see only a few strands of his hair blowing into the frame. And there's no swagger in the performance. Gallo's speaking voice is soft and light, and there's frequently an element of pleading in it.
Gallo doesn't use Bud's encounters with those three women to show off his hero as a King of the Road stud. Bud doesn't do more than kiss these women, the lonely kind of kissing, the sort that comes more from a sudden, desperate need for contact than from erotic desire. (With the prostitute, he doesn't even do that -- Bud pays her to drive around with him for a while, eating takeout from McDonald's.)
There's no callousness in the film's treatment of women. You have to be some sort of a romantic to name all the female characters in your movie after flowers -- Violet, Lilly, Rose, Daisy -- and Gallo treats each of them tenderly. His few lines of dialogue with Anna Vareschi's teenage cashier have an unforced naturalness that's rare in movies. And there's something like gallantry in the way Gallo shoots Cheryl Tiegs.
Age lines are now visible in Tiegs' face. She hasn't done anything to hide them, and neither does Gallo. Yet there's no cruelty in the way he shoots her. Rather, there's Gallo's insistence that the reality of Tiegs is what he finds beautiful about her. You can wonder why, on a narrative level, this woman begins kissing Bud after he's done no more than ask if she's all right and sit next to her. But on an emotional level, the scene, like the rest of the movie, is direct and uncluttered. It's a vignette of temporarily assuaged loneliness that finds eloquence in actions rather than in dialogue and never comes near to bathos.
Gallo's direction is sometimes a bit shaky -- he's better at mining the poetic potential of images than in shaping a scene dramatically. That's a problem in the movie's longest sustained sequence, the hotel room encounter with Chloë Sevigny, as Bud's ex-girlfriend, that has made "The Brown Bunny" notorious. The tone wobbles a bit in this scene. It's the culmination of everything that's gone before, the key to Bud's character. The trouble is that it contains an O. Henry twist that jars the naturalism of the rest of the film, and the revelation is, psychologically, a bit pat. But Gallo and Sevigny (who has a resigned desperation) do what they can to ameliorate that patness, bringing it some admirable emotional messiness.
The fact that Sevigny performs (unsimulated) fellatio on Gallo in the scene has generated all the juvenile jokes you'd expect -- many from critics, who should know better. There's nothing gratuitous about the sex or the way it's shot. Gallo doesn't shy the camera away from Sevigny going down on Gallo, but he doesn't linger voyeuristically on it, either. The focus is the shared emotional history these two people are bringing to the moment, the way the sex is a means of holding that history at bay. And as soon as the sex is over, all that turmoil floods back in. This is one of the few movie scenes that doesn't use sex as a plot device or a turn-on but as what it often is in life, a charged vehicle for our disappointments and resentments as much as for our joys.
The irony at the heart of "The Brown Bunny" is that though it's about a character whose private tragedy has alienated him, and though it's about as independent as a movie can be, it feels like the work of a man who is anything but alienated. "The Brown Bunny" must be one of the truest songs of roadside America that the movies have produced.
Anyone who has ever driven for any stretch through any part of America will recognize the look of the film immediately. It's the view you get from behind the wheel, green highway signs looming overhead, rain turning everything into a soft blur. (Part of that slight blur may be because the film, shot in 16 millimeter, has been blown up to 35.) Or the view driving through suburban neighborhoods, the feel of entering some quiet enclave simply by turning a corner, the sense that everything is sleeping yet alive, the way some well-tended (even if not prosperous) houses give off a sense of well-being while the sight of an abandoned easy chair at the curb in front of another house feels like an omen that something has gone wrong inside.
It's all so familiar it feels as if the images have been plucked from your brain, and yet I can't recall any movie that has gotten the look of America that this one has. When Bud drives down the Vegas strip, instead of the usual overhead montage of gaudy neon movies usually give us to denote Vegas, Gallo shoots the scene in broad daylight from a driver's perspective. We see an endless jumble of signs competing for our attention. It's every awful yet enticing commercial strip you've ever driven along. (Even the hookers who approach Bud's van at every corner aren't the usual overdone movie hookers. They look like real people in awful circumstances, and each one makes you wonder, what's her story?)
Bud's rare moments of rest in motels and hotels have what Truman Capote once referred to as the "white silence" of such places, the sense of temporary refuge cradled like a caesura between days of travel. The images often have the yearning sadness of a ballad because we're seeing them through the eyes of a perpetual traveler, who both wants to belong and can't bring himself to stay put.
That might be a description of not just Bud but Gallo. Not only the way he shot this movie -- traveling cross-country in the van Bud drives, hauling a three-man crew, their equipment and the motorcycle Bud races -- but in his reaction to its Cannes reception. Clearly Gallo wants to do movies his way, and clearly he's got an ego.
Gallo's outbursts at Cannes may not have been politic, but I can't think of any filmmaker who wouldn't feel wounded and dumbfounded by such a vicious reaction to such a heartfelt movie. Besides, what has being politic ever been good for in the arts? Certainly not for producing good art or the criticism that recognizes it.
I'm happy that many New York critics have been so perceptive about "The Brown Bunny," not taking part in the superior tone used to put the movie down at Cannes. In "Buffalo 66," Gallo was an unfunny prankster. In "The Brown Bunny," wearing his heart on his sleeve, he's a real filmmaker.