Kids scriptwriter Korine recruited some respectable Hollywood technical talent for his directorial debut – cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier and editor Christopher Tellefsen. Their contributions are critical, as Gummo is otherwise renegade: there’s a constant friction between the technical skill on show and the underground subject matter it captures, as when a classic tracking shot follows a young boy down a back alley as he deposits cat food laced with broken glass.
In a jagged series of such scenes, sketches and non-sequitur interludes, Korine presents the ‘white-trash’ underbelly of Xenia, Ohio, a small town best known for being devastated by a tornado in 1974. We keep hearing about and seeing footage of the tornado, but there don’t seem to be any lasting visible effects in Xenia – this is just another stretch of characterless American suburbia, mainly populated by bored or ‘anti-social’ teenagers like Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), who ride around town on their bicycles shooting stray cats. There’s no real story, just a series of loosely related vignettes, some of them featuting Solomon and Tummler, some of them not.
The tone is wildly uneven – the brief scenes, especially some wild video montages of ‘found’ footage, tend to work best. Longer scenes involving dialogue are more problematic – there’s an especially self-indulgent sequence where director Korine, apparently the worse for drink, sits on a couch and tries to chat up a black midget. Korine can’t act, and he isn’t much better in the script department, often retreating into the cheapest, most shopworn forms of deadpan irony: “Life is beautiful, it really is,” drones his subnormal-sounding narrator. There’s a heavy reliance on the performers, and again it’s all deliberately very hit and miss – Sutton can’t act, Reynolds can, and so can Days of Heaven veteran Linda Manz, who plays his mother in some surprisingly funny and tender, well-judged scenes that showcase Korine at his most disciplined.
Korine’s on-off girlfriend Chloe Sevigny meanwhile sails through it all as peroxide-blonde teen Darby, as comfortable in this environment as she was in the glitzy Manhattan of her next release, Last Days of Disco — Gummo is a fascinating precursor of Sevigny’s breakthrough role in the more conventional ‘Wal-people’ movie Boys Don’t Cry. Gummo isn’t really a film in the same way as BDC, of course – it’s more a ragbag of Korine’s preoccupations and preoccupations. Any old thing gets thrown into the blender, inclusion justified by his freewheeling, idiosyncratic attitude. At his best, the results suggest he’s some kind of crazed visionary – and then he’ll cut to some amateur-hour stuff that makes him seem like an exploitative chancer.
But there’s enough talent on show here to give him the benefit of the doubt. Take that title – Korine’s slapdash approach might lead us to think it’s an arbitrary choice to name the work after the fifth Marx brother. Or perhaps it’s some kind of oblique reference to Judy Garland, real name Frances Gumm, star of the ultimate tornado movie, The Wizard of Oz. Then it clicks into place – Gummo was the Marx brother who never appeared on camera. Gummo is thus Korine’s attempt to bring unseen things to our attention – even if we end up concluding that there must have been a very good reason why the original Gummo was kept from our view.
25th January, 2002
(seen Jan-13-02, Cineside, Newcastle)
USA 1997 : Harmony Korine : 89 mins