‘The Brown Bunny’ 10 Years Later: Reevaluating the Target of Roger Ebert’s Ire
On Friday, I had three wisdom teeth pulled out of my skull and was subsequently prescribed Vicodin for the pain. A few days later, I decided to revisit The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo’s hugely divisive, deeply weird, and conspicuously bugs-splattered road movie. You could say these things were related.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of The Brown Bunny’s theatrical release, which occurred 15 months after Roger Ebert called it the worst film to ever play the Cannes Film Festival, more or less sealing the film’s commercial and critical fate. I didn’t realize the anniversary was coming up when I opted to rewatch The Brown Bunny. No, I decided to watch The Brown Bunny just because I had been thinking about it a lot lately. I wanted to see it for fun. Basically, my face hurt and I was compensating by applying a narcotic glaze; The Brown Bunny had given me a similar feeling in the past without the benefit of oral surgery and drugs. It seemed like a natural element to introduce into my headspace at the time.
For the uninitiated, let me recount the plot of The Brown Bunny: Gallo stars as Bud Clay, a melancholic motorcycle driver who embarks on a cross-country road trip in a black van. His destination is California, where he plans to reconnect with his estranged girlfriend, Daisy (played by Chloë Sevigny). Along the way he encounters a young woman in a convenience store; Clay begs her to come with him, but when she agrees he winds up leaving her suddenly. Later, he stops at a rest area and makes out with ’70s-era supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, and then abruptly leaves her too. Finally, he arrives in California and meets Daisy in a hotel room. (If you haven’t seen The Brown Bunny and feel like you’ll want to someday, skip ahead to the next paragraph.) Daisy is nervous and on two occasions leaves to smoke crack in the hotel bathroom. One thing leads to another, and Daisy performs fellatio on Bud. It is not simulated sex and continues for what seems like an eternity until Gallo finishes. Bud and Daisy argue about her infidelity. It is revealed that Daisy was raped at a party and Bud didn’t try to intervene. Instead, he left the party, and Daisy died. Therefore, the encounter in the hotel room didn’t happen at all — it was a manifestation of Bud’s guilt. It’s not clear if the encounters with the other women were also imagined, but that’s how I’ve always interpreted it, and Gallo’s movie is ambiguous enough to support this reading. At any rate, Bud gets up the next morning and heads back on the road. And that’s the end of the movie.
I might have left out an important scene or two; I also included a few plot developments that could be classified as “spoilers.” But, ultimately, nothing that happens in The Brown Bunny matters all that much. The Brown Bunny distills a very specific vibe, and it’s good to know what that vibe is going in, because you either appreciate it or you don’t. (Most people don’t.) I’ve often argued that certain albums need to be heard in cars to be best appreciated — it’s possible to enjoy Japandroids’ Celebration Rock if you listen to music exclusively on headphones while riding on subway trains, but that record reveals deeper dimensions when blasted through speakers with the windows rolled down. Similarly, The Brown Bunny is a movie for people who love the sensation of listening to music in the car. For instance, the film’s most powerful sequence is a series of static shots of rain-soaked highways seen behind a dirty windshield while Gordon Lightfoot’s aching ballad “Beautiful” plays in the background. The scene plays out for far longer than it would in a conventional film (assuming a conventional film would include such a scene at all). I understand that most people will find this description indescribably boring. It might also sound pretentious. It’s not.
It’s possible to attach a lot of Big Thoughts to this film. The Brown Bunny can be viewed as a depiction of the neediness and alienation at the core of traditional masculinity. Its final scene is perhaps best read as a critique of pornographic imagery, and a demonstration of how disturbing real live sex onscreen can be when human feeling isn’t forcibly removed. But more than anything, The Brown Bunny is a movie about a person who spends a lot of time staring out of car windows, and it intends to evoke the feelings one has when spending a lot of time staring out of car windows. It’s the opposite of pretentious — The Brown Bunny is exactly what it purports to be.
