That's a hell of a subtext, and hardly the only one in The Fog of War. Another is the eerie likeness of McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, of LBJ to G.W., of yesterday's war to tomorrow's. Indeed, among festival-related fears, the National Enquirer's 72-point headline of early May--"AL QAEDA TARGETS CANNES!"--had nothing on McNamara's reminder that, now as then, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons are on 15-minute alert to be launched upon the command of one human being. (That's one human being who doesn't feel the need for second opinions--and who, uh, wasn't elected.)
The pervasive gloom in Cannes this year was such that even the most masochistic cineastes could be forgiven for wanting, say, a love story to lighten the load. But while Vincent Gallo indeed delivered what his Brown Bunny press kit calls "une histoire de l'amour," the affair onscreen is mainly between the auteur and himself. (Don't get me wrong: The movie is no less compelling for that.) Sporting a scraggly mane, a three- or four-day beard, and would-be grungewear that looks suspiciously like last year's Hugo Boss, the part-time model and full-time narcissist plays Bud Clay, a professional motorcycle racer who has been spinning his wheels ever since losing Daisy, the love of his life. Piloting an old Dodge van from the East Coast to his next big race in California, Bud meets, woos, and abruptly abandons a string of surrogate girlfriends who seem to fall for him instantaneously. (As in Buffalo '66, writer-director Gallo doesn't explain how the scruffy loner played by Gallo could be such a proficient ladies' man. Apparently unearned arrogance is an aphrodisiac in some quarters.)
The allegory, intentional or not, is unmistakable: The Brown Bunny is a movie about a guy who can't get it up for anyone but his first love, made by a guy whose desire to revisit the broad appeal of his debut renders him all but impotent. So Bud starts cuddling and kissing a woman (played by Cheryl Tiegs!) whom he meets at a roadside rest stop, but soon collapses into tears because...she isn't Daisy. (Daisy, we discover in flashbacks where she's played by Chloë Sevigny, used to grab Bud's crotch when he'd give her a ride on his bike. Love is a many splendored thing.) Eventually Bud checks into the most mod suite of any Best Western in the known universe and waits for Daisy, praying she'll come. Eventually she does...and so does he.
Though Bud may be speedy on the track (and in the sack, too), The Brown Bunny could hardly be said to hop. Nearly half of the two-hour film is devoted to giving us Gallo's hangdog face in close-up, the other half to shots of the highway as seen through the hero's bug- and birdshit-speckled windshield. When a hard rain comes and washes the filth off the front of Bud's van, that constitutes a major plot development by default. (One of many critics who fled the late-night press screening early did so after Gallo's character pulled the van over...to put on a sweater.) When Bud climbs into a motel-room shower at one point and starts washing himself, I momentarily worried that there might be a masturbation scene--until I realized that, in a way, every scene in The Brown Bunny is a masturbation scene.
Gallo's vanity is so extreme and yet so natural that it calls attention to the essential immodesty of almost any artistic venture--any human endeavor, even. And, narcissistic or no, his movie is uniquely, perversely riveting: ludicrous and poignant at the same time, often in equal measure. Visually speaking, it's simply gorgeous. Shot in ultra-grainy Super 16, The Brown Bunny has a tactile quality that's nearly unmatched in recent American film; you can practically count each pebble on the road, each hair on the fuzzy little rabbit that graces the movie's insanely absurd epilogue. The oddball framing of Gallo's shots of...uh, Gallo owes to considerable work done (by Gallo, of course) in post-production: The digital zoom function allows him, for example, to place his own royal blue eye in the top-right corner of the screen--which can be hard to manage on set when you're filming yourself in a scene where your character is driving 60 miles an hour on the highway. The capper to all this--the already infamous blow-job scene--is lit and photographed like a special effect. Which, believe me, it is.
Whether or not it was conceived by Gallo as a Warholian exercise in seeing what'd pass for art at the world's snootiest film festival, The Brown Bunny seemed to me--and to almost no other U.S. critic, alas--to be not only the most original feature in Cannes, but the most convincing. I mean, those feng shui digs at the Best Western aside, what's not to believe about a movie in which a grief-stricken egomaniac drives cross-country staring out the window, listening to bad '70s pop songs, and dreaming of his former lover's velvet touch? No matter: Contempt for the film reached epidemic proportions. Ebert, on his way out of a Bunny screening, stopped on the fabled red carpet to tell a TV crew that Gallo's picture had to be the worst in festival history, then wrote that it's "the most anti-American film at Cannes, because it is so anti-American to show it as an example of American filmmaking."