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September 08, 2004

The Real "Brown Bunny"

Michael Blowhard writes

Dear Blowhards --

To minimize suspense and tedium, I'm going to skip over the 95% of "The Brown Bunny" that no one cares about and focus directly on the movie's notorious blowjob scene -- which, like any good scene, has its own miniature three-act structure. I'll take them on one at a time.

Act One

We're in a tacky-Americana hotel room, and we're with Vincent Gallo, megalomaniac writer/director/editor/photographer/star. Gallo is playing a man of few words, a man in pain, a man lost, and yet a man who is yearning too, if inchoately. As he mopes and hopes, Chloe Sevigny -- his long-lost love -- appears. Like Gallo, she's overcome by hopelessness yet a yearner too. Together, they make blundering attempts to re-connect. They wonder why they screwed things up. Did they screw things up? They have needs, resentments, desperations ...

They're reaching out, in other words. For much of this stretch, Gallo sits on the hotel-room bed, facing away from us. Chloe stands before him, facing us. She paces nervously; she makes attempts to touch Gallo; she bolts for the bathroom, there to smoke some dope and steady her nerves. The framing and lighting of these images is eccentric, to say the least. The figures are either dead-center or halfway off the screen; the light is beyond deadening -- Gallo the director/cinematographer has been studying the work of some pretty hip photographers.

Not much to be said about the dialog in this scene, let alone the delivery; both actors seem to have studied at the Patricia Arquette School of Vocal Nonprojection. They're so tender, self-conscious, and wimpy -- and the semi-lines they semi-utter are such half-formed things -- that I found myself wondering if the movie had been made by an over-sensitive 14 year old.

Chloe's an odd movie phenomenon, isn't she? Part Connecticut princess, part Edie-Sedgwick-gone-Warhol, part ... Part what? Those baby eyes ... That fresh, crinkled mouth ... The hurt but sweet boyishness ... That's it: she's also part Tobey Maguire. Too good for life, yet sadly game for whatever comes along too. Chloe's not much of an actress, god knows, and that hunched-over androgyny of hers isn't what a camera usually loves to love. Yet she's something to watch anyway; you keep moving in close to her to find out what's going on, because you want to know. She's got a Garbo-esque appeal, if of a teeny-tiny, indie-film sort.

Gallo is something else completely. His face is part hippie-Christ and part Rasputin, while his physique suggests that he's the runt from a family of bricklayers -- he's small-shouldered and scrawny, and he seems short, yet he's got meaty mitts. Yet despite what an odd physical package he is, he's got a ferociously exhibitionistic drive and some real, if annoying, charisma. It's as though he exists in order to command attention and then be beaten up. He's probably been told 'way too many times that he'd be perfect playing Charles Manson.

The movie itself is pure Cinema du Poseur: an arty, depressive, metaphor-for-America, road-trip movie: "On the Road" via "Two-Lane Blacktop" and Wim Wenders. Gallo, being one of the vainest of narcissists, isn't about to give us much interplay between actors, though: this is Gallo's movie, and what's in the camera frame 90% of the time is Vincent Gallo. This ain't anything so simple and entertaining as a story of two guys on the road, let alone Humbert and Lolita on the road; no, this is Vincent Gallo on the road. And it's Vincent Gallo's road. And Vincent Gallo's America.

To be fair, Gallo is certainly a talented filmmaker. The film has its mood, as well as a distinctive look and sound, not that anyone would pay the film much mind if it didn't end with a blowjob. Stills from the film would make a lovely photo book, if of an overfamiliar Robert Frank/Bruce Weber kind. And the sounds Gallo has recorded are specific, evocative, and unsouped-up. Whatever his other ambitions, Gallo seems to want to deliver what America, or at least roadside America, really looks and sounds like -- a refreshing approach in these days of image-processing and overwhelming-'em-with-fantasy. It's surprisingly pleasing the way that Gallo makes a point of how fly-specked his van's windshield is.

Gallo seems to have fallen in love with certain lenses and film stocks. He's fascinated by the way, when a camera is panning, a lens might bloom with light and then go crystal clear; he's entranced by the way, when daylight is waning, the film grain starts to jitterbug. And he seems to be using some Downtown ideas about repetition and minimalism. So the film is legitmately an art-thing, even an experimental art-thing: an exploration of light, color, and chemistry; a slow-moving, slow-morphing structure of visual/aural motifs. Vincent throws water on his face. Windshield wipers flick back and forth. Vincent puts a mitt to his forlorn forehead, signaling that he's in pain. Stray bits of roadside America fly by. Pointless no-connection encounters take place. We're goin' places fast --Gallo's character is a pro motorcycle racer -- but we're goin' nowhere too. The cosmos is a big wheel turning over and over, and an individual life is that little stretch during which we manage to hold on, before getting crushed.

