Vincent Gallo posed a question. “Would you want to go see your movie with 3,500 people?” the shaggy-haired, fierce-eyed filmmaker asked, his sinewy voice piercing the Art Deco stillness of Petrossian. “Just think about it. Would you want to go see your movie with 3,500 opinions?”
Mr. Gallo clanked his fork against his untouched plate of grilled octopus. “It’s not a good thing to do,” he said. “It’s better to stay in your own delusion. It’s better not have a mirror in your house and to invent your own idea of your silhouette and not confront things in basic ways. Because you can develop confidence in your own instincts, in your own opinions and your own points of view.”
Mr. Gallo, 41, had found this out the hard way. A little over a week earlier, he had ventured to the Cannes Film Festival and walked straight into a media maelstrom. Mr. Gallo’s second film, The Brown Bunny , which he produced, wrote, directed, shot, starred in, edited and, according to him, has yet to finish, had been one of only three American entries accepted into the festival competition. The filmmaker said he never intended his film to go to Cannes, but submitted what he called a “temporary print” after his backers pleaded with him that it would be good for business.
Not that the film was lacking a profile. Even before Mr. Gallo had set foot in the south of France, The Brown Bunny had become a topic of much discussion once word leaked that the film culminated in a scene in which Mr. Gallo’s co-star Chloë Sevigny, whom he once briefly dated, gives him a very real-looking blowjob. But by the time Mr. Gallo and Ms. Sevigny traversed the red carpet at the Grand Theatre Lumiere-capacity 3,200-for the film’s official May 21 premiere, the advance word on The Brown Bunny had grown much uglier. The first press screening of the film, which had occurred the previous evening-Mr. Gallo was not there-”was remarkable for the unrestrained hostility of the audience,” wrote New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who noted among the reactions to the film that “every time” Mr. Gallo’s “name appeared in the end credits (which was often), they whistled some more, and gave voice to that French form of abuse that sounds like a cross between the lowing of a cow and the hooting of an owl.”
According to another press account, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert began singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” during a scene in which Mr. Gallo and Ms. Sevigny ride a bicycle built for two while she cups his crotch. Mr. Ebert himself wrote that, after the screening, he told a TV crew outside the theater: “The worst film in the history of the festival,” adding: “I have not seen every film in the history of the festival, yet I feel my judgment will stand.”
The negative reaction had little, if anything, to do with The Brown Bunny ‘s fabled sex scene. Mr. Ebert wrote in one of his dispatches from Cannes: “The film consists of an unendurable 90 minutes of uneventful banality.” In another, he wrote that if “Gallo had thrown away all of the rest of the movie and made the Sevigny scene into a short film, he would have had something.”
But Seiichi Tsukada, an executive at Kinetique, the Japanese company that provided the financing for The Brown Bunny , told The Observer that “I was at Cannes. I felt injustice. The bashing in Cannes is not for Brown Bunny . I think they’re bashing Vincent. I don’t know why.”
Mr. Gallo seemed to have an idea. “They booed me because I’m willing to be unpopular,” he said at Petrossian. “They booed me because this year I was the guy at Cannes to boo.
“I don’t know, I have it in me,” Vincent Gallo said. “People don’t like when you work without unions, agents, press people …. People don’t like when you do things yourself. They don’t like the confidence in myself to do all those things. They don’t like what they find as bravado or something. They don’t like it.”
He smiled. Mr. Gallo looked relaxed, not like a man who’d just had three years of work dismissed. The episode in Cannes clearly caused him some pain, but it had also returned him to a position that was comfortable to him: the underdog.
Mr. Gallo hails from Buffalo, N.Y., where he once said, “I had a very violent and abandoned and complex relationship with my mother and father.” But he achieved a kind of cult fame in downtown Manhattan in the 80′s. He was a member of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band, Gray, and his paintings showed and sold in major galleries. More recently, he has pursued his musical interests again by releasing two CD’s, When , in 2001, and Recordings of Music for Film , last year, on the Warp Records label. He is also an avowed Republican.
Mr. Gallo’s first film , Buffalo ’66 , which was released in 1998, had transformed him from an actor with a quirky résumé- Palookaville , Arizona Dream -into a filmmaker with a genuine vision. And now the media had knocked him back a few pegs. Maybe it was because, as Mr. Gallo contended, that he had succeeded without webbing himself into the legion of handlers, negotiators and mouthpieces that enable most filmmakers’ success; or maybe it was because, as Mr. Ebert insisted, The Brown Bunny really stank; but whatever it was, Mr. Gallo knows the role: how to be an effective David when a Goliath rumbles into his path.
