For people my age, it was totally OK to cut yourself slack at the day-job. But to malinger in pursuit of cultural enlightenment was unforgivable. So thirty years ago, we all worked hard and suffered a little to watch Fassbinder, or to read Burroughs.
If you’re missing that righteous hard work, and the visceral shock of something new and a bit threatening, the fuck-you candor of Gummo, a film by Harmony Korine, may be just what you’re looking for.
Made in 1997, this film never played anywhere remotely close to where I live, and I can say with complete assurance it never will. I have to admit that I nearly turned it off, and I had to pause it several times to catch my breath.
Gummo is a nihilistic, non-linear cinema verite romp through Xenia, Ohio, a town that was nearly destroyed by a tornado in the early 1970’s; people fell from the sky and buildings imploded, crushing friends and family. Pets and people were dismembered, blown away, and impaled on television antennae, creating gristly sculptures.
Gummo documents the aftermath, the post-apocalyptic Xenia. And a word of warning … if you’re a cat lover, as I am, you may want to pass on this film, which contains scenes of graphic violence done to animals. According to Korine, prosthetic animals were used for the scenes. It will still make you squirm. It may even make you vomit
What you get out of all this is a direct experience, unlike most modern films, which are re-enactments of various kinds of film experiences you’ve already had.
The way this film was constructed is extremely interesting, too. Although it is set in Xenia, Ohio, it was actually shot in the poorest suburbs of Nashville, Tennesse, near where Korine grew up.
Korine brought in well-known cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who did Les Amants du Pont-Neuf , The Butcher Boy, and The English Patient, as well as the video for the Johnny Cash version of Trent Reznor’s Hurt.
Gummo is 35mm film combined with a variety of other media. Korine handed out 8mm, 16mm, VHS video, and polaroid cameras to friends and crew members, encouraging them to shoot at will, on and off the set. Korine then mixes documentary shots featuring real non-actors in real situations with vignettes shot with the five professional actors in a bunch of different media to produce a rich and perverse visual experience that is 75% scripted and 25% improvised, according to Korine.
Often, in the spontaneous scenes, violence is palpable, and just below the surface. One scene featured a drunken kitchen party, with an impromptu arm-wrestling tournament, that devolves into frantic chair-wrestling by one of Korine’s shirtless, drunken, found-actors, who had just gotten out of prison. The crew and monitors were hidden when this scene was filmed. Korine was out of the room. At one point, the improvised scene breaks down, and no one knows what to do. This moment is priceless. I’ve experienced moments like this after something shocking or inexplicable takes place at a party, or in a public place.
Some of the locations used were so cramped and pest-ridden that the film crew demanded hazmat suits. Korine and Escoffier, offended by this, wore speedos and flip-flops to the shoot, just to piss off the crew.
Korine himself makes a cameo appearance as a drunken young man who is trying to seduce a gay, encephalitic, black dwarf. The dwarf is a non-actor who Korine knew from high school.
Chloe Sevigny, Korine’s girlfriend at the time, is the only household name in the film. She both performed as an actress, and contributed costume design for the film. Costumes were largely drawn from what the found actors actually owned, combined with thrift-shop finds.
The soundtrack combines various elements of American pop culture, from a field recording of the children’s song ‘My Little Rooster’, to Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, with whole bunches of black metal, from bands like Absu, Barzum, Bathory, Bethlehem, Brujeria, Eyehategod, and Spazz. The aural, visual, and dramatic all work well together.
There are a lot of weird vaudeville references too, with characters spontaneously breaking into vaudeville-like standup monologues. Tap dancing also makes an appearance.
Gummo has been variously described as a surrealist joke, a visual poem, and a worm’s-eye view of white-trash suffering. As with the films of Lynn Ramsey and Vincent Gallo, I feel like I know, or have met the characters. Parts of this film could easily have been filmed a few miles from where I live.
The film is a visual treat, simultaneously hyperrealistic, and surreal. Korine had so much footage left after the final cut that a companion work, a three screen installation called The Diary of Anne Frank, Part II was created out of the leftovers. I’d love to see it.
Although this film isn’t quite as challenging as Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom, it’s challenging enough, and may not be for you. I thought it was worth it. It’s available from Netflix.
Korine’s newest film, Trash Humpers, released last fall, will be coming to video soon.
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