Justifying the Narcissism
What is it to be explicit? There is the form and there is the content, there is the representation and the diegesis. A well-known example of implicit explicitness is Andy Warhol’s Blow Job, a mid-sixties black and white film, making clear in its title exactly what the film is about, yet which holds on the face of the receiver throughout. It is a coy tease on the porn film’s need to offer the money shot: nobody would be paying to see a porn film for the expression of pleasure on the receiver’s face unless it happened to be accompanied by the evidence of that orgasmic pleasure. Warhol’s gag rests on pulling no punches in the title and pulling nothing but punches in the film itself. Warhol’s art was often the art of disappointment, a promise that he would refuse to deliver, or disappoint because there was nothing to deliver. Sleep watches a man snooze; Empire looks at the Empire state building.
But what of Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, which became famous for the fellatio near its conclusion? Here is a film that leaves us consistently in the dark for most of its running time as we follow Gallo’s motorbike racing character, Clay Bud, across the States before he reunites with his girlfriend, Daisy. For the first seventy minutes, we have little idea why he acts as he does and the motorbike racing contains no suspense to it whatsoever. We see him perform once at the beginning and take off on his bike on a salt lake, but we sense very strongly a man who has a sorrow to nurse rather than an ambition to fulfil. Here the film resembles great seventies works like Wanda, Two-Lane Blacktop and Road Movie, narratively rambling works that brilliantly find their purpose in character and atmosphere, in making us muse over the character’s behaviour while absorbing the specificity of milieu. As he travels from St Louis to Salt Lake City, Gallo shows us the ‘Other America’, the offscreen space of a Hollywood cinema that usually suggests all the fret and anxiety lies at the end of a gun rather than in bills to pay, poor diets, low salaries and illness. This the reality Gallo is attuned to as he conveys the pockets of a life. In one scene Clay visits his hometown and pops in to see Daisy’s parents. They don’t remember who he; he explains he has been with Daisy for years, they’ve been living out in California, and that he was literally the boy next door – they had a swimming pool but it wasn’t anything special. The scene is a comedy sequence played straight as we wonder at this stage if Clay is half-crazy or the parents half-senile. The film doesn’t care to say either way and is all the better for it. In another early sequence, Clay pops into a shop and gets talking to the girl behind the counter. She asks about the motorcycle race and if he won. He says no, that he is off to Californian and would she like to come. She looks like she is just out of school (perhaps still in it), and says she hardly knows him. In his soft, insistent voice Clay pleads gently with her and she acquiesces. They drive over to her place, she gets out, they kiss a little through the open van window, and she goes to pick up her things. No sooner is she in the house than Clay drives off. Had he no intention of taking her with him, suspected she wouldn’t come anyway or changed his mind as soon as she was gone? We have no idea, just as we have no idea about the girl’s feelings as the film doesn’t cut back to a disappointed young woman coming out of the house finding him absent.
In such moments, the film conveys a nuanced sense of ambiguity within a high degree of potential implausibility. Would both the parents really not remember who Clay was; would the girl really consider going off with him after a minute of persuasion? The question of plausibility would seem to interest Gallo (who wrote, partly shot and directed the film as well as starring in it) less than the question of authenticity, words that can often be used interchangeably but that we want to distinguish from each other for the purposes of understanding an aspect of Gallo’s preoccupations. Plausibility is narratological in this context; authenticity chiefly an issue of mise en scene. It is not plausible that a young woman would go off with a stranger within a minute of meeting him, and it isn’t plausible that both of his girlfriend’s parents would fail to remember him. But it feels authentic that once agreeing to go that the young woman would be excited and tender with the man she is to go off with; that Clay would feel awkward meeting the parents for the first time in a while. Authenticity is a more problematic term than implausibility even if both are words not easily unloaded of assumption. It is implausible that a football team near the bottom of the league halfway through the season will win the title. They would need to win all their remaining games. Not impossible but highly unlikely. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard addresses this problem in Philosophical Crumbs, saying “what has happened has happened as it happened, thus it is immutable, but is this the immutability of necessity? The immutability of the past that is actual ‘thus’ cannot be otherwise, but does it not follow from this that its possible ‘how’ could not have been other than it was? The impossibility of the necessary, on the other hand, is that it constantly relates to itself and relates to itself in the same way, excluding every change.”
The immutable is unchangeable after it has happened, but it is not immutable until it has happened. Freedom, for Kierkegaard, lies centrally in this question. This is not an unimportant issue for aesthetics and the sort of freedom a filmmaker like Gallo seeks. It is improbable the girl and the parents act as they do but it is not immutable unless we have a fixed idea of screenwriting practice that refuses unlikelihood. Syd Field, discussing screen craft in Screenplay, says to understand the principle of structure, it’s important to start with the word itself. The root of structure, struct, has two definitions that are relevant. The first definition means to ‘build’ or ‘to put something together’, like a building or car. The second definition is ‘the relationship between the parts and the whole.” Field is talking about a structure that is close to the immutable, Gallo’s films is, if nothing else, very mutable indeed. It is less interested in the tight, plausibility of structure but instead the looser demands of authenticity. This isn’t an unproblematic word and Theodor Adorno dedicated a book to its use in The Jargon of Authenticity. As Trent Schroyer says in his introduction: “For Adorno, Heidegger’s existentialism is a new Platonism which implies that authenticity comes in the complete disposal of the person over himself – as if there were no determination emerging from the objectivity of history.” If Kierkegaard can claim that chance come from the circumstances that are not given until they are given, and hence not temporally immutable, Adorno suspects there is something immutable in Heidegger and others’ approach to authenticity.”
But for our purposes, we want to rescue authenticity and use it as a way of looking at mise en scene, a method that can ‘redeem’ a work’s own implausibility. If we might not believe in the likelihood of Gallo’s scenario on the page, especially as the film unfolds rather than after it reveals Clays’s problem in the conclusion, we shouldn’t ignore the authentic feel he manages to create in the situations on the screen. A wonderful example of this comes a third of the way through the film when Clay meets a woman sitting on her own at a picnic table. We see the woman initially in longing, long shot, leaving us wondering who she is and why she might be sitting there. Is she waiting for someone specifically, or waiting for someone generally? She looks from a distance like a woman who could be in her early to mid-thirties; when we see her in close up we might think she is much older, or someone whose unhappiness is seen on her face. The character is played by Cheryl Tiegs, “the world’s first supermodel”, in her mid-to-late fifties when she took this briefest of parts, and who is filmed in strong daylight without make-up. This is finally no more nor less than a famously beautiful woman looking at least close enough to her age for us to be slightly surprised by her close-ups. But Gallo wants to play this authenticity off against the implausible. Gallo picks up a coke, goes over to her and asks if she is okay and vice versa. They start to hug and kiss before Clay gets up and walks away. Many will muse over the unlikelihood of such moments, focusing on Gallo’s ego that makes him irresistible to women rather than attending to a famously irresistible woman made to look less than stunning. Critics have generally pointed up the implausible over the authentic, the egotistical over the absence of ego. “Bud then arrives at a rest stop, where a middle-aged, seemingly depressed woman (turns out to be Cheryl Tiegs) is sitting at a picnic table. Again, because it’s Gallo’s movie, the woman offers no resistance when he sits by her, holds her close and kisses her.” So says the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson. However, another Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter wonders whether Gallo is so vain after all. “Some have called it a vanity project, in that it stars Gallo, it was directed, produced, edited and, I suppose, “written” by him, and he is in 99 percent of it. But it’s not vanity in the customary meaning of that word. His beauty – a kind of bruised New York radiance set off by greasy hair that somehow calls up the Warhol scene – is not a part of the proceedings.” Hunter notes that “When you watch a Tom Cruise or Richard Gere or similarly beautiful men on screen, they’re always backlit, posed, ripped, shot in their best angle, brilliantly made up and art-designed, even when supposedly in grubby circumstances.” This is the ego serving the inauthentic but part of the distinctiveness of The Brown Bunny is that the ego is there to serve the authentic instead. The ego becomes much more nakedly present than in Top Gun or An Officer and a Gentleman and thus paradoxically less egotistical.
