New York Independents for Change
Matthew Plouffe on The Brown Bunny
Save Fahrenheit 9/11, I’d argue that the most telling and important films of the year thus far are The Passion of the Christ and the Paris Hilton video. Because I won’t allow myself to sit through a sick man’s prurient fantasy of domination and defilement, I must admit I’ve only seen the Hilton video (re-titled One Night in Paris for rental distribution, a misnomer—it takes place over the course of a few nights). Some evening, when I’m feeling particularly lonely, I’ll surely buckle and sneak a shameful peak at Mel’s sordid affair when no one’s around. And when the credits roll, feeling guilty for having spent four dollars on such a cheap thrill, I imagine I’ll wish I had opted to take a second look at Rick Solomon’s skinema verité, if only to reconsider the bewildering implications of its opening: an undulating American flag beneath the inscription, “In Memory of 9/11/01. We Will Never Forget.”
All kidding aside, is there another pair of films in recent memory that has managed to so successfully cleave our collective cinematic unconscious and reveal who we really are as a national audience? Though cinematically speaking, 2004 is shaping up to be a fine year, is there any chance that Paris and Mel’s respective passions won’t rank among the most talked-about releases at its end, despite the fact that they won’t grace many top ten lists? And when speaking about the politics of American cinema today, can and should we simply dismiss the fact that Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton have, with their singular PR foofaraws, gone from Hollywood leading man and Hollywood’s leading wannabe to two of the most controversial and sought-after stars on the planet? I don’t think so. As much as we’d all like to forget that The Passion broke all those records and that Paris exists, we’re stuck with them in office, dim-witted Tinseltown royalty with more power over the entertainment industry than anyone with their self-interested agenda should have. And yes folks, filmgoing is as democratic an activity as any; that is to say, it’s our fault. We elected them, and in both landslide victories a recount wouldn’t have done any good.
Reverse Shot readers, I implore you: In these dark days we need to get behind the few leaders we have left. We’ve got to support candidates possessed of the courage to take on Hollywood heavyweights with a heart for art. This fall, I’m endorsing the Gallo/Sevigny ticket and urge you to tear your stub in the name of uncompromised integrity and the fall of a Hollywood regime committed to stamping out America’s most incendiary cineastes with dollar signs for far too long. Consider it a convention: The Brown Bunny is here, and not a moment too soon. With the long awaited release of Vincent Gallo’s already-infamous second feature, America will finally get to see the film proclaimed to rank among the worst ever shown in competition at Cannes (Basic Instinct, ‘92?), the daring denouement responsible for its “X” rating (the institution of a “Chloe Sevigny award for bravest performance of the year,” wouldn’t be over the top), and the credit sequence that inspired the most gratuitous round of Gallo-bashing in critical history (he did just about everything on the film and he put his name to it. Sorry, but I don’t really see the issue here). Distributor Wellspring has a hot one on its hands. Already, the film has received the kind of preliminary coverage so derisive of every frame that Bunny has become a must-see movie among the cineaste set: an art-house heavy starring indie-royalty which has garnered the kind of PR baggage cult hits are made of. Bunny advertisements can’t be avoided in downtown NYC, where our running mates have achieved a peculiar celebrity as icons of irreverence (subtly if inadvertently implied in their conspicuously faceless poster-presentation).
