Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gummo (1997)

When I was a teenager, Harmony Korine's Gummo was whispered about as the holy grail of disturbing youth culture films. My friends and I had eagerly and nauseatingly consumed the dark fantasies of movies like Kids, Bully and Spun, but Gummo remained a legend that perhaps an older brother had seen or which was hiding in some mythical video store far, far away (it certainly was never carried at my local Blockbuster). We all assumed that it was basically a snuff film and that most of the existing copies had been destroyed by parents, priests, or the MPAA.

Now that I'm older and I have my own accounts at Netflix and Video Journeys (an amazing video store in Los Angeles), I find that Gummo isn't nearly as elusive as it seemed to be when I was sixteen. Hell, back then, "independent" and "foreign" existed only as tiny and hopelessly disappointing sections in the way back of Tower Records. Furthermore, I'm willing to bet that Gummo's scarcity has more to do with its avant-garde leanings than it does with the film's content. It unfolds as a pastiche of tragicomic episodes that flirt with narrative while never fully embracing it, and while the film is often sad, it is just as often exuberant and uplifting. Certainly, it has nothing on the tragic hopelessness of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream or the nihilistic emptiness that haunts Larry Clark's Kids (which was incidentally written by a 19-year-old Korine).

Gummo follows the exploits of a group of teenagers and young adults who inhabit the dregs of a Midwestern town that has never recovered from a terrible tornado. These kids hunt cats, sniff glue, tape their breasts, and wrestle with furniture. They crave excitement, sex, freedom, money, power, and beauty, and their lives intersect but seldom too deeply interweave as each pursues his or her dreams. Even the film itself exists as an intersection of various styles and themes; carefully scripted scenes are blended with improvisational snippets, found footage, and 8mm material shot by Korine and his friends.

Gummo thus leads us on an odyssey through the fantasies and nightmares of middle America, simultaneously blurring distinctions between documentary and fiction, narrative and poetry, and shameless exploitation and earnest regard. Throughout, Korine maintains an unwavering sense of conviction and sincerity, and his film has left me with a litany of unforgettable moments, though I am partial to the breathtaking conclusion in which the film's characters rampage through the heavy rain as they are all but drowned out by Roy Orbison's "Crying".

It's a shame that I let something this beautiful elude me for so long, though perhaps my appreciation for the film's dark romance is only possible now that I've gained some distance from that confining world of adolescent angst and madness. The teenage me who couldn't rent Gummo at his local video store probably would have shrugged at the film's strikingly singular characters, and he definitely would have yawned at its lyrical anti-narrative. I guess these tragic kids have to grow up sometime.

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