Movies We Like
For the sake of argument, let’s agree that catharsis can come from viewing tragedies. We watch movies circulating around slums and the darkest corners of imagination not only to get a clearer understanding of them but also because we come away feeling a little more alive and grounded in our own circumstances. But there is a unique squalor of America not found anywhere else in the world. A sort of squalor of choice or adaptation where people dwell in their own filth and close-mindedness willingly, and with perceptions that someone forced to live in such a way might not understand. So in response to this catharsis, I’ll be the first to admit that Gummo sort of hit me like a drug. Say, heroin for example. I couldn’t quite grasp what was going on, but in the trailer when I heard Madonna’s voice singing, “In the midnight hour, I can feel your power, just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there…” over cigar-smoking, cat-torturing youth, a boy in filthy bathwater, a tornado and a happy albino woman dancing in a parking lot, I was pulled into a trial run. But since it also induces a fever-like edge of comedy, I’m going to write this review in the form of a mock prescription.
If you like to be pulled out of yourself in order to see the irony and falsehood of the pursuit of the "American Dream," Gummo might be for you. Set in the tornado-stricken city of Xenia, Ohio, it features the lives of two boys, Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), who spend their days killing cats to sell to butchers, riding bikes with mismatched parts, sniffing glue, having sex, and philosophizing about life in an eerie way that only a person living in this reality can. Their town is filled with strange and disturbing people who are rooted so deeply in their own bitterness, racism, and boredom that their actions can only be received as a cult-like unison of abandon and self-destruction. Chloe Sevigny plays Dot, who along with her sisters Darby and Helen, occupy themselves with a benign sense of vanity and seclusion similar to Little and Big Edie in Grey Gardens. Not exactly hard to watch, but still strange.
As far as the other members of the town, all in whom have lost property and loved ones in a tornado years earlier, there is also a complete indifference to progress or self-help, which is perhaps the most intriguing part of the film. If you’ve ever wondered about the fate of countries or cities hit with disaster, Gummo offers an insight into a bleak reality. Xenia is sort of a prison for these people, in the sense that they have become "institutionalized" and can’t see the advantages of leaving or making anything better. Korine constructed this with skill by never mentioning education, other places, common news or any sort of future - only the past, which is aided by footage of real people who lived in the city and by casting members of the community to basically portray themselves. The grainy documentary feel of it as a whole is not new to feature-length films, but when set against this kind of cult environment it is extremely difficult to suspend disbelief.
But Gummo is not for everyone. Side effects may include new-found phobias of spaghetti and baths, nightmares of cats coming back for revenge, and tornados taking you to a sort of Wizard of Oz where people wrestle chairs for amusement and play accordions in bathroom stalls.
All joking aside, Harmony Korine and all of his films have been given a bad name by the general public. It’s easy to see why, I suppose, when many come away from them feeling as though it is purely for shock value. But that just isn’t the point of his work. This is the underbelly of our society. With Gummo, KIDS (which Korine wrote) or Julien Donkey-Boy, you have a rare opportunity to see a master at work. Not of the aesthetic of what makes human life great and beautiful, but the grim parts that make it reality. Buddhist philosophy says that life is suffering. If that’s true and you’re not afraid to see an example, you should really watch this film. It may not be for you, but it has an energy and an example of people who are just like you. They’ve just been carried to a different understanding of what people should and shouldn’t bother to pursue. Different pastimes, but we’re all still watching time pass by.