S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 April 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wrong Answer

 

[i'm back]

"Everywhere claimed as unique
... the rhetoric of the American
self remains conventional and
formulaic."

-Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell:
Religious Terror as Memory from
the Puritans to Steven King,

Edward J. Ingebretsen, S. J. ,
p. 201

 

Movies like Forrest Gump, with

smart, successful retarded

people who look like Tom Hanks,

are always going to smoke movies

like Gummo, with charming but

sexually active and unlucky

retarded people, at the box

office. But that's like life: if

you're smart, successful, and

famous, good for you! Sexually

active but unlucky? Well, that's

terrible.

 

Unlike life, the only thing that

you can say for sure about

movies is that they resemble

themselves: the movies that work,

as movies, are the ones that

already look like movies. What

was so great about Titanic was

that it was, you know, such a

movie. It had the most important

thing a movie can have: a clear

plot that teaches us important

new stuff like if you're

incredibly good-looking you'll

fall in love or if you're

incredibly strong and violent

you'll kill people.

 

Life, on the other hand, often

works best when it's pretty

unrealistic and the plot's all

fucked up. But people like it,

or at least remember it, when

life is unrealistic (huge

tornados, green sunsets,

resurrection from the dead).

People just get pissed off at

movies that don't look like

movies. But, as Gummo proves,

they're wrong.

 

[tech problems and complaints send to gadfly@suck.com ]

In fact, the most shocking part

of Gummo, Harmony Korine's

realist-art-trash-death-metal

exploitation film - which

recently found release on video

after a year of theatrical

invisibility - is that it isn't

exploitative or shocking. If

there's anything truly violating

about the movie it's that it

relentlessly depicts people who

are uglier than Chloe Sevigny -

in this movie, even Chloe

Sevigny is uglier than Chloe

Sevigny - as if they might be

beautiful, but doesn't let us

know for sure.

 

In a representative scene, a

short albino woman describes

herself, her favorite movie

stars, and her taste in men: "I

like men that are very

sensitive, that'll sit down and

watch a good movie with me,

won't hit on me, will love me

for me. I like men that either

have blonde hair, blue eyes,

black or brown hair." The

"shocking" crisis arrives when

the woman, who has been smiling

and gently boogieing to some

techno coming out of her car,

mentions that she was born

without toes. As Lisa Alspector

noted in an insightful and

sympathetic review, the camera

does not focus on her feet and

she does not take off her shoes;

she talks casually about picking

things up with the balls of her

feet. There is a vertiginous

loss of footing as we're

suddenly not sure whether she's

being presented as a freak or as

"just like everybody else" (is

there a third possibility?) - at

this point, we could take what

she's saying at face value and

risk believing in her

individuality and potential

attractiveness, buying into her

self as she sees it.

None of the critics

who have written on

the movie would seem to believe

that's even possible.

 

Of the movie's second hero, the

teenaged Tummler, the first hero

says "Tummler has what it takes

to be a legend ... he sees

everything ... some say he's

pure evil ... he has a fabulous

persona." Janet Maslin thinks

you shouldn't see this movie

because Tummler is said to kill

stray cats (though he's never

quite shown doing it).

 

[other than that, i'll be enjoying the sunshine, ]

What allowed critics like

Maslin to read Kids, the first

movie Korine worked on, as

moral, "a wake-up call to the

world," and not coincidentally

to enjoy its lurid scenes of

gorgeous "little baby girls"

being deflowered by virile,

callow boys (then again, Maslin

liked Porky's, too) was its

adherence to American movie law:

you're allowed to

buy off pleasure with

retribution.

 

Kids' plot: attractive

delinquents engage in

beautifully photographed illicit

sex; they all get AIDS. Whether

Harmony Korine, a bold and

flagrant liar, actually

overheard most of the dialogue,

is irrelevant. From a strictly

filmic point of view, he might

as well have heard it during a

visionary journey to the surface

of Pluto. As it plays out in the

movie itself, Kids' punishment

of the wicked serves an

economic function. In Hollywood

films, the starkest sex, the most

degrading rapes, and the worst

tortures can be enjoyed provided

they can be paid for. The

viewers pretend that the lurid

elements only function to

establish wickedness and to

demonstrate how richly the

wicked deserve it when the good

guys punish them. In return, we

get some action.

 

Gummo's problem is that it

depicts the retribution (figured

as a murderous tornado) as

having happened before the movie

began. So the argument as to why

it's bad is that there are

certain things, including the

maltreatment of cats (but not

including, let us say, hot

teenage sex), that should simply

not be represented. Yet,

not one of these

shocking scenes is ever

described in detail. Let's

describe one of these shocking

scenes in detail.

 

In a police-like interview, the

protagonists discover that a

pretty (they use the word, not

mockingly), tormented boy has

been poisoning the cats they

hunt for a living. They also

discover the source of his

torment: he has to care for his

brain-dead, incontinent

grandmother, who endures an

endless living death hooked to a

life-support machine. Framed

with a burst of ferocious black

metal, the scene moves to

claustrophobic home-movie

footage of the boys breaking into his

house armed with golf clubs,

disguised in rubber monster

masks. It's totally unclear

whether they're here to kill him

or to discover the secret of his

identity (a tension that

coruscates through the

presentation of every character

in the movie - a lurking, sexual

threat of revelation).

 

The heroes discover Polaroids of

the pretty boy, looking not

tormented but happy, wearing

women's clothing (like Tummler's

own brother, a transvestite). In

one of the sexual-identity gags

that run through the movie,

they find a stack of hetero porno

magazines and breathe a

sigh of relief that he's not gay.

In a scene

misinterpreted by every critic

who's seen the movie, the boys

agonize in hushed tones over

whether the ancient, unholy

smelling woman on the

life-support machine is dead. We

twitch with ambiguity as the

boys run through every emotion

we ourselves feel when

confronted with people on that

uncanny border; finally Tummler

decides she's actually been dead

for a long time. They end up

freeing their enemy by turning

off his tormentor's machine.

 

[my new outlook on life, drying out, my clean car, turning the garden over, and my new belle and sebastian records]

The way that the most

frightening and hateful material

dissolves into an eerie

gentleness is absolutely typical

of the movie and something no

critic could be allowed to see.

Not a single scene depicts a

person suffering. Korine shows

unconventional people espousing

powerful but banal hopes and

dreams. The gap between the way

we usually read these hopes and

dreams and the way we read the

characters is awe-inspiring.

This accounts for the reaction

to the sexual quality of Gummo:

"raw," "beautiful," "alive,"

etc. The improvised quality,

like early sex or new sex, is

the vertigo we encounter when

people discover and make up new

standards of cool and beauty.

They might be the wrong ones,

and we can't allow ourselves to

look at that too hard or long.




courtesy of Hypatia Sanders