Never is this more pronounced than in the moment when Gallo whips out his not unimpressive penis and has a well-known actress of independent cinema, Chloe Sevigny, suck on it. This was central to the film’s shock value when it appeared at Cannes, and vital to its albeit very modest commercial success. “While the film was shortened after its Cannes premiere,” Stephen Kotler observed in Variety, “the fellatio scene not only stayed, but A $30,000 billboard was purchased on L.A.’s Sunset Strip throughout August. It focuses on the film’s fellatio scene — naughty bits obscured by an out-of-focus haze — alongside the words “Adults Only” and a large “X”. Yet if critic David Edelstein could say that Gallo does have a “primitivist sort of talent” (Slate) this rests partly on the bluntness of his egotism. Instead of relying on flimsy narrative justifications and cinematographic flattery, Gallo makes it clear that he is well-endowed as he offers the opposite of what Mark Wahlberg puts on show in Boogie Nights. While it was common knowledge that playing Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film was an exercise in prosthesis as Wahlberg’s own member remained under wraps, Gallo’s point would seem to be that this would be the sexual equivalent of blue screen. Gallo was more inclined to go blue movie: to bring out the authenticity in fundamental phallic recognition. This is properly naked egotism, as opposed to the usually burnished body egotism of most male stars who insist that rippling muscle must be the means by which a leading man displays his masculinity. Gallo is instead thin-armed, weak-voiced and given to consistent bouts of tenderness rather than specific examples of violent conquest. It is as though he has made a film to say what is this thing masculinity sitting at the base of many an American film, and what happens when you remove all the displaced diegetic obfuscations and show the phallus nakedly on display. Roger Ebert’s famous dismissal at Cannes where he said it was the worst film ever made was, from a certain perspective, not inaccurate. But one sensed it was the combination of narratively nothing happening with Gallo’s unashamed egotism that brought out Ebert’s wrath. “Those who saw Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” have been gathering ever since, with hushed voices and sad smiles, to discuss how wretched it was. Those who missed it hope to get tickets, for no other film has inspired such discussion.” Ebert would add, “‘the worst film in the history of the festival,’ I told a TV crew posted outside the theater. I have not seen every film in the history of the festival, yet I feel my judgment will stand.” (RogerEbert.com) Gallo was far from kind back but it isn’t the spat that interests us; it is the nature of a film that can offend a sensibility and, in turn, makes us wonder what that sensibility happens to be.
Central to this sensibility is the assumption Hollywood makes films that are plausible in their narration and uninterested in the authenticity of their mise-en-scene. This can take the simple form of characters living in apartments that don’t seem to match their financial situation. In Reel Estate, the online magazine looks at various films and the characters’ living quarters. One key example is Single White Female that shows Bridget Fonda living in an Upper West Side apartment that gets explained away with remarks about rent control, but if we look at other examples of rent-controlled flats in New York they are often attractive but also usually much more modest. Hollywood utilizes space for its narrative possibilities not for its capacity to explore the spatial aspect as verisimilitudinous. If you have someone who is mentally imbalanced chasing you around an apartment you need a big enough space in which to hide. The apartment in Single White Female provides it. The tension is the thing. Gallo, foregoing story and suspense instead asks that each screen space is respected for its own integrity. This is partly what the makes the film slow so that each sequence finds its own internal meaning rather than its immediate narrative significance. While many a film adopts foreshadowing to hint at where we are going narratively, Gallo states where we are going geographically. As he drives we recognize our next destination through the freeway signs that he passes, whether it be St Louis, Los Angeles or the Salt Lakes.
This is telling us where we are going; not implying where the story might lead, which is one reason why we have invoked Wanda, Two-Lane Blacktop and Road Movie, three great films on the problem of drift. Any narrative purpose is lost due to the lost feelings of the characters themselves. They cannot dramatise their own lives so that little drama can come out of the experience. Does this mean such films shouldn’t be made? According to Syd Field, “all drama is conflict, Without conflict, you have no action, without action, you have no character, without character, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.” (Screenplay) That all sounds very self-evident but is it? Let us change it. All of life is potentially meaningful, even that which can seem meaningless. What matters is how we manage to suggest what is meaningful even within ostensible meaninglessness. Field’s dictum for film is much narrower than our own, since he puts the story at the centre of life while we wish to put life at the centre of the story. The former insists on goal-oriented protagonists and others who insist on getting in the way of these protagonist’s aims and goals. Ours wonders whether such approaches hamper an investigation into life because of the constraints placed upon the films by these goal-oriented demands.
In Another Man magazine, Gallo remembers the one family holiday he had as a child. “I remember the trip quite well. I was only interested in getting there. And the waiting was uncomfortable. I don’t remember the music on the radio, which normally I would listen to. I didn’t look out the window, which I would also normally do. Instead I sort of suspended myself, a kind of hibernation. I was simply focused on getting there. And I wanted the trip to go by as fast as possible. I was a child then.” Gallo then compares it to the time he first travelled as an adult. “I was seventeen. I drove a car from New York City to Los Angeles. It was an old car and not in good shape. And I had very little money. I wanted to see California. It was so far from my childhood in Buffalo.” Gallo says “Every minute of the trip was beautiful and I remember well the melodramas of the car failures and the repairs. And the music…It was exciting. LA was exciting.” Gallo says on arriving there. “But in fact, it was the trip I remember best, the travelling, the looking around, the changes in weather and landscape…I was an adult. That’s the difference between adults and children. The critics who say nothing happens in The Brown Bunny while my character drives across the country, those critics have the intellect of children. Children need to be constantly entertained and amused.” A screenplay theorist might stretch a point and say that in each case, the trip was the obstacle, that the young Gallo had to endure the long drive to get what he wanted, but Gallo would insist this completely misses the point. The journey was as much the event as the getting there, but his own micro goal-oriented behaviour, in the first example, meant that he couldn’t see what was in front of his eyes, because all he could concentrate was seeing what was a few hundred miles away. If Gallo sees the critics as children it rests on this inability to absorb the present because they must be able to anticipate the future. It is a variation on what we are saying about time versus space.
This might be why if we have a problem with the film it isn’t that Gallo has foregone the story; more that he has relied upon it too much in the film’s conclusion. The reason for Gallo’s troubled state throughout the film is revealed when he returns to LA and would appear to meet up with Daisy in a hotel room. As they talk we realize why Clay has been so inconsolable. The previous year they had been at a party, Daisy got very drunk and allowed herself to be taken advantage of by a gang of guys and lost the child she was carrying. This is story enough for a film, and even for a very commercially-oriented one. We could easily see it as the inciting incident placed at the beginning of the film all the better to get a vengeful story in motion. But while we can admire Gallo for refusing to do so, for turning Clay’s anger not into a killing spree but a series of arrested feelings finding modest outlets through journeying across the States, it gives the film a lop-sided focus, and turns immediate ambiguity into retrospective obviousness. Our attention to the incidentals has been for the purposes of accumulating a quite specific meaning, a meaning further evident when we realize that Daisy is a figment of his imagination – that she died too. This doesn’t mean the film needed to eschew revelation altogether. A very fine example of a film that leaves us wondering what is going on in the character’s head before revealing precisely what has been motivating his action is Cristi Puiu’s Aurora. The director too plays the central role as he seems to be moving through Bucharest with something on his mind but no motivation to his actions, so by the end of the film we realize how they are conjoined. Indeed, the film’s approach is a very good way of generating something out of nothing – it gives to the film an inexplicable tension that finds justification in the conclusion. If critics have insisted on the sophomore aspect of The Brown Bunny (Variety called it a “big, sophomore stumble”), that the film shows an immature mind, it rests on us looking back and seeing how self-absorbed Clay has been over how devastated he has clearly become. We are likely to offer sympathy assuming some catastrophe has visited him, but by the film’s conclusion, the tragedy has befallen someone else even more than it has befallen Clay. Unless we see Daisy as a woman who took her pleasure where she could find it and thus sacrificed her baby’s life, we are inclined to think that Clay’s reaction has been, retrospectively, less the height of sensitivity, than the depths of insensitivity. He has attended to his own hurt ego over the loss of their child, because he cannot see that another’s pain is more important than his own. It is not till just before the very end that we find that the Daisy he has been interaction with is dead, and by that moment a lot of viewers might be inclined to have been so dismayed by the narcissism and self-obsession that they won’t buy into the twist.
