Monday, October 19, 2009

The unattainables

One of the things about being the kind of movie fan I am is that you want to see everything. I have told people, only half jokingly, that my goal is to see every movie that has ever been made.

The good ones. The bad ones. The extremely foreign ones, and the extremely local ones. High budget and low budget alike. All the movies.

I truly hope this never happens. If it did, it would probably mean that I would live in some kind of post-apocalyptic world where they stopped making movies, and where I was probably the only person still alive. The power would be out, so I'd walk the world smashing the windows of Best Buys to use up the battery power of all their portable DVD players, and one by one watch all the movies that I had never seen. It would take a very, very long time, mostly because of my power restrictions, but mostly because there have probably been over 100,000 movies made in the history of mankind (and that's a conservative estimate), less than 3,000 of which I've seen. But if there was no one else around, I'd try to tackle it. It might be like that episode of The Twilight Zone where the last man on earth gets to read all of earth's books (until he breaks his glasses), or maybe like I Am Legend, which I watched again last night, or maybe like Zombieland, which I watched on Friday night.

The point is not really whether I will succeed -- but how it affects my day-to-day approach to seeing movies. There are certain films I want to see just because they exist, and The Brown Bunny has been one of those movies.

If you're a regular at this blog, my guess is you have also heard of The Brown Bunny. But if you haven't, here's the famous thing about it: It contains a scene in which Chloe Sevigny gives writer-cinematographer-editor-director-star-costumer-key grip-crafts services guy Vincent Gallo a blow job. I'm not talking about her head bobbing suggestively in Gallo's lap -- I'm talking about his actual erect shaft and her actual mouth moving up and down the length of that shaft.

This scene has given the movie far more notoriety than it deserves. The movie itself is a pretentious piece of experimental art in which basically nothing happens except Gallo driving across the country and having pointless interactions with various people he encounters. Gallo's Buffalo '66 was also essentially pretentious and artsy, but at least that film worked for me. This one is a true waste of celluloid, and it deserves to be hated, but it does not deserve to be well known. Enter the blow job scene, which instantly turned it into a bizarre little curiosity that someone like me wants to see. And it's not because I'm some debased lover of porn, but simply, because there's something essentially fascinating about seeing a well-known actress give actual fellatio in a "legitimate" film. Not to mention that I'm always interested to see something I've never seen before, period.

The problem thus far about seeing The Brown Bunny: Where the hell am I supposed to get it?

Even though nothing remotely disturbing happens in the rest of the film, except one other short scene -- there's barely even any bad language -- this one scene was enough to keep the film from receiving an MPAA rating (or else they just never submitted it to be rated). It's also obviously enough to keep "respectable institutions" away from the movie. My two sources for watching films on video have been Blockbuster and the public library -- two institutions that want nothing to do with The Brown Bunny. The funny thing is, it would be terribly easy to release a version of this film that might even be PG-13, let alone R. Then again, without "the scene," there's really no point to see it, so perhaps Gallo just saved us some time by steadfastly refusing to cut a clean version.

So for a couple years now, since I've been aware of The Brown Bunny, I've stopped to wonder now and then how I could get it. My most obvious answer was that I had to get a membership at some cult little video store staffed by hipsters, kind of like Kim's Video in Greenwich Village. However, I live 3,000 miles away from Greenwich Village, and am not aware of its Los Angeles equivalent. Not that it would be particularly hard to figure it out -- just that The Brown Bunny hasn't been important enough to me to actually bother. Besides, as institutions like Kim's Video become less and less viable while losing ground to the dueling giants of Netflix and Blockbuster, I also imagine that their inventory has dwindled. Why carry The Brown Bunny if it takes up precious shelf space?

But as I was looking for something else on my desk the other day, I found my old rental card from Odyssey Video, which had what I considered a great deal when I used to live in the San Fernando Valley. If you rented on a Tuesday or a Thursday, any movie in the store was only 99 cents. Of course, there was a catch -- you had to return it by closing the next day. So a person might wonder whether it was really worth a 10-15 minute drive to their North Hollywood location on consecutive days, whether that didn't sap the value of the savings. But when I was sustaining myself by being a freelance film critic my first year in Los Angeles, I'd rent three on a Tuesday and watch them all by the next night at midnight, so I maximized the value. I remember racing to finish movies by at least 11:42 to make sure I'd get there in time.

Anyway, Odyssey Video has several locations in Los Angeles, the closest of which is only five minutes from where I currently live. I checked it out a couple times, but they no longer have the Tuesday-Thursday deal, and besides, it feels strange to actually pay for renting a movie. Of course I pay Blockbuster for their online program, but as it is a single payment on my credit card each month, it feels different. Besides, the main reason I even have Blockbuster is that I need their extensive access to whatever titles I want -- and because I have beefs with Neflix, which I've described on this blog before. So making a real-time payment to not even know if I'm going to find the movie I'm looking for in their inventory? It no longer met my needs.