Who better to take the reigns from the Born-Again/Barbie administration? One of NYC’s risque renaissance men with a much-hyped past steeped in art-lore, Vincent Gallo’s rule is downtown dogma. Like it or not, anyone who walks the concrete below 14th street will eventually hear about his prolific work, kooky persona, and unlikely sex appeal. Paper Magazine recently splashed his visage across their cover for a feature in which the Buffalo-born bad boy was infinitely crass, defensive, and fascinating. Check out his self-maintained website for a list of musical esoterica he wants to buy from you (“THE FOLLOWING IS A LIST OF ITEMS I, VINCENT GALLO, AM LOOKING FOR. I have been known worldwide to pay top dollar for collectable items which I had interest in to buy. The following is a list of items I am currently seeking. Let’s not turn this page into a waste of my time, or I will never direct another film.”) and a not-so-brief personal history (“On my fifth birthday in 1967, along with two pairs of brown socks, I received a one dollar bill from my wonderful parents. Boy, what gift givers they were.”). Fans of world cinema will be familiar with his memorable if not always nuanced acting performances, most notably those ostensibly unlikely collaborations with the most-self effacing of auteurs, Claire Denis, in Keep It for Yourself (91), Nenette et Boni (96), and Trouble Every Day (01). His first feature as director, Buffalo ’66 (98) marks an indie-apotheosis of the perverted American love-story and the seedlings of themes he explores in The Brown Bunny. In his words and filmographies, Gallo has made one thing clear: a project with which he is involved is a project that he believes in artistically, end of story. His ultimate persona-problem appears to be an overweening autodidacticism which ends up making him look like the narcissistic control-freak assailed for the aforementioned credit sequence of shame. Put that aside for a moment and what’s left is a cinema possessed of laudable purity and subversive anti-commercialism.
Among the few in film that rival his appealing anti-appeal, Connecticut native Sevigny—“Chloe,” as she’s known in downtown NYC, “the perfect woman,” to Gallo— may be less the reclusive arcanum but remains regarded with the same love/hate ambivalence that characterizes the fascination with the city’s most doggedly iconoclastic denizens. While Gallo has built his reputation by sticking to under-the-radar shorts and low-budget fare when working in film, even Sevigny’s few mistakes (Party Monster) are of a so-risky-you-can’t-really-blame-her nature. Even her big mainstream moment came with an Academy Award nomination for playing girlfriend to a transgendered country-boy in the shocking low-budget success story Boys Don’t Cry—not bad for keeping it arty even in the spotlight. Since then, she has lent her redoubtable talents to some of the finest international fare in recent history: Olivier Assayas’s demonlover and Lars von Trier’s Dogville, to name only two supporting roles for which she deserves extra ovation. While both work the fringe with requisite anti-charm cool, it’s Sevigny who’s got the cross-over social skills that Gallo lacks, the cool Edwards to his stodgy Kerry, if you will. And if you still think Charlize Theron made “sacrifices for her art” by wearing makeup and deciding to act, watch Sevigny’s oral presentation at the end of Bunny and you’ll exit the theater with a new definition of the phrase. Ultimately, to a community devoted to diffusing staid social mores and resisting all things pop, Gallo and Sevigny represent the beau ideal: outspoken artists who’ve achieved success by maintaining an actual sense of integrity while consistently taking the risky route professionally.
The Brown Bunny is no less than a cinematic conflation of these inimitable personas. It calls to mind progeny raised with tender care by two individuals (without Sevigny the Bunny would lose its stuffing) who’ve here parented a film evocative of all that is missing from contemporary American cinema. In its construction, Gallo employs a sub-film school aesthetic, replete with “lazy” camerawork and jarring insert shots in such a manner that recalls a primitivism found in much modern art (incidentally, he is also a painter and was an acquaintance of Jean-Michel Basquiat). It’s the kind of anti-aesthetic concerned with the beauty of imperfection, indicative of its subject’s defiled existence, in this case, the lonely motorcycle racer Budd Clay, or more appropriately put, his subconscious. The Brown Bunny’s look, brought to mind a comment a Reverse Shot editor made to me regarding Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, a film of which I was not initially fond. His words have stuck with me: “We need that kind of pure aestheticism in American cinema.” Here it is, entirely the opposite of Gerry’s lustrous frames, but similar in its unfaltering maintenance, control, and undeniable affect.
