Wednesday, 8 June 2011

VHS Quest #8. Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)

It's a disturbing existence for the citizens of Xenia... Gummo (1997)

Perhaps the oddest - and therefore most important - quote, in reference to Harmony Korine's directorial debut, comes from Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog, who once declared: "When I saw a piece of fried bacon fixed to the bathroom wall in 'Gummo', it knocked me off my chair." The film was met with rapturous applause by auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Gus Van Sant, who celebrated its avant-garde portrait of desolation-in-extremis; the story of Xenia, Ohio, wounded by a tornado in the mid-1970's. Its inhabitants are adrift in hyperreal limbo, neither alive nor dead, and captured through an omnipresent lens. Korine employs fluorescent lights to imbue the film with a haunted aesthetic; alternating shades of yellow which lend the footage a muddied feel - almost as if the stock had been urinated on. Some may find that an apt metaphor for the film itself, a genuine cult sensation which has been dividing audiences for the last decade. Me? I'm somewhere in the middle...

I loathed Kids (Clark, 1995) with a passion, yet Julien Donkey-Boy (Korine, 1999) struck me with its deformed beauty; its rebellion felt sharp, yet thematically rounded and matured. Gummo, epileptic in structure and mean-spirited in tone, feels much more like the experiment of a penniless student - surprising when we learn that Korine was allowed unprecedented freedom to make the picture, on an allowance of $1.3 million. Shot on video, many may call the director's vision ugly, but I don't agree. The aesthetic is aggressively unconventional and sometimes obscured, but to call the film ugly for this reason is to misunderstand its purpose. Actually, I found that watching the film on VHS actually enhanced the visual quality, for it is rougher and more immediate. Indeed, the uglier side of the film is perhaps its underneath; the characters who inhabit this nihilistic wasteland.

Xenia probably looked like the world of Gummo in its fallout, but the hermetic landscape of freaks that Korine has created within is entirely self-imagined, but unaccompanied by an idea which gives their existence meaning. I got the same impression from Kids, which was an interesting setup spun out of control by an unchecked mind full of adolescent angst and searching provocation. Gummo, for all of its audacity and occasional poetry, is best represented by one of its final shots, where Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell) holds up a dead cat to the screen. Korine wants to shock us, but the tactic is aimless, and so he evokes nothing more than tedium. His characters feel somewhat like trauma vessels; victims turned into sideshows for your viewing pleasure. Korine doesn't care about them, so why should I? His intention is merely to pluck the surreal from the real, but without the maturity required to pull it off to a point.

Yet the film - a series of Godless vignettes equally infuriating and engrossing - isn't without merit. Korine's startling vision is organic and uncompromised, and any filmmaker who can polarize like he does deserves to be applauded. Exasperating, undefinable and the source of endless debate, its cult following is well earned, but I have one question: where's all the love for Julien Donkey-Boy?

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