|BELIEVE THE HYPE? BROWN BUNNY.|
With the endless influx of information available through every possible source and orifice, it's nearly impossible to sift through all the clutter and hype to figure out whether or not the hot new thing is any *good* or not. We at The Black Table are here to help. We proudly introduce "Believe The Hype," the new bi-weekly column from Tim Grierson, music critic and editor of The Simon. A Los Angelino, he's immune to the whims of New York's trendsetters, giving you a different take on whether that band, movie, show or trend that everyone's talking about it actually worth all the chatter -- rating them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 living up to expectations. He loves it when you think he's an idiot, so feel free to tell him so, or suggest future columns, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy.
I'm not sure what I miss more -- '70s films or '70s audiences.
While too much has been made of this supposedly halcyon period of American filmmaking -- names like Altman, Scorsese, Ashby and Rafelson tripping off the tongue -- there can be no question that they
yielded an individuality of spirit, a freedom of expression geared to character and mood that's rarely been embodied in any era since.
But less is mentioned about the fact that these movies couldn't have thrived without an audience who appreciated them. No, McCabe & Mrs. Miller didn't break box-office records, but a significant amount of these works received serious treatment from cineastes and film critics. They
weren't perfect, what with their rough edges, bold strokes and unconventional techniques, but they were worth arguing about and obsessing over. They still are.
But in today's vacuum of cinematic debate, The Brown Bunny seems hopelessly naïve, which is part of the reason for its critical drubbing. Certainly for better and sadly for worse, there's nothing else around quite like it.
At this point, you are probably wondering when the hell I'm gonna get around to talking about The Blow Job. Soon, I promise.
Vincent Gallo's film, as you may have heard, premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival to much collective scorn. The version that finally hit American theaters is reportedly a much tighter, much shorter and much better cut than the two-hour Cannes edition. Even Roger Ebert, who hyperbolically called it the worst film he'd ever seen at the festival, has given his upward-thumb to this renovated version.
But still, the negative press and the film's sensationalistic advertising -- brandishing its self-imposed X rating like a badge of hipster cool -- have helped make the film little more than a niche curiosity. Outside of Lars von Trier, who makes movies these days spoiling for a fight? Outside of The Passion of the Christ, what films know full well that they will alienate and piss off a section of the audience -- but care not a lick?
But let's get to The Blow Job. Which is why anybody's really going to see the movie in the first place. Which is sad.
At its heart, The Brown Bunny is an art flick -- a problematic, sometimes ponderous one, but an impressive, gutsy and heartfelt art flick. Gallo may be a raving egomaniac -- just read his press -- but as a filmmaker, he has a winning sincerity filled with a sympathetic love for lonely souls. This is just a fancy way of suggesting that while he may have made a stylistic road film with very little dialogue, his pretensions are at the service of undeniably potent ideas: the expression of loss, the pain of romantic separation, the unbreakable lingering hell that is regret. It is, in other words, about something.
It's hard to say if anyone's getting that, though -- or is willing to follow Gallo on this raw, emotional journey. They just want to hear about The Blow Job, the climactic sex act between Gallo and Chloe Sevigny (his former lover in the film) that provides a complicated, layered conclusion to this cross-country road trip. Not that many folks in my screening were interested in such minutiae: You couldn't miss the nervous tittering in the theater as the expectation for the unsheathing of Gallo's penis finally came, shall we say, to a head. If Pauline Kael was right about those '70s audiences, hungry for challenge and controversy, have they been replaced by shallow cynics ready to pile on the current cinematic whipping boy? Aren't they ever interested in giving a movie the benefit of a doubt? Why do they treat experiments such as The Brown Bunny like filmic car accidents, morbidly watching to secretly enjoy the carnage? Once a movie's critical consensus is anything less than fawning, does that mean the movie couldn't possibly be great?
In The Brown Bunny, Gallo plays a motorcycle racer named Bud. Heading back to L.A. from the East Coast in his big black van, he drives alone, tortured by his thoughts. In a typical road movie, Gallo would find a traveling companion along the way, an external device which would allow our protagonist to discuss his problems, get into crazy adventures and learn valuable life lessons. Except nobody ever does that on long, lonely road trips. We drive, we think, we dwell, we torment ourselves. From its shooting style to its visual strategy, The Brown Bunny conjures this tortured mindset more beautifully than any movie I can think of. Much of the film consists of Gallo driving. The long takes of the open road, though monotonous, begin to assume the spellbinding power of any too-long trip we'd much prefer be over. As clues into his internal process, Bud stops on occasion -- to see an old family friend, to get gas, to grab a soda, to take his chopper out for a spin. Gallo teases us with these clues, suggesting the heartache that Bud hopes work and distance will alleviate. Anyone who's ever wrestled with the questions of a relationship's end, however, will know how futile Bud's plan is and will be able to recognize the everyday poignancy in such a simple tale. Gallo seeks to both poetically and realistically portray what the end of an affair feels like, without the studio tricks we've come to expect from journey-of-discovery Hollywood movies.
In essence, this risk-taking film evokes that freedom of '70s cinema -- an optimistic belief that movies should be adventurous and should speak to individuals' lives. Hopefully, it might remind a lot of us why we got into indie films in the first place -- this idea that, hey, something cool or different might happen. That we'll be taken on a trip we aren't expecting. That the movie might very well leave us with something haunting and moving to take home.
Not all films attempt such lofty goals, and lord knows some that try are wretchedly awful -- you'd be better off enjoying a solid studio film like Collateral that hums with precision and craft. But adventurous audiences risk pretension and utter incompetence in the hopes of that rare gem, and The Brown Bunny does that for me. Despite the movie's flaws, you get off on its atmosphere of melancholy. You get sucked into its mood and its pure ambition. Even if I didn't like it, I'd recommend it. At least you'll have something to argue about and ponder once it's over. You may go in because of Gallo's weenie, but, as we've all heard, it's not the size but how it's used. And like his other tools in The Brown Bunny, Gallo uses his member in provocative, surprising ways.
Believe the Hype rating: 8 out of 10.
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.