What all this filmmaking boils down to, so far as the blowjob scene goes, is that the hotel room is tacky and anonymous; that Gallo's locks are as unkempt and greasy as ever; and that Chloe wears a shag-ish haircut and a pantsuit that seems like someone's idea of class. These are hipsters playing inarticulate, lost-in-America, white-trash losers.

A question? When did the white-trash look become accepted as a sexy hipster look for guys? I feel like I missed a cultural beat a decade or two ago. The Wife thinks that Brando kicked this look off in "The Wild One." Maybe she's right, but I wonder. I can't help remembering that, while Brando was muscular, juicy and thick in "Wild One," the new white-trash male sexpots are scrawny and mean. And I can't help thinking about how Brando was playing a j.d., while these guys are working an ex-con thing; their sideburns convey vanity and hostility in a different way than Brando's sideburns did. So when else might the trend have started? I can backpedal to the time when gristly ol' Harry Dean Stanton was Mr. Cool -- but lord knows he was never Mr. Sexy. So was it the playwright/actor/hunk Sam Shepard who established this "cowboy-trucker (but I'm a sexy downtown guy really)" look?

Anyway, Chloe and Gallo are reaching out to each other when something emotional -- I'm not entirely sure what -- gives way, and then they're hugging and kissing. Gallo, it must be said, has one of the least-appealing kissing styles I've ever seen. He's one of those guys who takes the head of the woman he's kissing in both his hands -- he cups his partner's face, and presses his hands on her cheeks. Then he descends hungrily on her, and seems to guzzle and gobble at her mouth. This move -- as stylized a bit of pantomime as anything from a silent movie -- seems meant to suggest how full of need his character is. But I can't help noticing as well the way his big hands manage to conceal the face of the actress he's kissing; you just can't see his acting partner. All you can see is Gallo and his need.

Still, physical contact has been made.

Act Two

Gallo is now standing, while Chloe is seated on the bed by his side. The audience is alert: an Historic Moment approaches. And, let's be honest, this is really what we've paid good ticket money to see. A few questions are rattling around in my brain as I settle back into my seat: how much of the blowjob will we really see? And how committed to it will the two actors prove to be?

I flash back to other legit-movie blowjobs ... Bellochio's 1986 "Devil in the Flesh" ... Breillat's 1999 "Romance" ... Much was made of "Devil" and of the way Bellochio talked Maruschka Detmers into doing the scene. But the movie was one of Bellochio's worst (I'm often a Bellochio fan), and the scene itself was a drag. Detmers did indeed handle the actor's dick, and she did indeed take it into her mouth a couple of times ... But aside from the taboo-busting, there wasn't much else happening. Detmers was too cheery, and she smiled too much; it was as though she was graciously performing someone a favor. As for the dick-in-mouth moments in "Romance": they were quick, in-passing things -- effective in their matter-of-factness, but not meant to do more than signify how badly the central love affair was going.

Now that I think about it, both "Devil" and "Romance" were merely offering images of a dick in a mouth; neither was depicting an actual blowjob. With "Brown Bunny," we're here to witness the whole process.

When Chloe unzips Gallo's grubby pants, we see that he's wearing silly white-trash Jockey shorts; we've seen him sleeping in similar lowcut Jockeys earlier -- he's sexy, he's vulnerable, he's ridiculous, and most important, we're watching him. I forget which actor sets the Gallo beast free, but quite quickly Chloe has it in her mouth and is applying her attentions.

Yep, she's really doing it, no question about that. It isn't as though what's happening onscreen is presented in the bold, overbright, and heightened style of current porn. But we aren't being left in doubt about what's going on either. Hands, mouth, flesh-spear: there they are. Rumpled clothes and an unkempt Chloe hairdo help supply realistic context. Bizarrely, Gallo doesn't lower his pants -- is this a choice he considers a correct one for his character? Or is Gallo protecting himself from the camera? His dick emerges from clothes, hair, fingers, and Jockeys like a sunflower from a thick patch of weeds.

