Gummo and the Tradition of American Cruelty

Movies Features Harmony Korine
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<i>Gummo</i> and the Tradition of American Cruelty

Discussing Gummo, Harmony Korine’s 1997 directorial debut, has historically brought out a certain vitriol. This statement doesn’t necessarily pertain to cult-movie hounds who have sought out the notoriously non-linear, ultra-low-budget and uniquely abrasive work. Rather, those who have been most publicly incensed by Gummo have largely been the critics assigned to review the film ahead of its (extremely limited) theatrical rollout. In her oft-quoted review of the film, timed to its release 25 years ago, New York Times critic Janet Maslin declared that Gummo was “the worst film of the year,” adding that “when it comes to boy wonders exploring the cutting edge of independent cinema, the buck stops cold right here.”

While Maslin’s might be one of the most memorable derisions of the film, it’s far from the most hostile. “If you were standing in front of me, I’d be tempted to kick your bony ass and hold your head in the john until you apologized for wasting 88 minutes of my time,” wrote The Austin Chronicle’s Russell Smith of Korine. “He named his film ‘Gummo’ after the fifth Marx Brother…Korine failed to mention that of the Marx Brothers, Gummo also was the least talented,” concluded the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro. CNN’s Paul Tatara made his piece even more personal: “Gummo is the cinematic equivalent of Korine making fart noises, folding his eyelids inside-out, and eating boogers. Since his outlook is so proudly adolescent, tonight the part of the jock who gives him a wedgie will be played by Paul Tatara.”

Given how successfully Gummo gets under one’s skin, the critical mean streak for this first-time director (whose only previous film project was writing the script for Larry Clark’s iconically edgy 1995 film Kids) is to be expected. Chronicling the hardship that has come to define the rural locale of Xenia, Ohio ever since a tornado tore through town in the ‘70s, Gummo employs shocking imagery to make a broad observation about the dismal conditions the American underclass is forced to occupy, particularly in the aftermath of a local crisis. Years before civilian outrage over FEMA’s abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina, Gummo asserts that meaningful aid is virtually nonexistent for marginalized populations after disaster strikes.

As a result, the town (and its inhabitants) become increasingly neglected. Teenage protagonists Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton) make a meager wage as rogue cullers of a robust feral cat population, selling feline carcasses to a local supplier for $1 a pound. Seemingly more emaciated than the boys who hunt them, the slain cats are never very profitable. If they’re lucky, the duo make enough to score a potent tube of glue which they can huff out of a paper bag. Through voiceover narration, Solomon strings together vignettes detailing the equally imperfect livelihoods of other Xenia residents: A neighbor killed by the tornado, a pair of homicidal Jehovah’s Witnesses, his own father’s mugging on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There’s an absurdity to Solomon’s stories, but they’re grounded by the abject griminess of his surroundings. He huffs glue in a friend’s roach-infested house, eats a spaghetti and chocolate bar dinner while soaking in filthy bathwater and coughs up his hard earned cat-culling money to solicit intimacy from a woman whose own brother sells her for sex. The tragedy inherent to these images is undeniable, but they’re not intended solely to distress audiences. If viewers are made profoundly uncomfortable by the film, it’s because it does such a fantastic job of accurately depicting the human beings this country has relegated to live on the fringes, forced into a life of oppressive, desperate poverty.

And while the critical jabs against Korine are admittedly pretty funny (and he was an admittedly easy target at the time, especially in the wake of his appearances on Letterman), the sentiment critics directed toward the ensemble of non-actors that Korine cast in the film is more odious. They’re referred to as a “menagerie of freaks, mental defectives [and] slatternly rednecks,” “miserable pint-size humans,” “a charter member of White Trash Nation,” “a tubby buck-toothed cheerleader,” “fat retarded daughter,” etc. While these very same critics derided the film for being exploitative, cruel and terribly offensive, they employed virtually no empathy for the real people that Korine effectively captured in their honest essence.

Addressing these allegations of exploitation when it came to his casting of a girl with Down’s Syndrome, specifically, Korine said in 2000 that: “Her beauty is obvious and transcendent to me. And the idea of exploitation means absolutely nothing to me, because I show what I want to see and I don’t exploit people, I don’t make people do things that they don’t want to [do].” This quote, coupled with Korine shooting the film in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, reveals that he is acting less as a voyeur and more as a renegade conduit for underground, underrepresented and undervalued voices.

Obviously, the more shocking narrative elements of each character’s individual backstory—as victims of sex trafficking, abusive families, disease and natural disaster—are likely embellished by the filmmaker, particularly when considering the film is at least 75% scripted. But Korine’s mosaic of the American underclass is still rooted in the tangible troubles that afflict a large swath of the populace—and it’s interesting that this unvarnished (and at times bleakly unflattering) portrayal was seen as infinitely more heinous than the reductive, trope-laden tradition of presenting impoverished characters as one-dimensionally dignified. For those who have grown accustomed to the prevalence of Hollywood’s overly-romanticized portrait of poor people—always tenacious, proud and hard-working—Gummo is a disruptive reminder that human beings are often not so noble, least of all when plagued with chronic misfortune.

