Most tattoo artists I know say they are inundated with customers requesting to have American flags etched permanently into their bodies. I only wonder if any of these patriots have seen the movie, Gummo, a disturbing portrayal by filmmaker Harmony Korine of life in one small American town that they might not be so proud of. The film begins with a shot of Xenia Ohio, and a voiceover of a child's deadpan description. "A few years ago a tornado hit this place. It killed people left and right ... Houses were split open and you could see necklaces hanging from branches of trees ... I saw a girl fly through the sky and I looked up her skirt." These few sentences suggest the tragedy, mystery, and humor that surge through this film. However, most fans of your typical Hollywood flicks with explosive action and character developments may not be able to appreciate these features of Gummo. The movie has no plot, just a series of situations, no big screen stars, just small-time and even amateur actors. The characters they play simply exist on the screen without growing or changing. Most of them are lower-class white children of the type we rarely see outside the realm of trashy daytime talk shows. In fact, Korine actually tracked down Nick Sutton to play Tummler after he saw him on an episode of "The Sally Jesse Raphael Show" called "My Child Died from Sniffing Paint." When Sutton, who's a paint-sniffing survivor, was asked where he thought he'd be in a few years he replied simply, "I'll probably be dead." It was at that moment Korine claims to have fallen in love with the boy's image.
In the movie, Tummler is one of two boys who cruise through Xenia on BMX, looking for stray cats to kill and then sell to the local butcher. The other boy, whose odd-looking face and underdeveloped body made him the promotional poster boy for Gummo, is Solomon. Other characters include the local pimp whose only prostitute is an attention-starved mentally-challenged woman, a couple of local teenage girls with bleached out blond hair who spend their time doting on their youngest sister while trying to make their nipples larger, and Bunny Boy, who doesn't speak at all during the movie but haunts many scenes as he passes by donning little else but a hood of long bunny ears.
One gets the feeling that none of these people has ever left Xenia, a place of grimy poverty, casual cruelty, and the type of boredom that gives way to drunken parties where men arm wrestle and in a make-shift ring pit themselves one by one against a kitchen chair. Although this film will likely disturb and disgust most viewers, it is a chance to see one man's unique cinema graphic vision-a dreamy yet poignant art project that is not meant to be defined but reacted to. Gummo is an electrifying succession of startling, strange, and tender images. Whether or not moviegoers can claim they were enthralled or they walked out halfway through-two perfectly legitimate responses-it is nevertheless a type of poetry on the screen.
Towards the end of Gummo there is a scene where Solomon's mother is simultaneously giving him a bath and feeding him a spaghetti dinner. For dessert, after his hair is washed, he receives a candy bar that he accidentally drops into the brown bath water and then, completely unphased, eats. There is barely any dialogue in this sequence, no background music, and if you look close enough you can see a piece of fried bacon stuck to the wall behind him with Scotch tape. This is Harmony Korine's idea of entertainment, bizarre images that stick with you long after the movie has ended.
At one point, Solomon's mother joins him in the basement while he is lifting weights-really handfuls of silverware bundled together-in front of a huge mirror. We watch his puny reflection, his deadpan determination. There is a hint of tenderness in his mother's eyes as she looks at him, a hint of pain as she puts on her dead husband's tap dancing shoes and begins to flop ridiculously around in them. Also when she picks up a handgun, jokingly holds it to her child's head and tells him to smile, there is a hint of something else, though it is difficult to determine exactly what it is. For sure, however, it is something entirely unique to Korine, a different brand of humor or tragedy or irony or beauty or perhaps none and all of the above. Scenes like this seem just to happen naturally in Gummo, and Korine, with the eye of an artist and the help of cinematographer, Jean-Yves Escoffier, shows them to us without judging or condescending to any of the characters involved.
The idea that places like Xenia actually exist in our country won't sit well with many people, yet Korine seems to want to play this lifelike texture up with grainy cuts from "home videos" of tornadoes and real people doing absurd standup routines for the camera. And while Gummo is confined to life in this one small impoverished American town, the soundtrack canvasses almost all aspects of American culture, ranging from Hoosier Hotshots to Madonna to Almedo Riddle singing the children's song, "My Little Rooster," to the death metal sounds of "Sleep," to Roy Orbison.
Ultimately, whether its lurid images of life are upsetting to viewers or not, Xenia is undoubtedly one pocket of American culture that should not be ignored. Neither should Harmony Korine's vision; and one must not forget that Gummo is, in essence, a visual experience. Without a storyline or any character development there's little else to go on anyway. However, the subtlety of each camera shot, the way each scene can be shockingly real, over-the-top, dream-like, touching, cruel, funny, and beautiful all at the same time makes for one bizarre film that's not to be missed.