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‘Metaphors for beauty’
Vincent Gallo speaks

Vincent Gallo loves to talk, as followers of his career as musician, painter, actor, and director will have gathered. It took only minimal cuing from me for him to offer the following abundant reflections on The Brown Bunny (his latest film), film critics, other people’s films, directors and directing, and other subjects. We spoke on Monday, the day after Roger Ebert, the most prominent of the film’s enemies at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival (where a press screening turned into a highly publicized rout), had praised the recut Brown Bunny on his TV show.

"The funniest part about that was how much I turned out to like him as a person. He’s one of the most likable men you’ll ever meet in your life. If you have any passion about cinema in any way, then talking to him is pure fun. Whereas there’s other writers, just pompous, personal, petty, sophomoric, untrained, unrealized, insensitive writers, that when you confront them or you dialogue with them, the conversation is — it’s like going to Buffalo and talking to my uncle Ralph about [minimalist artist] Robert Ryman. It’s a waste of time, and you’re left feeling bad.

"Critics make it a sort of personal fight to hurt anybody who rubs them the wrong way on a personal level, who does anything that doesn’t fit in what they feel is the status quo. This idea that a multi-tasker is a narcissist is the one that really drives me nuts. If you’re multi-tasking, then you must be doing autobiography, and if you’re doing autobiography, then you’re not really writing a script, you’re not really acting, you’re not really directing, and really you’re just self-indulgent. In other words, it’s self-indulgent to work 20 hours a day for three and a half years, with no support, with no team, with no casting person, with no hair and makeup? That’s self-indulgent? Huh. I get it. I see. So if Chloë [Sevigny]’s title said that she directed and wrote the film, then the sex scene is okay, because that’s a triumph, a feminist triumph. I see. And if I was just the actor in Buffalo ’66, then I’m acting, that’s an acting performance, but because I wrote it and directed it, I’m not really acting? I mean, please, man."

About the so-called scandal of The Brown Bunny, Gallo takes the long view. "In the end, film is archival, and no one cares about my life. My work must be more interesting than me, otherwise it’s worthless. No one’s going to remember my petty reasons for doing things the way that I do, my compulsive nature, my obsession with a particular aesthetic or sensibility. They’re only going to remember the stuff that transcends me, that goes through me and becomes metaphors with a more general purpose. Film, remarkably, archives well that way, and this will all be forgotten."

I asked him to describe The Brown Bunny.

"Addressing the script or the narration, I was interested in two specific things. One is this idea of portraying an addictive character with a co-dependent character who wind up in a destructive situation, and instead of blaming any of the characters, I portray a misfortune. The second thing is to take a very ordinary character or a very ordinary type of behavior, and hyperprofile it in silhouette, in loop, in repeated loop, so that we witness it over and over. And instead of seeing it in a person over six months, we see it in a 90-minute movie. And suddenly this everyday character, doing things that people do every day, becomes a sociopath, or takes on the persona of a serial killer or a pathological freak.

"I mean, we can go to any discotheque any night and there’s a guy and a girl getting together in a very compulsive, addictive way. And there’s some disappointment in the end of that relationship. When we hyperprofile it in a minimalistic aesthetic or a continuity, he suddenly seems like a psychopath, and we don’t understand him, we don’t relate to him. We only can relate to him again when we justify him, when we qualify him, later on. Then suddenly we forgive him, which is not the point, but we understand him. This is a very highly conceptual, philosophical message about behavior. The girls are willing participants in his compulsive, addictive nature, and he’s very responsible for his own behavior and for the feelings that he has. So everybody in a sense is responsible, but no one is to blame. Chloë’s character did not deserve any of the bad things that happened to her, but she could have done things to avoid that. So it’s merely a misfortune."

Gallo is upset with critics who compare The Brown Bunny to past films like Monte Hellman’s 1971 road movie Two-Lane Blacktop. I had to plead guilty here, having written a short review of Gallo’s film (after I saw it last October at the Viennale) in which I compared it with ... Two-Lane Blacktop.

