The rules of commercial filmmaking exist for the same reason that the rules of representational painting and Western harmonic composition exist: To help artists who aren’t bold or brilliant produce something watchable. When young filmmakers claim they despise genres, formulas and the three-act screenwriting structure (or for that matter, Aristotle’s basic tenets of drama) they’re either being naive or lying through their teeth.
On some level, they know improvisation without discipline can bore the audience to tears, and that simply telling a story with a beginning, middle and is challenge enough.
It takes a special kind of vision to even attempt a rule-breaking movie, let alone create a good one. So few filmmakers are up to the task that it’s probably better if they don’t even try.
Harmony Korine – who wrote his first screenplay, for Larry Clark’s controversial Kids, at 19 – has that vision. I make this pronouncement with great trepidation, because I know some readers may interpret it as an unequivocal endorsement of Gummo. Believe me, it isn’t.
I attended a screening with perhaps another 20 viewers and counted at least four exasperated walkouts; bear in mind I’m talking about critics, filmmakers and other people who watch movies for a living.
So I am not – repeat, not – telling you that you’ll like Gummo. I am telling you it’s unlike anything you’ve seen in a while – maybe ever – and that if you’re the kind of person who claims to be frustrated by the predictability of commercial filmmaking, this is a rare opportunity to put your money where your mouth is.
The film follows the banal daily lives of a group of adolescents in Xenia, Ohio. The film has no plot, just a series of situations. Gummo begins with a sequence that will probably tip some viewers’ pretension detectors into the red zone: a grainy video montage explaining that years ago, Xenia was devastated by a tornado, followed by a wordless sequence in which a shirtless 12-year old (Jacob Sewell) wearing a pink hood with bunny ears wanders around the town like some mysterious wood sprite.
In time, we are introduced to Korine’s cast of characters – lower-class white children of the type we rarely see outside the realm of trashy daytime talk shows or old Andy Warhol movies.
The narrator is 15-year old Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), a lanky, sweet-faced sociopath who tools through Xenia on a dirt bike with his barely-adolescent best buddy, Tummler (Jacob Reynolds), sniffing glue, scamming on chicks and looking for stray cats to kill and sell to a local restaraunt supplier. (Relax, animal rights activists; the feline corpses aren’t real.)
Tummler’s mother (Linda Manz, the child narrator of Days of Heaven making her first screen appearance in two decades) is an earthy widow who’s still haunted by the death of her tap-dancer husband.
The local pimp is a puffy-eyed cokehead named Cole (Max Perlich) who sells mattress time with his only prostitute, an affection-starved retarded woman. The local teen sirens are a couple of white-haired siblings named Dot (Kids co-star Chloe Sevigny, who also designed the film’s costumes) and Helen (Carisa); they live in a small house with their parents, their adoring kid sister (Darby Dougherty) and a cat named Foot-Foot. Assorted minor characters orbit around them like particles of detritus caught up in a funnel cloud.
Midway through the film, Harmony Corine himself appears in a cameo as blitheringly drunk gay teenager trying to seduce an encephalitic black dwarf. What, exactly, is the point of this whirlwind of strangeness?
This is a marked departure from Larry Clark’s direction of Kids, which was cold and morbid and made all Korine’s characters seem either hapless or worthless. InGummo, we look at the nonactors onscreen – especially the retarded children, the dwarf, a deaf couple arguing in sign language at a bowling alley and other physically afflicted individuals – and wonder, “Do these people understand what it means to be in a movie, or is their presence amount to a callous stunt?” I think I do understand what they’re doing.
A clever director might be able to trick one or two people into exploiting themselves on camera, but doing the same with a large ensemble cast is impossible. In any case, Korine genuinely likes and appreciates them.
Corine’s affection shows in the way they’re photographed: radiantly. The rhetorical question a lesser filmmaker would have posed would read, “Aren’t these folks odd?” Instead, the movie asks, “What’s so odd about these folks?”