(NR) 3 starsEd Johnson-Ott

You've probably read about the controversy surrounding The Brown Bunny. This is the one that triggered a firestorm when screened at the Cannes Film Festival, with many viewers booing as they stomped out and a few critics claiming it was the worst film ever to be shown at the festival. Roger Ebert was one of those critics, leading to a rude public exchange with filmmaker Vincent Gallo. (When Gallo called Ebert a "fat pig," the critic responded, "I will one day be thin but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.") Vincent Gallo and Chloë Sevigny

Dissenters were upset primarily by the glacial pacing of the movie, but some objected to a sex scene late in the story. In that scene, leading lady Chloë Sevigny gives leading man Gallo a blow job. Not a she-lowers-her-head-suggestively-and-the-camera-pulls-away-movie-blow job, but a real one, with viewers witnessing her mouth enveloping his erect penis and continuing until he has a climax.

Since the festival, Gallo removed 26 minutes from the 118 rough cut and Ebert gave the final version three out of four stars. The notorious sex scene was edited briefly - to make it more explicit (when a reporter asked Gallo if the penis was real or a prop, the filmmaker added a more revealing shot of his body to remove any doubt).

So what's it all about? On his Web site (www.vincentgallo.com), the filmmaker says, "The Brown Bunny is a love story. It's the story of one man's tragic loss of the love of his life. He is Bud Clay. And he races motorcycles. He rides in the 250 cc Formula II class of road racing. Round and round he goes, repeating laps over and over until the race is over. The story begins with Bud racing in New Hampshire. Bud's next race is in California in five days. And so his journey begins across America. And every day Bud is haunted by the same memories of the last time he saw his true love. Bud will do anything to make those memories disappear. And every day he tries to find a new love. Making outrageous requests of women to come with him on his trip and then leaving them behind after they've agreed. He can't replace Daisy, the only girl he's ever loved and the only girl he will ever love. But every day he tries."

It would be easy to dismiss The Brown Bunny. Even in its final, 92-minute form, it moves verrrry slooooowly. Virtually nothing happens, either. Bud races and the camera holds on a long shot of the race for what seems like forever. Long stretches of driving are punctuated by brief encounters with three women (Cheryl Tiegs, Elizabeth Blake and Anna Vareschi) before the final meeting between Bud and Daisy. Very little is said throughout the film. Worse, the words that are voiced are mostly inconsequential.

Many people will complain that the movie is nothing more than a dullness marathon with a little porn at the end. I can't quibble with that - I was bored too. But since watching films is my job, I decided to just surrender to the movie and see where it would take me.

Though I have little patience for Vincent Gallo (he's whiny in interviews and given to insult people by calling them "queer" or "faggot," or by mocking their physical appearance), I found Bud Clay fascinating. With his scruffy beard and dark eyes, he looks dangerous. But when he finally speaks, you hear the voice of a boy; a sad, tired, uneasy, heartsick boy. The film, with its gritty look, long takes and folk-ish songs, plays like an independent feature from the '70s. As a meditation on being physically busy but emotionally lost, it works.

Getting back to the sex scene, I was mesmerized watching actors I've seen before (Gallo in Buffalo 66 and the fearless Sevigny in Shattered Glass, Dogville, Party Monster, American Psycho, Boys Don't Cry and more) doing something so intimate in front of cameras. Yes, I know that celebrity sex tapes of Pamela Anderson, Tommy Lee, Paris Hilton and others are available, but I have never seen one.

Bottom line: Those willing to put up with a lot - and I do mean a lot - will find rewards in The Brown Bunny.

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