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Toronto 2010: Vincent Gallo makes 'Promises' and doesn't show

September 16, 2010 |  9:41 pm

Move over, Joaquin Phoenix: There's another practitioner of purposeful obfuscation and possible career brinkmanship hitting Toronto, and his name is Vincent Gallo. The North American premiere of "Promises Written in Water" from the actor-director-model-musician-provocateur was Wednesday night, and Gallo made as much of an impression with what he didn't do as with what he did. There was no appearance by the filmmaker, no photo on the festival's website, no press notes. There was simply the film.

When "Promises" premiered at the Venice Film Festival -- where Gallo picked up a best actor prize for his role in Jerzy Skolimowski's "Essential Killing" -- Gallo was said to have barely left his hotel room and was supposedly caught running away from photographers. Prior to the TIFF screening, I asked festival programmer Steve Gravestock whether Gallo was even in Toronto, and he said no. As soon as I turned away, someone else claimed to have spotted Gallo in town. At the screening, Gravestock gave a very brief introduction to the work, noting that the movie "questions the perceptions of film as we know it," but with no mention of Gallo's attendance (or lack thereof) and no message from the filmmaker.

The website for "Promises" includes this note: "Vincent Gallo has forever rejected any explanation of the concept, story, process or rumors surrounding the making of his new film, stating, 'None of it would fit easily into tabloid format, and so writers and journalists would be forced into simplistic interpretations to avoid their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of the press in general.'

"Though Gallo understands his silence may excite journalists and bloggers into easy brush-offs and perpetuate unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay, he still chooses to disconnect from the low frequency exchange required to communicate with the press."

Part of his reluctance to face the media may stem from the accusations that "Promises Written in Water" began as someone else's project and was essentially hijacked by Gallo. Such allegations are discussed on the Wikipedia page for "Promises," presumably overseen by Gallo himself: "It was rumored that Vincent Gallo was hired to act in this film and during filming he then replaced the original director... Gallo has stated that he did not in fact take over 'The Funeral Director' but instead began creating 'Promises Written in Water,' a new project."

What is decipherable as a story in "Promises" -- and the film's website includes a synopsis that does not totally jibe with what ended up onscreen -- is that Gallo is some sort of photographer in Los Angeles who answers a want ad for a trainee mortician. (Can you imagine if the person who arrived to take away your deceased loved one looked like Vincent Gallo?)

There is a single-scene, one-line appearance by Sylvester Stallone's son Sage Stallone (as a character called only Mafioso in the credits), which points toward some shady past. Gallo asks a woman (model Delfine Bafort) to marry him and then to dance for him, and then after a time she is dead. Despite his reluctance, he handles her body as part of his job.

Gallo's previous film, 2003's notorious "The Brown Bunny," was about loss and regret and the way emotional memory can intertwine with the memories of sexual experiences. "Promises" is an even more inscrutable film, teasing the viewer to figure it out while at the same time perhaps declaring that there is nothing to unravel.

Throughout the film, some scenes play out in long, repetitive single takes, and it begins to seem that Gallo is in essence shooting multiple variations of the same lines without saying "cut" in between. This becomes something of a peek behind the actors' process -- a line about Thailand mutates into a reference about Taiwan -- while also pointing toward how we turn things over in our minds again and again.

At one point, the film suddenly takes on the style of one of Andy Warhol's "Screen Tests," a close-up of Bafort's face that then moves down across her bare arms and hands, taking in her breasts and stomach,   then moving to a steady, unwavering shot of points south. And then for good measure, Gallo shoots her feet.

 With its grainy, black-and-white look, the film seems to bear some influence/resemblance to the louche, wan decadence of the films of French director Philippe Garrel, who often puts his own personal psychodramas up on the screen. Gallo's film is personal, independent filmmaking by its very definition, and at 75 minutes even its running time is commercially awkward. Everything is exactly as Gallo wants it to be with seemingly no consideration for business prospects or audience enjoyment. It is what it is, which gives it an unexpected feeling not of self-indulgence but rather of purity -- something made as much for the act of doing so as for the end result.

At times the film seems almost like a school project, as if Gallo is trying to recapture an amateurish naivete in his filmmaking. Gallo has always seemed such a carefully constructed persona that it is difficult to tell what is a put-on and what is sincere. In "Promises Written in Water," it often seems more of the latter, with just enough of the former to keep us guessing. And he's not telling.

-- Mark Olsen

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