What GUMMO Wasn’t

|Olga Tchepikova-Treon|

Gummo has been around for more than twenty years, so there are not many new insights I feel I can offer about its position in and contribution to cinema history, or its significance in Harmony Korine’s filmmaking trajectory. Korine earned his directorial debut—this very Gummo—with the tremendous success of writing Kids for Larry Clark in 1994. Gummo, however, takes the urban teen life realism aesthetic established through Kids into a rural and, perhaps more significantly, disaster and poverty-struck environment. To sum up the consensus: Gummo’s praise (as well as dismissal) often emphasizes the film’s intermingling of cinematic techniques, oscillation between truth and fiction in setting, characters and action, and above all, the emotional confusion it provokes in audiences because of this technical, narrative, and aesthetic chaos. Some say Gummo is hard to watch. Others say it’s beautiful. Most likely, it is both. But really, I am not necessarily invested in making a case for either—you probably already know where you stand, or you will find out very soon. What I am, or became invested in upon engaging with Gummo over and over again is the more speculative question of what it could have been, but wasn’t.

There are a few resources that speak to this speculative question: First, Gummo’s official screenplay, published a few years after the film’s theatrical release.[1] Then, there’s a video installation Korine put together from predominantly unused footage filmed for Gummo, called The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II.[2]And finally, as a side note, there is Korine’s frequent re-use of audio-visual materials—including those that made it into Gummo proper—for different projects in varying media formats.[3] Unfortunately, The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II has not been released in any accessible format, so unless you saw it playing in a gallery (I have not), there is no way to speculate in this direction. So I’m bringing up the latter two resources here mainly to aid those who are interested in venturing out on their own research. What I will focus on is a partial illustration of what was planned but not executed in Gummo according to the screenplay. I do this not to point fingers at inaccuracy but to suggest how some of the changes that happened made Gummo a more ambivalent portrait of a small town in the wake of a devastating tornado. I will mainly reference alterations made to characters that did end up in the screen version, as I think a discussion of those changes will elucidate their impact on the tone and mood of the film, without significantly altering the action or story logic (if Gummo’s fragmented narrative setup can even accommodate a claim that there is any of such logic).

In the screenplay, Korine paints some of Gummo’s characters as far more cruel and hostile than they ultimately appear in the film. Still, the film that Gummo became can hardly be called completely cruelty free. Indeed, we watch many characters being unkind toward themselves, each other, animals, individuals with sensory, physical or mental disabilities, and terminally ill persons. However, most of the time, the perpetrators do not seem to overtly indulge or enjoy this behavior. Rather, their actions and sentiments are portrayed as an almost annoyingly boring part of their daily routine—it is simply the way things are in Xenia, Ohio.

In the screenplay, however, their sentiments are often actively vicious and hateful. Bunny Boy—the film’s non-speaking, impassive and most mysterious character—blows up frogs with fire crackers and, smilingly, talks about suicide and hating the world. The skinhead brothers were set to be filmed spitting into the camera, all the while one of them sports a swastika tattoo on his forehead. Cole—the late-teen who pimps out his younger sister with Down Syndrome to willing ‘clients’ like Solomon and Tummler—goes on a jealous rant about his “little devious bitch” of a girlfriend, but also acknowledges that she was sexually abused by her father. Finally, the Midget (indeed credited in the screenplay as “Midget”) explains at length how he hates himself and his life because he is short and gay. Further screenplay ideas that were tossed include a chubby teenage girl who hangs herself as a result of bullying, and an anonymous boy cutting the word XENIA into his arm.[4]

None of these initially-planned sequences seem surprising given the broader setting of Gummo—a town left behind, where casual expressions of racist and homophobic tendencies ring from run-down house porches, where middle-school-aged boys in cowboy costumes shout all the bad words they know from the top of their lungs, and where a majority of living spaces look like seriously health-hazardous environments. But the choice to ultimately abstain from portrayals of indulgent cruelty and hatred pokes deep holes into the cliché of a destitute, or white trash population whose types we think we know so well.

Maybe Gummo would have penetrated the cinematic mainstream a little further if those cruel intentions had remained in the final cut. After all, this would have significantly simplified our judgment of its film world. Everything about a screenplay-faithful Gummo would have played into and confirmed the mostly negative image of poor, white, rural America perpetrated through redneck horror films, tabloid talk shows and reality TV. It would have made it easy to make sense (or fun) of the film and its characters. But without such elements of frolicking hostility, we necessarily catch ourselves making assumptions about Gummo’s characters without any solid grounding.

So maybe in that sense, Gummo is hard to watch indeed—not because of its staggering impression of authenticity and realism, but because we are cheated out of a commonplace film watching experience. Gummo does not leave us with a sense that its character population can be distinctly classified into heroes and villains. Maybe this is because we want some of the characters to be both and praise them for their complexity. More likely, however, all of the characters are actually neither and thus, remain somewhat impenetrable. So what we are left with is a circumstantial skepticism toward the very stereotypes we want to believe in while watching Gummo. And this, significantly, may yield a shift in the schadenfreude-drenched voyeurism that often makes up watching film characters that we think we can feel superior to. A less cruel Gummo may keep us more honest about the ill logic of personal judgments directed at people on film screens as well as in real life. And life, as Solomon says, is great—without it you’d be dead.

[1] Harmony Korine, Collected Screenplays 1 (London: faber and faber, 2002).

[2] See a breakdown of the installation’s exhibition history for further details.

[3] For a comprehensive overview, see the Images section on Korine’s unofficial fan site.

[4] Though the film offers an alternative to this in the brief sequence where we see an arm freshly cut with the letters SLAYER.

Edited by Ben Savard

Gummo screens at the Trylon from Friday, Jan. 31 to Sunday, Feb. 2. Buy tickets and learn more about the screening at trylon.org.

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