By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we shamelessly promote and defend some of the “worst” films ever made. This time around, we revisit Harmony Korine’s 1997 white trash mosaic, and my personal favorite first-date-movie, Gummo.
Let’s start with this: if you’ve ever attempted to explain Gummo to someone who has never had the misfortune of seeing it, the words “awful,” “disgusting,” or “disturbing” were likely used in your description. Over the last decade, the film’s reputation as a visually scarring, misanthropic collage of America’s underbelly has transformed Korine’s directorial debut into what could be called the most-feared cult classic of our generation.
I have joked, numerous times, that Gummo is the ultimate litmus test for a friendship. If you and I were to sit down together and watch this film, and you were to recoil in horror at the images that follow, you, my dear, may immediately get the fuck out of my house. If you should find the humor, empathy, and artistry that is tangled throughout the aggressive realism presented to us, well, you and I are probably going to be wonderful friends, and thanks for coming over to hang out. Like a bottle of rare bourbon, my copy sits on my DVD shelf covered in dust, only to be brought out for the most special of occasions.
Discussing Gummo as a film in the traditional sense is terrifically challenging. While Korine does lace semblances of a storyline into the piece, the narrative is intentionally loose, forcing the viewer to abandon any hopes of a beginning, a middle, or an end. In lieu of a clear and stable arc, Korine takes us on an invasive tour of life in a razed small town in rural Ohio.
Not at all unlike his screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, Gummo insists that plot is unnecessary and simply unrealistic. While there are literally hundreds of potentially complex and fascinating tales eminating from each character, Korine’s restraint produces a series of haunting vignettes that leave you with only enough information. The pushy infusions of drug use, cat killing, cancer, Down syndrome, euthanasia, sexual abuse, racism, and poverty aside, Gummo relates best to Hemingway’s infamous six-word short story. The film’s libretto is aggressively whispered to us through Korine’s unabashed study, but it’s left up to us to amplify it.
Should you need the training wheels, Gummo is about Xenia, Ohio, a small town that was destroyed 20 years prior by a tornado, seemingly doomed to never fully recover. One could easily assume that Xenia wasn’t especially the most progressive town before the tornado, but in it’s aftermath, the setting is wholly reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic environment. Our main character and narrator, Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), traverses the town alongside the older and locally iconic Tummler (Nick Sutton). They kill cats, sniff glue, and generally have as much fun as they possibly can in such a appalling and stagnate location.
Juxtaposed against Solomon and Tummler are sisters Dot, Helen, and Darby (played by Chloë Sevigny, Carisa Glucksman, and Darby Dougherty). Korine has mentioned that Dot and Helen were based off a combination of Cherie and Marie Currie, home schooling, and The Shaggs. In these sisters, we have what may be the only resolved story in the film: A search for their lost cat ensues in a town obsessed with killing cats. Take a wild guess at how that turns out.
Between the fractured segments of our dreadful heroes and heroines, Korine implants montages of sub-characters and footage filmed by the townspeople themselves. We’re introduced to a pair of skinhead brothers (rumored to have killed their parents) who perform an unsettling (and very real) “bro-fight” in their kitchen. Additionally, there’s Ellen, an impassioned young woman with Downs, Eddie, a mullet clad tennis player with ADD (and the key to Dot’s heart), Cassie, another young woman with Downs who is prostituted by her older, nipple yanking brother, Jarrod (a cross dressing rival cat-killer who cares for his catatonic grandmother), Korine himself as a drunken and abused gay man who attempts to seduce a less-than-into-it little person, and the most important of them all, Bunny Boy.
Regardless of how many times I’ve watched this movie, Bunny Boy simply puzzles the shit out me. I’ve certainly convinced myself that there’s some deep meaning behind this character, as I’m constantly searching for new clues whenever I revisit the film. Blank and completely mysterious, he serves as Korine’s speechless chorus, delivering both the prologue and epilogue with an aching, silent potency. Arguably the most notable and recognizable scene in Gummo is Bunny Boy’s imaginary murder by the hands of two foul-mouthed adolescent cowboys. This vignette in particular could be seen as a moment of profound symbolism, with Bunny Boy representing the lost hopes and optimism of Xenia, and the young cowboys acting as the sloth, ignorance, and destruction that have dispatched the town and its inhabitants. (Shit, maybe I just figured it out…)
It’s fairly impossible to really explain Gummo. Korine’s work is genuinely impressionistic, and doesn’t necessarily fit into any of our preconceived boxes. When I began writing for DoomRocket, this was the film that served as my standard, though I never really wanted to write about it. What could really be said about Gummo that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Attempting to define it seems wholly inappropriate, like naming a feral cat, or explaining the meaning behind “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”
5) Harmony Korine “discovered” Nick Sutton after seeing him on an episode of Sally entitled, “My Child Died From Sniffing Paint”.
4) Sutton’s character’s name, Tummler, is an old vaudevillian term, loosely meaning “lowest quality comedian”. It’s also Yiddish for “agitator”.
3) The bathtub scene features a piece of bacon taped to the tile wall behind Solomon. Werner Herzog claims that this detail is what made him fall in love with the film.
2) Linda Manz, who plays Solomon’s mother, hadn’t been onscreen for almost sixteen years. Her last film, prior to Gummo, was Terrance Malick’s 1978 opus, Days of Heaven.
1) In the script, Bunny Boy speaks. He explains the tattoo on his knuckles as being related to a pet name his parents gave him, and that he was born with one fully-grown tooth. This took place during the pool scene at the end of the movie.