Notes on Further Investigation

By John Bradburn

brown-bunny-vincent-gallo.jpgThe Brown Bunny, 2003

The Brown Bunny - Vincent Gallo's 2003 film about a professional motorbike racers’ journey across the United States - has a much maligned and difficult reputation. Finding fame as “the worst film ever shown at Cannes” (Roger Ebert), though in actual fact Peter Greenaways Tulse Luper Suitcases achieved more black tie walkouts, and notoriety for its unsimulated oral sex sequence has lead to the film being passed over for further critical inspection.

The film follows the character of Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo) as he travels between races. The film's recurring image is of Clay in profile staring forward as the American landscape passes him. What results can be seen, I would argue, within the history or portraiture or, more importantly, self portraiture, as Gallo is his own camera operator and Director of Photography. Gallo is performing as a character that he wrote and he is directing. The construction of these filmic moments are occurring almost totally internally to Gallo. The constraints of language in developing the performance have been all but totally bypassed. The relationship of description, interpretation of performance, and visual image is non-existent. Therefore it can be argued that part of Gallo's cinema is occurring outside of language, outside of any notions of communication as limited by language. These scenes crackle with a purity of intent, an emotional communication that defies linguistic definition. Gallo's return to these near silent observational passages punctuate the film with an emotional rhythm. To this extent the narrative and emotional flow of the film comes not from the very perfunctory and minimal dialogue scenes (as we would expect) but from these quiet empty passages where we are asked to feel or intuit the experience. The Brown Bunny received a large number of unfavourable reviews. I can only put this down to the fact that the film is so challenging to written description. It offers up a radical proposition within cinema, being a film that appears to not only be alien to the idea of the written word in script form but the spoken word as well. The film dwells inside the audience as much as it dwells within Gallo's tortured, subtle performance.

brown-bunny-vincent-gallo-2.jpgThe Brown Bunny, 2003

The film constructs this performance within time. The central motif of the film is grief, and grief exists in time. Unlike horror, or arousal, or suspense, grief exists specifically within time, within the duration of time. Suspense, its nearest emotion, exists purely because of what is expected to happen, and so becomes finite. Grief is the opposite. Grief exists as duration after an event, a mess of fantasies and imaginations that haunt each second in continual fluctuation. Grief is in many ways not an emotion but a process. We are happy, it is a state, but we grieve as a verb or action in the time that the person suffers without their departed. The Brown Bunny is full of moments made heavy by grief. Clay eats a Chinese meal alone. He drives off in to the salt flats and races his bike. He buys a coke from a vending machine and spends a brief kiss with another lost soul. This grief is only revealed in the film’s final conclusive scenes. As we watch another highway pass by we are given the space to work with our own experiences, our own personal thoughts are allowed to come to the fore. Many critics have derided Gallo for these long stretches of ‘boring’ time. To do this is to miss the point of The Brown Bunny. Just as the empty observational scenes are the heart of the narrative, so are these stretches of time, the very content of the piece itself.

brown-bunny-vincent-gallo-3.jpgThe Brown Bunny, 2003

Gallo's film exists within a continuum of American Road Movies, most specifically Richard C Sarafian's Vanishing Point (1971), and as such Gallo can be seen as working within a specifically American genre. Both films follow near existential journeys across the American wilderness. Both deal with grief and it's after effects. Kowalski (Barry Newman) in Vanishing Point is also grieving for a lost love, and this information is delivered to the audience in a series of flashbacks, as in The Brown Bunny. Key to both films is a view of the desexualised American male in motion. Both Kowalski and Clay refuse sexual advances from women they meet along their journeys. Clay picks up a prostitute in Las Vegas and simply buys her some fast food. Kowalski meets a naked hippie in the desert commune who wants to sleep with him. He too refuses. In Spatial Concepts of Human Subjectivity Kathleen M. Kirby discusses the notion of heterosexuality as by definition a spatially static experience. Heterosexual couples make homes to raise children and as such all civic amenities are built around them. As soon as this bond is broken then the subjective experience can become mobile. Both Clay and Kowalski are men alone, outside of the traditional bonds of the heterosexual unit. It is only when Clay in The Brown Bunny becomes static in the final hotel room does any notion of sexuality intrude into the narrative when he is reunited with Daisy (Chloe Sevigny). It is interesting at this point that we see flashbacks to Clay and Daisy at a party in their own home. It is inferred that Clay only starts racing after Daisy's death in the house, he only becomes mobile once the home and spouse has been removed for whatever reason. Clay's mobility is running away from his past and his possible future where he would have been a father to Daisy's unborn child. Gallo's use of the road movie as psychic landscape is deeply subtle and expressive in it's evocation of grief and the mental processes involved. As viewers we follow both Clays external and internal journeys, physical and psychic, but are left to construct and importantly intuit our responses to them.

brown-bunny-vincent-gallo-4.jpgThe Brown Bunny, 2003

Gallo's film offers an exciting and beautiful puzzle box of moments and experience. I feel I have skipped too easily over the pure joy that can be felt of letting yourself go into the film. This article is also designed to excite further study, along with my own, in to this most singular of films, yet I worry that so much of the product has been created outside of language that its profound affect cannot be held down on the page with letters and punctuation. The Brown Bunny is available on DVD in the UK and around the world. All I can ask of you is to watch it with an open heart and mind.

John Bradburn is a writer and filmmaker. He is based in Birmingham and lectures at Staffordshire University.