Rather than welcoming this break from the status quo, critics dismissed Gummo as nothing more than a glorified “freak show,” totally unaware of how their own deeply ingrained prejudices are refracted through their extended observance of these individuals. It’s also worth noting that the characters most often targeted by this crop of critics were the most comparatively “innocent,” with several remarks on the bodies of women who never acted violently or selfishly in the film—the same ones supposedly being exploited by Korine. However, through merely presenting these people to audiences, the filmmaker makes his point about the overwhelming cruelty and ignorance at the core of American culture. The characters in Gummo might hurl slurs, kill kittens and unplug grandma’s life support, but the flesh-and-blood cultural elite assessing the film for artistic merit had no issue taking pot shots based on (non-)actors’ physical appearances over their involvement in (un-)scripted scenes of a fictional film.

Korine would continue to hone his tendency for suffusing tragic narratives with hyper-realistic filmmaking practices in his second feature, 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy. The film follows schizophrenic young protagonist Julien (Trainspotting’s Ewan Bremner) as he navigates an increasingly tumultuous family dynamic. His father (early Gummo champion Werner Herzog) rules the household with an iron fist, with Julien’s only defender in their home being his sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny, who also had a major role in Gummo as one of three outspoken sisters). In fact, Julien loves Pearl so deeply that he develops a romantic relationship with her, resulting in her pregnancy with his child. While the incestuous throughline of Julien Donkey-Boy evokes the same sense of unease as Korine’s debut, it is arguably more steeped in filmic authenticity. It is the first American film to be made in accordance with the Dogme 95 cinematic manifesto, and just the sixth overall to be recognized by the Danish movement since its inception in 1995. According to the strict filmmaking guidelines under this movement, known as the “Vow of Chastity,” the “supreme goal” of a Dogme 95 work “is to force the truth out of my characters and settings.” Through sourcing all props on location, eschewing a traditional score and dedicating the film to his own schizophrenic uncle, Julien Donkey-Boy is entrenched in a harrowing realism that reflects on Korine’s own connections to the film’s subject matter.

Unfortunately, a prolonged period of drug use and general disillusionment with the film industry would cause nearly a decade-long hiatus for the filmmaker. He returned on the scene with Mister Lonely, a deeply empathetic film that explores a bizarre (yet oddly whimsical) commune of celebrity look-alikes including Michael Jackson (Diego Luna), Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) and Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant). Though the film is criminally underseen, it is the definitive transitional marker in Korine’s filmography toward more plot-driven, aesthetically curated works that feature well-known actors.

In the years before this pivot, Korine was not alone in cultivating an unjust reputation as cruel, callous and exploitative. Another filmmaker whose work has been similarly maligned is Todd Solondz, particularly when it comes to 1998’s Happiness and 2004’s Palindromes. While Solondz’s films focus on the sinister secrets that lurk just below the polite artifice of the American middle class (loosely inspired by his adolescent experiences in suburban New Jersey), Korine’s first two films are colored by his own upbringing among Nashville’s working class. For both of these filmmakers, candidly depicting our country’s perverse and pervasive ills has long worn on their artistic output and critical reputation. However, the 2010s brought a certain respite to both directors. Regarding his surprise that the Creative Artists Industry actually appreciated his script for 2011’s Dark Horse, Solondz said that their approval was based on the fact that “there’s no rape, there’s no child molestation, there’s no masturbation, and then I thought, ‘Omg, why didn’t I think of this years ago?’” Similarly, 2013’s Spring Breakers garnered widespread critical and commercial success for Korine, perhaps made more palatable by his casting of former Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. While the film still contains plenty of the filmmaker’s trademark edge and grit, it abandons the uncomfortable depictions of our country’s most underprivileged denizens, focusing instead on the oh-so-American lust for money, power and fame.

We can see, then, that the work of filmmakers like Korine and Solondz is not solely valuable when they’re confronting unspeakable taboos. Yet as Roger Ebert noted in his review of Julien Donkey-Boy back in 1999, it appears that “there’s no longer a fascination with films that are difficult and experimental.” This feels especially true for movies that intentionally (but thoughtfully and artistically) prod at our most profound societal anxieties: Rape, incest, class, race, queerness, et al. Korine may have found more traditionally photogenic and critic-pleasing subjects in later films, but the characters in Gummo are far from participants in some unsightly “freak show.” Instead, they are archetypical Americans, their worldviews hindered by individualist insight like most inhabitants of this country—and even so, they never lose track of the preciousness inherent to their own existence. “Life is great,” Solomon famously states. “Without it, you’d be dead.”


Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan