Actor/filmmaker/artist/model Vincent Gallo is the epitome of that difficult, artistic type that any mature, rational woman knows to avoid. It's tough to ignore that kind of guy at first, though – those piercing eyes, that razor-sharp wit, that sweet vulnerability, those jeans that need laundering – they all draw you in, and the next thing you know, you're enduring his temper tantrums, paying off his credit cards, and fielding calls from his other girlfriend. You'd like to leave him, but every time you try he assumes the fetal position, sobs hysterically, then writes you a little poem that seems to imply either that you're the love of his life or that you're a worthless, dirty whore; you can't tell which.
The more you learn about Gallo, the more difficult it is not to have mixed feelings about him, because his cup is running over with good and bad and everything in between. Where do you even start with such a tangled mess of a human being? Do you start with his acting or his songwriting or his painting or his Formula 3 motorcycle racing or his vintage hi-fi collection or his appearance in Calvin Klein ads? Do you mention his connections, the fact that he was in a band with Jean-Michel Basquiat, that he's been close friends with Johnny Ramone, that he dated PJ Harvey? Do you talk about his unhappy childhood in Buffalo, his abusive father, his 2-month marriage, or his hardscrabble days on the streets of New York? Do you start with Buffalo 66, his critically acclaimed first film that made it into Sundance in 1998, or with The Brown Bunny, his critically panned second film that bombed at Cannes last year and is currently bombing with critics nationwide? Whether or not Gallo has any talent as a filmmaker, he undeniably possesses the blend of sociopathic and narcissistic tics, the compulsively confessional nature and the courage of conviction that's shared by the kinds of artists and cultural icons that are impossible to ignore. In fact, talent may be entirely beside the point.
The powers that be in Cannes certainly seemed to think so when then invited The Brown Bunny to appear at the festival last year. The reviews have been extremely negative, but even the harshest of the reviews hardly does justice to just how bad a film The Brown Bunny is. Remember when you were about 13, and you'd stare out the window on family car trips, with "Tangerine" by Led Zeppelin playing in your Walkman, and you thought, "If I were a filmmaker, I'd shoot a film about a lonely 13-year-old gazing out the window, feeling lonely, while driving across the lonely countryside, and this would be the soundtrack"? Vincent Gallo is that 13-year-old, and The Brown Bunny looks just like the film you'd get if you handed an emotionally overwrought preteen a camera and enough money to do a feature-length project.
The whole movie amounts to countless long shots out the front windshield of a van driving across the country, punctuated by scenes where Gallo stops, gets out of the van, kisses a woman he doesn't know, then climbs back into his van and cries. After about an hour of this, Gallo (who plays a motorcycle racer named Bud Clay) reaches Los Angeles, where, after a trip to his mechanic which has no dialogue and seemingly no significance, he has an intense talk with his exgirlfriend, Daisy (Chloe Sevigny), then she gives him a blow job. Afterwards, Gallo gets back into the van, and he probably cries again, but the film ends before we find out. Damn those ambiguous art-film endings!
Luckily, Gallo learns from his mistakes. After taking a beating at Cannes, he decided that, among other things, "there was a little too much restraint in the way I showed the sexuality."
"Some people didn't believe that was really sex that was happening, and that was really my dick, and Chloë really blowing me," Gallo told "Lodown." Naturally, that wouldn't work at all. So what did Gallo do?
"I replaced one 18-second shot where you can't see anything, with the most graphic sequence that will be in that whole scene..." The new version features extreme close-ups of the act which leave absolutely no room for doubt. They also won the film an X-rating.
Gallo's intelligence and courage to ignore film conventions are without question. Unfortunately, on top of being incredibly dull, The Brown Bunny captures little more than a simple snapshot of isolation and despair. But the torment and self-pity at the center of The Brown Bunny won't surprise those who recognized Buffalo 66 as a self-indulgent excursion into one man's scorched emotional landscape. Despite critical praise, Buffalo 66 focused on the extremely narrow, somewhat self-pitying perspective of its protagonist, offered without any hint that the filmmaker's perspective was any more evolved than that of his protagonist, Billy.
