Harmony Korine’s films straddle a unique line in cinema. They are always hard to watch, but even harder to ignore. They’re also, without fail, batshit insane. I’ve seen GUMMO exactly one time. It was on VHS, at the insistence of an ex-girlfriend who assured me it was “hilarious” (it’s not, but it also kinda is). I haven’t forgotten it, and I never, ever will. I don’t even know what it is, if anything (trust me, that’s a true accomplishment for a relatively popular cult movie). I’ve taken to describing it for people unfamiliar as more of a photo-essay and not as a traditional narrative film. And yet, there is a compelling story here, that of the depressed, tornado-stricken town of Xenia, Ohio and the citizens who sleepwalk through its rubble. We are lucky the Harvard Film Archive is showing this on a big screen, along with the rest of Korine’s filmography. Though difficult to pin down, and often downright amoral (descents into hell, all of them), his films are never not interesting. Seeing them with large group should be quite the cinematic experience.
In true Korine fashion, the movie follows a handful of kids over a few days as they make their way through life in Xenia. We get glimpses of glue-huffing, pre-pubescent love affairs, junkyard games turned violent, catatonic grandmothers on life-support, and a seemingly town-wide racket of cat-poaching. Radically dysfunctional families seem to be the overriding theme here. Korine’s camera, never judgmental, simply watches, and manages to capture some striking images in the process. Most of the actors (save for Chloë Sevigny and Korine himself, both in small roles) are non-professionals. Interspersed vignettes oscillate between sad, disturbing, and simply absurd.
In one way or another, all of Korine’s films follow a similar trajectory: subversive, exhilarating tours through the underworld, devoid of “plot,” and capturing exactly what would be excised from a mainstream movie. Sometimes there’s a message underneath it all, as in KIDS (1995), which Korine scripted and Larry Clark directed, or his most recent, the spazzy, spoofy SPRING BREAKERS (2013). Sometimes, there’s no message in sight, just grotesqueries on display. Call it “anti-message.” The bizarre, jagged JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999), Korine’s second feature, fits into the latter category, and so does the unparalleled GUMMO. (All these films, by the way, screen at the HFA throughout the week).
If Korine is the unaffected nihilist of independent film, he is not without some tenderness and craft. So many of GUMMO’s disparate events and images remain seared into my brain — the cruel but inspired scenes of cat-poaching, Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell) smoking silently on an overpass, the gaunt Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) taking a long disgusting bath while eating spaghetti. This last one, in particular, refuses to go away. Anyone who’s seen the film knows what I’m talking about. As the child bathes himself in more and more filth, chowing down on budget noodles and a wet chocolate bar, Korine’s camera just lingers. There, in the background, a few strips of old bacon are taped to the bathroom tiles. Why? Are they forgotten leftovers from another dinner? Unique decorating methods of depressed Midwesterners? I feel silly even asking. It’s so much more enthralling to wonder.
GUMMO (1997) / 35 mm / 95 min
Part of the Ongoing Series: Harmony & Anarchy – The Films of Harmony Korine
Saturday, February 22nd – 7:00pm
Harvard Film Archive
24 Quincy St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
$9 – Regular Admission
$7 – Non-Harvard Students, Harvard Faculty and Staff, and Senior Citizens