By now, the controversy surrounding the film is old news: the vitriolic response of the Cannes crowd, Gallo's temper tantrum, the feud with Roger Ebert and, of course, the famously graphic oral-sex scene. Since the original version of the film appeared at Cannes, writer-producer-director-star Gallo (Buffalo 66) has trimmed about 20 minutes of footage, and Ebert's thumb has done a 180. Still, most people will see The Brown Bunny for the Tommy Lee factor, and that's a shame. Viewed on its own, the film is a rewarding (though frequently hard-to-watch) portrait of a man in despair. It's also a telling example of how easily people are distracted from the substance of a story by one titillating detail.
Bud Clay (Gallo), a pro motorcycle racer, is driving from New Hampshire to Los Angeles with his race bike in the back of his van. He's heading for a race but also chasing memories of Daisy (Sevigny), his live-in girlfriend. They grew up next door to each other, and one of the stops he makes along the road is at her parents' home. Daisy's mother is clearly senile--she repeats questions, she doesn't remember Bud--but there's something else about the scene that seems "off," something hard to pin down until the movie's final minutes.
Bud is undeniably falling to pieces: He bursts into tears while driving, while taking a shower, while trying to comfort the women he meets on the road. The first of these encounters happens at a gas station: Bud pleads with a young girl to come to California with him. She agrees, but he drives off while she's at home gathering her things. Later, in one of the film's most powerful scenes, he has a nearly silent encounter at a rest stop with a sexy, hard-bitten older woman (Cheryl Tiegs). These encounters at first seem random, until you notice that all the women he's drawn to have flower names: Lilly, Violet, Rose. It's another clue whose full significance doesn't become clear until the end of the film.
Though nothing much happens for most of the film, it's an awfully pretty nothing. Nearly every scene along the road is gorgeous, even the blurry or scratchy or rain-dappled ones. Gallo himself looks fantastic, wound up tight and hunched into the corners and edges of the frame. There are long stretches without sound or dialogue, interspersed with endless driving scenes set to '60s and '70s songs that force you into the depressing monotony of a cross-country road trip. At times it's tempting to fast-forward to the juicy part--and it is juicy, with Sevigny heroically performing her half of the brutal dialogue like a dental patient.
But then comes the film's devastating ending, which puts everything that came before it into a completely new light. By the time the brief credits roll, The Brown Bunny has turned into a movie more soul-searching than self-indulgent, and far more sad than sexy. Gallo, egomaniac though he may be, has pulled off an admirable feat: He's managed to make cinematic onanism tragic instead of annoying.
The Brown BunnyNot Rated (adults only)Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 8:45 and 10:30 pm Friday-Thursday, Oct. 8-14. Additional shows 5 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.