In fact, all that seemed to explain Billy's pain was the fact that his parents had no taste, didn't know what to do with their strange son and spent most of their time watching football. Sounds like the childhood experience of most moderately intelligent, sensitive children in America, doesn't it? No matter how stylish and aesthetically refined Gallo's vision might be, it's tough to get behind a narrative concerned mostly with the experiences of someone who refuses to open himself up to any view other than his own.
But the most revealing portrait of Vincent Gallo may be found in the picture Gallo paints of others. According to Gallo, Jim Jarmusch "doesn't have soul." Spike Jones "is a moron." John Cassavetes is a "left-wing commie bastard and I shit on him." Winona Ryder "had some tablets that seemed to have an impact on her behavior." Paul Thomas Anderson is "a brown-noser" and Fiona Apple is "his fermented, mulatto cannabis-soaked [former] girlfriend." Quentin Tarantino is a "pretentious hipster" and "The Opposite of Sex" is "a faggot film" and Roger Ebert is a "fat pig." One suspects that Gallo adds new enemies to his list every day, from the guy who fetches him a large coffee in the morning to the jerk delivering the news on TV at night.
Gallo famously put a curse on Ebert's colon after Ebert declared The Brown Bunny "The worst film in the history of the [Cannes film] festival," Ebert responded by saying that his recent colonoscopy was more entertaining than Gallo's film. The two have since made peace – albeit, the wordy, excuse-littered, confessional peace that Gallo seems to favor.
No matter how self-effacing and charming Gallo can be when he's sticking his foot in his mouth, like an overgrown Holden Caulfield, he always seems to come back around to proclaiming the phoniness and vanity and emptiness of everyone around him. In an auto-interview originally intended for "Grand Royal" and published by Buddyhead.com after "Grand Royal" went under, the volume of Gallo's mercurial bitterness is revealed in the most startling fashion. In it, Gallo confesses that he doesn't trust or love anyone and that "people are all creepy. Creepy creepy creeps."
So whom does Gallo love? According to the interview, his favorite people include Richard Nixon, Andy Kaufman, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Charlton Heston and Newt Gingrich.
Alarming, perhaps purposefully so. But then, most of Gallo's interviews are alarming; his appetite for outrageous statements and for taking the well-known down a notch seems to know no bounds, and as much as you feel for those who incur Gallo's wrath (and puzzle over those who escape it), it's hard not to enjoy his vitriol from your comfy box seats.
Gallo's critical eye appears to be somewhat blind when it comes to self-analysis. Gallo's narcissistic tendencies are well-documented. In "BB Gun," he says of a Spin writer who gave his album a bad review: "[He] clearly has his resentment on his own. Maybe I fucked his girlfriend or maybe his gay boyfriend likes me – who knows?"
In the same interview, he mentions his former therapist, saying, "He died two years ago, which was sad because I was having a bad time with my girlfriend." Ah yes, it was sad when his therapist died, because he needed his therapist right then. Such absurdly selfish comments make Gallo sound like a sociopathic character straight out of a David Foster Wallace story.
Ultimately, Gallo's egocentrism and lack of perspective present a puzzle, because they lie at the heart of what wins Gallo attention, defines him as an artist and motivates him to create, but they also limit the scope of what he's able to create, not to mention making it impossible for him to get along peacefully with other human beings. When you sort through Gallo's strange history, his attacks on everyone he's ever encountered, his justifications and rationalizations and explanations, it quickly becomes clear that this is someone who will always find new outlets for his emotions and new ways to stay in the public eye. He may never mature as a filmmaker or demonstrate much talent at anything at all, but his accomplishments were never what made him interesting in the first place. Does anyone really care if Gallo creates anything of value? Of course not. We just want him to keep on lashing out and airing his dirty laundry for the world to see, to provide us all with a living parable of the evils of the overly indulged ego.
Isn't that unfair? Maybe Vincent Gallo deserves our sympathy after all.