The action's shot from a few different angles. I read somewhere that Gallo and Sevigny did the scene with no crew present -- just Vincent, Chloe, and the cameras. What I find most pleasing about the moment is the way the two characters continue to talk. They've got some kind of "You love me, don't you"/"Yes, I love you" dialog going on; it's more yearning/failing-to-communicate nonsense. But Vincent is now grunting and straining, and Chloe is doing her best to speak with Vincent's dick moving in her mouth. I find this cute, funny, and true. And I take it as another sign of Gallo's talent for putting onscreen sounds and images that movies don't often deliver these days. I don't think that I've ever heard a woman trying to talk through a mouthful of cock in a legit movie before; it strikes me as a real movie achievement.

A rumor that was around at the time the movie was shown in Cannes was that Gallo had used a "Boogie Nights"-style cock-prosthesis to give himself some added girth. I stare at the screen trying to decide whether there might be something to the rumor. Is it real, or is it Memorex? For the moment, I'm leaning towards the opinion that what we're seeing up there is authentic Gallo-meat.

But, I dunno ... Gallo -- or is it Gallo's character? -- has an odd habit that confuses the matter; I can understand why the rumor started. Gallo spends much of the blowjob with one of his big hands firmly wrapped around the base of his dick, gripping it as determinedly as a plumber might grasp a wrench. What's this gesture about? Is it a sexual quirk of Gallo's? Is it meant to be a quirk of the character he's playing? Or might Gallo be disguising a prosthesis after all, locking it in place? But at other moments, Chloe genuinely seems to have taken a lot of Gallo into her mouth -- way to go, girlfriend. Puzzled though I may be, I finally decide that Gallo's work in the scene is prosthesis-free.

Credit where credit's due: Gallo and Chloe are doing their best to make the action real. They're being as explicit as possible while doing their best to remain in character. They clearly want this sexual act to express their characters' inner lives, and to intensify the film's story. This is Chloe blowing Vincent, sure -- but it's also two specific characters sharing a tender/desperate moment.

Act Three

As we move towards Climax, the action becomes rougher, even lurching. Gallo's movements become spastic and tense; Chloe starts to look like it's all she can do to hold on for the ride. There's some clatter and grunting ... Chloe looks bug-eyed and sweaty ... Gallo is muttering stuff like "You whore, you whore" ... Then Chloe slowly slides her mouth off Gallo's cock. Cut to a closeup of Gallo's pride; it looks like an angry, if exhausted, stallion. He tucks it back into those ludicrous Jockeys.

Gallo himself seems like such a small man; maybe his mighty spear looks so big (it looks puffed-up and proud, like a Renaissance statue) because it's attached to a small man. I was once told that many of the super-endowed-seeming guys in male porn are in fact small people; their dicks, while indeed big, look especially big because the guys they're attached to are so small. Hey: this is just something I've heard.

At this moment, I'm wondering about something I imagine the rest of the audience is wondering about too: did Gallo really ejaculate? (The Wife shushes me when I ask her opinion about this.) It's impossible to tell from the visual evidence we're given. The climax has certainly been acted out convincingly, and there's certainly wetness on display, but it's of an indefinite sort. I've also been looking frankly forward to how the film handles the inevitable "girl's mouth after giving oral sex" question; I'm fondly remembering the daring way Barbet Schroeder and Jennifer Jason Leigh handled the matter in "Single White Female." Sad to say, but "The Brown Bunny" finesses the moment entirely. Once Gallo's dick disappears back into his Jockeys, we leap forward a few minutes, when Chloe's mouth has returned to normal.

Still, something the scene deserves credit for is conveying what a violent, forceful thing it must sometimes be for a girl to give a guy a blowjob -- delicate tissues, those, for handling what can obviously be a rough experience. I admit I never thought about blowjobs in quite this way before.

My take

Excellent and daring, if imperfect, scene -- well worth the trouble and expense.

As for the movie ... Well, Gallo is in pain. Chloe is in pain. America's in pain. The movie is a not-so-bad art-thing/tone poem with an M. Shamalyan-style, "gotcha!", tie-it-together ending. It's also one of the more epic displays of narcissism I've ever seen. Although Gallo wants us to soak up the pointlessness of it all, the focus is almost entirely on him. This is half-annoying, but also half-amusing, especially when Gallo treats us to a Gallo-takes-a-shower scene; he soaps himself up for quite a while.

