Call a movie the worst thing you’ve ever seen, and it’s a gilded invitation for the rest of the world to pipe up, “It’s not so bad, really.” That’s the break that director/writer/star Vincent Gallo has caught after the catastrophic debut screening of his tragic road movie The Brown Bunny (Wellspring Media) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, after which Roger Ebert told a TV crew it was the worst movie ever shown at the festival, and Gallo responded by calling Ebert a “fat pig” and putting a hex on a part of his anatomy. (Which part is a matter of dispute, but it was somewhere below his downward thumb.) Gallo then trimmed half an hour (approximately a quarter of the film), screened the 90-minute cut for a select few critics (this critic was happily on vacation), and voilà—a movie that isn’t so terrible. Some even regard it as a triumph. Ebert (himself trimmed down by approximately a quarter) has not only embraced the new Bunny but written tenderly of the tortured auteur, so “defenseless and unprotected in front of the camera,” a “lonely wanderer whose life traverses a great emptiness punctuated by unsuccessful, incomplete or imaginary respites with women.” It seems only a matter of time before Roger fills out adoption papers.
I don’t think Ebert has been entirely snookered—Gallo does have a primitivist sort of talent (here’s my guardedly enthusiastic review of his 1998 Buffalo 66) and The Brown Bunny does come together, in its way. But I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a filmmaker who wants to be loved so badly on his own wheedling, whiny, abrasive, motherless, misogynistic, and—last but not least—non-narrative terms. If Gallo’s movie weren’t so fatally inexpressive, it would nail you the way a toddler does, bawling in the night for its mama. But that inexpressiveness is what separates the film from its models (chiefly Antonioni) and what makes it so exasperating.
Gallo plays Bud Clay, a man of only a few (strangled, high-pitched) words and a shell-shocked mien. (His eyes are as wired-open as Lon Chaney’s in The Phantom of the Opera, only Gallo didn’t use wires.) For most of the movie, the audience has little clue what’s eating him, just that he’s not a well boy. He suggests to a young checkout-counter girl that she run off with him to California. (Actually, he shocks us with his falsetto: “Please come with me. Please.”) Then he abandons her when she hurries into her house to pack a bag. Later, he begs a young prostitute in Las Vegas to have lunch with him, then abruptly abandons her, too.
He’s always loving ‘em and leaving. Gallo photographs himself as a rangy sex object in tight jeans and a T-shirt, leered at by the young and the not-so-young alike. When the 56-year-old Cheryl Tiegs ogles him at a rest stop, he wordlessly begins to make out with her. In a long, silent scene, he consoles her (over the loss of her youth?), and then she consoles him—a Pietà that ends with Bud tenderly departing. After stops at the house of his ex-girlfriend’s elderly parents, a pet store (where he asks questions about the life span of bunnies), and the desert, Bud arrives in L.A., where he’s joined in a motel room of striking blankness by his ex, Daisy (Chloё Sevigny), in a brown suit but no floppy ears. Daisy is so desperate to get back together with Bud that she gets down on her knees and worships his penis. After she fellates him (it’s a long, single, extremely graphic take), he calls her a whore and tortures her with questions about a past indiscretion, then ends up pleading (that falsetto again) for forgiveness.
Gallo and the fearless Sevigny pull off a theatrical coup in the last act—a shocker that, retroactively, invests the earlier parts of the film with meaning. But not enough meaning, finally, to justify this particular odyssey. The Brown Bunny has been described as “meditative,” but it must be the critics who are doing the meditating: For most of the running time, Gallo just turns on the camera and trances out. That camera, in a fixed position, catches a race car going around and around and around and around a track. The road is viewed, for minutes at a time, from behind a windshield smudged with dead insects. The protagonist’s zombielike disengagement is being depicted in a zombielike and disengaged technique: Method directing? In Buffalo 66, Gallo proved himself a resourceful expressionist. Here he seems to want to shed that artfulness and try for something unmediated. But, frankly, he doesn’t have the eye for it, and there’s no dramatic context until the end of the film, when Sevigny’s Daisy supplies the dialogue (and the acting chops) to orient us.
Even if The Brown Bunny were half an hour shorter and more artfully framed, it would still add up to something kind of infantile. Gallo’s Bud is ultimately damned by his unmanliness, by something he didn’t do because he was too whiny and jealous and self-pitying. But this whole movie is the product of whininess and self-pity, of childish narcissism and neediness. Buffalo 66 began with its hero unable to find a place to pee (for, like, half an hour), which justified his taking a young woman hostage. Here, Gallo makes his audience sit through long, long passages of nothing, then he asks—no, pleads—for forgiveness on account of his terrible suffering. Gallo wants us to reject him, and then feel guilty for our rejection, and then tell him it’s OK: OK for him to do whatever it takes to wee-wee, OK for him to haul out his penis and have it sucked before our eyes. He has earned that right by being, as Ebert puts it, “defenseless and unprotected on camera.” I began with Roger and I end with him because this is Gallo’s final, extratextual coup: the embrace of the father who laughed at him, whose organ he cursed.