The Penis Mightier


Does actor-filmmaker Vincent Gallo resent his own publicity? Give the man props for his boldly divided consciousness and world-class showmanship.

Gallo’s second feature, The Brown Bunny, was notorious even before its memorably convulsive world premiere in competition at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. The reason, as every spectator knew (and you do too), was that whatever else happened, the movie was going to end, more or less, with a three-minute sequence in which its writer, producer, director, editor, and director of photography (!) was going to get his sick ducked in close-up and real time by co-star Chloë Sevigny (a/k/a Daisy).

This climax is the climax, but of course, there’s more. Generically, The Brown Bunny is a low-budget road movie in which, after losing a meet in New Hampshire, itinerant motorcycle racer Bud Clay (Gallo) drives back to Los Angeles, plaintive folk-rock on the soundtrack and his windshield increasingly bug-spattered. As Gallo’s superbly eccentric first feature, Buffalo ’66, rewrote and deflated Taxi Driver‘s portrait of loner alienation, so his second punctures the self-aggrandizing narcissism and self-conscious social psychodrama of Easy Rider right down to the lyrical light-struck footage and perverse literalization of the Peter Fonda character’s petulant punchline: “We blew it!”

As in Buffalo ’66, Gallo plays something we might term the Vincent character. Fiercely self-obsessed, emotionally withholding, and morbidly sensitive, the Vincent character is a bellicose lost soul. In Buffalo ’66, this unsmiling loner was played for edgy comedy; in The Brown Bunny, he is perhaps clinically insane. But whatever: Gallo loves this guy. He films the Vincent in the shower, in the mirror, and sleeping in his Calvins. He documents the character’s hand in close-up as it idly catches the sunlight, waving out of his truck’s window.

In both movies, the Vincent is cursed by a need for constant validation and graced by his mysterious appeal for women. Early in The Brown Bunny, he turns his spooky, pale-eyed stare on a young gas-station cashier and, casting a spell of neediness, convinces her to run away with him to California. Later, the Vincent finds a less fresh-faced blossom (weathered-looking Cheryl Tiegs) sadly planted on the highway to nowhere. Intuiting her loneliness, he sits down beside her, bestows a nuzzle and a hug, and asks, “Are you OK?” Within seconds, the two are wordlessly making out—and then the Vincent walks morosely back to his truck and drives off. It was at this point, if memory serves, that the press audience at Cannes began to lose it.

Gallo has improved The Brown Bunny since its stormy premiere—trimming nearly half an hour, dropping a risible dream sequence, and cutting short the original, fabulously desultory ending. What’s more, the movie works far better on a second viewing. The scene where Bud pays an awkward visit to Daisy’s elderly parents (and her pet bunny) in their shabby rust-belt bungalow is immediately arresting. The three sit uncomfortably at the kitchen table while Daisy’s mother, who professes not to remember Bud (the erstwhile boy next door), babbles, “I haven’t heard from her, she hasn’t called. I don’t know why she hasn’t called.” Daisy’s father—if that’s who it is—anchors the composition, a muttering codger in the corner, gesticulating to himself. It’s as grotesque a human interaction as anything in David Lynch. Knowing the big revelation, however, makes it almost heartbreaking—a necessary buildup to the autistic angst of the movie’s grand finale.

The Brown Bunny has a family resemblance to such quasi-real-time odysseys as Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms. Unlike those two wildly self-important stunts, however, Gallo’s has a genuine pathology. The Brown Bunny is less playful than Buffalo ’66—given the cuts, the filmmaker’s distinctive nuttiness is largely restricted to the botanical names he gives his characters, the Little Bo Peep outfit his leading lady is compelled to wear, and the fantastic lack of gratitude for her performance he demonstrates on-screen (a version of the constant hectoring Christina Ricci endured in Buffalo ’66). But The Brown Bunny is not simply an exercise. It’s genuinely elemental, embarrassingly sincere. You can’t accuse Gallo of pandering to anyone but himself. Not just a one-man band, he is his own entourage—and likely to remain so. And that anguished solipsism seems to be, at least in part, the movie’s subject.

Gallo truly is searching for some sort of celluloid redemption. And The Brown Bunny does tease out—one more time—the sense of motion pictures as Möbius strip. Are we watching the reflection of reality or the reality of the reflection? In the context of the movie’s ultimately poignant scenario, Daisy is Bud’s delusional fantasy; in the context of the movie, however, Sevigny’s performance is the tangible signifier of her director’s real-life domination.