(Harmony Korine, USA, 1997)


It is easy – far too easy – to reduce Harmony Korine’s Gummo to a catalogue of its creepiest, edgiest or just plain weirdest moments.

An emaciated boy in a bathtub eats a scrappy dinner while his aggro mother washes his hair; a raving neurotic (played by the director) makes a painfully clumsy pass at a black dwarf sitting beside him on a loungeroom couch; a mentally challenged young woman shaves off her eyebrows and smiles with glee. And the whole show is drenched in Death Metal music and manic, hand-held camerawork.

What is this, exactly – the worst, most irresponsible drivel of underground grunge culture mixed up with the art-film gloss of David Lynch? The ultimate testament of a callow, pretentious adolescent hurling his proud political incorrectness in our polite faces?

In truth, Gummo is a film beyond generic categories and facile labels. When local cultural commentators asked whether Helen Demidenko’s novel The Hand That Signed the Paper was a work of bold, youthful imagination or a barbaric, immoral, reprehensible provocation, they neglected to consider the possibility that it could be both at once. Gummo is that kind of unpalatable but fascinating mixture – an affront, but also an utterly indispensable gift.

Gummo is also one of the only truly radical films to have come out of the American independent scene in a long time. For starters, it is almost plotless – save for some small intrigue about killing that slips in and out of the action without overt comment. In this trashy, decrepit Ohio town, people mainly just ramble around – mumbling, singing, chanting, playing games, passing time.

Gummo is an extraordinarily ambiguous document of the behaviour of some exceedingly strange and compelling characters. Like Diane Arbus’ photographs, it wavers between being an exploitative freak show and a lucid, calm record of a confronting reality. Korine makes it impossible for us to distinguish, at times, between what is spontaneous and staged – and even the line between professional actors (including Linda Manz) and homegrown naturals is hard to draw, given that everyone’s behaviour is so odd, and so raw.

Just as Gummo hovers on the edge between documentary and fiction – never securely opting to become either – it also interferes with the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. From the film’s first moments, Korine juxtaposes cinéma-vérité images with a hushed, intimate, often deeply unsettling voice-over stream-of-consciousness. This has a hallucinatory effect that contaminates the sense and mood of the entire piece.

Sometimes – often – it is hard to tell precisely who is speaking on the soundtrack, let alone decipher the import of what they are expressing. And the images, too, take on a floating, occasionally magical quality. When we see a teenage girl suddenly posing for the camera as in a soft-porn magazine, is this Korine’s over-active fantasy of her, another character’s desperate, dirty dream, or the girl’s alienated reverie of herself?

Korine first came to public attention when, at a tender age, he scripted Larry Clark‘s Kids (1995) – a mildly controversial and somewhat overrated movie event that also flirted with an amoral viewpoint and a harsh, photo-realist gaze. Yet even this association tends to obscure the distinctiveness of Korine’s directorial debut. (This distinctiveness itself became, in the years to follow, quite a mystery: nothing Korine has done publicly or artistically since, including his input to Clark’s Ken Park [2002], has even remotely lived up to the promise of his first film.)

The big difference between Kids and Gummo is that the latter is not an alarmist piece – not a "wake-up call to society", as the former was hyped. Every time that we suspect Korine is about to prey on our sense of horror, menace and dread – and he has ample opportunity to do so – he defuses this facile spectacle and re-directs our attention elsewhere. This puts Gummo closer to Robert Duvall’s great film The Apostle (1997) than to a sensation-grubbing, prurient beat-up like Kids.

There is an odd kind of tenderness suffusing Gummo – a tenderness co-existing with all the grotesquerie, madness and impoverishment that is shamelessly on display. Korine is less interested in shocking us than immersing us in a world that – however weird – is actually quite banal and mundane. It is an extreme pocket of a run-down society, but it is also an everyday milieu populated by ordinary people just trying to survive.

To look upon this world without superior judgment or undue distress is part of Gummo‘s timely challenge to viewers, and to cinema.

© Adrian Martin August 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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