Prior to this film Harmony Korine was known for scripting Larry Clark’s highly controversial 1995 feature KIDS. Few understood GUMMO during its initial 1997 release—few critics, that is, who collectively trashed the film in a bunch of ignorant and frankly pretty stupid notices (from one review: “What gives a guy like Korine the right to make a movie?”…I didn’t realize making films was a “right”). I suspect the primary reason for the ire was Korine’s portrait of middle America, which is traditionally envisaged as a haven of Bible-thumping do-gooders but in GUMMO is revealed as a poverty-strewn landscape of racism, drug abuse and insanity.
GUMMO may have been dismissed by critics but it was embraced by filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier and Gus Van Sant, and cemented Korine’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost weird movie auteurs. His subsequent films, all of them as individual as GUMMO, include JULIEN DONKEY-BOY, MISTER LONELY and TRASH HUMPERS, along with the script for Larry Clark’s notorious KEN PARK and the 1998 novel A CRACKUP AT THE RACE RIOTS.
Xenia is a small Ohio town recovering from a tornado. Among Xenia’s inhabitants are the teenaged Solly and Tummler, who kill stray cats and sell the carcasses to a local grocer—on those rare occasions when they’re not sniffing glue; Jarrod, a skinny twerp who also kills local cats and so cuts in on Solly and Tummler’s profits; a mute accordion playing kid who wanders around wearing bunny ears on his head; Dot and Helen, platinum blonde sisters in search of their lost cat (which was killed by Solly and Tummler); twin skinheads who spend their days lifting weighs and beating each other up; a young man, neglected by his parents, who finds love (or something) in the arms of a black midget; a dude who pimps out his retarded sister and jerks off while watching her get defiled; Solly’s movie obsessed mother, who pines after her deceased husband and tap dances in her garbage-strewn basement; an overweight albino woman who fancies herself a sexpot; a bug-eyed girl who’s about to have a cancerous breast removed, and worries that “boys will stop looking at me”; a guy who makes a videotape of himself speaking about the joys of suicide; an elderly gossip columnist who attempts to molest Dot and Helen; two black kids who sell candy and dream of using their profits in some none-too-virtuous ways.
It concludes with Solly bathing in the filthiest bathtub ever while Dot and Helen make out with the rabbit eared kid in a swimming pool during a rainstorm, and we see video footage of a tornado—presumably the very one that devastated Xenia.
Fully comprehending this film may take multiple viewings, or possibly exposure to Harmony Korine’s other works. His outlook is as distinctive and assured as that of any artist, with a fascination for the freakish and grotesque worthy of Diane Arbus or Todd Browning, particularly in the infamous bathtub sequence.
In this film, as in Korine’s other works, there’s nothing in the way of a conventional (or even unconventional) narrative, simply a succession of vignettes in which throwaway conversations, gestures and random observations (“Without wood there’d be no America”) assume paramount importance. Format-wise the proceedings switch between film and digital stock with little evident rhyme or reason, and between (seeming) documentary and fiction. The whole thing often seems like an undisciplined mess (as most critics interpreted it) but exerts an undeniable fascination.
For all of GUMMO’s nonlinear weirdness two things are certain: it’s beautifully lensed by cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier (who lit the entire film with fluorescent lights) and impeccably cast. Most of the performers are random people found in fast food joints (Korine claims he cast the entire film in “about 45 minutes”). There are also some real actors, including the excellent Linda Manz (of DAYS OF HEAVEN and OUT OF THE BLUE, both favorites of Harmony Korine) and Korine’s then-girlfriend Chloe Sevigne, who’s also credited with designing the costumes.
Ultimately the most upsetting thing about this very upsetting film is the simple fact that it’s all so real. No fakery is involved in an early slugfest between two muscle-bound nuts, nor in a scene where a girl shaves off her eyebrows. The numerous garbage-strewn interiors were actual undressed locations, some of them so disgusting that many of the film’s crew members reportedly refused to venture inside them. This is the off-putting yet oddly beautiful world where GUMMO takes place, and you won’t soon forget it.
Fine Line Features
Director: Harmony Korine
Producer: Cary Woods
Screenplay: Harmony Korine
Cinematography: Jean Yves Escoffier
Editing: Christopher Tellefsen
Cast: Linda Manz, Max Perlich, Jacob Reynolds, Chloe Sevigny, Jacob Sewell, Nick Sutton, Lara Tosh, Darby Dougherty, Carisa Gluckman, Jason Guzak, Casey Guzak, Wendall Carr, Harmony Korine