The Devil in Vincent Gallo

Vincent Gallo is a hero. One of few people I put in that vanishing category. A hero is a successful maniac. Vincent is maniacally brave, strong, visionary, an artist in the larger sense of the word. He is a renaissance man, and if we ever needed a renaissance, we need one now. This might be the digital age, but it's as dark as the dark ages ever were. It'll take some hero renaissance men to turn on the lights.

Vincent is a renaissance man in that he's a master of many things: He's a musician, a painter and, famously, a film producer-director-writer-editor-actor. He's a connoisseur of things worth knowing and an aficionado of things worth liking. He's one of the great independent humans. He has his own agenda and follows it religiously. He speaks his mind, and that often gets him in trouble, of which he is not shy.

On film festivals: "I want to make a film with a handicapped Black Jew lesbian main character so I can win at Sundance." On Tim Roth: "Tim Roth is like holding a penis upside down to make it appear erect." On Buffalo '66 co-star Christina Ricci: "I don't like her. But it's okay. She's basically a puppet. I told her what to do, and she did it." On Harmony Korine: " . . . a mini-dwarf, faggot date-raper." On his hometown Buffalo: "Like Deliverance with smoke stacks."

I wish everybody was fierce and outspoken like that. Everything that's wrong with everything, from mass entertainment to our government, starts with things being hushed up. We live in a culture of cop-outs and proclaimed powerlessness, tort laws and 12-step cults. But Vincent Gallo is a guy who speaks his mind and stands by his word.

Not that Vincent always tells the truth. Maybe he lies once in a while in the interests of creativity or a non-literal higher truth, or maybe it's just for recreation. But his spectacular lie is better than most people's sad, pathetic truth. He got character. That's why I will always see any film he makes or listen to any tune he plays. That's why a few years back we had a ball team together, the No Sox. I was the captain, and Vincent was our starting pitcher, and he designed our beautiful uniforms. He was good, had good control, was a real competitor and a team guy. We won some and we lost some, but we always played with great style. Our motto was, "Just say no!"

I first encountered Vincent back in the late '70s, when he was 17, part of a group of teens who were on the scene, painting, acting, making music and trouble. There was Jean-Michel Basquiat, handsome Danny Rosen and Vincent, a young Italian-altar-boy type with big blue eyes, who dressed in '50s-style short sleeves and gold chains like he grew up in my neighborhood, Little Italy. I remember wondering if he was related to Joe "Crazy Joey" Gallo, the gangster who was murdered in 1972 at Umberto's Clam House on Mulberry Street.

Vincent was in a band called Gray with my friend Jean-Michel, along with Michael Holman, Wayne Clifford and Nick Taylor. Despite an uneven level of virtuosity, they made really interesting music. That was the punk-rock era, but Gray sounded like they listened to Miles Davis and Anthony Braxton and played like Captain Beefheart with Henry Mancini charts in the dark. Jean-Michel played untrained clarinet and a broken-down Casio keyboard, and Vincent played drum machine, synthesizer and bass.

After that Vincent had a band called Bohack, named after a local Long Island grocery chain, with Wayne, the most annoying member of Gray, and Claudia Porcelli, a beautiful teen beautician. They made a record with a cover by Francesco Clemente. I never saw them, but I heard a lot about them. That's the way it was with Vincent. You heard about him. Then every once in a while you saw him, and he had a whole new astounding look and a new amazing story. In 1981 he was doing a hip-hop thing called "Trouble Deuce" with Nick, the most talented member of Gray. He looked like a Sicilian version of Run-D.M.C.

His next big thing was painting. Vincent broke onto the scene in '85 with a one-man show at Annina Nosei, the gallery where Basquiat had made his debut. It was impressive -- ghostly, classical still lifes painted meticulously on discarded industrial metal, evoking ancient Roman ruins in a context of modern urban decay. I reviewed the show in Artforum then, writing that "Gallo's personal style and that of his paintings seem part of a classy classical approach to life. If you want themes, his fake Roman frescoes are rife with them . . . These are grapes of decorative wrath, a Bacchic defense against erosion and oblivion."

Vincent had 17 one-man shows by the year 2000. But he's always saying things like, "I'm not an artist." I think he doesn't want to be pegged as someone who only makes pictures that wind up on the walls of rich dentists. He has a similar disdain for being typed as a film director. Naturally, that description is inadequate for someone whose latest film is billed "Written, directed, edited and produced by Vincent Gallo" -- not to mention starring.