Yet it does compliment the narrative’s adolescent innocence of form. Both Gallo’s—as filmmaker and as Budd Clay—are juvenile, blunt, and disconcertingly simplistic in their m.o. Budd Clay is in love with a blonde woman named Daisy. His intermittent attempts at semi-trysts along the path to California are with blondes, or women who are named after flowers. That’s about as complex an “artistic device” as is employed in the narrative, which is to say, unless this 42-year-old artist has suddenly gone brain-dead, it’s all supposed to be banal. The ultimate example of this is, of course, the “twist” at the end. Yet it seems to be this twist that breaks the final straw for audiences who’ve not followed the insipid incline up until that gloriously trite moment. And those audiences, which have included innumerable critics, have evidently been in the majority.
Admittedly, this Brown Bunny reading is not meant to be the final word. The film seems intentionally divisive and is anything but agreeable, in any sense of the term. What makes it so important, is not linked to the infallibility of any one particular reading, but to a profoundly simple fact. The Brown Bunny is a film conceived light-years away from commercial American cinema, that speeds Clay-like away from Hollywood without ever looking back. If there’s anything that we need in contemporary American cinema—even more than pure aestheticism, perhaps—it’s artists like Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny, willing to take personal and professional hits in the name of inspired filmmaking. What The Brown Bunny and its players represent in an age of mundane media-mongering celebs, is an alternative cinema that has nearly died out in this country. Where the peal of “independent” once implied a certain level of experimentation, the word has almost lost that quality altogether; the evolution of the term’s definition may be among the most fascinating and disheartening of contemporary cinema’s conundrums. Is The Brown Bunny “independent”? It’s safe to say that “Written, Directed, and Produced…” (as well as acted, shot, and composed for) “…by Vincent Gallo,” is meant to remind us not only that the answer is yes, but to simultaneously imply what that term once meant. If that’s really a problem for audiences, I can only say this: we’re talking about the movie business. That Vincent Gallo may be self-obsessed is not unique, interesting, or important; that he is willing to spit in the face of Hollywood, is.
At the end of the day, it seems that the man does what he wants, when and how he wants to do it, a problematic position to take when working in an intrinsically collaborative medium. But gauging his value as an artist should in great part hinge upon the implication of and impetus for his choices, what amounts to an art-over-commerce message infused in his hard-to-swallow public and artistic personas. The Brown Bunny is a flawed film. Its execution is not without failures. But it is also a bold attempt at art cinema few American filmmakers would endeavor even to storyboard. How many of our finest cineastes can claim to possess an uncompromised artistic ideology comparable to Gallo’s? How many of our finest actors would commit to a filmmaker and his work like Sevigny has here? If you want to talk about passion, and in some small cinematic sense, martyrdom, look no further than the bold sacrifices of The Brown Bunny.
Yes, Mel Gibson also took a risk by making a multi-million dollar film about the last days of Jesus, but risk is not a priori synonymous with worth. What is important is what reaps the benefits in the end: the producer’s bank account or the medium. And it’s time that film-lovers take a good hard look at the state of that medium in this country. Without prompting, however, it seems unlikely that serious consideration and reevaluation is going to occur. The average filmgoer is so overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of advertising, that a sense of complacency has come to mark common filmgoing practices: the mean has become less concerned with what films that possess value, and more concerned with those that are cultural events. To say that one has not seen or does not care to see the Matrix trilogy, The Stepford Wives, or, perhaps, The Passion of the Christ, is to say that one is entirely out of touch. It is, then, nothing less than a blessing that The Brown Bunny already lives in infamy—if a blow job was enough to make America download Paris Hilton into the position of power she currently holds, maybe Sevigny’s offering will fill some art house seats, too.
The spirit that once defined American independent cinema is not dead. It lives in the few artists we have left, still committing images that matter, to a medium desperately in need of heroes. The Brown Bunny, for all it’s misfires and misfortune, possesses the essence of that spirit, and Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny are among the few in film that have the passion and power to lead us in a new direction. These candidates, like their film, are wholly imperfect, and desperately require your support. They’ve given us another opportunity to change the landscape of American cinema, one ticket at a time. If for no other reason, Go Gallo/Sevigny in ’04 because The Brown Bunny is hope: it’s our cinema, and it’s time to take it back.