In my review of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny ( here and on DVDTalk), I addressed the film's original reception at the Cannes Film Festival. Chiefly, I discussed Roger Ebert -- the then-most-vocal hater and now lover (well, three-star lover, anyway) of the film, who originally called it "The worst in the history of Cannes." Here's what I said:
"After a near 30 minutes excised from the picture, Ebert, as well as other critics, appear to be either saving their ass or eating crow or desperately trying to remain 'cool' in their newfound appreciation of the picture. Even after Gallo responded to Ebert's rather bold statement by calling the critic a 'fat pig with the physique of a slave trader' (which may be a funnier barb than Ebert's ever written) and cursed the man with cancer, the two have now become civil. Gallo got the big ol' thumb up.
"Watching the film in its shorter version, I wonder how certain critics could have changed their opinions so radically. Unless I'm missing something, the film still looks the same, stars the same actor and contains the same infamous fellatio scene. Certainly, you could change your opinion with 30 minutes gone, but would you have failed to notice the cinematography, acting and feelings you now embrace? Would you think, though I did say, a la Ebert 'although I am fat, one day I will be thin, but Mr. Gallo will still have been the director of The Brown Bunny,' those 30 minutes obscured every other good thing about the picture? Again, I smell rats and fear and frankly, the second guessing that comes when someone has to follow a leader, the leader who turns out, in this case, to be Gallo himself."
Well, Roger Ebert replied to my review the next day via e-mail -- and graciously said it was OK for me to post it here:
Ah, but did you see the original version? When 30 minutes of empty footage are moved, it is indeed a different picture. Remember that in my original review from Cannes I praised the scene with Sevigny and certain other aspects of the film.
It would have been a lot easier, but dishonest, for me to stick with my original opinion, but when a movie changes radically, so can a review. I also recently upgraded 'Donnie Darko' from 2.5 to 3 stars based on the new director's cut.
Now. This is true: I have not seen the original cut of The Brown Bunny. I was stuck here in L.A. and sadly, not sitting next to Gaspar Noe at the Cannes Film Festival. I would love to have seen that cut. And knowing myself (and my love of long takes), I doubt it would make me hate the film. I also understand (as I said in my message back to Ebert) that a person can certainly change their opinion on a re-edited film. Critics and viewers can change their opinion over a non re-edited film. In Ebert's review -- where he does claim he was speaking in "hyperbole" (which really is his own damn business—it's just that he related said hyperbole in such a massive, public forum) regarding the whole "the worst in the history" bit -- he cites certain cuts as changing the picture dramatically. As excerpted from his review:
"To cite but one cut: From Cannes, I wrote, 'Imagine a long shot on the Bonneville Salt Flats where he races his motorcycle until it disappears as a speck in the distance, followed by another long shot in which a speck in the distance becomes his motorcycle.' In the new version we see the motorcycle disappear, but the second half of the shot has been completely cut. That helps in two ways: (1) It saves the scene from an unintended laugh, and (2) it provides an emotional purpose, since disappearing into the distance is a much different thing from riding away and then riding back again.
"The race in the original film lasted 270 seconds longer than in the current version, and was all in one shot, of cycles going around and around a track.
"In the original version, there was an endless, pointless sequence of Bud driving through Western states and collecting bug splats on his windshield; the 8-1/2 minutes Gallo has taken out of that sequence were as exciting as watching paint after it has already dried."
OK -- I wanna see this "paint" drying. I wanna see if it'll devolve the movie to the level of Mike Clark's USA Today review of Superbabies: Baby Geniuses Part 2, in which he called the toddler pic "one of the worst comedies ever." I wanna see it because, as much as I know editing can make a picture, I still don't believe these extended scenes could sink the picture to bottom-of-the-barrel crap. And I like watching motorcyle races.
Gallo himself questioned this change of face in a September 1 interview with The Onion AV Club:
"Now I'm putting words in his mouth, so excuse me if I'm speaking on his behalf, but I felt that two things happened. One, I think he had a genuine reaction to my movie [at Cannes]. He genuinely didn't like it. In retrospect, I think he feels he may have overstated his reaction, or reacted without considering what type of filmmaker he was being destructive toward. In any case, I know that [the current cut] plays a little tighter, the print is better, it's mixed now, and the edit is a little sharper. But if you didn't like the movie at Cannes and you called it a piece of excrement... That's a very extreme statement. Like the rough cut of 'Buffalo '66' may not have been as popular as the finished film, but it wouldn't go from the worst movie ever made to 'I like your movie.'”
"I felt like, on a certain level, he wanted to remove himself from calling [The Brown Bunny] the worst film ever made. And the new version gave him an opportunity, because it was different from when he saw it. So he could say, 'The film got a lot better. You made some really important changes.' The truth is, those changes could not possibly take the film from that extreme to another extreme. It just couldn't. And to claim it did is suspect to me. I feel disappointed that he never took any responsibility for the change in his feelings, that he pinned it all completely on the change in the movie. I don't believe that. I believe that, on some level, either he didn't get it, he wasn't prepared for it, he saw it in the wrong environment, he wasn't adjusted to the continuity, he let his suspicions about why I made the film interfere... I don't know exactly. I just don't believe it was this adjustment, this final tweaking of the film, that warmed him up to it. But he did claim he liked the film a lot better."
This was said, incidentally, after his meeting with Ebert (read Ebert's experience )-- whom Gallo, in the Onion interview, confesses to being "taken" with after spending some time with. Gallo said of Ebert: "He's a very intelligent person. He's a real film lover. He's a beautiful, interesting person. He's a real character." He even sweetly praised Ebert's relationship with his wife.
However, rightfully, Gallo seems suspect, even if something of a happy ending to all this name-calling is nice (though Gallo's barbs have been pretty entertaining). Hell, I'm happy. I hope Ebert's review draws people to the film so they can decide for themselves -- which is what people should do anyway. If readers blindly believed critics' first impressions of movies, then something like Charles Laughton's masterpiece (and one of my favorite pictures of all time) The Night of the Hunter (and bomb upon release) would still remain largely unseen.
Hmm.… I just thought of an 8-and-a-half minute shot of Robert Mitchum riding that white horse; I could watch 25 and a half minutes of that….
Anyway, I do thank Ebert for answering my queries. But I still stand my speculative ground.
And...FUCK! To be fair, do I now have to check out Superbabies?