“When I saw a piece of fried bacon fixed to the bathroom wall in Gummo, it knocked me off my chair.”–Werner Herzog
DIRECTED BY: Harmony Korine
FEATURING: Chloë Sevigny, Jacob Reynolds, non-professionals chosen for their freakish looks
PLOT: A tornado devastated the town of Xenia, Ohio in the 1970s. Twenty years later, a teenager (Tummler) and a younger tagalong (Solomon) hunt feral cats, selling them to the local grocer for money they use to buy sniffing glue and trysts with a fat, mentally disabled prostitute. Meanwhile, other white-trash characters roam the landscape unsupervised, including two trashy teen girls who seem to be raising their kid sister and a shirtless mute boy who wears pink bunny ears.
- Harmony Korine (who is male) had previously written script for Kids (1995). He was given $1.5 million and free reign by Fine Line Features (the now-defunct “independent” branch of New Line Pictures) to create exactly the picture he wanted to.
- A devastating tornado really did hit Xenia, OH in 1974.
- Gummo was the fifth Marx brother, who left the group before they began their successful film career.
- Although critical reaction was largely negative (scoring a disappointing 29% on Rotten Tomatoes tomatomer at press time), several established directors—Werner Herzog, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Gus Van Sant, and Erol Morris—expressed admiration and support for the picture.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: No one forgets the scene of Solomon eating spaghetti and chocolate in the grimy bathtub with oily green water (with, as Werner Herzog marveled, bacon taped to the walls). The most illustrative image, however, may be when “Bunny Boy” (the shirtless waif wearing pink bunny ears) thrusts a dead cat at the camera. This vision brings to mind the act of this director presenting this work to his audience.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gummo looks a lot like what might result if someone took home movies from that embarrassing, welfare-addicted branch of the family no one likes to talk about and mixed them in a blender with the final project short films from the NYU Film School graduating class of ’97.
Brief clip from Gummo
COMMENTS: Gummo is an exasperating film that compels the viewer mainly through the odd fascination of watching an avant-garde train wreck. There is the barest shred of a plot, in that three or four of the incidents depicted have a cause-and-effect relationship with scenes that occur later, but overwhelmingly it is an impressionistic series of shots, stills, sound clips and vignettes meant to evoke a feeling of hopelessness for the bottom-feeding strata of American society commonly known as “white trash.” The folks of Xenia, OH, as depicted in Gummo, sport mullets and are forbidden to buy Big Gulps anywhere that a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy is strictly enforced. No one in town shows any ambition or passion, with the exception of one character who practices tennis diligently, thanks to Ritalin. No one seems to have a job, except for three boys who hunt cats and a well-spoken but perverted gossip columnist (who may come from the town next door; his purpose is to show how the middle class looks down on the residents of Xenia). Even the sex and the drugs in this backwater burgh are depressing and second rate (the rock ‘n roll, mostly Slayer and other grim heavy metal bands, is an acquired taste). There may be a sort of love there, but it’s twisted beyond recognition and made ugly: Solomon’s mother feeding him spaghetti in the bathtub, or threatening to shoot him if he won’t smile for her. Gummo is like the low-rent, bad taste America imagined by John Waters, if Waters envisioned that world as a tragedy rather than a comedy.
This sort of half-existence, which millions of people actually endure, would be bleak enough if it were depicted with stark realism. Director/scripter Harmony Korine chooses to exaggerate the ugliness by casting his film with real-life freaks, including a macrocephalic dwarf (who is also ambiguously gay) and an albino making a dating video who proclaims she has webbed toes. Even the “normal” people were cast for their odd faces: with his angular features and untamable hair, Solomon is the weirdest looking kid you’re likely to see, and the two sisters have bleached their hair to an unnatural, trying-too-hard shade past the bounds of blond. Most of the extras are either emaciated or grotesquely obese, and at least one actress had Down’s Syndrome. The concoction of human oddities suggests that at least part of this town’s problems may stem from inbreeding.
Korine’s more significant technique for nightmarizing this downbeat milieu is to fracture what little narrative there is. Most of the scenes involving the main characters depict purposeless meanderings: the two bleached-blond sisters wander the streets talking about boys and bulimia, Tummler and Solomon sniff glue and stare into space or ride around aimlessly on their bicycles. These scenes are interrupted by plotless, documentary-like sequences featuring minor characters: bored skinhead brothers who box with each other in an interminable bout, or a scene with Xenia’s supposed adults, who arm wrestle in a dingy kitchen during a Friday night beer-bash until they get bored and break the furniture to bits accompanied by hoots of encouragement. One of these scenes may be followed by an experimental sketch where a bored-sounding voice tells a story about being molested by her father while distressed Super-8 films of the town play until her voice is drowned out by the electronically mutated chirps of insects and birds. Or, clips from an amateur Satanist production of heavy metal video may play, or Bunny Boy may be shown sitting on a toilet playing an accordion. There’s a careful nonsense to the order of the scenes. Even in a single scene, a line of dialogue will drift off casually into a non-sequitur, as when Tummler’s father begins telling the boy about his mother and shifts to an anecdote from his childhood about a neighbor’s wife who used to wander around the house in her underwear. (None of this is made more interesting by the fact that the non-actors in the movie deliver all their lines without a hint of recognizable human emotion). Korine amplifies and distorts the randomness of real life to make his characters’ existence seem even more absurd and pointless.
