Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Directed by Harmony Korine.
1997. Rated NC-17, 89 minutes.
Jacob Reynolds
Darby Dougherty
Chloë Sevigny
Nick Sutton
Carisa Glucksman
Wendall Carr
Ellen M. Smith
Charles Matthew Coatney

I don’t know what I just watched. Bear with me. We can get through this, together. I think.

What is Gummo about? I haven’t the foggiest idea. I’ll hazard a guess, sorta. At the start, we’re told a tornado came through Xenia, Ohio and killed a bunch of people and animals alike. Then we spend the next hour and a half with a number of the locals, most of whom are teenagers. Much of that time, we hang out with two boys who roam around town killing stray cats and collecting odds and ends to sell to a local storeowner. With their earnings they pay some sleazy guy so they can each have sex with a mentally challenged girl that I think is the guy’s relative of some sort. The older of the two boys lives with his dad who has wild drinking parties and includes him in the action. The younger boy lives with his mom, a widower who seems to be a hoarder with stacks of junk all over the house. Neither parent appears to have a clue or care what their child is doing most of the day.

There’s also a set of sisters, three of them, to be exact. The older two put most of their effort into making themselves look pretty to boys that obviously aren’t interested in them while the youngest just follows behind. Throw in another mentally challenged girl, the transvestite boy who is also fond of killing cats and the numerous random people who all get their moment in the sun and we feel like we’ve at least met just about everyone in town. And I haven’t even mentioned the random boy we keep seeing who runs around town with no shirt on and bunny ears on his head. Those with disabilities aside, we don’t like any of them. And most of them seem physically dirty. Even when one takes a bath, the water he’s sitting in is nearly black. Yet, he cheerfully drinks some and even eats a candy bar after it fell into the muck. No, Mom doesn’t mind.

I gather all the dirtiness must mean something. I feel I’m missing some deep metaphor that might change my view of the world, or at least of this film. Then I think back to something famed critic Roger Ebert once said, I’m paraphrasing, “If you can’t tell what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.” That becomes my outlook on the whole movie. It’s striving hard to tell me something without actually telling me, so I’m not getting it. The pretentious voice-overs don’t help. It just goes on showing me one deplorable act after another with seemingly no purpose besides voyeurism. There is no plot, nor does there seem to be any social commentary or moral to be learned. The camera is simply pointed at these unlikeable people without framing them in any manner that might suggest a point to it all.

Along the way, we forget about the tornado until its winds take over the soundtrack at the film’s conclusion. By this time, our sympathy has been exhausted, or turned into mortification. Gummo fails to be the human tragedy the filmmaker appears to want it to be. Instead, it feels more like Mother Nature practicing natural selection.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! This is about how I feel. Something to admire at times for me. There's a poetry to what he's doing with the camera and voiceover, etc. But it also feels weighted with pretension. The symbolism is totally lost on me, so it's probably nothing symbolic of anything. Ebert nailed that.

    Interesting that Korine is from Nashville (he shot this one there). I lived there for a few years, and this was far from my neighborhood, I'd say. I haven't seen any of his other movies. This is the only one. He was on Marc Maron's podcast last week. It was a great interview. I want to check some of his other stuff out, especially Spring Breakers.