If staring at landscapes while listening to sad songs is something you do all the time, then you already “get” The Brown Bunny. This movie might even end up being a good friend that you can hang out with without speaking to all that much.
Since this is the 10th anniversary and all, let me make the requisite case for The Brown Bunny being generally misunderstood and underappreciated. Understand that I’m not here to recommend The Brown Bunny, because it’s not a movie I’d expect anyone to like or even be able to finish. Instead, I’d like to merely acknowledge that it exists, because people sometimes forget that movies like The Brown Bunny can still exist and find an audience.
It’s unfortunate that when Roger Ebert died in April 2013, The Brown Bunny was revived as a comic footnote in the great critic’s career. Ebert’s original review of the film was unequivocal in its intense dislike: “Imagine 90 tedious minutes of a man driving across America in a van. Imagine long shots through a windshield as it collects bug splats. Imagine not one but two scenes in which he stops for gas. Imagine a long shot on the Bonneville Salt Flats where he races his motorcycle until it disappears as a speck in the distance, followed by another shot in which a speck in the distance becomes his motorcycle. Imagine a film so unendurably boring that at one point, when he gets out of his van to change his shirt, there is applause.”
The details of the Ebert-Gallo feud have been rehashed many times: Ebert eviscerated The Brown Bunny; Gallo responded by putting a curse on Ebert’s prostate and calling him a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader”; Ebert said footage of his own colonoscopy would be more entertaining than The Brown Bunny. What doesn’t get rehashed as much is that when Ebert watched a new version of The Brown Bunny with 26 minutes excised from the Cannes version, he actually liked the movie. “It is said that editing is the soul of the cinema; in the case of The Brown Bunny, it is its salvation,” he wrote upon the theatrical release. Over the years, The Brown Bunny seemed to have stuck with Ebert; he referenced the film in his review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, of all places. (Judging by the star rating, Ebert liked the reedited Bunny more than The Master.)
“I felt like, on a certain level, he wanted to remove himself from calling [The Brown Bunny] the worst film ever made,” Gallo told The A.V. Club in 2004. “And the new version gave him an opportunity, because it was different from when he saw it. So he could say, ‘The film got a lot better. You made some really important changes.’ The truth is, those changes could not possibly take the film from that extreme to another extreme. It just couldn’t.”
Already known for general outspokenness and unapologetic assholery, Gallo drifted into the wilderness after The Brown Bunny. He seemed to be actively trolling people during the film’s brief promotional cycle, voicing support for George W. Bush and spouting off on Howard Stern about “fags” in Hollywood and his desire to perpetrate unseemly sexual acts on one of the stars of his Buffalo ’66, Angelica Huston. Gallo still shows up from time to time as an actor in art films and other, random places (like the 2007 Courteney Cox drama Dirt, which Cox promoted on The Tonight Show by talking about how much she used to hate Gallo.) In 2010, Gallo was cast in an indie quirkfest called The Funeral Director, usurped control from the director, and turned it into Promises Written in Water, his first feature as a director since The Brown Bunny. The movie played two festivals before Gallo announced that he was pulling it from distribution, so it could be “allowed to rest in peace, and stored without being exposed to the dark energies from the public,” as he told a Danish magazine in 2011. Another recent film he directed, April, is listed on Gallo’s Wikipedia page, but that hasn’t been screened, either.
I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened to Gallo’s career if Ebert had been a little more charitable early on to such an obviously deliberate, uncompromising film. Make no mistake: I don’t blame Ebert for the implosion of Gallo’s career. Gallo is a narcissist, and Ebert calling The Brown Bunny the worst film to play Cannes fed that narcissism. It encouraged Gallo to embrace the worst, most bombastic sides of himself in the press, which ran contrary to (and played a primary role in suffocating) the slow, meandering movie he made.
Maybe this is just an impossible movie to talk about. Merely describing it sounds like criticism. Just trust me when I say that The Brown Bunny is a comfort when you’ve been maimed and drugged, and I mean that as a compliment.