While this nebulous narrative style may suit the half-formed themes Korine wants to explore, it doesn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience; Gummo is a picture to endure rather than to savor. I couldn’t help, while watching, to think that Tom Waits could have created a beautiful ballad about exactly these sorts of bizarre lowlifes. Of course, he would bring out the poetry, romance and humanity in these characters by channeling their tales into melody, verse and structure: basically, by making it into art. Such a “prettifying” of this world would ring false to Korine. A starightforward, coherent narrative would have given his characters a false sense of purpose, a false possibility of growth and escape.
Korine creates no pathos for his characters. You can’t be sure if that is a deliberate choice, a result of a lack of empathy, or a result of a lack of ability. Whichever the case, the townies are presented to us as lost causes. For the most part, they don’t seem to recognize the spiritual and intellectual squalor of their lives, and when they do have epiphanies, the only lesson they seem to learn is “give up.” (It’s true that at one point Solomon muses, “Life is beautiful… without it, you’d be dead,” and a retarded woman sings a hymn about Jesus loving her, but given the context of the whole movie it’s hard to see those hairs of optimism as anything other than ironic). In what appears to be documentary footage, a goateed young man confesses that he sees suicide as the only escape; later, Tummler composes what appears to be a suicide note. He says, “I’m sick of everything, I can’t understand what the f–k is wrong with people… they sit in their pretend little lives, in their pretend houses…” This is what passes for profound insight inside the typical suburban teenager’s head, and also in Gummo.
Gummo is unlikely to seem profound or “true” to anyone who isn’t seized with a faith that life is meaningless and hopeless. Korine’s metaphors of despair can be painfully obvious, such as when the two cat-killers stumble upon an old woman kept alive by a respirator and muse, “she’s already dead.”
Critical reaction to the movie’s pointless, pretentious pessimism was understandably rough. In an unprecedented move, two separate critics addressed their reviews directly to Korine, scolding him for hiding his lack of genuine ideas or insight inside a sophomoric, kitty-killing freakshow. Those tongue-lashings were necessary because Korine, who at 24 was anointed cinema’s new enfant terrible before he’d actually put a frame onto celluloid, had never had an actual adult sit down with him and explain that the rules are there for a reason, and force him to abide by them until he was old enough to emancipate himself. The real object of the critic’s ire should have been Fine Line Pictures: who gives a kid with no prior experience a big check and carte blanche to make whatever film he wants? It’s like giving a teenager the key to the liquor cabinet and a credit card. Sort of like the kids of his mythologized Xenia, Korine grew up a latchkey director, with absentee producers and no one to teach him cinematic right from wrong. His obvious talents would have developed better if he had been forced to learn on the job, making short films for the festival circuit like his peers, and making his rookie mistakes out of view of a mass audience.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the movie is utterly without merit. There is a sporadically interesting freakshow ambiance to it, although too often the audience finds itself repulsed by the freak behind the camera rather than the ones at whom the lens points. Korine finds among the denizens of Xenia—if not beauty—than at least a jerky sort of rhythm to the parade of ugliness. The scene of the shirtless drunks wrestling the furniture is oddly sad and compelling. The bathtub scene is unforgettable, and the symbolism there is uncharacteristically elegant: it’s hard to get clean when you’re bathing in filth. The climactic montage (set to Roy Orbison singing “Crying”) is another well executed scene. But Gummo is a movie of moments, and they tend to be very small moments indeed. It does leave an impression, although you might feel so dirty after watching it that you feel like taking a bath. Just remember not to load up on a big plate of pasta while trying to wash off Gummo.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Gummo’ mixes the rawness of documentary and the hyper-reality of a dream or an acid trip. Many of the players are nonactors, and their interactions on screen often seem spontaneous or improvised — only filtered through a Diane Arbus lens that highlights their strangeness. It’s an interesting technique — the blurring of reality and ‘movies’ — but Korine’s objective is so narrow and mean, and his viewpoint so colored by smug, adolescent condescension, that ‘Gummo’ comes off like a mean-spirited prank.”–Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)
“…essentially an avant-garde variation on The Jerry Springer Show, or the sort of movie photographer Diane Arbus would make, if she made movies and they weren’t very good. Take away the shock value, and there isn’t much there: just a stylistically promising student film peddling bargain-basement surreal nihilism that, stretched over 90 minutes, grows awfully tedious.”–Keith Phipps, The Onion A.V. Club (DVD)
“Yo, Harmony, the battle to legitimize shocking themes, surrealistic whimsy, and unapologetically scabrous content in film has already been fought and won by generations of your artistic betters: Luis Buñuel, Werner Herzog, Todd Haynes, even David Lynch. To honestly build upon that legacy calls for you, the director, to bring some fresh intellectual or conceptual goods to the table.”–Russell Smith, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Gummo (1997)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Harmony-Korine.com – Gummo: The remarkably complete Gummo page at Harmony Korine’s unofficial fan site
White Trash Nightmare: An essay/interview with Harmony Korine by Matthew Hays of the Montreal Mirror
Harmony Korine’s Gummo: The Compliment of Getting Stuck with a Fork: An academic defense of Gummo from the Winter 2004 issue of Film Studies
DVD INFO: The New Line DVD (buy) contains no notable extras except for a brief interview with the director.