(It's only a matter of minutes before his unkempt hipster locks are hiply greasy again. Does anyone really find greasy hair sexy?)

Much of the film occurs in what we filmbuffs like to call "real time." For instance, a pretty hooker pokes her head in Gallo's van and asks if he'd like a date. Gallo says no, drives off, then reconsiders -- so he drives all the way around the block and then up to the hooker again. We're with him in the van every second of the way around that block. This approach can have its fascination; it can also be mighty tedious.

At the end of the day, I have to admit that I admire Vincent Gallo -- or at least that I admire the way he's getting away with being Vincent Gallo. What a racket: cult notoriety, the chance to act and make movies, a blowjob from Chloe Sevigny ... Meanwhile, the rest of us losers have to report to the office every day to make a living. Hey, I wrote here about my admiration for James Spader, whom I envy and admire for similar reasons. The Wife says she thinks all men envy James Spader and Vincent Gallo.

A larger question

How do you guys react to the presence of explicit sex in movies? A lot of people don't like it. Some are morally offended by it; others find that the "what's real and what's not" question disrupts their enjoyment of the onscreen fiction. Omigod, it's Meryl's tit! -- and then the scene isn't working any longer as part of the movie. Terry Teachout and OGIC have both written, if I remember right, about their dislike (or at least distrust) of onscreen nudity for this latter reason.

My own brain generates the same questions and mulls over the same predicaments, but it finally reacts very differently. I get fascinated; these are moments that I adore in movies. No point in arguing about these matters, which are finally a matter of taste and preference. But I'll make my own case anyway.

Film from early on in its history was recognized as occupying a space between two main poles: fantasy (symbolized by the French fantasy filmmaker Georges Melies), and documentary (symbolized by the French documentary makers the Lumiere Brothers). A film might have more Melies than Lumiere -- "Star Wars," for instance. Or it might have more Lumiere than Melies -- "The Brown Bunny," maybe. But both poles -- Melies and Lumiere -- are present in every movie. Even a fantasy film like "Star Wars" contains documentary qualities; you're watching sets, locations, props, and especially actors, and everything that's "real" about them is as much part of the viewing experience as the special effects are. Meanwhile, a "real," Lumiere-ish movie like "Brown Bunny" has its fantasy qualities. Who does Gallo think he is, after all? Where does the movie's spine come from, and what is it meant to express? The film has been dreamed up every bit as much as "Star Wars" was -- and both movies are, after all, finally just colored light on a screen. Watching all movies, our imaginations fly off in a zillion directions even while we're taking in much that's real.

A consequence or offshoot of this basic fact about movies is that we often pick up something watching movie performances that we seldom pick up when we watch stage performances; we often pick up the performer's relationship to his role, and to his character. We can see if the actor is uneasy. We might wonder why this actor has chosen this particular role. We might register that the actor has made a decision that the time has come to start playing middle-aged characters, for instance; we might notice that the actor has had plastic surgery.

The conventional (and generous) thing is to try to overlook these factors; we do the performers a favor by cutting them some slack. Yet many filmmakers are fascinated by these splits, these ambiguities, and these echoes. Are we reacting to the real Bette Davis, are we reacting to her character, or are we reacting to some mixture of the two? Filmmakers like Robert Altman, Bertrand Blier, and Marco Ferreri often try to use it all in their films -- the real and the imagined, the fantasy and the documentary, the performer and the performance.

Personally, I find this approach, when it works, intoxicating; seeing it happen is what blisses me out most about watching movies. And I find the onscreen-sex-thing to be the onscreen moment when these real/not-real elements play out most intensely. In Ferreri's great (IMHO) The Last Woman, for instance, (it doesn't seem to be available on DVD, darn it) there are amazing moments when Gerard Depardieu's cock gets hard precisely when it needs to. Talk about being in character, or something.

In any case, and whatever my reservations about recommending the film, god bless Gallo and Sevigny for going to these kinds of extremes. I'd love to see more, not fewer, filmmakers and actors take wild sexual and filmmaking chances. And a final hat-tip to Vincent Gallo and "The Brown Bunny": it's simply gotta be admitted that Gallo has come up with one of the most effective ways ever to get an audience to sit all the way through a slow arthouse movie.

