The Eventless and the Event

By Steven Eastwood

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

Vincent Gallo and The Brown Bunny: Place and Targets in a uniquely leftfield vision of American life

An empty travelogue featuring two landscapes, that of America, East to West, and of Bud Clay’s (Gallo’s) physical presence, Gallo’s film – and it is in every sense his, given that he wrote, directed, oversaw camera, acted in and edited the film – presents the blankness of grief and the complexity of male emotion and desire. It has dramatically divided audiences because of the explicit nature of its end scenes. This article follows the eventless duration of the film to those events, and along the way outlines the inventiveness of, and problems with, the film.

The Brown Bunny disregards any need for explicit character psychology or on-screen action to motivate an audience’s engagement. For ninety minutes we are watching a passing landscape and a character suffering. Bud Clay is a professional motorcyclist grieving over a failed relationship. He makes a journey from New Hampshire to a racing meeting in Los Angeles. En route he encounters three women, all named after flowers, and momentarily finds some unspoken connection with them. Each time though, he simply drifts away, hardly uttering a word. He also stops off at the parents of Daisy, his lost girlfriend (a delightfully uncomfortable scene); at a pet store, where he inquires about the longevity of rabbits; and at the Salt Flats of Utah, where his roaring motorcycle temporarily evaporates in frame from the heat haze of the desert.

These narrative occurrences are on the outskirts of what we might define as event. At each point, narrative significance is avoided, as though the camera is literally trying to point away from necessary detail, and off into the pro-filmic space. Gallo utilises the endless road horizons of the United States as projection spaces for the contemplation of loss. These drab vistas become a kind of perceptual nihilism, distractions from meaningful thought. Much of the film comprises of blank durations shot through the grimy or rainy windscreen of Bud’s van, the camera facing out, the ‘seen’ of a character who is not facing. We see a roadside America, pre-fabricated and monotonous, and we encounter Americans as people unable to speak. Gallo’s spare character exchange, his steady desperation and emptiness, are poetic but cannily fashionable. Gallo claims not to be influenced in his filmmaking but I would liken this aesthetic to Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1976), and to Wim WendersKings of the Road (also 1976), both semi-devised travelogues in desolation, across nowhere. Bud even passes WERNER emblazoned on the back of a haulage truck. Compare also with Peter Fonda’s existential and near eventless western, The Hired Hand (1972) [1].

It is uncommon in film to watch a man crying in emotional petrifaction. The Brown Bunny, like Buffalo ’66, addresses the difficulties of male expression. But rather than show us the image of Bud’s sad thoughts, we are given merely the image of a face in sadness, thinking. We sit in the van, next to Bud, close-up, and hear all of the off-sounds that are ordinarily drowned out by the content of our lives: the cicadas and frogs, the hum of an engine, the hiss of the desert and the drone of domestic interiors. There is nothing to fill the film but these aural and optical non-events, through which Gallo‘s tortured lonely vagabond passes, encountering and transfixing women in plight. He meets a petrol station attendant whom he asks to travel with him and then drives away from. He finds a woman at a picnic area, tormented by feeling, they sit together crying, and then he walks back to his van. He picks up a prostitute in downtown LA, they eat, and he drops her back by the road, seething. These exchanges involve barely audible or no dialogue – Bud’s bicycle makes more utterance than he does. In each case he runs, failing to transform or to ‘rescue’ the woman he has bewitched, his composure diminishing, so that we begin to see the extent of his trauma and the loathing he has for himself and for these women. After each minor encounter he returns to the road, the film not so much building as passing time.

Tension builds from the fact that the majority of the audience knows they are moving closer to the event, the scene. Following the furore of Cannes this year, at which Gallo and his work-print were booed from the stage, most people aware of the film are also aware of its explicit final scenes. Roger Ebert called the film, “the worst in the history of Cannes”, provoking Gallo to place a ‘hex’ on Ebert’s colon. Ebert retorted with, “even my colonoscopy was more entertaining than his film.” Gallo’s film elicits extremely complicated emotional responses, including discomfort, revulsion and empathy. One on-line reviewer writes of how the film describes, “…what an incomprehensible unreal experience it is to die in spirit, hour by hour… starting with the moment when the sexual relationship is shattered”. Many people walk out, either from boredom or disgust.