The film’s relative failure within its overall success would seem to rest on this: that while his pain is understandable, its comprehensibility rests on accepting another’s is more important still. This the film doesn’t, until the twist at the end, quite do. It is a bit like someone at a funeral whose work colleague has died expecting to be consoled by the widow. Not all grief is equal and, despite the film’s conclusion, it might seem odd that Clay has given so much consideration towards the pain of others during the course of the movie but has withheld it from Daisy because he suspects she wanted to sleep with a group of men. His apparent demand in the context of such a wounding is the film’s centrepiece, the act which had many queuing up to see the film at Cannes. By going down on Clay, Daisy is kneeling in a position of beseechment but Clay has unholy intentions as he unzips his trousers. There is potentially a complex intersection here between religious need and sexual desire, evident in other American films, including those of Abel Ferrera (The Bad Lieutenant, Mary, Pasolini), whose The Funeral Gallo appeared in, but Gallo doesn’t seem to be provoking a response in the sequence: the scene suggests that Daisy ought to assuage that hurt ego by complying with a sexual demand. Not only would she seem to have been brutally raped, she now has to service the man she has lost a child with: at least that is what we are likely to think at the moment the scene is taking place. There seems to be a difference between the problematic and the problematising here. In The Bad Lieutenant when Harvey Keitel’s cop stops a couple of women in a car and starts masturbating in front of them, our sympathy for Kietel’s character meets with an astonishment of how degraded he has allowed himself to become. The scene is problematised through our central character indulging in behaviour we are likely to be appalled by, within the context of a character whose predicament we follow, even have some sympathy towards. In The Brown Bunny we feel the scene is problematic without quite being problematized, and then, instead, in the twist, justified. When Gallo quotes a conversation with Sean Penn in the Another Man essay, we can see that Gallo still seems to miss the point. “A year later, Sean Penn, who was at Cannes in 2003, said to me that if the film’s credits read, “Written and Directed by Chloe Sevigny,” it would have likely won the Palm d’Or. Meaning those judgmental judges would have felt the film was a feminist triumph and Chloe so brave.” What Gallo shows here is a lack of perspective that ruins the film’s conclusion even though it is this lack of perspective as filmmaking form evident in Stephen Hunter’s comment about narcissism that allows Gallo to ignore many of the demands mainstream cinema imposes on filmmakers.