Vincent was still painting when he started acting. It was inevitable that he would be an actor -- he was always on. In the early days he was in little movies, cavorting on the streets of New York, jumping, crying, bouncing off walls in 8mm. But by the mid-'80s the movies he was in were getting bigger. He made his debut in The Way It Is by the New York new-wave director Eric Mitchell, acting alongside Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Junior. Around that time I ran into Vincent on Broadway. He was on a bright yellow Yamaha racer, wearing matching yellow leathers. He looked good. He told me he was racing motorcycles. It didn't surprise me at all. I even expected to see him alive again. He's a gamer.

Gallo acted in Doc's Kingdom, then in Goodfellas as a member of Henry Hill's '70s crew, and in 1992 he co-starred with Johnny Depp and Jerry Lewis in the peculiar Arizona Dream. He did House of the Spirits with Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons and Winona Ryder, then Keep It For Yourself, in which he finally landed a starring role.

By this time Vincent was on the road, literally, driving back and forth between New York and L.A., a way of life that inspired his new film The Brown Bunny. He wasn't a star to the average American household, but he was a big star to the downtown art crowd, because he was making art, movies and music, and it was all good. Some of the movies weren't so good, but Vincent was good in them. He was a star.

In 1995 he got to show more of what he could do in Palookaville, a charming caper film in which he starred with WilliamTruth or Consequences, N.M., directed by Kiefer Sutherland. The Funeral, a gangster film with Christopher Walken and Chris Penn and directed by Abel Ferrara, looked promising, but during the filming Vincent fell face down on the 3rd Street bridge. He broke his nose and almost his skull. "That's what happens when you do movies with crack addicts like Abel Ferrara," he says.

Clearly Vincent was having trouble finding directors who knew how to use him properly, so he decided to do it himself. In 1998 he produced, wrote, directed, cast, scored and starred in Buffalo '66, which immediately made him as famous globally as he already was below 14th Street. The film was lauded by critics, including Roger Ebert, who gave it three stars, and it made Christina Ricci, formerly best known as Wednesday Addams, a star.

Buffalo '66 is what you might call "biographical" or "semi-biographical" or maybe "revenge." One of the most delightful speeches I have ever seen was when Vincent introduced a screening of Palookaville and played an answering-machine tape, a hilarious sequence of calls from a hysterical casting director who got more and more insanely angry from call to call. It was an amazing demonstration of how indie film works. "That's when I realized that was how it would always be for Vincent Gallo," he says. That night he announced, "My entire career has been motivated by revenge." That stuck with me. I could relate.

"It's always positive revenge," he says. "It's like, 'They think I suck. I'm gonna go out and hit a home run and show them.' It's not like, 'I'm gonna go out and kill them.' I'm going to go out and do things to make people regret that they have misjudged me."

Vincent Gallo's revenge is served cold and al dente. It is entirely classical, and while Buffalo '66 and The Brown Bunny are not formally Shakespearean or Aeschylusian, these films channel fierce, eternal human feelings into the petty labyrinth of our impoverished times. His level of anger is precisely what makes his work powerful and funny.

But living well is truly the best revenge, and Vincent Gallo lives brilliantly. He bought a breathtaking 1962 John Lautner house in Los Angeles and filled it with the things he likes, like extraordinary hi-fi equipment and guitars, and he uses it as a place to park his cars, like his Aston Martin and his Bentley. But Vincent isn't a show-off. It's more like when the black preacher shouts, "Can I get a witness!"

Recently he bought a floor in one of the beautiful Richard Meier towers overlooking the Hudson River, a building that also houses Nicole Kidman, Calvin Klein and Hugh Jackman. He's an architecture fan but not well suited to dealing with a co-op board filled with other rampant egos. One of the other owners, Rita Schrager, the ex-wife of hotelier Ian, has put up curtains that violate the building's rules and mar the aesthetics of the glass exterior. Gallo told Vanity Fair that her apartment looks like "Little Bombay" and that he had planned to fill his apartment windows with large block letters spelling "RITA SCHRAGER IS A WHORE," but then changed his mind at the last minute "in case I have children . . . to save their dignity."

If it doesn't turn out to be a good place to live, it was a good investment. Sometimes Vincent sells these things. That's what connoisseurs and good businessmen do. A good businessman buys the exact film equipment he needs to make his film and then sells it at a profit on eBay afterward using his star provenance. (To learn more about his material interests, see www.vincentgallo.com.) If it works, it's not a gimmick.

Neither is all that stuff that gets in the papers. Vincent achieved an incredible amount of notoriety by backing George W. Bush against Al Gore and by expressing admiration for Reagan and Nixon. But when you get into it with him, it turns out that he's neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He is an enemy of hypocrisy, and in the Clinton era he found more of that on the Democrats' side. He is also regularly enraged by whimpering special-interest groups looking for favoritism, who tend to be leftists, and by hypocrites who drive a Prius to the Oscars, then get on a private jet the next day to come back to New York.

