20. GUMMO (1997)

“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.

gummo

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 WEIRDGummo 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 LINKGummo (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.

24 thoughts on “20. GUMMO (1997)”

  1. I unfortunately grew up in this kind of world. This is the reason I say it is the scariest movie I have ever seen because it is captured so accurately, that I actually thought some of the scenes weren’t scripted at all and I had just gone a few miles down the street to a kids house that I’d know. These places do exist in America. Scary!

  2. Alot of the movie reminded me of Tim & Eric. It probably sounds f***ed up, but especially the part where the little girl talks about getting molested by her dad. Tim and Eric skates the line between nervous comedy and absurd nightmares, and the way they were doing it with the weird music in the background reminded me of that. I really did like this movie though. And I do think most of it is meant to fall on both sides of the comedy/horror line. I never had to live like this, so I guess I may sound like an a**hole, but I figured these were their lives so I really shouldn’t feel sorry for these people.

  3. People who find no meaning in this film should watch it again, especially the ending where it is all laid out. A tornado is an act of God. The landscape in “Gummo” can be dscribed as ‘godforsaken’ and the song “Crying” by Roy Orbison plays as it rains. (Children often are told that rain is when God or the Angels in heaven are crying) Then, the fat girl sings “Jesus Loves Me”.

    Based upon all that, “Gummo” is about finding meaning in a godless world, which is the crux of modern philosophical existentialism. If you watch the movie with those themes in mind, it makes much more narrative sense.

    1. I too thought the movie Gummo had many religious themes. Especially when they showed paintings of the Devil along with clips of the tornado. It had an apocalyptic feel. Something straight out of revelations. Did anyone figure out why the young “blondes” in the movie shaved their eyebrows? I felt that was symbolism because the young lady with special needs is shown shaving her eyebrows too, as if it ]were some type of right of passage.

    2. I remember reading how Iggy Pop shaved his eyebrows for a show and regretting it because the eyebrow hair keeps the sweat out of your eyes.

  4. Gummo is a popular movie, especially among the younger portion of the avant-garde set, and the mediocre recommendation here is controversial in some quarters. About a year after this entry was published, a poster using the name “Disappointed” criticized my assessment of the film. We went back and forth discussing the film and the review but unfortunately these comments were lost in what has since come to be known as “the great server crash of 2010.” Since I enjoy debate and dissent, I am going to attempt to recreate some of that discussion from memory and post it below. I am sorry if I misrepresent any of Disappointed’s points and I hope the poster will return to correct me and expand on his or her criticisms.

    Disappointed began by criticizing me for “chiding Korine for making schoolboy mistakes” and asked “how many critically acclaimed films have you made, friend?” (To that point I responded that my dislike of the film was hardly unique among critics, and cited its 34% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes). He called my analysis of the bathtub scene “shallow,” wondering how I could avoid discussing the sexual undercurrents and how Solomon’s hair formed a “wilting semi-erection” when his mother strokes it.

    I admitted that Disappointed might be onto something with the sexual imagery, and requested that the poster expand on that idea and explain how it fit into the film’s overall vision. Disappointed came up with some more examples of sexual imagery throughout that scene and the rest of the film. I responded that I remained was unconvinced. I still preferred my analysis of the bathtub scene (“it’s hard to get clean when you’re bathing in filth”) as better connected to the film’s overall theme of the relationship between environment and character: bad people coming from a bad place. I argued that simply adding sexual innuendo to a scene did not make it artistic unless that imagery served a higher thematic purpose.

    Disappointed shot back that the entire film was based on “sexual politics” and like the sex scene with the Downs syndrome girl it “shoved our noses” in the “postmodern truth” we don’t want to acknowledge. I let Disappointed have the last word there, as we clearly had a fundamental and irreconcilable disagreement. One of the underlying theses of the review is that Gummo does not make a sincere attempt to describe reality, but deliberately uses exaggeration to make its milieu appear far more grotesque than it actually is in a way that (unintentionally, I assume) dehumanizes the socioeconomic group it depicts.

    In a digression, Disappointed also criticized me for tagging the film “nihilistic”; I conceded the point and changed the tag from “nihilistic” to “nihilism,” since whether Gummo endorses nihilism or not is a matter of interpretation. There is no question, however, that the film depicts nihilism, explicitly in the character of Tummler.

  5. I can honestly say that people either “get” or “don’t get” Harmony Korine. I personally love the scoundrel, but I can see how some
    would be off-put by his rather grotesque style. Still, shock value aside, I can actually feel a real artistic sensibility in his work. (Well, at least more so than some of his contemporaries in the Independent film crowd, such as Gregg Araki; I really can’t stand him.) As for the accusations of classism in his films, I really don’t see it. Sure, I would agree that the depiction of the lower class in his films is quite hopeless, and negative to boot, but it always sorta rubbed off on me more as a realistic(the nihilistic wanderings of Solomon and Tummler remind me exactly of the pointless, hedonistic travels with my childhood friends, strolling past trash ridden neighborhoods, meeting rather unsavory characters) view of Bible Belt America. Though, this might be a more simply subjective matter then, since I can’t say we ALL live in that sort of abyss.
    But, I am willing to agree on the accusation of classism in Trash Humpers. That was rather apparent.
    Overall, the guy just has a weird level of appeal to me. And if it counts for anything, Gummo was one of the first movies that really got me into “Weird” films. For that, I have his thanks.

