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Echoing disaster
Vincent Galloís The Brown Bunny
BY CHRIS FUJIWARA

First, itís a film of love ó not a film about love, that is, not one that takes love as a theme and seeks to say something about it, but a film made from love, from complete involvement, from immersion in the subject. Never at any time in The Brown Bunny does Vincent Gallo, as filmmaker or as actor, give the impression of being outside the world of the film, of being an artist bringing form to material that is essentially other than himself: in The Brown Bunny, artist and world are one.

Bud Clay, Galloís character, is a professional motorcycle racer driving alone in his van from New Hampshire to California. On the way, he meets three women ó a gas-station attendant, a woman sitting alone at a roadside rest stop, and a Las Vegas streetwalker. These encounters pivot on love offered and refused: hesitation, the gift of sudden compassion, then a turning away. In each scene, Bud surprises the women with his gentleness and inspires gentleness in return. The awkward expectancy with which the women look at him is eloquent: itís one of several aspects of The Brown Bunny in which Gallo probes a familiar-strange sort of in-between, unsure area of experience that most films donít know how to bother with.

Each encounter is an interaction more gestural than dialogic, resembling seduction in that it pivots on the winning of trust, but is also, in its abruptness and its undercurrent of exploitation, like a rape. The rest-stop scene is especially remarkable for the surprised pity the meeting evokes in the two people, and for the hopeful way they surrender themselves to the emotion that unites them briefly. (The woman is played by í70s supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, whose ravaged tenderness here is a revelation.) In leaving each woman, suddenly and with no more explanation than when he approached her, Bud acknowledges that he has already given her anything he can.

Part of what drives the film is Galloís anguished ambivalence about how much people can do for, and to, each other. Phrases of compassion are repeated over and over: "Please. Please." "Are you okay?" "Can I help you?" The film is suspicious of this compulsion to help or to seek help, showing it as the reverse side of something dangerous. If Bud turns away from the three women, itís not due to timidity of feeling but from excess of feeling. Yet itís remarkable how far The Brown Bunny is from being sentimental (sentimentality was the main weakness of Galloís excellent first feature, Buffalo í66). Even in the choice of music, thereís no self-pity, no expression of the intention to be sad, and also no false optimism: the music sounds like the echo of a disaster, a memory that something was felt. Especially effective are trumpeter Ted Cursonís somber "Tears for Dolphy" and Gordon Lightfootís pensive "Beautiful" (until I saw the film I hadnít realized that Gordon Lightfoot was so good) ó songs that in the context of Galloís stark and drained movie seem lit up like classical statues in a de Chirico town square: hard, bleak, and impersonal in their affirmation of values that have been destroyed.

The scenes with the women ó and Budís less-charged conversations with the parents of his wife, Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), and with a pet-shop clerk ó punctuate a journey Gallo depicts as a retreat through an indeterminate space. In exploring this space, The Brown Bunny develops and sustains a dark, rich mood, set by the desolate landscapes; the often chaotic, automatic-seeming compositions (inside the van, Budís face is frequently uncentered or even partly cut off, as if he were a random, partial presence even in the environment he controls); the blurred and spotted windshield through which the camera stares; and the long passages of wordlessness and narrativelessness. The cross-country trek is an escape into loss, disconnection, and the inhuman, culminating in the disaster landscape known as the Bonneville Salt Flats. In this scene, the absence of music carries a threat, as the camera follows Bud into the chalky, hazy emptiness in an image that is itself a breakdown and a dispersion (it ends, appropriately, by going out of focus).

Close at times to pure psychodrama, The Brown Bunny is only incidentally a work of Americana, much as home movies are. (Although at that, itís exceptionally evocative and detailed Americana: Budís rambling course through the flat, ugly suburban neighborhood where Daisyís parents live captures as well as any film Iíve seen the morose, faceless stubbornness projected by such places, which constitute much of America; Gallo creates a context where a discarded armchair sitting in front of an LA house one afternoon feels tragic.) Gallo views the characters and their environments without irony or reproach: the filmís emotionalism makes such positions impossible, and its formal triumph lies in its translation of mood and emotion through setting, framing, and rhythm.

Budís visit to Daisyís parents ó the scene that gives the film its title (though without explaining the title) ó is a delicate example of the kind of exploration of difficult emotional terrain that the film does so well. The scene is steeped in ambiguity: the parents are seemingly more likely to be Daisyís grandparents, and their age makes them more remote from Bud. The mother is welcoming and inviting, but not warm: she says she doesnít remember Bud, although he claims he grew up in the house next door (does she have memory loss? or has Bud invented this entire episode of his past?), and she doesnít know what to make of him. The father is no help: he remains silent through the whole scene, half turned away in his chair. The sparse dialogue is quiet, ritualized; the strained mood of resistance and near-resentment that fills the scene is in sharp contrast with the intimacy and letting-go that happen between Bud and the three women.

The scenes with the women anticipate Budís final reunion with Daisy. As anyone who has heard anything about the film now knows, the latter scene, which comes near the end of the film, contains a graphic depiction of fellatio. Gallo himself, in publicizing the filmís release in Los Angeles by renting a billboard to display a photograph of himself with Sevigny at his crotch, has not refrained from capitalizing on the notoriety of this scene. (The billboard owner took down the image prematurely, adding to the so-called controversy.) Though it has been criticized as sensationalistic, the scene is clearly necessary to the design of The Brown Bunny ó not least because the explicit image of sex contrasts so strongly with the denial of sex in earlier scenes. The blow job is not a release; it exacerbates a tension present throughout the film, and showing the act so directly only makes the tension, and the emotion behind it, more difficult to endure.

Knowing that the scene is to come necessarily colors and informs the experience of the film, even for a first-time viewer, giving The Brown Bunny a momentum and a place to go, but the sense of direction this anticipation imparts is implicit in the film from the beginning, not alien or accidental, and the scene pays off on all levels of the film. Itís a deeply upsetting scene: Daisy appears to be seeking reconciliation, but Bud wonít let go of his sorrow and anger. Like all the filmís interchanges, only more so, this one is hard to describe because itís so fluid, so unpredictable: thereís no holding back, but instead a postponement of the certain and threatened catharsis, a deliberate dwelling with emotion. Itís this emotional persistence that makes The Brown Bunny so unusual, startling, and moving.


Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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