Vincent is one of the only inhabitants of the bohemian vortex who never took drugs and, as far as I know, never drank. He is a kind of marvelous apotheosis of "just say no." And that's good, because the idea of Vincent on drugs is an alarming one. I can only imagine it being something like the musical film that he planned to make called Charlie Manson Sings. And who needs drugs when you've got adrenaline?

Some people are connoisseurs of wine or marijuana. Vincent is a connoisseur of conflict. It inspires him and informs his art. His bad-boy antics and his bad mouth have made him a favorite of gossip columnists the world over. Everybody needs a bad boy, and Vincent's willingness to trash the professionally sainted and the politically correct have made him a perfect bad boy for the age. Being a bad boy is a tough job. Bad-boy routines wear thin. But Vincent is very good. He's not a hotel-room trasher or a drug recidivist or even a flagrant womanizer. He's an artist, and nothing makes them madder than a film that breaks all the rules, even the rules about breaking rules, especially those rules.

Vincent's latest project, his latest and greatest outrage, is the film The Brown Bunny, which opens in New York City on August 27th. It was directed, written, edited and produced by Vincent Gallo. Chlo� Sevigny co-stars. A simple film with only a few characters, it nevertheless caused sensation and outrage when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003. According to some observers, the film was greeted by taunts and jeers. According to Vincent, the film got a 15-minute standing ovation despite the fact that it was a very rough cut. When Robert Ebert compared The Brown Bunny unfavorably with his colonoscopy, Vincent retorted, claiming he had placed a curse on Ebert's prostate (some accounts make it his colon). Eerily, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterward.

Apparently, The Brown Bunny that is about to open is considerably different from the film that caused a sensation one way or another in Cannes, being about a half-hour shorter. I don't want to give away any of the story, but I will say that it's a brave film. It's brave in its personal nature. The clich� is that film is a collaborative medium, but here's a film that is defiantly personal and self-reflective. The Brown Bunny also grates on "film language" conventions with an aggravatingly lifelike tempo, its lush yet rigorous photography and its focus on pure filmic representation of life rather than adherence to Robert McKee's Hollywood Church of Screenwriting. But most of all, The Brown Bunny is alarming in its sincerity.

The Brown Bunny is a new sort of post-ironic film that reverses the process of bathos. I would compare it with some of Tom Waits' music, which appears to be kitsch on the surface, but which brings such emotional force to bear that the result is utterly transcendent and redemptive. By boldly confronting emotions that have been relegated to the cultural trash heap of kitsch, Gallo breaks on through to the other side: purity. It's what Jeff Koons almost manages to do in his better moments. Vincent Gallo wants to take things to another level, another emotional and moral level, a level so alien that it makes "film buffs" feel confused and therefore betrayed.

Vincent Gallo makes people angry with his utter refusal to cater to official "indie" industry standards of irony. He doesn't just ignore the compulsory attitude; he deliberately transgresses it. His sincerity is daring. Yet the film is still very funny. Vincent's first seduction as the sad, disenchanted Bud Clay is hilarious, as is a charming scene with an aged former neighbor. But the assumptions of contemporary comedy and drama are consistently refused.

I checked out some of the reviews and learned that Indiewire, theoretically the pulse of independent filmmaking, says The Brown Bunny is "one of the most profoundly egomaniacal and obnoxious films in the history of American independent cinema." The Hollywood Reporter judged it a film of "crude technique and thundering banality."

Amazingly, Vincent seems genuinely surprised by the hostility The Brown Bunny has engendered. He says, "I'm not trying to challenge the audience. It's unintentional. I'm always moving toward what I think is beautiful, what is easy to understand, what I think is apparent. I'm always shocked when people react like that, because I'm not putting my dukes up."

And I believe that. I believe that behind that crafty, beguiling exterior is a genuine romantic, a dreamer obsessed with innocence.

"Sean Penn said something incredible to me," says Vincent. "He said if I had gone to Cannes and put on the print, 'Written and directed by Chlo� Sevigny,' the reaction would have been totally different."

Interesting point. And even more interesting is his assertion that the whole story of what happened at Cannes is a lie that mushroomed from a single source. "Some reporter from Screen International magazine decided [the response] was negative, and once it got put on the wire there was no way to control it. I guess it's a better story that way. I thought it didn't matter, but it did, because I came back to New York and people were saying, 'I heard what happened at Cannes and . . . Don't give up, buddy. The Brown Bunny might not be a good film, but the next one will be. Make another film. Don't give up.' This was from my friends."

