Kind Words For Vincent Gallo

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Brown bunny motorcycle desert
Meeting your idol can be risky business. Anyone will tell you that. What nobody warns you off of, however, is visiting their official website. One ill-advised trip to vincentgallo.com later, and I’m left to contemplate the fact that the director of Buffalo ’66 is flogging his sperm for $1,000,000. This irresistible offer can be found under the rather ominous heading of ‘Personal Services’, along with the chance to physically share a “wish, dream or fantasy” with the formidable Mr. Gallo for just $50,000 (plus expenses). The accompanying blurbs are rich with Gallo’s provocative humour and egotistical posturing. And yet when he’s declared to be “multi talented in all creative fields”, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Gallo has worked in almost every department you can think of across his three feature length efforts. Writing, directing, editing, production design… You name it, Gallo can put his own manic stamp on it. The films themselves have varied wildly in quality, with the aforementioned Buffalo ’66 easily being his most accomplished and accessible work to date. Gallo takes the lead as Billy Brown, a recently discharged convict who returns to a bleak realisation of the eponymous city. There he kidnaps a doe-eyed tap dancer named Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pose as his wife during an awkward dinner with his oblivious parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). Gallo occasionally mines awkward humour from the familial alienation on show, but for the most part, the dinner sequence is quietly devastating. Carefully cued vignettes emerge from the centre of the screen and are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, giving these expositions (which include the fate of our protagonist’s childhood pet) a distressingly homemade feel. There’s a thinly veiled sense of hostility between Gallo, Gazzara and Huston that goes some way towards explaining Billy’s prickly nature. His parents only know as much as he tells them (his five-year absence is explained by a half-hearted cover-up involving a job with the government), but what’s tragic is that they don’t really care.

This Meet The Parents-esque hook only makes up the film’s first third. From then on, Buffalo ’66 becomes harder to pin down until its final stretch begins to take shape as an endearingly subdued revenge fantasy. Billy’s time in prison may not have been strictly deserved, but this realisation has surprisingly little impact. The focus is on our ties to the past and how they can slowly eat at us, leaving nothing behind. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Billy’s chronically low self-esteem means he’s already convinced he holds no value whatsoever. But in Layla he has a shot at a clean break. Perhaps what makes the film so of its time is Ricci, who, fresh of the back of such critically acclaimed gems as The Opposite of Sex and The Ice Storm, was the poster girl for ice-cool kookiness. It’s just as well that she carries that persona over to the Buffalo ‘66, as her character is severely underwritten.

Buffalo '66 (1998)

Buffalo ’66 (1998)

Nonetheless, Ricci’s expressive eyes and sagacious delivery allow her to create an accommodating foil for Gallo. The film’s semi-autobiographical nature may scream ‘vanity project’, and indeed, and there is the odd sign of self-satisfaction – at one point a fellow urinal user is harassed for taking note of the size of Billy’s member (“It’s just so big!”) – but such moments are fleeting. Gallo gives a raw, unhinged performance that makes a comparatively sugary resolution easier to swallow. His detached direction creates some spellbinding moments. If the idea of Ricci tap-dancing at a bowling alley before an incongruous spotlight to the tune of King Crimson’s “Moonchild” sounds precious as hell, then think again. In Gallo’s hands, it works. The scene precedes the revelation that Billy is in fact a wonderful bowler. This alley is his haunt, and the place where he is heralded as “the King” when he walks through the door. The entire sequence is a delicate juxtaposition of two souls quietly flourishing.

Each frame of Buffalo ’66 aches with sensitivity. The bleached visuals are complimented by wonderful contrasts (Billy’s blood-red boots, Layla’s shimmery blue dress), while Gallo’s patient script ensures that when our taciturn characters do speak, it matters.

What Gallo achieved with Buffalo ’66 back in 1998 seems all the more impressive now considering the fate of his subsequent projects. Truth be told, 2003’s The Brown Bunny may have been slated upon its premiere in Cannes all those years ago, but after some key adjustments – namely its excessive 118-minute running time – it now stands as an admirable curio in the Gallo canon. Visually, it is stunning. Motorcyclist Bud Clay’s (Vincent Gallo) cross-country trip to California allows for some incredible imagery, including an impromptu spurt across the blindingly sunny salt flats. And while contemporary reviews would have you believe the film ceases to have a raison d’リtre by the end of its famous fellatio scene, the final set of revelations shared between Bud and his former lover Daisy (Chloル Sevigny) provide an extra sting in the tail. While The Brown Bunny may lack the cohesion of its predecessor, its hypnotic power makes it hard not to recommend.

Promises Written in Water, on the other hand, was just one step too far into self-indulgence for those lucky enough to see it at its 2010 premiere at the Venice Film Festival. In an effort to shield his work from the “dark energies” of the general public, Gallo’s laconic tale of a professional assassin tasked with the responsibility of a terminally-ill woman’s corpse will apparently never see any kind of general release. A shame, then, considering how kind revisionism has been to the likes of The Brown Bunny.

The festival still proved to be an exciting time for Gallo, as he received an unprecedented level of acclaim (not to mention the Volpi Cup for Best Actor) for his turn as an escaped POW in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing. Gallo’s wild-eyed and wordless performance will leave you winded as he drudges through the frozen Polish wilderness, with his reputation for being slightly demented making his characters increasing levels of desperation entirely plausible. There’s just something about Gallo knocking a lactating woman off a bicycle to feast on her breast milk that feels so right. While the canon of Vincent Gallo: The Director may have peaked with the incredible Buffalo ’66, Essential Killing is suitably essential for understanding the level of talent held by this fascinating figure of independent cinema.

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