Screenplay : Harmoney Korine
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Jacob Reynolds (Solomon), Nick Sutton (Tummler), Jacob Sewell (Bunny Boy), Darby Dougherty (Darby), Chloe Sevigny (Dot), Max Perlich (Cole), Carisa Bara (Helen), Linda Manz (Solomon's Mom)
Rest assured, it is never too late for the cinematic medium to hit a new low.
The bottom rung of the moviegoing ladder, which has been littered with such lonely disgraces as "Caligula" (1980) and "I Spit On Your Grave" (1978), must now make room for "Gummo," the atrocious and horrendously pretentious new "film" from Harmony Korine. Apparently, Korine needed more than the fifteen minutes of fame he garnered for writing the screenplay for "Kids" (1995), Larry Clark's effective, but overpraised examination of disillusioned youth in New York City.
"Gummo" represents everything that can possibly be bad about a movie. It revels in the filth and squalor of the worst variations of human existence, without giving any true insight or understanding about the predicaments of its pathetic characters. Some have (laughably) called the movie an attack on bourgeois taste and values, but one doesn't need to look so high. "Gummo" is an all-out assault on fundamental human decency, and worst of all, it's not funny, interesting, or in the least bit entertaining. It has a sort of curious shock value for all of ten minutes, then it just bogs down into its own rut of grotesqueries.
The movie is filled with slightly related vignettes that take place in the small, dilapidated town of Xenia, Ohio, all of whose residents are either uneducated rednecks, morally depraved children, or the mentally incapacitated. "Gummo" opens with shaky home video footage of a tornado that hit Xenia in 1974, which I suppose is intended to explain why the town is a spiritual wasteland -- the tornado must have blown away all forms of intellect, decency, and humanity.
Throughout the film's seemingly endless duration, we are introduced to several recurring characters going about their sad, daily routines. First we see Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell), a scrawny, bare-chested youth who wears pink rabbit ears on his head (Why? you might ask. Why not?). During the opening credits we get to watch him pissing and spitting off a bridge onto the cars below him. How insightful.
Then we move on to Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), two freakish-looking teenagers who ride their bikes around the neighborhood, looking for stray cats to kill and sell to the local restaurant supplier. Solomon is a short kid with a head and face that look two sizes too big for his body. Tummler, who is tall and lanky with peach-fuzz sideburns, is played by Nick Sutton, who Korine first saw on an episode of "Sally Jesse Raphael" about kids who sniff spray paint.
I think everybody associated with "Gummo" has been sniffing a lot of spray paint, especially the self-professed 23-year-old "artist" responsible for writing and directing it. Of course, Korine is not content to sit behind the camera (even though his name appears three time larger than any one else's during the opening credits), so he appears in one pathetic scene as a drunken kid making clumsy, homosexual advances on a black dwarf. The movie also features several people who are mentally challenged in some way, including one girl with Down's Syndrome and another woman who is rented out by her husband (Max Perlich) as a prostitute to the neighborhood kids.
The most sickening thing about "Gummo" is not what transpires on-screen; there have been other movies far more repugnant than this one (try Pasolini's "Salo"), and it really isn't good enough to be morally reprehensible. What makes the film so nauseating is Korine's pretension that this is some kind of new art form that he has privileged us with. You only need to hear him in one interview to understand how full of himself he really is.
Just as a sampling, here are his thoughts on film schools, which incidentally have produced such real filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg: "I hate that shit. It's eating the soul of cinema. Filmmaking has become like a process, and it's all garbage. All these rich kids who were going to be doctors now want to be filmmakers, but they have very little life experience and they're just writing really shitty wit for each other."
According to Korine, "Gummo" represents a "new kind of film with a new kind of syntax." That statement is about as ridiculous as the fact that producer Cary Woods (who actively defends the film) actually managed to scrape together $1.3 million to get this film made.
For those under the misconception that they're seeing something original or groundbreaking in "Gummo," that Korine has somehow recaptured "the soul of cinema," let me clear a few things up. Todd Browning learned the value of using human oddities for cinematic shock value way back in 1932 when he made "Freaks." "Boldly" mixing film stocks is nothing new. John Schlesinger did that back in 1969 with "Midnight Cowboy," and Oliver Stone has been making it his stock and trade for the last decade. And making fun of poor white trash has been a staple of television talk shows and tabloid newspapers for years. Even the gross-out factor is old. John Waters pioneered that back in '72 with "Pink Flamingos," and at least he was smart enough to do it with a sense of humor.
Simply put, there's nothing new here. This is not an experimental film. It's pointless garbage.
Korine once said about moviegoing, "I want to feel hatred, disgust, anything but boredom." I assume that this was the major imperative behind making "Gummo," which says much about him as a filmmaker. What it says is this: he is incapable of alleviating boredom without being disgusting and repulsive, which points not only to a fundamental lack of true creative energy, but to a really sick mind.
I suppose we can all take comfort in the fact that, even at its minimal budget, "Gummo" still bombed at the box office and lost money, so maybe it will be a long time before anyone funds another one of Korine's so-called films. Let's hope so.
©1998 James Kendrick