Director: Harmony Korine
Runtime: 95 Minutes
America does not possess a popular or cinematic culture that readily embraces auteurism. Indeed, the very Gallic nature of the word is likely to inspire a reflexive antipathy in many. Certainly, in the United States- a country whose synonymy with the medium of cinema is such that other nation’s domestic industries are perceived as imbuing "otherness" or a quaintly independent spirit among their consumers- it is not uncommon to encounter those that, even within the industry, react with open hostility to the very conception of film as “art.”
To a country so often steeped in, and proud of, its own anti-intellectualism, the twentieth century’s greatest art form is, almost exclusively, the most superficially distracting of “entertainments”- no more substantive a pass-time than, fireworks, bubble-gum or religion. And, inevitably, where there is money to be made in contriving another effects-riddled opiate of the masses, so there must exist a multitude of academies masquerading as centres of education to instil the sanitized formula that sits as a contemptful facsimile of the act of creation.
In spite of this, during its academic infancy, America’s film schools possessed a platonic artistic and intellectual integrity unseen outside Europe; whose students studied and adored the audacity and invention of Godard and the French New Wave, were moved by the staid lyricism of Kurosawa, and thrilled by the unfettered imagination of Bunuel. These politically and conceptually congnisant artists comprised the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, Stone and Coppola. And while all, for good or ill, have become enduring and defining names in the history of American cinema, it is probably only David Lynch that has remained as boldly and defiantly inventive as his younger self would probably have wished. He is certainly the only American director among that generation to yield such an uncompromisingly vivid and radical cinematic output while retaining sufficient commercial success to secure such rarely seen autonomy.
And though Lynch is among the few that can truly be considered an auteur- at least in the sense in which those who crafted auteur theory would understand it- it is through stylish and often cultish characterture that Lynch has secured a small but loyal global audience receptive to his work. Even fewer have grasped the opportunity to contrive entirely wilfully alienating hyper-realistic characters and narrative anti-structures. In fact, it is notable that of all the writers and directors named above, Lynch is the youngest at the age of 64, laying bear the philistinism of corporate Hollywood film making and the prosaic nature of its cinematic values.
Few can defeat this confluence of circumstance, but one man who can- and quite demonstrably- lay claim to having offended the founding principles of this ubiquitous anti-culture is Harmony Korine. Korine burst into the popular consciousness when at only 19 years of age he scripted Larry Clark’s brutal and uncompromising KIDS; a tale of HIV and gang culture that shocked many with a rarely realised social-realism. It also provided Korine with sufficient industry kudos to fund his first film with complete creative control, the result of which was GUMMO.
As is common with a film that appears so thoroughly uncompromising in its aesthetic construction, as well as the depth and disquiet of its themes, there is an inclination (as many of GUMMO’s reviews at the time of its release demonstrate) to seek parallels in the work of others in order to derive meaning and, certainly, it is possible to identify techniques pioneered by the likes of Godard, Cassavetes and Bunuel- even a pejorative (and specious) parallel was drawn with Todd Browning’s “Freaks”- all of which are profoundly inadequate to dissect the transcendent scale of Korine’s achievements.
While the cine-literate will be able to plot certain of the methodologies of Korine’s formative film influences, GUMMO has its roots in James Joyce’s Ulysees, and Korine transposes Joyce’s patchwork of free-association and stream of consciousness from Dublin’s stone-clad streets to Xenia, Ohio. Xenia is a town that still lives in the shadow of a tornado that devastated the population in 1974 and follows a several days in the lives of its impoverished carnival of inhabitants. As much as a character narrative can be identified, GUMMO concerns itself with the travails of two teenagers, Tummler and Soloman, who alleviate the crushing tedium of their small-town existence by sniffing glue and visiting a mentally disabled prostitute being pimped by her brother- all of which they fund through hunting and killing cats for a local butcher to process into meat. And though they and their journey merely serve as a reference point of the town’s narrative, Korine’s purpose for introducing them is to first alienate and then engage his audience, drawing the spectator into a world of profoundly, even perversely twisted morality- but STILL a world of morality.
Accusations levelled at GUMMO upon its release is that Korine desired to mock and exploit his subjects- not only of small town America, but of the cast itself, many of whom were drawn from its location, Korine’s hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Neither is true, as Korine lavishes affection and pours tears upon the plight of small town Americans driven to the very edge of permissible humanity and beyond, by poverty, despair isolation and ignorance. The “otherness” soon removes the semblance of conventional morality and aesthetics as scenes of conventional familial care and tenderness take on the aspect of nauseous grotesquery and, contrarily, those which would otherwise curry revulsion unearth such sensual and genuine tenderness amidst the squalor, the world could fall in upon itself.
As to the films overriding purpose? There is none. GUMMO is not a political piece; it is not “documentary.” And even though its aesthetic and themes are frequently brutally hyper-realistic, even this convention is wilfully and brilliantly undermined by jarring and liberal brushstrokes of surrealism. GUMMO isn’t “about” anything or anyone except the relentless and sullied nature of the human condition. It is, unashamedly, art in its purest of forms, and is among the great cinematic achievements of the twentieth century.