But finding the card on my desk happened to coincide with another reminder of my back-burner interest in seeing The Brown Bunny. Odyssey Video also has a full-fledged adult section, so they certainly aren't going to shrink away from The Brown Bunny on moral grounds. The main question would be if they bothered to carry it, if it ever rented. Remember what I said earlier about a dwindled inventory?

So I decided to check it out yesterday. I'd been looking through the B section of drama for less than ten seconds when I found it. (They're very anal with their alphabetization at this Odyssey, something that really pleases an anal list-maker like me). A little thrill rushed through me when I saw the title. And I promise you, it wasn't because it meant I could actually see Chloe Sevigny go down on Vincent Gallo, because I'm sure I could find that on the internet if I wanted. It was just the strangeness of it that struck me. Here was The Brown Bunny, verboten in all reputable establishments, right at my fingertips. It was like the moment of disbelief that accompanies finding the exact rare gift or other object you've been fruitlessly seeking for years.

No sooner had I found The Brown Bunny than I decided to test how good this Odyssey really was. I wandered over to S and almost immediately found Shortbus. Shortbus is a far more respectable effort in terms of cinema that should actually exist, as far as I understand it. It's directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell, and explores modern sexuality among straights, gays and bisexuals. It just happens to explore them fairly graphically. However, there doesn't seem to be anything prurient about it, as there is in The Brown Bunny. My guess is that the more graphic stuff is probably gay, which in itself makes it seem more artistically justified than that Brown Bunny hummer.

I decided to go for #3 with Caligula. Caligula is the repellent and pornographic 1979 big-budget telling of the story of the third Roman emperor, which features such big names as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Sir John Gielgud and Helen Mirren. (Who gets naked.) I have had a life-long interest in seeing Caligula, but not for the reason you think. When I was younger -- maybe, junior high -- I had a big compilation of Roger Ebert's film reviews in a book he released annually, and I just loved reading the reviews for the movies he gave zero stars. (A reason I also have I Spit on Your Grave and Mother's Day (1980) on my radar). Caligula was one of those, and quite simply, Ebert reserved the most hateful language he could possible conjure for this film. I could extract quotes from it, but it's all so delicious that I ought to just tell you to check it out here.

Like I said, I'd always wanted to see it -- the absolute worst example of something can be almost as fascinating as the absolute best -- and was all the more enthused for that prospect when I saw that there was no review of it on my website. So I got approved to review it, then sent away for it -- from Blockbuster, bad choice -- almost three years ago. In fact, I watched it on Halloween of 2006 -- it was a day off for me, since I was starting my current job the next day. (And never mind the debates about whether this is a good way to spend part of a rare day off -- I know, I know).

But as I was going along, I realized this was the truncated version -- in fact, reading up on it, I then realized there were no less than a half-dozen versions of the film, some re-cut for length (it was two-and-a-half hours in original form), some re-cut for decency in the vain hope of trying to attain some kind of cultural respectability. The version I saw gave me an idea of how unremittingly awful it was, but it still did not give me what I considered to be the true Caligula, the one Roger Ebert walked out of back in 1979. So I held off on the review, and have been holding off until this day, waiting to find that elusive original print.

Odyssey Video did not have Caligula, but that's just as well. In looking it up online, I now see that my approval to review the movie must have expired, or slipped through the cracks. Another critic has submitted the review, and that's actually fine. Save me the worry.

Although I have stated that I'm impressed with Odyssey Video for carrying these two titles, I probably shouldn't be surprised. If there is any way for them to compete with Blockbuster and Netflix, it's by carrying titles those places don't. That sounds kind of ridiculous, on the face of it, since there are only a couple dozen films that exist that would be prominent enough to be worth carrying, but not carried by the two giants, and those movies would probably not rent very often. But Odyssey already gets a majority of its business, I'm guessing, through its porn section, another thing that the giants obviously don't offer. This is just an extension of that philosophy.

Oh, so to finish up the story, I rented The Brown Bunny (but not Shortbus) and watched it yesterday. Vincent Gallo drives across the country and then Chloe Sevigny gives him a blow job. The end. And yes, it did feel as surreal to watch the blow job as I was expecting. Save yourself the trouble and watch that scene online if you must, and leave the obsessive duty of watching the whole movie to a person like me.

I'm probably not going to see all the movies that have ever been made, but at least it's nice to know that there are fewer I can't see because I can't find them. There's something definitely exotic about an unattainable movie, kind of like Indiana Jones searching for the headpiece to the staff of Ra.

Except the erstwhile Henry Jones has to travel to a local drinking establishment in the harsh winter of Nepal, while I now just have to make a five-minute drive to the video store.


Don Handsome said...

Not that I think they're perfect or anything, but you've made a mistake lumping the Netflix folks in with the Blockbuster folks on this one. Unrated Brown Bunny is available from Netflix (and its the "right" version, as I watched it a couple years ago) also...unrated Shortbus is also available.

I'm just saying.

Derek Armstrong said...

Good to know. I thought that might be the case, but I preferred to go with my half-baked assumption. One of the reasons I'm a blogger and a critic, rather than a reporter, was that I hated the research you needed to be accurate!