So, we cover America, seeing nothing, but heading towards a sexual scene, where the void landscape becomes collapsed into an LA motel room, and Bud, having left a note at Daisy’s seemingly abandoned house, sits and waits. Here Daisy (Chloe Sevigny) returns to Bud, and is forced by him to perform oral sex. This scene is abject and for many too upsetting and offensive to watch. It is also structurally arresting, its existence in the film, and our pre-conceptions of it, serving to alter the nature of the cinematic space. This is of course a masterstroke of publicity but it serves a purpose – waiting for nothing is different to waiting for something. Anticipation of the event, based on the gossip surrounding the film, changes the way the mind engages with the eventless direct images of passing time on the screen, and, retrospectively, as they were seen. We return to the eventless images through the prism of a violation. In the motel we are violently updated, so that the haunted ambience of the film prior is disturbed, along with Sevigny/Daisy.

I write Sevigny/Daisy and not Daisy/Sevigny because of a particular look that Sevigny gives as she struggles with Gallo’s penis in her mouth. Her eyes half open, she looks to the side, as though to anyone who is off-camera. Her gaze must have met the video assist monitor for the film camera Gallo has set-up, so that he alone can direct the image and have the crew leave the room. “There’s not one frame of the film, not even in the shower or the sex scenes with Chloe, where I’m not looking at myself in the monitor while filming” (Vincent Gallo) [2]. We are watching a private exchange. Sevigny’s look might be the look of the actual, and not the fictional – the response of a person in discomfort, not a person affecting discomfort – or the look of Sevigny monitoring her performance. Our identification remains undecided. The event is the shock of a pornographic image constructed by Gallo that does not serve to arouse but undo. It is also the shock of seeing Sevigny in this position, a discerning actress who is unlikely to allow herself to be exploited, but equally unlikely to work in Hollywood again. It is an action perpetrated against Daisy but with Sevigny.

The dual nature of Gallo/Bud and Sevigny/Daisy complicates our abhorrence. Gallo uses this, and his trademark narcissism as persona. In the hotel room we are no longer with ‘Bud’ or with ‘Gallo’, they are the same in that graphic instant and we are repelled, distanced from the lyricism of the previous eighty minutes. This distancing takes us to an emptiness that is ours as well as the characters. It serves as a new place from which to look in on, so that when Bud forcibly climaxes, rolls onto his side on the bed, and the camera cuts wide to show that he is in fact alone in the room – that there is no Daisy, she has merely been imagined – we reconnect with Bud by our mutual emptiness. Bud Clay is, in thought, violating his own memories, abusing his own mind.

We are made to understand, through a further sequence of violence, that the source of Bud’s grief is not the end of a relationship but the preventable death of a partner. Daisy died. “I died Bud”, she says. We are then shown a gang rape scene, in which we are asked to process a quick succession of causal narrative detail: drug addiction, drugged rape, Bud’s failure to act, death, the remorselessness of a rapist… It is this second rape event that more fully violates the film, and it does so without serving any purpose for our identification. It is a sensational sequence belonging to another aesthetic, a different realism. Daisy is unconscious or dead, and Sevigny now a passive sexual object rather than an ambiguity. Daisy was raped and Bud, in misguided jealousy and helplessness, did nothing but observe and leave. And so he does nothing but observe and leave every woman he subsequently meets. By giving concrete and explicit meaning to the inactivity of the first eighty minutes, Gallo’s film delivers as narrative and fails as unique psychological environment. In opting to provide the sensation of an explicatory rape event following a brave and arguably necessary pornographic event, The Brown Bunny runs the risk of being merely a shocking and misogynistic film, when in fact it also occupies unsettling moments of uniquely felt time and loss. These are the non-events and events of the film.


[1] It is also interesting to think of the film in terms of several other recent controversial works, such as Larry ClarksKen Park (2002) and Gasper Noe’s Irreversible (2002).
[2] Vincent Gallo, interview on website

At the time of writing this piece neither the film’s distributor Wellspring nor Gallo’s personal assistant had any news of plans to release The Brown Bunny in the UK.

Steven Eastwood is a filmmaker and researcher.