HARMONY KORINE'S AMERICA
Ryan Deussing / Link / October 1997
Wunderkid filmmakers don't need no fuckin' college. "I went to college for a semester and I didn't like it. I didn't like the kids there and I was smarter than my teachers," says 23-year-old Harmony Korine, director of the recently released movie, Gummo. "For me the best thing about college was the library. I just went to college to read books anyway."
These are the words of the self-taught know-it-all who's made a reputation for doing whatever the hell he wants, whether people like it or not. A writer, director and budding novelist, Korine's stock response to questions concerning the controversy surrounding his work is "I don't care." But make no mistake - Korine cares about what he's doing, he just doesn't particularly care what you think about it.
Young but determined, Korine doubted that he'd become a filmmaker. He wrote the screenplay for 1995's surprise indie-hit, Kids, before the ink was dry on his high school diploma. This film, which was directed by Larry Clark, earned him critical recognition and the financial support of Fine Line Cinema, which provided Korine with carte blanche in the making of Gummo.
Korine isn't exactly a conventional filmmaker nor follows conventional methods of filmmaking. When he decided last year to take a stab at directing, for example, he pieced together a script from about seventy sketches he'd written about life in Xenia, Ohio - a real town that was literally demolished by a tornado in the 1970's, and a locale he had never visited. He made his first casting decision while watching an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael titled, "My Child Died From Sniffing Paint." The episode featured Nick Sutton, a teenager from Washington who probably never had dreamed that his troubled adolescence would prepare him for a part in a movie. "He was just amazing," explains Korine. "So I tracked him down and put him in the film." This unconventional method of searching for on-screen talent seems oddly fitting for a film like Gummo, which proudly comes off as unlike anything you've seen before.
An obsessive tale of teenage ne'er-do-wells who roam a post-apocalyptic, midwestern town, Gummo consists of dozens of vaguely connected vignettes that are by turn gorgeous and sickening. Like Kids, Gummo invites - Hell, begs for - controversy by throwing scene after scene "In your face," as if to provoke a personal response from audiences who have grown accustomed to movies as light entertainment, the visual equivalent of easy-listening radio.
"I'm not content with the way films are made anymore," the director explains. "I wanted to make a film with images coming from all directions, like a tapestry but much more random." If nothing else, Gummo succeeds in creating a world that is completely arbitrary, in which events are only loosely related and characters seem to have been invented moments before the camera begins to roll. While there's no shortage of recent films that have attempted to raise aimlessness to an art form, Gummo stands outside of this trend. First and foremost, the film is not a romanticised look at youth subculture. Imagine a remake of Slacker where deadpan humour and pseudo-intellectual musing are replaced by glue-sniffing and routine violence, and you'll be somewhat better prepared for Gummo. (Note: This film is probably not a good idea for a first date.)
Although Gummo relies heavily on improvisation, Korine stresses that he had a clear vision of what the film should be. "I knew I wanted to bring scenes and situations to a certain point that you can't imagine before it happens." Knowing that some things can't be scripted, Korine left ample room for impulse and circumstance and encouraged the cast - most of whom are not professional actors -- to take the kinds of risks that aren't welcome on a traditional set. "The script is dead," he points out.
"But the actors, the characters are alive." As a result, certain moments in the film seem almost documentary in style, while others are carefully crafted and even seem contrived. Likewise, Kids - an almost too-real-to-watch story about sex, drugs and teenagers in New York City - blurred the lines between documentary and fiction.
Gummo has no real plot - kids ride around on BMX bikes, a boy in bunny ears wanders the suburbs, time drags on - but the film is held together by rare, arresting moments captured by the camera. Between such instances, however, the film gets bogged down by scenes involving the shooting, torturing and killing of cats. This seems like a ploy inserted (and repeated) for shock value when the story runs thin.
Korine claims the storyline is deliberately weak. "I can't stand the idea of plot. It's nothing to me. All I remember from movies - from life even - are certain characters and scenes."
There are certain characters and scenes in Gummo that are bound to piss people off. From kids on drugs to cat killing, from child molestation to domestic prostitution, the film passes up no opportunity to offend. When Gummo was shown at film festivals, Korine was sharply criticised for his casting of mentally-disabled people in less than flattering roles. He remains unapologetic. "I mean you could have Tom Hanks play someone like that and win an Academy Award because it's some romantic idea of life with a handicap, but you show the real thing and it's suddenly too intense or grotesque for an audience. I just don't get it."
Gummo was shot in run-down neighborhoods of Nashville, where Korine grew up. "I knew these places and these people," he explains. "I was interested in making a truly American film and it's like America to me." Whether people in Nashville - or Americans at-large - will see anything in the film they can relate to is another question. Will Gummo, like Kids, emerge from controversy to become an independent success story? Korine says he doesn't worry about it. "You want people to like the film and be entertained by it," he explains. "But I never waste time confusing myself by trying to figure out what people will think." And Korine doesn't seem like the kind of person who wastes much time at all. "I'm just gonna get to the point where I don't have to talk to anyone anymore and I can just make films. I want it to be about constantly working and pushing the form forward, with no down time."