Steve Ramos / City Beat / November 6, 1997

Harmony Korine's mouth really sparkles. Grinning from ear-to-ear, 23-year-old Korine's wide smile reveals a collection of bright gold caps that turns every spoken word into a personal light show. Korine's dazzling teeth also make for a unique visual calling card that's truly his own. The same can be said for Gummo, Korine's debut feature film as a writer-director.

Telling a collection of stories set against the small town of Xenia, Ohio, Gummo sets its spotlight on Xenia's wayward teens and their depressed lives. More a cinematic work of art than some conventional movie drama, Gummo unfolds a startling collection of visual images, both beautiful and disgusting, as Korine's film follows the random events of violence and despair that fills Gummo's world. As the screenwriter of the controversial 1995 film Kids, Korine's tale of rural, Midwest youth seems like a natural progression. The initial reaction to the film at its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival made it clear to Korine that he was in store for more controversy. Gummo, it seems, was going to be the subject for much debate. Korine has no problem with the fact that his film is destined for controversy. Because what makes Gummo so different from other films, Korine says is what also will make it puzzling to many audiences. But don't expect any explanations from Korine. He sees Gummo more along the lines of a "cinematic collage." Telling a plot was never his intention, he says.

"There's no plot because I can't stand plots," Korine says, speaking in a Toronto hotel room. "Just the word makes me sick."

Basically, Gummo is Korine's own vision, pure and true. That's why he sees no value in offering his interpretation of the film.

"To me, only true art can be self-indulgent, and the reason why 99 percent of movies aren't works of art is because it's not one man's vision and a true piece of art or the only films that truly matter to me are auteurist visions and auteurist works," Korine says. "I guess Gummo is art because it's a pure vision. It's one man's pure vision, one boy's vision."

Watching him pace the hotel room, Korine looks every bit the hyper child as he does a film auteur. And just when he seems completely annoyed by the tedium that goes with interviews, Korine breaks into laughter and becomes recharged with a new jolt of adrenaline. He's more than just some new filmmaker. In fact, Korine sees himself as a real trickster.

"I'm a trickster," he says. "That's what I am - a trickster and an entertainer. I am someone who happens to mess around with an element of artistry, but above all, I'm a trickster, someone who tricks or someone who makes you believe, a magician."

Korine also sees himself as a real American. Born in Bolinas, Califo., Korine grew up in Nashville, Tenn., where he returned to make Gummo. Setting his story in America's heartland was important to Korine. For him, the lives of people outside New York City are just as interesting as any Big Apple tale.

"I am an American original and an American artist and what I find most entertaining and most interesting is America and Middle America, not so much New York and not the big cities because they don't so much matter to me right now," he says. "Gummo is like America, even though when people say 'oh it's documentary or it's real,' it's definitely not. There's no such thing as realism in film or there's no such thing as truth. I'm only concerned with the poetry of realism, a supposed realism, and that's what Gummo is. That's why it's confusing to certain people. That it has this element. That it's organic. That everything seems like it's really happening but at the same time I'm tricking and I'm manipulating everything. It's made up. I'm genre-fucking, you know?"

Gummo's characters, from the half-naked Bunny Boy to its two white-haired sisters, simply unfold across the screen. Their stories might be filled with violence, sexual tensions and poverty, but Korine never passes judgment. The film, he believes, should speak for itself. Still, its lack of a moral compass might be what's causing so many people to take issue with Korine's tough tale. Looking for lessons in Gummo is not something that Korine advises.

"I think people will lose the film as soon as they start trying to figure out my logic or what I'm doing or while they're watching it start to dissect metaphors," he says. "I don't want the film to work. I'm not really so interested in it working on a purely cerebral level. I'm much more concerned with it on an emotional level and that you leave feeling a certain way."

Korine is hopeful that audiences are arguing about his film. At least that proves that his film made an impact. So any debate, whether it's positive or not, means that Gummo made a difference.

"The worst thing for it would be this kind of indifference that I feel toward almost all other filmmakers," Korine says. "I have total disdain for almost all other filmmakers because they give me nothing that I want to see. They give me nothing that's true. They only give me process and lies. They just make the wrong moves and, again, I have nothing to do with them, and I'm not part of any kind of movement. I'm my own, and to me there's no great history of American new wave. There's only specific maverick, patriot type independent directors, maybe John Cassavettes and Sam Peckinpah, a few people, and that's more my lineage."

Korine never went to film school. He has none of the formal training that is prerequisite for today's up-and-coming filmmakers. His lack of formal film education, he says, is what makes his work so unique. Film schools are part of the problem with today's mediocre film climate, he says.

"[Film school] muddied up the water with people who really didn't have anything to say and who weren't true artists or visionaries or had no qualifications for making films," he says. "Too many people are making films, just like anyone can be a musician and anyone can be famous. It's nothing. It's no talent. It's all about that instant like now, it's all about the consumption. The only thing that matters to me is the permanence that there is at the end of your career."

Korine sees Gummo as the first film in a prolific career. He says that his next film might surprise audiences by being a more traditional narrative. Until then, Korine hopes that people respond positively to Gummo. But if it fails to get noticed, Korine says that he's confident that he will continue to make films.

"All I care about is that I keep making films," he says. "I don't care about anything else. I'd love for people to like the film. Obviously, I want people to see the movie because you make the work for people to see. I mean I'm definitely not one of those artists who make the work only for myself. You make the work to affect people and to affect something and you want people to like the work and to see the work for it to change things. But at the same time, I'm only concerned with myself, with the next project."