When the mayor of Cannes asked Mr. Gallo to leave his handprints on the Croisette-an honor given to a select few guests every year-London’s The Guardian reported that the filmmaker first motioned to his crotch and said, “Are you sure you don’t want an imprint of this?”, then ended up “marking the clay with the back of his fist and a long middle finger pointing straight up.”
Body Naked, Mind Open
In an effort to describe his experience at Cannes, Mr. Gallo recalled once watching movies with former Paramount studios chief Robert Evans.
“He brilliantly watches a movie and understands what makes it work or not work. He thinks in that way.” Cannes was not that way, Mr. Gallo said. “These are not the heads of Paramount à la 1970. These are freaks from Long Island or wherever they’re from, working at Focus Films or who knows … and, uh, looking for the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding .
“Who knows?” he said. “I know that Antonioni’s Eclipse , which is one of the best films that I’ve ever seen in my life, was spit on at Cannes.”
Cannes, Mr. Gallo said, “is the most like that of any place in the world. And that’s exactly what happened to me. I don’t ever want to be involved in anything where there’s British journalists ever again anyway.”
Mr. Gallo said that while there was some booing and “ironic applause” during the official screening-occurring at one point when he said a “mistake” by the company that processed the print turned what was supposed to be a 21-second slow fade into a jarring blackout-he also noted that no one reported that The Brown Bunny got a “15-minute standing ovation at the end of the film. Longer than Gus’ film”-that would be Gus Van Sant’s Elephant , which won the Palme d’Or-and longer than any other that I saw there. And there was 75 percent at least of the audience left for that long standing ovation.”
Mr. Gallo also disputed a line in one of Mr. Ebert’s dispatches that Ms. Sevigny “reportedly cried during the screening.”
“I was with Chloë every minute,” Mr. Gallo said. “And I never saw her cry.” Ms. Sevigny’s publicist, Amanda Horton, concurred and also pointed out that The Brown Bunny received a standing ovation that she put at 10 minutes.
“I was there,” she wrote in an e-mail, “unlike many journalists who are confusing the public by writing about a press screening, and leading readers to believe that there were derisive comments and walk-outs at the actual premiere.”
There were other, more positive reactions, too. According to a Google.com translation of France’s Le Monde , the paper’s film critic wrote that though The Brown Bunny was not “a masterpiece,” it was a “beautiful film, dense, courageous, singular, inventing its own form.”
And though Merideth Finn, director of acquisitions and producer for Fine Line in New York, said the film was not right for her company, she found The Brown Bunny a “really interesting film” that came from “a good place.”
“More than anything else, it was interesting because it was one of more obvious examples of narcissistic disorder that I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Finn said. “And I don’t mean that sarcastically. It was one of the great examples of narcissism as art.”
Mr. Gallo took issue with a piece in the trade magazine Screen International that reported the filmmaker had “apologised” to “financiers and audiences for his film The Brown Bunny , which had a disastrous reception at Cannes.”
“I accept what the critics say,” Screen International quoted him. “If no one wants to see it, they’re right-it’s a disaster of a film and it was a waste of time. I apologise to the financiers of the film but I assure you it was never my intention to make a pretentious film, a self-indulgent film, a useless film, an unengaging film.”
The publication also reported that Mr. Gallo said that the official premiere “was ‘the worst feeling I ever had in my life.’”
According to Screen International editor in chief Colin Brown: “All these quotes that were reported in Screen International were tape-recorded. There’s not even question of these being taken out of context. The only thing that Gallo could argue was that he didn’t know that he was necessarily talking to Screen International ,” because it took place during a roundtable session that Mr. Gallo took part in the day after the official premiere.
This is what Mr. Gallo told The Observer he actually said: “Going to see a movie that I directed, photographed, acted in and controlled 100 percent with 3,500 morons is the worst feeling that I’ve ever had in my life.”
A Curse on Ebert’s Prostate!
Having been back in the States for only a few days, Mr. Gallo has already begun to set the record straight-in his own inimitable way. He called Mr. Ebert a “fat pig” in the June 2 edition of the New York Post ‘s Page Six column and said that he had put a curse on the movie reviewer’s “colon.”
Mr. Gallo told us that with the help of Scorpio Rising filmmaker Kenneth Anger, he had put a curse on Mr. Ebert’s prostate. “I mean, he was at the [closing] ceremony-where I’m not a participant, because clearly I’m not the kind of person who will ever win anything-and every other word out of his fat face was ‘Vincent Gallo’ or ‘ The Brown Bunny .’ Does he think, because he’s married to an African-American, that somehow that makes him compassionate or understanding? I mean, he has the physique of a slave trader.”