"Can you imagine that whatever motivated me to get through The Brown Bunny had anything to do with the ’70s, or a genre? This wasn’t a road film. This was not a road film. I used the trip because I placed this character in a car, isolated, alone, but it wasn’t a homage to the American landscape, it wasn’t a genre picture. This film, the aesthetics, the texture, the grain of this film, the crumbs, the particles that fall off it, are highly conceptual in the way that I described them. They have to do with pathology, they have to do with behavior, they have to do with grief, they have nothing to do with America in that glorified way. I’ve never seen Easy Rider, but when people make that comparison, it’s just like — this is an anti-drug and -alcohol film, how could you compare it to Easy Rider? My advice to you is to talk about concepts and principles, to never relate them to another film. Never. Not unless you’re talking about a collage artist. Not unless you’re talking about Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze or Darren Aronofsky, filmmakers who don’t transcend themselves.

"I’m a futurist, a futurist. This is the most modern comment on sexuality and socializing and relationships in this period in mankind’s evolution. And I’m not a marginal person. Why do they always think my references are these sort of pseudo-cinephile films like Two-Lane Blacktop? I like Warren Beatty, I like Charles Bronson, I like Robby Benson. Sylvester Stallone in The Lords of Flatbush, if I could do half of that performance in my life, my life would have been worthwhile. At the same time, I like weird things. I like Oliver Reed, I like Fabio Testi."

I suggest that he must have seen Revolver — Sergio Sollima’s magnificent, little-known 1973 thriller starring Reed and Testi.

"I projected Revolver at 19 years old. I had a 16-millimeter print with no subtitles, and I showed it at [legendary Manhattan performance space] Squat Theatre. It’s a masterpiece, a masterpiece. You want to know how many times I watched Revolver? Sixty times. That opening, when Fabio Testi kisses his friend, the guy who dies at the beginning, on the mouth — it’s like a love scene — and then he buries him. I mean, this is incredible! The best films ever made are one of two things. They’re by filmmakers who are working class and they’re just doing their thing and they’ve had no real support system and their films reflect a real soul, or they’re by very average filmmakers who found a way to make a good film almost by luck."

He talked about the endlessness of the filmmaking process, about humanity’s resourcefulness in surviving chaos. I suggested that The Brown Bunny could be seen as celebrating chaos, since even with all the negative traits and actions it depicts, there’s something positive in looking at them as Gallo does.

"Yes, the positiveness also is [that] the love relationship didn’t work out so good, and it has a sort of regret and tragedy; however, the beauty of love is on display, and it makes me want to be close to somebody. And that’s the unique gift of the film. I’ll quote one film, because there is one film that, when I think back in retrospect, I learned something from, not as a filmmaker, just as a person. I saw [Jerry Schatzberg’s 1973] Scarecrow. It’s the first movie that I went to pay money to see, when I was a young kid. That film has a very sad ending, which I related to, because all my stories, all my feelings of loss and sadness, all my music, had a sad ending. What I remember thinking was, what a beautiful friendship they [the characters played by Al Pacino and Gene Hackman] had, and how much I wanted to have a friend like that.

"And I realized that the most beautiful thoughts and memories and feelings that I had could come from that. So I wasn’t afraid to mess with material like that anymore. Because I was criticized by my classmates for making things that were too sad. Your music is too sad, your short stories are too sad. And when I saw that film, I thought, people are wrong. You can have a film, a story, a painting, a song, that has things about it that are regretful or tragedies or sorrows or griefs, but they can reflect the most beautiful things in life, and they can become metaphors for beauty. When I ended The Brown Bunny, when I looked at the film, I felt that I had inspired people towards monogamy, towards intimacy, real intimacy, towards an understanding of their own use of diminishing somebody in their life because they can’t accept the difficultness of loving somebody out of your control. I mean, everything in there is towards beauty, towards hope, towards love, towards light."

Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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