    1. I’ve got no problem with that attitude. Just as you can see why some don’t like Korine, I can see why some do like him. There was never any question of Gummo making the List; it’s clearly an important work in the genre. And even though the film rubs me the wrong way, it does so in a valuable way that helps me to define what I do like to, in movies and art in general. A truly bad film doesn’t do that.

  6. An absolute sh*t movie. I love movies that make you think and that have something to say. Like a good book, real food for the soul. But Gummo was just some kid (Korine) making a mess in the kitchen while mommy was out.

  7. And really Werner? The bacon rocked your socks? Oye….

    “When I saw a piece of fried bacon fixed to the bathroom wall in Gummo, it knocked me off my chair.”–Werner Herzog

  8. Since this discussion bubbles on every now and then, may I add a few comments?

    I agree that Gummo must be an important and well-made film on some level, because it makes a strong impression on most people who see it, and it’s hard to forget. On the other hand, I came away with absolutely no positive feelings at all, and no desire ever to see it again.

    It reminded me very much of those Mondo films which consist entirely of “found footage” (much of it fake) of random people doing stupid or disgusting things, or simply getting killed “for real”, and served absolutely no purpose except to allow the audience to go “Hee haw! Glad that ain’t me!” Except of course that it’s much better crafted.

    It could perhaps be argued that some kind of social comment is being made, and this is important and valuable. But judging by what I’ve read about Korine’s later film Trash Humpers, which I haven’t seen and have no desire to, his main aim seems to be to portray horrible sleazy people doing nasty squalid things for no reason at all, and whether or not it has any bearing whatsoever on real life is beside the point.

    I assume that his forthcoming Spring Breakers will be about vapid sluts being relentlessly selfish and unpleasant, and therefore as nihilistic as his earlier work, the difference being that a sordid, depressing, pointless movie about nubile cuties getting their kit off will probably sell more tickets than a sordid, depressing, pointless movie about ugly old men raping piles of garbage. I still won’t be queuing up to see it though.

    By the way, given that Gummo has a totally irrelevant title which serves no purpose except to force viewers to google an obscure fact, I venture to suggest that the most likely interpretation of any seemingly impenetrable imagery in this movie is probably that it’s the most pretentious in-joke you can think of.

    For example, the Down’s Syndrome woman – whose condition gives her a plump face – singing a song about how much Jesus loves her is perhaps a direct reference to the vacant woman with massively distended cheeks singing an utterly vapid song about the joys of Heaven in Eraserhead. I’m sure you can imagine why parallels might be drawn between these two films, and why Korine would like this to happen.

    Similarly, Solomon’s peculiar hairstyle isn’t a “wilting semi-erection” because that’s not pretentious enough. He’s obviously meant to look like the one other person who has ever sported that weird quiff – Tintin.

    And by the way, did you know that Ancient Egyptians shaved their eyebrows when the cat died?

  9. In response to this jason character, i do not think scary is a good way to describe it. more so, Nonsensical shit that you’re too curious to stop watching. it’s crap yeah. but you can’t help but watch and try to figure out what its about.

    1. No. To me it is scary. I grew up in a world not too different than the town in Gummo. It is scary because it is an accurate depiction of depressed American towns. Scary in the sense that these places exist.

  10. a friend of mine gave me this movie to watch. told me i probably wouldnt make past the 30 min mark. im not sure how you could start this movie and not watch it all the way through. loved korine’s movie kids, but this movie i dont think i will ever forget. i will always recommend this movie to my friends with a twisted view of politics and life in general. for some odd reason, i liked this movie.

  11. I thought Gummo was funny, personally. It was a mean funny, but I’ve grown up in a literal falling apart midwestern trailer town(less than 200 people, basically where the methheads, and convicted peddars who couldn’t get rent anywhere else went). The town itself has been abandon, and is practically sinking into the ground.

    A few parts of Gummo are very exaggerated. Albeit, scenes like the where they two guys are destroying the chair and they’re all clapping him on is scarily realistic. I’ve known those people, I’ve been around them.

  12. I suppose reviewing a Korine film seems futile, but I know for certain that to me, Gummo is a scary movie. There have been times throughout my life when I have felt a deep unease in my soul when loitering in different environments, and many of these environments that evoked this unease have looked awfully similar to the ones depicted in Gummo. All of those trashy neighbors’ houses that I visited as a kid, not judging, but still knowing that something was wrong with the place I was in. All the desperately povertized places in America seem to share the same feeling of overwhelming dread and hopelessness. Gummo is a real movie about real people and places and things.

  13. One of the true great bleak movies of all time.All knits together with the great extreme metal soundtrack.Scary because any of these characters could be you.

  14. I feel that if people really don’t understand this movie, then it’s because they don’t have any experience with this type of place and people. I watched it and I felt like many of them could have been people I grew up with. I know these people, and have known them most of my life. People assume because some parts seem horrific that they are exaggerated. I assure you, they are not. There is an honestly in this film that people want to ignore.

  15. I was transfixed by this movie. Actually what I miss in most comments is the ernest love that sometimes shines through. Actually most people are ‘nice’ and ‘try’. Even though they obviously don’t know how. They aren’t inherently bad. They just don’t know better.

    What I loved about this movie: the contrasts. Between the weird and the utterly realistic. Even though there’s bacon taped to the walls (weird), the movie feels so entirely realistic. After watching the movie, I felt like I knew the characters. Like they were my neighbours.

    And it made me think. That even people we don’t understand have a story, a milieu they grew up in that shaped them. Real humans.

    A completely unexpected 8 out of 10 for me.

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