It was also reported that Vincent apologized for the film, a rumor spread by Roger Ebert, among others. That's when I knew something was wrong. I didn't know what happened at Cannes, but I knew in my bones that Vincent Gallo did not apologize for his film. "I love the movie," he says. "It's exactly the film that I wanted to make."

I'm sure that what he did do was express himself sincerely, express sadness that he was met with undeserved hostility and glib misunderstanding. Actually, lots and lots of people loved The Brown Bunny. Werner Herzog, for one, called it "the best portrayal of the particular loneliness a man feels."

It is an extraordinary film. You either love it or hate it. But whatever you think about this film, you should be able to tell that it was made with love. Love of what? Himself? Bunnies and deer and children? Rocky mountains majesty and amber waves of grain? Love itself? Chlo� and what she stands for? Probably all that and more. And though some see the film as an act of unparalleled narcissism, it's not. It's a traditional love story reflected in the sideshow mirror of our alien times. It's a meditative stream that builds subtly toward eruption -- an explosion made possible by the heroic performance of Chlo� Sevigny.

"I had no relationship with her for five years," says Vincent. "We were never really that close, but from the moment I met her I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. I still gawk at her -- her color, her skin and hair, that pretty face. She's like the perfect woman. But I went against her for years because I wasn't her perfect guy. I always pushed her out of my mind because she was too good. Maybe one day she snubbed me, and I took it to a ridiculous level. I was writing The Brown Bunny, not thinking of her at all. First, I was going to use Jennifer Jason Leigh, then Demi Moore, then a model, then a real crackhead I knew. But then one day I woke up, and I decided that if Chlo� was in the movie I would make the movie, and if Chlo� wasn't in the movie, I wouldn't make the movie. It was a real dilemma, because not only were we not friends, we were enemies. I got her phone number and called her up and asked her, and I told her about it and explained the physical and emotional demands of the film. I said it would require her being in a real friendship with me and loving me for eight days while we shot her scenes. Love me as a filmmaker and a friend and as a character in the film, and do whatever I asked, however I said to do it. That I would be this obsessively controlling person, and she couldn't turn against me for one second, and unless she could guarantee that, there would be no purpose in doing the film, because we would only feel bad about it. She said, 'Let me think about it,' and she did, and the next day she said, 'Yeah.' It was in the stars. I didn't decide. The film told me it was her."

Chlo� Sevigny says, "I had always admired Vincent in everything that he does. It didn't really take much convincing. I believe in him as an artist. I knew what I was getting into. I know what he's like. I like to experience different directors. Every director has their own way. Woody Allen barely said two words to me. To me that's part of the fun of making movies. I didn't make this film thinking it was in any way for the mainstream. I knew it was a risky move. But there have been a lot of provocative sexual acts in films recently -- Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream -- so I didn't think it was that big of a deal."

How does Gallo's leading lady see the controversy roiling around her director? "I think people really wanted to attack Vincent," she says. "If it had been a European film the reaction would have been a lot different. I think it was sort of like, 'How dare this American do this!' I thought it was a little love letter to America. He filmed America so beautifully. He's an original. He's burned a lot of bridges, but I think underneath it all he's a really kind man. He's really brilliant."

He is a kind man. A sensitive man. But maybe the key to understanding him is to consider how kindness and sensitivity can survive in the world today. How does virtue protect itself? I keep thinking of a scene in the film in which Vincent keeps asking a pet shop owner how long a bunny can live, how long if it eats really good food.

"This is the saddest I've ever been in my whole life," Vincent tells me cheerfully. "I mean, I'm not popular. My own folks don't like me. I'm used to not being included in the group. People think I must have a lot of cool friends, but nobody ever calls me to go to a party, nobody ever invites me to Thanksgiving, nobody calls me on my birthday."

At this point I feel compelled to invite Vincent for next Thanksgiving, but I don't want to interrupt. He's not unloved, just under-loved. Vincent is definitely invited for Thanksgiving.

"I'm just a single-minded, narrow person. There's one way I think something should be. I would have made Brown Bunny in 1979, the same film. I was talking about it then. It comes out of me, from inside me. You were on a baseball team with me. When I made the uniforms, did it seem like I was referencing anything? No. It was certain colors that I always dreamed a uniform would be."

"I always thought of you as a team player, Vincent," I say.

"Didn't I play good with the team?" he asks.

"You did. You played good."

And you're invited for Thanksgiving, Vinnie. I'd be honored.

* Assistants to stylist: Sophie Hinrichsen, Masako Shimuzu * Grooming by Joey Sanchez/Contact

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