Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
2004, U.S.
director: Vincent Gallo

Half way through The Brown Bunny, after having driven and driven down long stretches of highway, Bud pulls off the road for some gas. He fills up the tank, then returns to the road, at which point many of the people in the theater where I saw the film chuckled. They thought he might do something besides refuel, I suppose. They were hoping something would happen.

Be careful what you wish for, my friends. In the end, Vincent Gallo, the godlike figure who dominates the film's credits and also plays Bud, provides the barest, cheapest of explanations for his character's moping in a sequence so counter to the movie's own minimalism that it makes you wish the whole thing had been a shaggy dog story. And I'm not talking about the scene that's caused the hubbub.

Tsai Ming-Liang, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the Dardenne brothers, and Claire Denis (who cast Gallo in her own Trouble Every Day) make movies in which very little seems to happen, but they convey a wealth of ideas non-verbally, subtly, cinematically, which must be harder than it looks given how few films actually pull it off. The Brown Bunny, written, directed, produced, photographed, shifted, shuffled, marketed, trumpeted, and over-sold by Gallo, tries hard to be in the company of such films, but instead it vacillates between inscrutability and triteness, never quite finding the balance required for poetry, let alone smooth exposition.

The film's most famous scene — a graphic sequence involving Gallo's genitals and Chloë Sevigny's lips — is as perfunctory as the coda that follows it in which the character's supposed complexity is explained and therefore robbed of its mystery. What you think of the sex scene depends largely on whether you buy the character, and by the end of the movie, I don't. I want to believe that a movie shows the actions of someone whom its filmmakers are trying to understand, but by the end of The Brown Bunny I felt like those actions had contrived their own stimuli, an unenlightening bottom-up construction.

Although I've never been to the Cannes film festival, The Brown Bunny probably isn't the worst movie ever shown there, as Roger Ebert has claimed. Gallo has selected a handful of good, mellow folk songs and woven them together with the sounds of the open road and pockets of silence. The ebb and flow of the soundtrack complement some nice images: endless streets as seen through windshields, a motorcycle shrinking into the distance as it speeds over the Bonneville Salt Flats, and idiosyncratic framing of faces, usually Gallo's.

The plot feels like a blend of Easy Rider and Eyes Wide Shut, and I'd say the movie falls somewhere between those two, better than the former and nowhere near as good as the latter. Like Tom Cruise in Kubrick's film, Gallo turns the head of every woman he meets, but the echoes and repetitions in Eyes Wide Shut are multi-faceted meditations on married life, and each of its encounters brings to mind the character's wife, even when she isn't physically present. Gallo is aiming for something similar, but he goes about it much more awkwardly. He names all of the women in the movie after flowers and makes sure their names are written on necklaces and purses so we'll make the connection. They're Bud's stand-ins for the absent Daisy.

When every other scene looks like a cola, jean, or motorcycle commercial, the kind of ad in which the people look perfectly unposed, their hair proudly mussed, Gallo's motivations seem too compromised for his film to say very much about life on this planet. In the theater, I had the sense that I was surrounded by people of two minds: there were those who wanted the movie to do something, be something, make some sense, and there were those who just wanted it to immerse them in a mood. Me, I'd have voted for the mood — Gerry with a black van and a motorcycle — but others have seen a decent short film in the last half hour, driven by plot and psychology. Gallo himself seems to be of both minds. He's produced a tone poem with a melodramatic plot twist and a graphic sex scene.

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
August 12, 2004, 11:25 AM

By the way, the version that showed at Cannes was longer and the soundtrack wasn't finished, according to Gallo.

Roger Ebert has been aiming for laughs.

Like Ebert, I didn't care for the film (see above), and I don't particularly feel like defending it, but many of Ebert's complaints echo his complaints about the masterful/minimalist films by Kiarostami. About The Brown Bunny, Ebert writes:

Imagine 90 tedious minutes of a man driving across America in a van. Imagine long shots through a windshield as it collects bug splats. Imagine not one but two scenes in which he stops for gas. Imagine a long shot on the Bonneville Salt Flats where he races his motorcycle until it disappears as a speck in the distance, followed by another shot in which a speck in the distance becomes his motorcycle. Imagine a film so unendurably boring that at one point, when he gets out of his van to change his shirt, there is applause.

And about the "excruciatingly boring" Taste of Cherry, Ebert writes:

Conversations are very long, elusive and enigmatic. Intentions are misunderstood. The car is seen driving for long periods in the wasteland, or parked overlooking desolation, while Badhi smokes a cigarette.

One star.

Kiarostami's Ten didn't fare much better.

But he was much kinder to the equally elusive Crimson Gold by Jafar Panahi, maybe because the main character doesn't spend (much) time on his scooter. Or maybe Ebert's opinion is colored by knowing who the director is. In his review of Ten, which predates Crimson Gold, he writes:

If you want to see the themes in Ten explored with power and frankness in films of real power, you would turn away from Kiarostami's arid formalism and look instead at a film like Tahmineh Milani's Two Women (1999) or Jafar Panahi's The Circle (2000), which have the power to deeply move audiences, instead of a willingness to alienate or bore them.... The shame is that more accessible Iranian directors are being neglected in the overpraise of Kiarostami.

Curious that to correct this neglect you have to tear down Kiarostami. I guess the world only has room for so many good films. No use taking up those valuable slots with movies that show people driving.

August 12, 2004, 11:23 PM

I liked it a lot more than you guys, I guess, though I love the last line in your review. I took the film to be incredibly simple in themes and aesthetic decisions so I thought, over-all, it was pretty successful.

August 13, 2004, 10:32 AM

I know what you mean, phyrephox. It was a lot better than I expected it to be given the negative build-up (tear-down?).

By the way, changing topics pretty dramatically, how was To Be or Not To Be? I've now missed all three Bay Area screenings.

August 13, 2004, 10:49 AM

That's really a shame because it is a wonderful movie. I'm a bit Lubitsch fan anyway, and this film has always been the one that's gotten away, as it is pretty hard to find on VHS and I've never heard of it screened on film.

The print was new and looked great. The film itself is wonderful and amazingly edgy. It is not hard to see why it was shuffled out of theatres in the 40s, for even now I was quite uncomfortable laughing at much of its lampooning of Nazis. It is most definitely on par with Lubitsch's best films, and as that added taboo bonus. Judging by the restoration I assume it should get a DVD release within a year or so.

August 13, 2004, 10:58 AM

Moment of admission: I've never seen anything by Lubitsch. Sure, I've seen Une femme est une femme and been told that Godard is riffing on Lubitsch, but I just had to nod and say, "Oh really?"

Can you recommend a good place to start?

August 13, 2004, 11:31 PM

Of those I have seen:
Most accessable: The Shop Around the Corner (remade as You Got Mail, among others. Is on dvd I believe and constantly shown on TCM, like once a month)
Best: Trouble In Paradise (on Criterion dvd)
My 2nd favorite: Ninotchka (not on dvd but the tape is easy to find)

A lot of his early sound stuff is shown on TCM all the time, it should be pretty easy for you to find his work.

August 16, 2004, 11:14 PM

Excellent, thanks for the recommendations. I actually have The Shop Around the Corner and Trouble in Paradise on my DVD queue, and I'll have to check Le Video for Ninotchka next time I'm there.

September 4, 2004, 04:28 PM