By Aaron Hillis
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CANNES, FRANCEEvery Cannes needs a scandal, and this year's overblown press reaction came at the screening of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, by far the most daring film in the festival's dismal competition lineup. "The most beautiful way I see the world is when I see deer and bunny," renaissance perfectionist Gallo remarked at the press conference for Bunny, which he wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, and stars in. "When I see bunnies on the golf course, or in the backyard, I feel that's a safe place. I'm in love with those animals, even in a carnivorous way. They're my favorite meat."
In this elephantine Cannes, dogs, butterflies, lamb chops, and poisonous jellyfish roamed the competition, but Gallo's sophomore filmwhich he wrote before Buffalo'66proved to be what the starving Americans needed. Hungry to justify their presence as traditional gatekeepers at a festival riddled with "irrelevant" art films, they squirted ketchup at Gallo's lapin brun, a one-man operation that dared to shun commercialism. (The film finds Gallo driving alone for 100 minutes, then forcing a torturous blowjob on Chloë Sevigny.) Roger Ebert proclaimed Gallo's "universally derided" film "the worst ever in competition." As with many Americans, his universe doesn't include France. (Libérationwittily called the U.S. reaction an "erection of criticism.")
Perhaps Ebert likes his bunny juicy, not skin and bones. Gallo's conceptual psycho anti-drama, which merges the road movie with the relationship breakup picture, offers no concessions. It's the honest emanation of a pathologically uncompromising, deeply sensitive personality; its narcissism stems more from a paranoid distrust of others than an overweening egotism. "The question is not how did I do it all myself," goes a typical Galloism (he claims he worked with a crew of two). "It's, How did I put up with the incompetence of the people I had to work with?"
Gallo tends to extremes. He called Sevigny's courageous performance "the best I've ever seen." He explained, "The most beautiful thing to me in the world is a geography that's unlivable to humans." Securing the rights to the film's songs was "the most fearful experience of my whole life." The reaction at the Cannes gala left him with "the worst feeling that I've ever had."
A day later, the severely depressed director spent an hour with a wary cadre of international journalists. "Let me tell you something," Gallo said. "I didn't want to do the press conference yesterday. Anytime I talk, I talk without thinking. I have no press agent, no manager, no friend, no assistant. I tell everyone the most private details of my life, all the things the press complains they don't get from other actors. And who the fuckdo they punish the most? Me. Isn't that beautiful?"
He continued: "My problem is that what I think is beautiful doesn't match up to what the general population thinks is beautiful. That's why I can't give a birthday gift. What I do know is I worked very hard on the film; I love the film very much or I never would have finished it." I told him Le Monde and Libérationraved. "Did they?" Gallo asked, surprised. "That almost adds salt on the wound."
Discussion turned to the film itself. He'd always wanted to work with Sevigny (he met her long ago and thought, "Wow, this is the prettiest girl in the whole world"). Even if it's non-autobiographical, the film reveals Gallo's fixations, and takes its curious form from Gallo's minimalist idea of beauty. "I've had a specific aesthetic point of view, always. My bedroom at five years old was arranged exactly like the motel room in The Brown Bunny."
When pressed about Warhol, an obvious reference point (The Brown Bunny is about one really lonesome cowboy and ends with a long blowjob), Gallo shook his head. "Talking about Warhol embarrasses me. I was never interested in his art. I like the Italian futurists like Balla. I like Duchamp and minimalists like Robert Ryman. If you want to know the truth, the film is like a Robert Ryman painting."
Its hushed minimalism also shares qualities with Gallo's CDs on Warp Records. All the film's songs, like Gordon Lightfoot's "Beautiful," were heard when Gallo took one of his many drives across America. "One of the greatest things about driving across the country is that you go through six days, and you only remember one song that's symbolic for the whole trip. When I made the film I tried to maintain my open mind, going along roads I wasn't familiar with, but I was looking for things that were in my memory, a certain sunset, a color, a memory of a desert."
Despite their professed boredom, few fled the press screening, as they were awaiting the blowjob that, rumor had it, would last eight minutes. (It clocked in at three.) And still they complained, branding Gallo a shallow provocateur. "I didn't include the sex scene to be controversial. I included it because I'm interested in the subject matter. It's a very complex scene. You never see how people actually look when in deep intimacy in contrast to what's happening emotionally, or see how people act out dark pathologies. Just look at yourself having sex and that visual image will have a lot of impact on you."
Rumors were circulating that the fellatio featured a phallus pilfered from the set of Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (in which Gallo starred). "How could I possibly do that scene without really having sex with Chloë? How could the intensity and honesty have been there, and how could it have also been juxtaposed against the complexities of the narrative? I'm supposed to show landscapes in real time, but when it comes to the sex scene, I'm supposed to fake that?"
The confrontational Gallo also sank into ironic self-hatred. Ebert et al. later gleefully reported that the director had called the film "a disaster and a waste of time." Gallo did "apologize" at the roundtable, but taking his words out of context is the real scandal: "This is a place where merchandise or tangible objects are brought and sold to be marketed as entertainment throughout the world," he said. "I made one of these things that's supposed to entertain people. To criticize a movie because it's unsuccessful in that purpose, I accept that. They're right. If no one wants to see the movie then it's a disastrous film and a waste of time. And I apologize to the financiers."
With all this publicity, you can't say nobody wants to see The Brown Bunny. One American distributor has already expressed interest. A day after this "apology" was misrepresented, his gallows humor continued in Le Monde, as he came out as a conservative Republican (alienating even his French supporters), while denouncing a new artistic McCarthyismI assume Joe, though Todd (as in Variety's chief hatchet man) applies. By awards time, Gallo had become the festival's emblematic crusader. Danish Camera d'Or winner Christoffer Boe (Reconstruction) expressed his solidarity: "Vincent Gallo, please don't give up. You're a one-man army, and we should all fight conventional filmmaking. Keep up the war!" Over on the IFC telecast, Ebert's vacant nattering made these combative words impossible to decipher.
"Roads to Perdition: Doomsday Visions and Ugly Americans at the Cannes Film Festival" by J. Hoberman
"Sim City: Indulging in Cannes's Desserts of the Reel" by J. Hoberman
"Van Sant Wins Top Prize at Cannes" by J. Hoberman
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