Monday, August 4, 2008

Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)

What passes for style in this “auteur” independent film is little more than randomness, varieties of the grotesque, casual cruelty, and a patina of calm in the midst of clutter and senselessness. Korine frames the story with video footage of tornadoes, and an almost inaudible child’s voice tells of wreckage and carnage in Xenia, Ohio. Apparently this provides the context for inventing a cohort nihilistic characters and megadoses of rather grim absurdity. The the rest of the movie alternates between the dull adventures of Solomon aka Gummo (Jacob Reynolds) and his friend Tummler (Nick Sutton), gluesniffing boys who ride BMX bikes through town killing cats to sell by the pound, and two young tow-headed sisters (Chloe Sevigny and Carisa Glucksman), who drift about aimlessly and experimentally. Also featured is the Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell), who appears mournful and fragile and arbitrary. And a host of small-town people in various stages of dementia, obesity, undress, inebriation, exhibitionism, and so forth. Every interior is crowded with junk, so there’s barely space for the characters to walk into a room. Only the retarded people have neat bedrooms. Tummler has a young, tired face. Gummo has strong features in the upper half of his face, and a receding chin, and his hair is swept up like a woodpecker’s crest. There is some striking imagery and a few interesting lines in the script, but the whole piece seems contrived and self-indulgent, and aimed at three effects that probably are at war with each other: 1) the film-maker’s undisputed ability to generate striking images in support of (or extraneous to) a narrative; 2) a desire to shock the bourgeois audience; 3) a curiosity about people at the fringes of society or at the edges of a world that has stopped making sense. Ultimately, the movie operates by what I would call a geek aesthetic. That is, it means to attract by selling the audience a promise of the grotesque, and it sort of delivers on this promise.

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