Here's the movie's website; here's Gallo's own website. Here's a well-done Chloe Sevigny fansite.



posted by Michael at September 8, 2004


I saw the Brown Bunny this past weekend too here in Los Angeles, and Gallo was there for a Q&A afterwards. Surprisingly, he was funny, intelligent, witty, and gracious. I was expecting him to be mean and snarky. I came to the immediate conclusion that everything he's presented to the press is an act (his Republicanism, the fact that he didn't know Chloe before making the movie -- come'on, two downtown New York art/film kids don't know each other?-- he also says he's never seen 2 Lane Blacktop, but at the same time has a home movie collection of over 7,000 films -- seems unlikely he hasn't seen that one). Someone actually asked him if he came. He answered, "I don't want to be unfair to Chloe, but yes, I did come. We shot that scene 3 times, by the way."

Posted by: Joseph on September 8, 2004 03:40 PM

That's great, thanks. I'm surprised Gallo didn't say they did it five or seven times -- wouldn't it enhance his rep? Chloe's too, if only for endurance. How'd you react to the movie? And The Scene?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 8, 2004 03:56 PM

The film wasn't as bad as I expected. Certainly not "the worst film ever shown at Cannes" as Ebert has said (I realize it has been edited somewhat since). I thought it was a competent film, if ultimately not very memorable. In fact, if it wasn't for the blowjob and the controversy surrounding the film, I would probably quickly forget it but not discourage anyone from seeing it (regarding the bj, I was expecting to be embarrassed and hear giggles from the audience -- to the contrary, it was not embarrassing at all and the crowd was dead silent). At the screening, Gallo put the Ebert controversy in context by showing us all the Ebert & Roeper episode in which Ebert trashes it. Brown Bunny was reviewed right after Hollywood Homicide (which I believe Ebert liked), and seeing Gallo's film trashed so comprehensively in comparison to such Hollwood dreck made the whole controversy seem entirely absurd. Roeper even said something like, "Gallo's movie is like a piece of excrement. If you told me there was excrement lying over in the corner, I would certanly want to take a look, even though I wouldn't want to be the one who made it."(not an exact quote, but you get the picture).

Posted by: Joseph on September 8, 2004 06:02 PM

What, Michael, no pictures???

Posted by: fenster on September 8, 2004 07:24 PM

Joseph -- I agree with you: not so bad, really. Interesting to read that Ebert has semi-changed his mind about the movie. I wonder if movies like this one elicit the prissiness from critics. These movies are almost too easy to mock. Yet who in this case has got more daring -- Ebert or Gallo?

Fenster -- I bet there'll be pictures of The Scene available on the web within a week. Guys evidently go into movie theaters with DV cams, tape the movie, then upload stills from their tapes. It's the share-and-share-alike society, at least where sex scenes from movies are concerned.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 8, 2004 08:17 PM

It turns out Vincent was approached to play Charles Manson, see here.

Also, Ebert ended up giving the movie three out of four stars! (Quite a turnaround.)

Posted by: Urijah on September 8, 2004 09:02 PM

I swear I've read that Gallo and Sevigny used to date.

Posted by: lindenen on September 9, 2004 12:38 AM

I have fond and vivid memories of a September 1994 review by the Observer's veteran and much-respected Philip French where he opened with a paragraph unconditionally retracting his Cannes-transmitted description of Jan Svankmajer's Faust as being "baffling and boring".

To explain this rather dramatic volte-face, as the rest of his review was pretty much a flat-out rave, he said that the problem with watching a genuinely original and groundbreaking film (particularly one seen completely blind, with no advance hype) at a place like the Cannes Film Festival is that you're so punch-drunk from watching five or six films a day that after a few days your critical faculties become so completely mashed that they're hopelessly unreliable. Having been to Cannes twice myself, I know exactly what he meant.

But at least French was honest enough to admit that he'd got it wrong - and it looks as though Ebert is going through a similar public conversion over The Brown Bunny, almost certainly for the same reasons.

Posted by: Michael Brooke on September 9, 2004 04:06 PM

It's true, re: Vincent and Chloe's dating history. I think the story goes something like: they dated briefly when she was 18; he did some horrible, assholic thing and she swore never to speak to him again; this pledge was upheld for years until he contacted her (via e-mail) about TBB. She claims that when he wrote her after all those years of non-speaking, he still tried to blame her for whatever had gone sour between them. I'm still wondering how he convinced her to do the b.j. scene. She must really trust him, or something.

Posted by: Dick on September 10, 2004 08:28 AM

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