Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Brown Bunny and "Come Wander with Me"

I watched Vincent Gallo's controversial film The Brown Bunny this weekend, and really enjoyed it. In fact, I felt it was one of the strongest and most individual American-made films I'd seen in some time; like maybe in six years. This is the notorious motion picture, you'll recall, that climaxes, shall we say, with actress Chloe Sevigny performing (on-screen) oral sex on director Gallo. Yep, you read that right.

I hate to begin a review of a fine, artistic film with a discussion of the most exploitable angle when there are better things to mention, like the fact that The Brown Bunny is truly an emotional bomb-shell and a moving filmic experience. But no doubt the scene with the blow job is exactly what the press focused on; how critics framed the film - as that one with fellatio performed by a major actress. Honestly, I see that scene in the context of a filmmaker who is trying to show us something different; giving audiences a truly individual kind of art.

I think I may have taken for granted how "similar" all movies have become in 2005. They all look the same, they all move at the same pace, they all exist within a certain (relatively narrow...) set of boundaries. The Brown Bunny is refreshing because it exists wholly outside such boundaries and limitations. That doesn't mean it is perfect, but it is genuinely artistic and also - I believe - genuinely revolutionary.

The Brown Bunny is the story of a motorcyle racer named Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo). He sets out on a road trip back to California after a race. He stops at a house on the way, and meets the two strangely disengaged parents of his girlfriend, Daisy (Sevigny). They don't recognize him, but ask about their daughter, whom they haven't heard from. He tells her that he and Daisy rent a small house together and that she was pregant, but lost the baby. They seem confused, and he leaves. He continues driving, and driving. Later, Bud stops at a rest-stop and kisses a troubled-appearing stranger (Cheryl Tiegs) but then gets back on the road, heading ever westward. He returns to his home in California, and goes to Daisy's house. She isn't there, but he leaves her a note to meet him up in his hotel room. From here, I can't say much that doesn't give the film away, but suffice it to say that Bud experiences an emotionally-shattering reckoning with Daisy, and the events of a party that happened some time ago. What Daisy did there; and what Bud failed to do; is at the center of the film's revelatory climax. A flashback makes everything plain, and suddenly we understand who Bud is, and what he has been grappling - unsuccessfully -with.

More important, I think, than the story itself, is how Vincent Gallo dramatizes it in The Brown Bunny. I haven't seen a major film that feels this unshackled from narrative convention since Easy Rider and the late 1960s-1970s. The film moves at its own pace, and often there are shots that continue for a long, long time. For instance, there's a sequence at the start of the film where we see Bud riding his motorcycle. The camera follows him for a long, long time, and doesn't cut where a conventional movie would. Instead, it continues two, three times as long, and the sound comes in and out. As the shot continues and continues, you are left to ponder the image, and also, perhaps, to detect something about the main character. Bluntly stated, he's stuck in a rut, going round and round in a circle. The race is a metaphor for his personal life. I don't think you could have understood this if the shot had just existed long enough to "establish" the location.

Later, Bud drives his van on the highway, and we see over his shoulder, through the windshield, and onto the yawning, endless highway ahead, and again, the shot just goes and goes, with no end in sight. The conventional, kneejerk reaction to this kind of extended sequence in which "nothing" appears to happen is to complain that the narrative has stalled. That this is somehow "boring." But uniquely, these lengthy, quiet interludes actually forge what I can only call a tangiblel mood of melancholy. As viewers, we inevitably get the feeling of the trip that Bud is making, even of his fractured mental state. Gallo's approach goes beyond linear filmmaking into a form of visual poetry. It's difficult to explain, but I appreciate that Gallo hasn't let the thinking of others affect his filmmaking choices; instead he moves his own way, letting the sound come and go, holding a shot far past the point convention demands. By doing so, he forges a film of utter originality, a triumph.

And that goes for the oral sex scene as well. Again, this is the equivalent of a shot held at great length, being something that defies our expectations and conditioning by Hollywood to look only at plot and pace, only at forward momentum. This scene - and the entire movie - is a shock to the system; not merely Bud's, but ours. Film needn't exist in a narrow, carefully diagrammed world. It can operate outside the perimeters Hollywood demands, and emerge with something lyrical, something elegaic.

As a genre fan, one thing that struck me like a bolt of lightning was a choice of soundtrack music. Early in the film, as Bud drives his van on the way to visit Daisy's out-of-it parents, a song comes up on the soundtrack that I instantly placed, and which - truth be told - provides an early and valuable clue as to the nature of this story. That song is "Come Wander with Me," and it comes from CBS Productions, from one of the last three original Twilight Zones ever produced. The episode aired on May 22, 1964, some forty years before the premiere of The Brown Bunny, and it tells the story of a folk singer (played by Gary Crosby) who is in search of new material because he desperately needs a hit. He heads up into red-neck, mountain country and meets this beautiful girl in the backwoods, played by Bonnie Beecher. She sings a haunting tune, "Come Wander with Me" (also the title of the episode...), but the thing is, the song keeps changing; keeps evolving. New verses keep getting added by the singer, as events in her relationship with Crosby change. Crosby, the popular singer, gets in trouble with some of the locals, for instance, and the song starts to reflect his experience. It's eerie (and one of my all time favorite Zone episodes...). What the song ultimately represents - like The Brown Bunny - is a tragic love story. About a relationship that is doomed, and about a "ghost" from the past, living in the present, unaware (or in denial...) about reality.

"Come Wander with Me" is a haunting Twilight Zone episode, and a haunting song. If you've heard it once, you'll never forget it, and it adds yet another layer of interest and artistry to The Brown Bunny.

Okay, so this isn't a film for everybody. You mustapproach it with patience, and perhaps more than that, openness. But if you do, you'll find The Brown Bunny an incredibly rewarding venture, an effort that cuts to the heart of emotional truths with unblinking eye and revolutionary stylistics. And "Come Wander with Me" - straight from the Twilight Zone - is your clue to what it's all about.

3 comments:

  1. what do you think about the gallo/ebert controversy over this film? ebert is old and soft now, given, but still my choice as the greatest critic to influence my view of film. he's smart and great. also, after the whole cannes fracas, he gave gallo's final edit (months after cannes and nasty comments by gallo concerning his weight) a positive reveiew.

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  2. I generally like and respect Roger Ebert very much. I'm quite the horror admirer, and I like that Mr. Ebert has gone to bat for films like Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" over the years. Good for him! I also generally agree with his taste in movies. I think he was right to ultimately award Brown Bunny a "thumbs up" (and three stars, I think). It's a daring film. As for Gallo, I don't know much about him except that he's a real individual, and a talented film maker (and a conservative Republican). I think he created a great film in The Brown Bunny, and I'd love to know how he came to the use of a song from The Twilight Zone, the haunting "Come Wander with Me."

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  3. I've just been rewatching this film and it's had tremendous impact on me. It just has a feel I love. I get so caught up in it. It's funny, because I just rewatched BUFFALO '66, which I also highly treasure, but it lacks the impact and doesn't ever feel as honest as this film. I'm really starting to think that the lack of dialogue in some pictures makes them more effective. Not to knock great dialogue, but sometimes I just want to have a quieter experience where a film isn't chatting away at me all the time.

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