If you’ve never seen Harmony Korine’s 1997 meisterwerk Gummo, you are doing yourself a great disservice. Rarely do I recommend a film so unabashedly, or so often. It has been my favorite movie for almost a decade, regardless of mood. I’ve seen it a hundred times, easily, and it continues to amaze me in new ways. And yes, it shocks, in a manner I draw great inspiration from. But beyond its often hilarious jolts, Gummo is the most explicitly human and raw film I’ve ever seen. The believability of the scenes- some scripted, some improvised- is so overwhelming and authentic, it pulls you into their world with all the force of the tornadoes that set the film’s events in motion. And you may find yourself every bit as devastated in their wake.
Gummo loosely tells the story of the residents of Xenia, Ohio, a quasi-fictional town that was savaged by tornadoes at an indistinct point in the past, and never fully recovered. The film centers primarily on a small group of children, but as we explore their ruined world, we meet a larger cast of characters, almost all portrayed by “non-actors”. Some are legitimately mentally retarded. It all gels amazingly well, providing a heretofore unseen view of what liberal assholes call “white trash”. I love it so dearly that I could go on endlessly about it, so I’ve decided to instead whittle my thoughts down to my ten favorite (more or less) things about my favorite movie. Here we go! Don’t forget to put out the cat! For god’s sakes!
#1. THE OPENING
Over a tremulous montage of images, including 8mm tornado footage, we hear the voice of Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), one of our two main protagonists. He narrates the unspooling carnage, which provides the first of MANY dead critter shots; a dog’s carcass speared on a house’s TV antenna. But here’s the thing… Solly is speaking barely above a whisper, making the introduction feel like a dirty secret told under a bedsheet. “People’s legs and bones were sticking out.” It lends such a stark, ugly truth to the dialogue… and we’re not even at the opening credits yet.
Once the credits begin in kind, we see Bunny Boy, a silent boy wearing pink costume rabbit ears, loitering on a highway overpass. As he kicks garbage around, pisses on the traffic below, and shivers in the rain, a woman sings like a cartoon hillbilly on the soundtrack. The song has a nursery rhyme meter, with verses repeated after changing just a word. When she sings the chorus line “Cock-a-doodle-doo”, she does so in an odd falsetto, and you bet your ass you’re never going to forget this song in your life.
The redundancy of the singing combines with the on-screen idleness of the strange kid, illustrating perfectly the stunted daily life of Xenia, Ohio. Its inhabitants are shell-shocked into numb, broken patterns, repeated behaviors that border on blind compulsion. And despite Bunny Boy’s obvious stabs for attention, traffic rolls right on by underneath, ignorant and unknowing. This sets the tone for what we’re about to see for the next hour or so, and appropriately enough, it ends abruptly with someone drowning a stray cat.
Much ado has been made about Gummo‘s treatment of our kitty friends, but the point remains; the ASPCA’s stamp of cruelty-free approval is at the end of the credits. If you find a dead cat, and you put it in your movie as a dead cat, then obviously it’s not so much a matter of animal cruelty as it is “Dead Kitty is going to be a star.” And since the cat-abuse angle of the movie is played as a sign of desensitization, Dead Kitty gets to be a symbol too. Oh Dead Kitty. Could whatever mundanity you knew in life be greater than that status, I ask you? Dead Kitty, I call you toast of the art world.
#2. HELEN, DARBY AND DOT
The gurgling of the now-superstar dead kitty crossfades to the sound of Tummler (Nick Sutton) gargling mouthwash, as he prepares to make out with a homely lass in the rusted shell of a junked automobile. By firelight, they begin heavy petting, which not only bests make-out scenes in shit like Titanic, but it taught me the true meaning of “HOLY SHIT MY FLESH IS LITERALLY CRAWLING.” But before you can perish from overexposure to pure awesomeness, Tummler announces to his lady fair that she’s “got a lump in [her] titty.” More on him later though; note the above picture.
Left to right, that is Dot, Helen and Darby. I think they are sisters. Dot and Helen have Cherie Currie haircuts and totally bleached eyebrows. We see their home, which is bombed to bejeezis and back, even for a disaster area. They have a black cat named Foot Foot who might be pregnant, in which case they’ll have to drown the kittens in the creek. They don’t appear to have any parents, or guardians of any kind, although at one point we see twin redheaded fat ladies that Helen uses as a couch. The eldest, Dot (Chloe Sevigny), seems to act as matriarch, as demonstrated in the scene where she teaches Helen to use electrical tape on her nipples, to make them puffier. Thankfully Darby merely watches, saving me from being wrestled to my office floor by jackbooted agents with hard-drive sniffing German shepherds.
