Only a Film

in 41st Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Chris Fujiwara

These reflections are inspired by the film that was shown at the Viennale in October 2003, which the filmmaker, Vincent Gallo, recut after its disastrous premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year.

There was a “scandal”, but now there is only a film, and a distinguished and moving one which I predict will have no difficulty finding and winning over its true audience (for whom the ridiculous scandal will be just an anecdote).

From its opening motorcycle-race sequence, The Brown Bunny suspends expectations and creates an atmosphere both hypnotic and lacerating. If a narrative is the mirror of a completed action, then The Brown Bunny is a narrative, but only thanks to its extraordinary final section, which belatedly gives a meaning to the events we’ve seen—not by explaining them, but by looking back on them and resonating with them.

Only after seeing the last part of the film can we even constitute as an “event” such a sequence as the passage of Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo) through Las Vegas in his van. He passes a series of street hookers, then circles back to have a conversation with the last in the series, whom he offers to buy lunch and who enters his car. Eventually he drops her off on another street without having had any kind of sex with her, or much conversation either, apparently. The nature of the contact between them is left completely ambiguous.

The Las Vegas sequence repeats, in a different form, other strange encounters in the film. Early in the film, Bud persuades a New Hampshire convenience-store clerk to join him on his trip to California, only to drive off without her as she goes inside her house to get some clothes. Later, Bud shares a wordless, tender caress with a middle-aged prostitute (Cheryl Tiegs) at a roadside rest stop.

Each of the three scenes shows an interaction more gestural than dialogic, an encounter that can’t quite be called a seduction, although it resembles one in that it pivots around the winning of trust; an encounter that’s more like a rapture, a rape — but one without physical violence. The rest-stop scene in particular is remarkable for the surprised pity the meeting evokes in the two people, for the reluctant yet hopeful way they give themselves up to the emotion that unites them briefly.

Such moments of interpersonal action are rare in the film. Around them lies an indeterminate space, whose mood is created by the desolation of the landscapes; by the often chaotic, automatic-seeming compositions; by the spotted windshield through which the camera gazes; by the long passages of wordlessness and narrativelessness (including a sublime scene on the Bonneville Salt Flats). The combination of these elements would make it clear, even if there were no dialogue scenes at all, that The Brown Bunny is a study of psychic shock and disconnection. Gallo’s selection of driving tunes, among them Ted Curson’s magnificent “Tears for Dolphy” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Beautiful” (a song which the film made me like), provides superb counterpoint to the inhuman landscapes, conjuring a dark and rich emotional quality.

The bleak, pregnant, and enigmatic atmosphere of Gallo’s film recalls certain American films of the early 1970s, perhaps above all Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, which The Brown Bunny appears to invoke explicitly at the beginning and the end. But Gallo rejects the clean lines and smooth forms of Hellman’s film in favor of a dirt-and-junk aesthetic. Unlike Two Lane Blacktop with its a detailed study of road iconography, The Brown Bunny is only incidentally a film of Americana, in much the same way many home movies are. The Brown Bunny is almost pure psychodrama, stripped-down and anguished, frighteningly close to the subjective experience of its protagonist, whereas Two Lane Blacktop views its characters with distance and irony. (The point of these comparisons is to begin to locate The Brown Bunny in relation to the road-movie genre.)

Everyone who has heard about the film knows that a pornographic scene with Chloë Sevigny occurs near the end. To discuss this scene and its context in much detail would spoil The Brown Bunny for those haven’t yet seen it. I wish merely to assert here that the pornography is clearly justified by the film’s logical design and necessary to its emotional impact, not least because the revelation of the image of sex contrasts so strongly with the denial of sex in the protagonist’s encounters with women earlier in the film. I realize this is an area where controversy is unavoidable, but objecting to the scene on the grounds of sensationalism seems to me as misplaced as attacking Gallo for his egomania. Every egomaniac should be able to make a film this good.