'I just want to be a legend," the American actor, director and general counter-culture heart-throb Vincent Gallo once commented. Last week in Cannes he may have achieved that, but not in the way he hoped. Screened here in competition, Gallo's second feature film, The Brown Bunny - written, edited, produced, directed, photographed by and starring Gallo - was greeted in the press show with gales of derisive laughter. The veteran American critic Roger Ebert told a French camera crew that The Brown Bunny was the worst film ever shown in competition here, while the film scored the lowest points ever in the daily critics' poll in the trade paper Screen International.
In the wake of this, Gallo has bowed to the attacks. "I accept what the critics say - if no one wants to see it, they are right. It is a disaster of a movie and it was a waste of time. The fact that the French critics liked it is almost salt in the wound."
Certainly The Brown Bunny is derivative and inept, a meandering one-man odyssey that harks back to the 1960s-70s heyday of road movies such as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. But what really riled the critics was Gallo's narcissism: for two hours, he shoots his craggy, moody profile rather more lovingly than he shoots the American landscape. And Gallo can't have helped the film by insisting on playing the grand auteur, originally refusing to give interviews or hold the mandatory press conference, and insisting on sending the film in a sealed can to be opened only in his presence.
There were rumours that the film would be as shocking as last year's Cannes scandal Irreversible, by French enfant terrible Gaspar Noè (with whom Gallo was seen hanging out on the Croisette). In the event, audiences were more amused than shocked, with eyebrows raised only by a graphic fellatio scene between Gallo and Chloë Sevigny, which the actress assured the press was for real. Even so, Gallo won back some public favour by defending the film with good grace in his press conference. In fact, he gave quotable value all round. An inveterate motormouth, he revealed that he had originally cast Kirsten Dunst in a small part in the film, but sacked her after a dispute with her agent, "a lunatic nasty woman". Winona Ryder also was to play a cameo. Imitating her little-girl voice, he said she had phoned him: " 'Oh, I would do anything for you.' I thought wow, she's in the paper, I know she's going to jail, this'll be good." Ryder flew to the set in New Hampshire but, says Gallo, "ball-busted" him and "had some tablets that seemed to have impact on her behaviour". He fired her too and replaced her with an unknown non-actress he happened to meet in town that day.
Gallo, who in 1998 directed his first and considerably superior feature, Buffalo '66, is famous for his intemperate opinions. He once barracked his Buffalo '66 co-star, Christina Ricci: "I only reinvented your career. Took you from [children's movie] That Darn Cat and puffed you up a little, brushed you up, powdered you down and directed the shit outta you." He has also shown little patience with critics. On British television, when a woman critic complained about his treatment of the female character in Buffalo '66, he retorted that she had "some sort of communist lesbian viewpoint".
It's possible that Gallo sniffs at standard film-world etiquette because he feels a certain immunity as an outsider. As well as directing and acting, he has found some acclaim as a solo recording artist, has worked as a model and originally made his name as a painter on the 1980s New York painting scene that also produced the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom Gallo once shared both an art dealer and a rock band, Gray.
Gallo grew up in Buffalo, New York, the son of two hairdressers. His childhood was by his own account stormy, and he once remembered his father as "this kind of dark, raging figurehead". As a teenager, he was frequently arrested for petty crimes and for indecent exposure, and has reminisced in print about his compulsive teenage masturbatory habits. He claims to have suffered a nervous breakdown at 17, and has said: "I was 26 years old before I knew what it was like to have an ordinary day. I went into therapy in the hope of repeating the experience."
Gallo arrived in Manhattan in 1978, at first sleeping in his convertible. In those days, remembers one New York critic, "he looked like he'd stepped out of a Pasolini movie. People were so mesmerised by his face, they'd literally walk into walls". (Gallo himself described himself as "probably the ugliest guy who ever lived".) He soon became a mainstay of Manhattan's post-punk music scene, as well as its art world. Painter Francesco Clemente, who was designing a record sleeve for him, brought him to the attention of dealers, and he had his first solo show in 1981. One American critic commented: "I have not seen work that scared me like this since I first saw Basquiat's work, and we all know where he went."
Gallo first made his mark as an actor in Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream (1993), with an extraordinary comic imitation of the crop-duster scene from Hitchcock's North By Northwest. He went on to act in films such as Abel Ferrara's The Funeral and alongside Meryl Streep in The House of the Spirits, as well as with French director Claire Denis; he claims to have turned down parts in Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights. He has modelled for Yohji Yamamoto and in a CK cologne ad shot by Richard Avedon, and a few years ago bought a Hollywood house designed by modernist architect John Lautner. His expensive hobbies include collecting guitars and hi-fi, and motorcycle racing, which he practises at some length in The Brown Bunny.
It's not surprising that in a specialist arena such as Cannes, such an all-rounder should be viewed with suspicion as a jumped-up dilettante, but then many of Gallo's unfashionable attitudes are bound to rub people up the wrong way. An avowed Republican, he claims he has never read a script in his life, and that he has never read a novel, "except parts of The Godfather". He prefers to read technical manuals or the Oxford dictionaries, "mankind's greatest achievement. Or I read things that I can convert into money or productivity or research".
Gallo's screen image as a romantic obsessive was enhanced by his press conference admission that he had long nursed a passion for co-star Sevigny, with whom he briefly went out, but that he had then taken a violent dislike to her and her then-boyfriend, the precocious avant-garde director, Harmony Korine: "For a second they were not nice to me or something - who knows what kind of lunatic I am? I was thinking, Chloë should be in the movie, but out of spite I'm going to make it without her. Then I called her up: 'I know, Chloë, I know I've been bad'."
For the record, The Brown Bunny really does feature a rabbit, a creature that means a lot to Gallo. As he told a roomful of bewildered reporters: "When I see a deer or a bunny, it's a nice place to me, because they're very fragile and if they can live there I know it's a safe place to be. Somehow I'm in love with those animals. Even in a carnivorous way. They're my favourite meats." But even Bambi and Thumper couldn't protect Gallo from the wrath of the critical carnivores in Cannes last week.