Later in the film, we’ll see Dot and Helen courting Eddie, a young rising tennis star and former ADD sufferer, who happens to have the greatest haircut in the world.
Eddie explains to the girls that he now takes Ritalin, which has made it easier for him to really go for the ball. It’s not a drug that fucks you up, he elaborates, in one of the film’s most memorable asides. “It makes you normal.”
#3. JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES AT PLAY
These two kids I know… these brothers… they murdered their parents. Personally, if I knew them in reality, I would give them a very wide berth. Portrayed by real-life brothers Casey and Jason Guzak, these skinheads-who-snapped seem almost too real, which really pays off when they start swinging at each other during a discussion in the kitchen.
If I had to pick a favorite scene this would likely be it. It’s a semi-friendly fistfight, in real-time, with a little blood even. Left to their own devices post-parenticide, the brothers start belting each other in a manner not unlike bear cubs. This scene holds the record for most re-enactments amongst my old housemates, and the phrase that kicks it all off, “Gimme them shoes,” we wore down to a nub. (“Sick ol’ fucker” is a close second.)
And yeah, granted, I like to watch fistfights, but in this case I feel my artistic sensibilities (aheh) catered to as well. Can’t there be more fistfights in movies? Call Kimbo Slice, now, and put in him a movie about fistfighting. Just tell Kimbo don’t forget about his boy Matty.
Also- the flesh-crawling action of the earlier “petting” scene has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING on what follows, which is a girl describing how her father molested her, in frank detail. She continues over footage of a very young girl playing in a muddy yard, while gradually, the voice is shriekingly distorted, almost synchronized with the viewer’s disgust. Again- I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie, and this one part never lessens in impact. It’s an effort to get through, every time. It ends with a pounding, metallic sound that always reminds me of the intro to the Dead Kennedys album Plastic Surgery Disasters.
#4. STRAY CATS=PROFIT!!!!
Tummler and Solomon meet with the butcher at the grocery store. Why are they meeting with the butcher, you ask? Very simple; Tummler and Solomon are entrepreneurs. They kill stray cats with BB guns, sell them by the cat/pound to the butcher, and spend the money on model glue, which they put in a bread bag and sniff in the woods. You feel that warming sensation? That’s you suddenly feeling a lot better about your life.
The cats-as-currency motif reinforces the concept of broken, repeating patterns formed in the wake of trauma. Piano notes grimly descend, as the two boys, neither older than fourteen, walk their bikes down a ravine to a secluded spot where they can huff in peace. They recline against a graffitoed culvert, and talk about how Tummler’s older brother used to sing Roy Orbison and shoot the mailbox. It’s one of the only real connections between two people in the movie, and it’s like looking into a black hole of human despair. The kid who plays Tummler was discovered by Korine on a Sally Jessy Raphael show about painthuffers, so you’re looking experience right in the face here.
We’ve learned by now that the boys’ clever scheme is threatened. The Chinese restaurant owner that buys the butcher’s cat meat had a heart attack and died, and another kid, named Jerrod Wiggley, is straight-up poisoning cats for reasons that are unclear for now. Supposedly Jerrod had a sister named Junebug that went to school with Solomon, but moved away. I have my own theories on that whole deal, but you’d have to see the movie to really know what I’m talking about. Suffice it to say, I don’t think “Junebug” moved away so much as “stopped acting/dressing like a girl”.
#5. A PILE OF BULLSHIT
Behold: the most quotable scene of the film, and the reason why a Gummo DVD should grace every home library. Bunny Boy wanders into a construction yard with his classic yellow plastic skateboard. He is accosted by two young lads dressed sparsely in dime-store cowboy gear. These two are so astonishingly profane that I have never made it through this scene without nearly pissing myself laughing. The cowboys “kill” the Bunny with their cap pistols, then proceed to BERATE him as he plays dead, at top volume, using every foul word in their repertoire to describe how bad their opponent stinks. If you watch this scene and don’t come away with a zillion phrases to scream aloud at a Starbucks, well then, I just don’t know what to do with you. Examples:
“I don’t let wabbits come into mah fuckin’ house, I KILL ‘EM!”
“DAMN YOU RABBIT! YOU SMELL LIKE FUCKIN’ PISS!”
“HE LOOKS LIKE A QUEER RABBIT!”
“Wabbits are QUEERS! They always got SHIT on themselves!”
“This shitty-ass wabbit STINKS! He smells like PUSSY!”
“HE SMELLS LIKE A ASSHOLE!”
“HE SMELLS LIKE WETBACK DICK!”
