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VIDEO ESSAY: Gallo(w)s of Punishment

There is hardly a more polarizing figure in the independent film scene than Vincent Gallo. He once called Roger Ebert a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader” after Ebert blasted the Cannes debut of his sophomore directorial effort, The Brown Bunny. On his official website, Gallo sells himself as a weekend escort and even offers women his sperm for an “in-vitro fertilization.” Most recently, Gallo declared that his third directorial project, an abstract romantic film, Promises Written In Water, would not be released. Ever. Still, if one can overlook—or even just ignore—the jaw-dropping, off-screen antics that Gallo throws at the public, it is actually pretty rewarding to take in the quiet power of Gallo’s first two (and still available) directorial works: Buffalo ’66 and The Brown Bunny. Not only does Gallo write, direct and star in each of these feature films, he basically offers himself as a post-postmodern martyr for a new generation of moviegoers. In fact, a lot of actors, writers, and directors could never pull off what Gallo does in these works. Gallo’s screen martyrdom ends up being an effective technique for revealing dark truths within his film’s heroes.

For starters, consider his directorial debut Buffalo ’66. Gallo plays Billy Brown, an ex-convict coming off a five-year prison stint for a crime he didn’t commit. Billy was the fall guy for a bookie played by Mickey Rourke—again phoning in his 90s tough guy persona (Thursday, Fall Time, Bullet). So Billy, still emotionally scarred from his childhood upbringing, kidnaps the angelic Layla (Christina Ricci) in order to present her to his spacy parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara) as his wife. Billy’s parents, nestled in their Buffalo, New York home, are trapped in a time capsule of naïve nostalgia: They seem to care more about a recorded VHS tape of a Buffalo Bills football game than they do with their son’s supposed new bride. On paper, all of this sounds like a black comedy in the vein of The Whole Nine Yards. Yet, Buffalo ’66 plays out with a quiet surrealism. There is an instrumental dance sequence in a bowling alley, showcasing Layla’s impromptu tap dancing skills. There is also a fantasized murder of a Buffalo Bills kicker at a strip club. The color scheme of every shot is muddled,  like a fading Polaroid. And most of the film is actually quiet, with Billy basking in his own sorrow. Yes, kidnapping Layla is the last thing he should probably be doing upon being released from prison. But Billy is so distraught with his broken existence that he becomes blind to his downward path of behavioral absurdity. Gallo’s performance here is key to the power of Buffalo ’66. He is able to sell Billy’s self-punishment not as an act of self-righteousness but as a self-remedy. Screwing up and avoiding any sort of real relationship not only feigns a reinvention of self-identity–it also helps Billy hold on to the last bit of sanity he thinks he has. In the off-kilter universe that Gallo creates in Buffalo ’66, people can rewrite their existences by deceiving themselves about the past and the projected future. There is something to be said about a filmmaker exploring these notions behind and in front of the camera.

In his next directorial project, The Brown Bunny, Gallo takes even more abrasive narrative risks and they take the movie to heights of pathos that most American independent films don’t even get a peek at. In this film, Bud Clay (Gallo) drives and drives listlessly across an indifferent highway, a drive through Americana itself. Sometimes he stops at a pet store. Other times he stops for gas. His few encounters with women prove fruitless. And then, in the last third, we meet Bud’s elusive beau, Daisy (Chloe Sevigny), in a soft-lit hotel room. The two embrace and begin to get intimate. In fact, Daisy—in front of the camera—performs oral sex on Bud. The scene is shocking. Are we really seeing this in an American indie flick? And then, ingeniously, Gallo the filmmaker pulls the rug from under us. While Daisy and Bud spoon on the hotel bed, a flashback sequence occurs: It’s revealed that Daisy was a drug addict and died of asphyxiation during a house party some time ago. She was also pregnant with Bud’s child when this happened. And during all of this we hear a broken Bud sob helplessly on the soundtrack, asking aloud why Daisy made the choices she did. A concluding shot shows Bud lying on the bed—alone. Thus, The Brown Bunny reveals itself not so much as a vain Vincent Gallo road trip movie but as a crippling dissection of male insecurity and ailing guilt. It’s the kind of film that would have thrived in the 1970s, when artists were unabashedly emoting their anxieties and fears on the screen.

In the end, with only two directorial efforts, Mr. Gallo has given us more profundity than any of his shock-driven publicity stunts or sound bites could ever articulate.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.”

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