Mr. Ebert told The Observer that he was mystified that Mr. Gallo had singled him out. “It’s just the rantings of a very sad and confused person who should dial down a little bit and look at the film,” Mr. Ebert said. “If he thinks he made a good film, then I feel sorry for him. Buffalo ’66 was a good film, and this is not progress.”
Mr. Ebert, who pointed out that he’d recently lost 30 pounds, then looked up his reviews of Mr. Gallo’s acting performances and said he’d never given him a bad review until The Brown Bunny . “I look forward to giving him another review,” Mr. Ebert said. “He’s a good actor, and as a director he’s batting .500 right now. Lots of directors don’t do that well.”
In the next few days, Mr. Ebert may help Mr. Gallo’s film even more, though probably not intentionally. The day after Mr. Gallo strafed the film critic on Page Six, the same column reported that Mr. Ebert was “crafting a reply” to Mr. Gallo that he would air on the nationally syndicated TV show that he co-hosts with film critic Richard Roeper- a response that is sure to draw even more attention to The Brown Bunny .
Mr. Ebert also e-mailed me a copy of a piece he wrote for the Sun-Times , which was scheduled to run on June 4. In it, he wrote: “I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than ‘The Brown Bunny.’”
Asked to describe his movie, Mr. Gallo called it a minimalistic piece in the tradition of the artist Robert Ryman, the artist who works almost exclusively with white paint.
“It’s not an art film,” Mr. Gallo said. “It has a very precise methodical narrative, but it has a very unconventional narrative. And it’s a real road film, meaning that the geography is more authentic than any other film that’s pretended to be a road film. What I mean by that is that you get to really experience traveling by car in a way that’s, let’s say, more extreme than what has been conventionally done. If you sit back for 50 minutes and you accept that you’re going on this journey for half of the movie, the film is quite beautiful.
“And it’s quite easy to watch. If you’re there as a press journalist who’s seen 2000 movies and are trying to figure out the plot in eight seconds,” Mr. Gallo said, but he didn’t finish the thought.
This is how Mr. Ebert interpreted it: “Imagine long shots through a windshield as it collects bugs splats,” Mr. Ebert wrote. “Imagine not one but two scenes in which he stops for gas…Imagine a film so unendurably boring that at one point, when he gets out of his van to change his shirt, there is applause.”
Mr. Gallo plays Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer, who is traveling cross-country in a van. During the trip he meets women who have names of flowers, Rose, Lily, Violet. “He interacts with these girls in very bold, outrageous ways by bringing them in to either extreme intimacy or making outrageous proposals or requests to them,” Mr. Gallo said. “And then immediately abandons them and continues on his trip.”
Through flashbacks, Mr. Gallo said the viewer learns that Bud is in a “real relationship” with Daisy, played by Ms. Sevigny. The brown bunny of the title is her pet.
The film ends not only with the oral sex scene but with a twist that Mr. Gallo did not want to give away, but he said: “The scene that involves the sex is part of such a complex narrative at that point-there are so many levels of drama and pain and story and history and present going on-that the last thing you would remember from that scene is the graphic images of sex that you see briefly.”
“It is not a pornographic scene,” Mr. Gallo said. “It’s a highly complex scene of intimacy.”
Mr. Gallo wouldn’t how much his film cost. “But let’s say this,” he said. “Let’s say that most of the money that was spent on the movie was spent to do very technical things that are very modern, like intermediary digital processing, uncompressed editing, film composition techniques. None of the money was spent to make my life easier, to make the production easier for me.”
“I didn’t work within the protocol of cinema. There’s no call sheet, no craft service. I did the hair, the makeup, the clothes, the wardrobe, everything,” he said. He said his crew never exceeded “three people. Ever.”
When he and Ms. Sevigny shot-and reshot-their big climactic scene, “no one’s in the room-no soundman, no one. Everything’s on remote. I set up the whole shot. It’s all done by myself. Literally by myself.”
And yet Mr. Gallo said he ended up being dissatisfied with the work of some of his crew, and wound up having to re-shoot a lot of the footage by himself, and digitally “recompositioned every frame of the film after it was shot.
“So, in fact, not only did I work with the smallest crew in history,” Vincent Gallo said, laughing. “I did the movie in spite of them.”