Bunny Boy plays dead until they lose interest and decide to go cuss at something elsewhere. Our world is poorer having lost them. This scene is also notable for the first appearance of the see-saw “Gummo theme”, which you can play yourself, if you get a hold of the same brand of toy accordion that Bunny Boy plays it on later in the film. Here again, the music is a repeating loop, emphasizing the crushing mundanity. (I could listen to this accordion theme all day, by the way, despite this.)
#6. WHIP IT GOOD
After a lot of scenes that you’re better off discovering for yourself, Tummler and Solomon visit a man who pimps off his retarded sister. After a hot session of tard-nooky, the boys unwind with the help of a dead cat. Using car antennas, they whip the dangling ex-cat until one of his eyeballs is hanging out. Solly has a plastic fire chief helmet and a cigarillo. Black metal grinds in the background. It’s almost preposterous how awesome it is. You just have to take my word for it, if you’re even still reading at this point.
#7. PARTY MOM
When Solomon tries to get buff in the basement using bundled silverware as free-weights, his use of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” as workout music attracts his mother. She begins doting over him, and haranguing him about how he’s “lifting weights”, and it slowly comes out that she misses Solomon’s late father (he had a bad case of the Diabeetus). She’s played by one of the four SAG card-carrying actors in the film, Linda Manz, who was also the lead in Dennis Hopper’s Out Of The Blue. It’s probably the movie’s best performance, and at the climax of it, she begins to clumsily dance in front of the mirror in her dead husband’s oversize tap shoes. Then it happens.
Solomon’s mom does a silent party-neck routine directly into the camera. It’s like she’s doing it right in your face. I was appalled to find that no one on the internet had memorialized this moment in animated .gif form, so I was forced to put my limited skills to the task. Needless to say I fell short of capturing the scene’s glory.
#8. ARM WRESTLING
Tummler’s dad, ever the positive role model, takes him to a friend’s house, where we see both the molested girl’s parents and the black dwarf that Harmony Korine drunkenly hits on in an earlier scene. Beer runs out, and tempers rise after Tummler bests his dad at arm wrestling. Pro skater Mark Gonzalez sings a jaunty impromptu song (“He got beat/he got beat/he got beat BY HIS OWN SON”), but soon the room falls silent in a remarkably authentic lull. Finally a match is proposed between the dwarf and a shirtless bearlike man.
Incredibly, the dwarf wins. And the shirtless bearlike man… he doesn’t take the defeat very well.
Like a cornered ape, the man goes berserk, ripping the legs off the table and demolishing it. For a second, you see real unbridled rage, before Dude is roundly chastised by his drinking pals for being such a sore loser. Things eventually normalize, and the crew lets off steam by destroying the chair and the rest of the furniture. The best part is when the woman in the purple shirt gets a seat cushion to the forehead.
Seriously, get drunk with your friends, watch this movie, and see what happens. I dare you.
#9. DINNER AND A BATH
The entire scene with Solomon in the bathtub is classic. There is a strip of bacon taped to the wall. There are Barbie segments everywhere for some reason. And the water is filthy not just to connote actual filth, but to keep you from seeing a kid’s naughty parts. Again, an aesthetic choice I can live with. Solomon eats spaghetti and chocolate, washed down with milk, while his mother scrubs his greasy hair. And if you didn’t hear me the first time, there is a strip of bacon taped to the wall. I’ve always wanted to watch this movie with Werner Herzog, so we can earnestly chuckle in unison at this.
#10. THE SWIMMING POOL
One of the film’s final images is of Bunny Boy, Dot and Helen, alternately making out in a swimming pool in the pouring rain. Roy Orbison’s “Crying” thunders on the audio track, lending great emotional innocence and loss. The Gummo experience is akin to heaving aside an enormous rock, and observing the squirming life beneath it (in fact, there is a scene where a toddler removes a family portrait to similar effect, revealing a milling volcano of vermin). The swimming pool scene makes a jubilant capper to the film; these are people who have not only survived the bleak desolation of their environment, they have come to thrive in it. It’s intercut with grainy footage of the force of nature that brought us here, subsuming homesteads and phone poles into the lightless funnel of death. We see Solomon and Tummler still hard at work hunting cats, despite the rain, which is indistinguishable from tears on Tummler’s downcast face. It all climaxes with images so bare-souled that I again implore you to discover them for yourself. As for me, it makes me catch my breath every time.
In going back and getting screencaps for this article, I was surprised at how much info I had to leave out or whittle down, not just because I don’t want to spoil things, but because I can seriously go on and on about this film. It rewards repeated viewings, but is still something of an endurance test; both qualities I look for in movies.
Rejiggered from an article that appeared on Mike the Pod, 4.22.08