***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C
starring Linda Manz, Max Perlich, Jacob Reynolds, Chloe Sevigny
written and directed by Harmony Korine
by Walter Chaw Xenia, Ohio, America's middle-of-nowhere, is imagined by Harmony Korine (Kids) as the quintessence of Grant Wood's slightly canted take on the gothic at the heart of the mundane. It's a town out of step, recovering from a tornado which, an opening narration tells us, left people dead, cats and dogs dead, and houses ripped apart. In Gummo, his directorial debut, one of the tasks Korine sets for himself is detailing the psychological damage wrought on Xenia by two different forces of nature: the lingering emotional fallout from the almost-forgotten tornado, and the tragedy of being born with no advantageous DNA in an ever-diminishing gene pool.
The characters in Gummo constantly engage in nihilistic reenactments of tragedies past: murdering cats, fighting one another, huffing glue, coupling desperately, and, in one especially surreal sequence, wrestling a chair. It's a keen and discomfiting chronicle of the fugue of frustrated aggressions seeking to redress themselves through sadistic action. More disturbing than any physical violence or petty cruelty, however, are the instances in Gummo in which creatures clearly unable to experience emotional intimacy make forlorn attempts to fill an only vaguely understood need. When a teen justifies the murder of an old woman with a romanticized rumination on the mercy of euthanasia, I was stricken not only by repugnance, but also a startling realization that the teen's justification serves as a yearned-for simulacrum of morality: the golem seeking a soul.
It stands as an eloquent statement of the quiet desperation festering in America's underbelly that the closest anyone in Gummo comes to self-knowledge is in the brief monologue of a man who declares that the way for him to achieve anything valuable in his life is through suicide. While everyone in Harmony Korine's universe is trapped in a downward spiral of almost unbearable humiliation, it appears as though he reserves a kind of redemption for those penitent enough to contemplate self-destruction.
Told in a series of loosely connected vignettes, Gummo centers on Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), a couple of glue-sniffing, BB-gun-toting punks. Their escapades include drowning cats and selling them to a local butcher for a dollar a pound; it reveals something about Korine (and his film) that he discovered both of these actors on afternoon talk shows as survivors of huffing.
There seems to be a preoccupation with pairs. Besides our heroes, there are: two girls (Clarisa Glucksman (Kids) and Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry)) who serve as a secondary drama as they obsess over their appearance and being sexually harassed; two skinhead brothers who beat the tar out of one another for chuckles; two young kids in a junkyard who show every indication of carrying a torch of ignorance and violence; a man who pimps a Down's syndrome prostitute (possibly his sister); at least three instances of a literal twinning; and a young homosexual and the African-American midget he attempts to seduce.
Are these dyads Korine's attempt to offer a kind of balance to each of his grotesque tableaus? To update or make overt nods to Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting? Almost certainly so, yet the insight that this comparison lends, the idea of a divorce from true human emotion in the comfortable images of our heartland, is woefully off-balance with the sheer visceral impact of the film.
Gummo is a wholly uncompromising document. It offers no apologies for its characters, nor any real justification for its own existence save one whispered voice-over nearly three-quarters of the way through the picture: "Life is beautiful, really it is, full of beauty and illusions." I don't believe that Harmony Korine means this hopeful epitaph to be ironic nor satirical of the banal horrors of Xenia, Ohio and the feckless inhabitants thereof. Rather, I believe that Harmony Korine's idea of beauty lies in the nakedness of his subject material, and in the discomfort of his audience. To quote Keats:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -
that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Not for every taste, Gummo is among the most powerful statements about the existential absurdity of life, the agonizing torment of it when suffered without contemplative reflection, and the universal loneliness of a frustrated desire for completion. It is a documentary of the potential darkness at the heart of the human condition, and it comes highly, though cautiously, recommended.
Gummo's recent DVD release is, as one has come to expect from New Line Home Video, an extremely handsome presentation, but it's (uncharacteristically) lacking in special features. Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions, the transfer is sharp and vital, especially given the low-budget origins of the source. The Dolby 2.0 stereo surround sound is similarly crisp and surprising for its smoothness and clarity. It could be argued that the image and sound are far cleaner than this willfully ugly film merits.
Additionally, there is a short interview with Korine overlaid by a parade of unrelated stills grabbed from the film that is loaded with the kind of provocative sound bites for which the director is becoming known. Korine delights in providing hostile and unhelpful comments in as pretentious a way as possible, which is a real shame, since his occasional moments of civility reveal Korine to possess a true insight into his motivations and choice of subject matter. With a work such as Gummo, a director's commentary has the potential to be extremely enlightening; I wonder if the inclusion of this small glimpse of Korine's affected self-importance is a tacit justification for not asking him to speak at greater length. The only other special features are the requisite cast and crew filmographies. Originally published: April 3, 2001.