Gummo: A Film by Harmony Korine.
When I first asked what someone who had seen Harmony Korine’s film ‘Gummo’, thought of it, the blood from their face drained and their pupils narrowed into pin points like the rounded tip of a permanent marker. Needless to say, their physical reaction was, initially, enough to put me off watching Gummo ; but after months on a diet consisting entirely of 20th century fox and paramount picture movies, I suppose my intellect was starving for some attention- thus, on the 18th of May, I picked up the DVD from a friend, and watched it.
I’m not quite sure what it was that I was watching in the beginning. The movie itself begun as a mainstream narrative would; one scene, one character – but as the high-pitched sequel of the nursery-rhyme like opening song came to an end, I realized this was not the main character ; in fact, I came to realize, there was no main character. The closest phrase I can use to describe Gummo’s structure, is that of a mockumentary. Of course, there is no narrator, nor precise narrative structure. The movie itself consists of about 15-20 chopped up scenes; some scenes include characters that have already been seen, others include characters you’ll never see again. I wondered for a while why this decision was made, because at the time, this disjointed nature seemed to stunt the film’s ‘flow’ - however, it wasn’t until I reflected on my own experience that I concluded that the consistency of the film’s structure was actually representative of what reality is like in a small town.
Having lived in a small town for many years, I know that you have your primary, re occurring characters, and then you have your characters that show up and then leave without ever re appearing again. This was a lot like the attitude in the film; the re-occurring characters were characters that symbolized the majority of the town’s people, and the minor characters symbolized the minority. The inconsistency between the scene transition was therefore a deliberate effort to highlight this dichotomy.
Another reason for this inconsistency could also be that by showing a number of short, concise scenes with specific, minor characters, gives a notion of the diversity of the town’s people; it may be a small town, by my god is it colourful. I found this technique to be pretty familiar, however, I hadn’t seen it demonstrated with this degree of mastery before.
After reconciling with the unusual scene-sequence, I felt myself feeling very disturbed by each scene’s content. It was curious to me, because each scene was only 5 to 10 minutes long, and yet, each scene continued to shake me. Usually, I become conditioned to a disturbing movie within the first few scenes, I become ‘numb’ to what I am being shown, so to speak- however, this was the first time where each scene had me captivated with, well, absolute horror. What the hell is in these scenes then, you may ask, and, all I can really say in return is, however cliché it sounds – the truth - and let me say, the truth ain’t pretty.
The fact of the matter, the scenes in this movie give such an honest portrayal of life living in a small, no-where town that it makes you cringe - especially because Korine has also filmed these scenes as if they were taped on K-mart video camera, inducing a sense of realism lacking in polished, over-edited, HQ mainstream media. Call about re-enacting the past, Korine dumps your face right into it. Does this mean that only those whom have lived in a small town, those with these kind of memories, will find these portrayals horrifying? Well, no, not at all – in fact Korine delivers the film in such a way that he preys on the vulnerability of inexperienced-viewer’s, consequentially making the film’s content that much more engaging.
As I said before, these scenes are short, and most of the time, they’re extremely simple – yet, they’re all absolutely brilliant in their ability to sear through your brain. For example, there was this one scene, where a couple are in a parked car, they’re making out, and the male character grabs the female characters breast – after about three seconds, he then withdraws from her and says ‘you’ve got a lump in your titty’ – the female character then stares at the male and pulls her blouse back up, and the scene ends.The scene lasts for only a couple of minutes and yet the way it is shot, and the way the actors interact with each other, leaves you with this intense bolt of shock and you quite literally sit there still, wondering what the hell it is you just witnessed. Harmony Korrine’s ability to create scenes like this horrifies you but simultaneously intoxicates you. His ability to play on the human desire to watch and focus on the horrific is ingenious; you realize the film is unpredictable so you continue watching it, asking continually, ‘what’s next? what’s next?’
There are so many facets of this film that I have come to love, however if there was one thing I appreciated the most about this film it would have to be its incredibly clever social commentary. As I said before, this film offers the truth about small towns; the majority of the scenes revolve around teenagers loitering around the township getting high off of solvents, engaging in unprotected/not-entirely-legal sex, defacing public property, engaging in petty theft and hunting down animals that reside in the vicinity. Yes, it sounds horrible, because it is horrible, and it is even more horrible when you realize this is exactly what it is like for many teenagers who live in towns that deprive them of entertainment. In the town I lived in, this is exactly what the majority of kids and teenagers were doing – why? Because there was nothing else to do, and it wasn’t like anyone with any authority really noticed or cared in the first place. We, the audience, are obviously disturbed by this behaviour, because it’s, for a lack of a better term, ****ed up – but you see, this is the primary message Korine is trying to deliver to the audience – life is ****ed up when you **** it up- when you are born into an environment where the only way to survive its simplicity is to deliberately complicate it.
To make the film even more textured, Korrine also offers a chafing humour to it by creating these ironically, wry humoured scenes, where social status and race are juxtaposed against their stereotypes. There’s this scene where two extremely well dressed, well spoken African America twins knock on the door of this derelict, maundering Caucasian woman’s house asking if she could please contribute to a charity they’re fund raising for. The juxaposition of the mainstream stereotype of African Americans against Caucasian representations such as this, can’t help but inspire a few mumbled giggles, as well as a refreshing sense of honesty, denied by main steam films.
To conclude this seeming partially complete ramble of a review, all I have to say is that this is an extremely clever film that must be, at least, considered. Its unusual choice in style and portrayal will leave you disturbed, but in such a profound way you will not be able to stop thinking about this film for weeks on end.
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