For most of the film, Gallo manages to be both oblivious to expectation and sympathetic to lives other than his character’s own. When he pays loving attention to various women he meets along the way back to Los Angeles he shows affection within compassion. In the motel he expresses lust within the context of contempt, yet still appears to demand that we understand the awful predicament he has gone through. It is in these closing scenes that the film might seem to be losing its capacity to balance the authenticity of its mise-en-scene with the implausibility of its narration. If we hold onto the authenticity we find ourselves siding with the insensitive, with a man who cannot see beyond the selfishness of his feelings towards the catastrophe that befell his girlfriend. This has nothing to do with Gallo’s claim concerning how the film would have been received differently if Sevigny had directed it. We are not trying to assert a ‘fashionable’ interest in the woman’s feelings over the man’s. It returns us to our example of the work colleague versus the widow. Daisy has been multiply violated and lost the child she was carrying and still she is expected to prioritize Clay’s feelings over her own at the moment we as viewers see the scene. People watching the film have proposed that they have had far more sympathy with Clay on a second-viewing. However, unlike films that play up the reveal so that a second viewing shows how manipulated the viewer has been in the first viewing, Gallo’s film works much more as a film that we experience rather than scheme alongside. Fight Club, The Usual Suspects and Sixth Sense all trick us into believing one thing and then revealing another. The Brown Bunny is most of the way no such film. Yet Clay’s need for sex in this moment would seem to trump Daisy’s need for affection and understanding, and this is the moment we are in, ethically dealing with Gallo’s perverse demand. This doesn’t mean we cannot accept ambivalent characters or ambivalent behaviour; indeed some have argued that a narrative artwork is all the better for this moral ambivalence. A. W. Eaton says, for example, that the defining features of the rough hero “are first that we are made emphatically aware of the character’s grevous moral flaws and, second, that we are lured into a variety of pro-attitudes toward the character…”(‘Rough Heroes of the New Hollywood’)
We have no problem with this approach, of course, but we would qualify it with two provisos. One is that a sense of perspective is nevertheless possible within that sympathy and attraction; secondly, that this sympathy towards a rough hero isn’t based on what we might call a factive antipathy. When Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces treats his girlfriend badly, we might sympathise with his frustration but we don’t agree with his behaviour. We know he is treating her appallingly, but we also know that given his circumstances, his education, and his family upbringing, he cannot easily do otherwise. When he takes off at the end of the film and leaves her at the filling station, we would be missing the point to assume he has got rid of a dead loss; we will still have sympathy for her but comprehend that Nicholson is no good for her at all. Hence the perspective. Perspective can often allow us to have simultaneous sympathies without the need for ready identification. In the second instance, if a character treats someone badly because they are a woman, Jewish, black or gay, we see this factive antipathy, a dislike for another human being that doesn’t recognize the attributes of their character, only the factive givens that cannot be changed. It is one thing to withdraw sympathy from a man who beats his wife; quite another to withdraw sympathy from the woman because she is a woman: if it weren’t for the revelation that she is dead, Clay’s treatment of Daisy can seem very misogynistic indeed. One may even say it is misogynistic and as we suggested, justified by the twist. Perhaps Gallo sees his film in the tradition of seventies cinema that Eaton makes the centre of her article, and we wouldn’t disagree (hence the references to Road Movie, Wanda and Two-Lane Blacktop), but we do feel that the film may lack the perspective so clearly present in Five Easy Pieces, for example. This is a lack of perspective that might even suggest that Daisy’s actions are those of all women and that, consequently, Daisy’s need to console Clay will also consist of her need to fellate him. Has his sensitivity towards other women finally been a resistance to getting too close to a gender that he must be wary of?
We needn’t exaggerate our case just because Gallo has ruined the suggestive tension in his film with a conclusion that becomes explicit in too many ways and insensitive in others. The Brown Bunny is most of the way a film that indicates a sensitivity in form and feeling, a work that echoes enough the great films of the seventies to make us all the more disappointed by the nature of its denouement. But to regard the film as terrible would be to attend too much to the last twenty-five minutes and not enough to what comes before. There is a fascinating authenticity to many of the scenes that offset the implausibility in the telling. If the ending seems a slight get out, it rests on the implausibility meeting the inauthentic, yet we might wonder if the naivete Gallo shows in the last twenty minutes before the full revelation is part of a sensibility that is first and foremost, wayward. It is a sensibility that can attend to the nuances in authenticity but cannot quite sustain it.