I tried. I really, really tried. I tried to view Harmony Korine’s Gummo as a film, separate from my previous experiences with it. I tried to be analytical. I tried to be impartial. I wrestled and wrestled with myself, but in the end, I just couldn’t do it. Part of this is because Gummo is, by design, almost impervious to criticism. It exists in its own world and clearly does not give a flying fart what you think of it, or why. Traditional means of film criticism fail utterly at trying to capture the essence of Gummo, or even at pointing out just what in the film is done well or done poorly. In the end, the fact that this a singularly repugnant piece of “art” simply overwhelms any reasonable thing one might try to say about it.
Allow me to explain.
I first saw Gummo about five years ago, after taking my first film studies course in college. My reaction to it was almost violently negative. I hated it. I despised its existence. I hulred invective at the friend who forced me to sit through it. I could not see what, if any, value the film held either as cinema or, especially, as social document. Wasn’t most of this covered with more flair in Larry Clark’s Kids, which Korine had a hand in writing? Hasn’t elliptical slice-of-life drama been done before, and better, by any number of filmmakers? Was this not just some punk high schooler’s vague idea of what “avant garde” cinema should be? And what, if anything, was the point of it all?
When I sat down to view Gummo in the context of this project, I did my best to put my previous feelings about the film aside; I simply didn’t think it fair, and wanted to give Gummo a fair chance as a film, a piece of art to hold up to criticism. But, as anyone who has tried to re-evaluate a film they previously loved or loathed is bound to tell you, this is extremely difficult. First impressions are especially difficult to overcome, even moreso when they’re strong. It’s more difficult to see the flaws in something you love, or at least care about them in any meaningful way, and also more difficult to see or at least appreciate the great parts in something you hate.
Not that this happened right away. At first, I was able to keep my feelings in check. Whispered voiceover about the town of Xenia, OH (where the film ostensibly takes place) scoring home video-style images? A bit self-indulgent perhaps, but okay, fine. Kid in a pair of rabbit ears pissing off a bridge onto the traffic below? Interesting image, even if it doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say. But then came the cat killing. And Chloe Sevigny and her kid sister bouncing on a bed wearing nothing but short-shorts and duct tape over their nipples. And a gay black midget who refuses to kiss a very, very drunk/high white (straight?) man, played by Korine himself. I had to turn it off, walk away, and come back later. I just couldn’t take it. Not because the material was offensive (it takes more than that to offend me), but because it was trying so hard to appear offensive, or subversive, in some way, that it was exhausting.
To be clear, I don’t think Korine or the film is looking down on the citizens of Xenia. The almost documentary-style cinemagoraphy and overall feel of the film seems to want to simply present them as is, without any commentary. We do not know if they lived any better before the tornado which hit the town twenty years ago, or indeed how it really affected them. The camera itself rarely looks down on the characters, instead mostly opting to shoot them head-on or from a slight low angle, as a documentarian’s camera would.
There is no real story to Gummo, which lends quite a bit to the documentary feel, but what most contributes to that is the interview-style segments spread throughout the film. There’s never the sense of the person behind the camera (except for some scenes clearly meant to evoke home video footage), but rather the characters themselves seem to simply be talking about their lives and what they believe in ways that mimic real people being filmed for a documentary. This has a somewhat distancing effect, to the point where, not even half-way through the film, I threw my hands up and angrily screamed out “WHY SHOULD I CARE?!?!?!?!?!” I did not feel involved with any of these people, many of whom we see for only a few short moments. Those who we spend longer with are such nothing characters – there was nothing to latch onto, nothing truly endearing, nothing truly repellent – that they begged the question of why someone would choose to film them. Why would anyone feel compelled to watch them? Why should we care about what they do and say? The film presents no compelling argument for this, just a bunch of odd, supposedly shocking scenes which are only tangentially connected. There are a few scenes where we follow two boys riding their bikes that feel positively revelatory in the context of the rest of the film. Through the camera movement we can feel the freedom that can come from feeling the open air rush past you; that feeling that comes from being young and without a care in the world. To say these are the best sequences of the film is an understatement; they are so far above anything else here that they could have come from another film entirely. There’s an energy that comes with the movement here that would have benefitted the rest of the film greatly, a spirit that the rest of the film thinks it has but doesn’t quite attain.
Gummo often feels dirty, but only because the town of Xenia is so run-down, its denizens so carefree about the way they present themselves. These are people who seemingly do not care how they look or what you think of them, and are frankly proud of that. Nothing aginst them; they have every right to feel that way, and who are we to judge? The film emulates this, which would be fine, except that in doing so it feels like an only half-defiant middle finger to the audience. Gummo could care less what you think of it, simply because it is so proud of itself for being very much what it is. Unfortunately, what it is isn’t nearly as clever, or as radical, or as unconventional, or as salacious as it believes itself to be. It isn’t so much an assault on all that is tasteful as it is an approximation of said assault. All the elements are there, but the images are presented in such a way that all they provoke is a shoulder shrug and a “So?” This is what I find so disgusting about Gummo: It throws all this stuff at you, all this cat killing and pissing off of bridges and bathing in dirty water and pimping out a mentally disabled woman and BOOBIES! jumping in slow-motion in a naked, vain attempt to say “LOOK AT ME!” in the way that high school punks (probably not unlike those shown in the film) get multiple piercings, mohawks, and face tattoos. It wants so badly to shock you but couldn’t care less if it actually did, because it’s really only doing these things to please itself. Some people might say that it’s great that a film doesn’t care about its audience, that the filmmaker is so brave to take that stance. In some cases I wouldn’t be against it. But in the case of Gummo, it comes off as repellent. I can only hope that I never have to give this turd of a film even a second’s thought ever again.