Mr. Gallo said he was editing his movie when the Cannes organizers “got wind that I was making a radical movie and desperately wanted to see it.” He said that Cannes president Thierry Fremaux came to his home in Los Angeles, “where I refused to let them see it.”
But soon Mr. Gallo’s Japanese backers “called me up on the phone from Japan and said” here Mr. Gallo imitated a timid and mannered Japanese voice, “‘Ah, Vincent, It would be so good to go to Cannes. And they listed the reasons why it would be good for them if the movie went to Cannes.’”
“I told them that to show a movie that was unfinished was destructive to the film, I told them that to put a film that was so radical in a market environment would be bad for the film,” he said. Mr. Gallo said his backers disagreed and continued to pepper him with phone calls. But, he added, “They had done nothing but support me since Buffalo ’66 .” Mr. Gallo said that he warned his backers that they were making a mistake. “But if they wanted to do it, they would have to live with that mistake.”
Mr. Gallo’s film went to Cannes, and he said: “The reaction of course from Roger Ebert and his cronies is very similar to my Aunt Vera when she took me to see the Ryman exhibition in Buffalo, N.Y., and said, ‘What? Anybody can do these paintings.”
Kinetique’s Mr. Tsukada declined to comment.
“I’ll tell you what it took what it took from me with no support. I lost 30 percent of my hair,” Mr. Gallo said. “I gained 10 percent of my hair into the color gray. I lost my house. I lost my girlfriend. My relationship broke up as soon as I finished the screenplay. Just the idea that I would make the film I had to sacrifice my relationship. I destroyed my body. I can’t sleep anymore because I’ve hurt my back so many times with the equipment. Lifting all the equipment myself on the film. Sustaining the same injury on my back. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in three years. I’ve sacrificed a social life, I’ve sacrificed my relationship with my best friend, my former best friend Johnny Ramone. I haven’t been able to spend time with my dog, who’s the love of my life. I’ve lost money. I haven’t taken any other jobs. I’ve spent my own money. I’ve lived in hysteria. I had a nervous breakdown making the movie. There was a moment where my brain left my body for three weeks where I was babbling. That’s how stressful it was.”
When I asked Mr. Gallo if he thought the negative reception had hurt his backers’ chance of finding an American distributor, he replied: “I think it might have.”
“I don’t know if extreme support would have made a difference. But certainly extreme lack of support from the press certainly didn’t make any one of the mainstream buyers second-guess themselves. The worst thing that happened was, the French distribution company Wild Bunch that had bought the European sales rights to the film tried to back out of the contract after all the negative response to the movie. Not after they saw the movie-after the negative response to the movie. Which again is more reflection on the lack of integrity in French businessman.”
Mr. Tsukada declined to comment, but did say that Kinetique had gotten offers from independent distributors to release The Brown Bunny in the U.S.
Mr. Gallo had finished his octopus and was now opening up small squares of dark chocolate that had been placed on the table.
“The film is archival,” he said. “The minute that I finish the print of the film, it will never go away, and Roger Ebert will be dead of prostate cancer-if my curse works-within 16 months, and my film will live far past the biopsies that are removed from his anus.”
And Mr. Gallo said this: “If you see the film and you know my paintings and you know my music and you know my other movies and you understand me aesthetically in any way possible, this is the most clear, cool example of everything that I’ve been working toward my whole life. Both visually, sound-wise, color-wise and in my concept of how a narration works. How relationships work. How pain in a relationship works. How difficult it is to love and be loved.
“It’s a classic example of all my experiences, all my intuitions, all my concepts and all my aesthetic sensibilities than anything that I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “And it’s 50 times more mature of a film and more realized in my sensibility than Buffalo ’66. That doesn’t necessarily make it as easy to like to a mainstream audience. But if I die today”-he let out a laugh-”I promise, the film that will have impact on the Darren Aronofskys of the future, the Paul Andersons of the future, the Wes Andersons of the future.”
“Passive aggression could destroy me,” he said. “I’m an easy target on a personal level. In a creative way, in relationship to principles that I seek or admire I’m non-reactionary. I don’t wait around for people to like me. I like people who don’t like me. But in my work, I’m so narrow-minded. I’m the horse with the blinders on. And sometimes that has worked well for me. And sometimes that hasn’t. Sometimes that’s helped me to move forward in my work, in a big way. I will never be discouraged or encouraged by a guy with a thumb that points up or down. And I won’t be discouraged by a rude audience at a film festival or an impatient audience at a film festival.
“But I won’t be encouraged by that either.”
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