I'm amazed at how much anxiety this post has caused me. I've written (and rewritten) it about four times now, and I'm still not satisfied. If we were sitting around a table, a bottle of Chateau Croix de Labrie in front of us, I'd have no problem. But instead, I feel like Chauncey Gardiner.
Before I move on to defending The Brown Bunny (as well as responding to Liz's charges), there are a few questions I'd like to ask the group so as to have some better footing going forward.
What do you want from a film, or what do you expect when you plop down your ten-fifty? For the moment, let's leave aside guilty pleasures, or consciously going to see something bad for a laugh. What is it you look for? Is there one thing you pay closer attention to over all others (acting, directing, screenplay, etc?) Do you always walk into a film with expectations? What if they're not met -- is the film automatically a failure? Do you watch all films the same way? Do a set of rules apply to Notre Musique that don't for Sideways (or vice-versa)? I realize these seem like awfully simple questions, but I think they go a long way in explaining how and why we react the way we do to a film.
When I sit down and watch a film, I want to be challenged, I want to be forced to think, and at the same time I want to feel something. (A tall order, I must admit.) Most important, I look for a sense of sincerity. I want the film to be a work of passion, and totally uncompromising. Devices, hooks, and conceits are turn-offs. Films that are too conscious of themselves, too self-satisfied, or jump up and down screaming, "Notice me! I'm a cute, quirky indie film! (read: Garden State), are irritating. The film needn't necessarily be meaty plot-wise, but at the very least it should bring something new if working within a well-worn genre. As for style vs. substance -- there's no magic formula. Some of the films on my list (particularly Oldboy) might not have made it on substance alone, but in the hands of Park Chan-wook (who's become something of a master of the revenge story) this sadistic tale becomes a feast of subdued colors and hypnotizing patterns, with a performance by Choi Min-sik that has to be seen to be believed.
What I most certainly don't want from a film is shiny happy people doing shiny happy things. I want to see imperfections, weaknesses, vulnerability, confusion, immorality -- and I don't want them to change after ninety minutes. (The redemption story has been done to death -- it's time to call a halt.) Films with characters I don't particularly like are far more compelling, especially if there's even the slightest hint of self-identification. I want to feel uncomfortable. In the case of uplifting or simply happy stories, I want them without contrivances or sentimentality. I'm also tired of hearing "I hated the character(s)" as the sole basis for a critical argument. Not that I'm accusing anybody here of doing that. . .
Moving on -- I've been staring at Liz's top ten list all day, gobsmacked. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, The Weeping Meadow, AND Spiderman 2?!? I must ask you to explain that last one. Raimi's film (perhaps a better title would have been The Sorrows of Young Parker) came across to me as nothing more than a badly acted, bombastic special effects orgy. But then again, I've never really been into guys or gals in long underwear saving humanity.
I can assure you that my choice of Closer has nothing to do with a fascination for Natalie Portman, nor have I ever given much consideration to what, when, and how she micturates. Closer is a flawed film, no question, but I found the dynamics between those four damaged characters to be of endless interest, and it felt almost voyeuristic at times -- something Nichols achieved years earlier in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I really credit Nichols with the success of the film -- there's a maturity and confidence to the direction that might have been a disaster in the hands of a newcomer. The performances were surprisingly effective, especially considering that I've never been terribly impressed with Roberts, Law, or Portman. Patrick Marber's screenplay is tight, sharp, downright nasty, and has an ending that packs quite a punch, if I may employ such a hackneyed phrase. Liz -- what is it about the film you didn't like? (I hope you're not of the "strip clubs don't play The Smiths" camp!)
Wisely anticipating this defense, I watched Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny again last night, and I appreciate it even more this time around. Rereading my original review, I realize I would be more enthusiastic if I wrote it today. I don't think anybody can argue that the film isn't incredibly personal. There's no cool, ironic distance from the story. I'm not implying that it's autobiographical, but when you consider The Brown Bunny next to Buffalo '66, you get a portrait of a man who is pretty fucked up -- or at the very least has the emotional maturity of a nineteen year-old (at least when it comes to women and relationships). Think of Gallo as a latter-day Woody Allen. (No, on second thought, don't.)
I think it's a cheap shot to call The Brown Bunny a rip-off of Two-Lane Blacktop. Though Gallo is clearly influenced by Hellman (as is just about every post-1971 road movie), if you watch the two films back to back and you'll see that Gallo has created something very much his own. The film's heart is rooted in 70s cinema, much more so than the stylistic exercises of David Gordon Green, Steven Soderbergh or James Cox. The film also owes a debt to experimental cinema -- the jerky handheld camera in the opening motorcycle race, the way sound cuts in and out unexpectedly (very Godard), the extreme close-ups, lens flare, etc. Then there's the use of music -- a subject near and dear to the Cinetrix -- which is nothing less than perfect here. The varied selections (Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson C. Frank, Ted Curson, a haunting Jeff Alexander song from the original Twilight Zone series) combined with how and when he uses them is pure magic. With all this going for it, how could I not be interested in Bud's story? (Does the scene with Daisy's parents have no effect on you? Watch the old man at the head of the table throughout the scene -- his ever-changing reactions are so hard to read. Is it disgust, disinterest, or is he merely a senile old man?) I admit that the ending, while sad, is much ado about nothing, but it doesn't take away from the first two-thirds of the film, which was magnificent.
For the life of me Liz, I cannot understand how you can call the film "visually uninteresting". It is easily the most beautiful American film I saw in 2004. I'm curious to hear what your problems are with it. As someone who has Goodbye, Dragon Inn on their best of 2004 list, I doubt you'll be one of those "it was just a guy driving across country" types. Do you, like Aaron, find it pretentious and/or disingenuine? The Brown Bunny is without question narcissistic, but it's not a mere vanity piece. This is a labor of love -- honest, uncompromising, and not playing into anybody hands. I'm afraid we're going to need a group screening in order to properly dissect the film.
I'm going to stop here -- though I very much want to get into a dialog about We Don't Live Here Anymore, as well as that absolute travesty of a film, Million Dollar Baby.