Still via Fine Line Pictures
Content warning: discussions of sexual assault, racism, anti-Blackness animal abuse
Harmony Korine’s 1997 directorial debut “Gummo” is one of those movies that gets swallowed up by its own images. More than any plot event, people remember “Gummo” for the bathtub spaghetti scene, the Bunny Boy’s hat, and the unique shape of Jacob Reynold’s head as Solomon on the film’s box art. This is strange, though, considering that the film itself aspires to be so much more. Revisiting “Gummo,” it reads as an attempt to address as many social and political issues as possible by slotting them into the film’s Midwestern setting. Over the course of its runtime, “Gummo” explores themes ranging from sexual assault to racism to misogyny to ableism and eventually to homophobia, transphobia, and beyond, all to wildly varying degrees of success.
Taken as a whole, “Gummo” is most concerned with painting a hyperreal portrait of Middle America through its fictionalized account of the town of Xenia, Ohio. It offers images of Confederate flag bumper stickers on the backs of pickup trucks, blurry camcorder footage of porches with chipping paint, boys huffing glue in the woods, and the main character Tummler (Nick Sutton) kissing a girl (Lara Tosh) while a fire inexplicably rages outside the car, the pair illuminated as Tummler awkwardly informs her about the tumor in her breast.
Yet, somehow, there’s a nugget of truth in it that makes “Gummo” at the very least visually compelling. Generally, Hollywood has a hard time getting the aesthetics of rural America right. The deep South, Cajuns, Texans, Appalachia, the Midwest, the Plains, and so on are often folded into one homogenized image that often doesn’t really look like anywhere. Filmed in Nashville, Tennessee, “Gummo” is one of only a small handful of films set in the Midwest that get the aesthetics of small Midwestern towns right, offering a lightning-bolt reminder that there are Americas that have never made their way to film. Even when I was distracted by Carisa Gluckman’s unconvincing country accent as Helen, the exaggerations Korine uses to build his vision of Ohio, all vinyl siding and chain-link fenced-in lawns, feel visionary.
“Gummo”’s successes and failures are perhaps best seen by considering the film in sequence with Korine’s prior feature-length writing credit, 1995’s “Kids.” “Kids” was written exclusively by Korine in his debut writing role, only 19 years old when he wrote the first version of the script for director Larry Clark. “Gummo” has interesting continuities and breaks from “Kids,” with both films exploring the amoral experiences of delinquent young people.
Sexual assault is a major theme in both films, and both films fail abjectly at handling it. First “Gummo”: by far the worst choice made in “Gummo” is an incredibly tasteless scene in which a voiceover of a woman narrating her sexual assault plays over video of a young girl playing outside. It’s gross, gratuitous, ill-advised, and so immature. It reflects a common trope in men’s views of sexual assault, expressed both in art and in their personal lives, where they bemoan it only as a “loss of innocence,” when that is, at most, an item halfway down the list of things that make sexual assault horrible.
In “Kids,” Clark struggles with addressing sexual assault just as much, presenting the viewer with a drawn-out, extremely unsympathetic, and voyeuristic assault scene in what is effectively the movie’s climactic moment. It yields a similar level of discomfort as the “Gummo” scene and makes you wonder if Korine perhaps didn’t take enough lessons (or perhaps took too many lessons) from his work with Clark on “Kids.”
However, while “Gummo” has continuities with Clark’s brusque approach to the assault scene in “Kids,” “Gummo” is still comparatively more sound in concept. “Kids” is an extended montage of teens doing drugs, having sex, saying bad words, and so on. It appears, as a whole, not to document the lives of teenagers so much as warn about them, drawing the same conclusions as suburban parents’ associations nationwide: the kids are out of control! “Gummo” is much more measured by contrast, focusing on teasing out the core narratives of Tummler and Solomon (Sutton and Jacob Reynolds) primarily and Dot, Helen, and Darby (Chloe Sevigny, Gluckman, Darby Doherty) a bit less so, while building a portrait of other facets of life and politics in Xenia through background vignettes.
In these vignettes, again, “Gummo” largely shoots and misses. For example, in another tactless vignette — a conversation on a porch between various unnamed Xenia residents — the movie attempts and fumbles messaging about Middle-American racism. As the group gets to talking, one man voices how his least favorite part of being in prison was having to be around Black men, issuing a slur-laden tirade about how he “hate[s] the motherfuckers” and “just [doesn’t] like ’em.” There is some obvious intended irony in that statement — his anti-Blackness outweighs his hatred for prison itself.
A woman then replies, “Unless you got ****** buddies. That’s it… I had some good ****** buddies at Pearl,” using an anti-Black slur. Presumably, the intended irony is that the woman uses the language of anti-Blackness despite praising her Black friends, showing a discord between the distant anti-Blackness of her upbringing and her more intimate experiences with Black people in adulthood. In turn, the message of the scene is a proposition that white Middle-American racism is exclusively a product of too little exposure, that if the racists of rural Ohio just grew up around more Black people, then they would overcome their unwitting prejudice. It also suggests that Middle-American racism is abstract, some other place to deposit anger outside the confines of regular, white life in Xenia; this is idea is built on in a later vignette which depicts two young boys mindlessly using homophobic slurs the same way they use curse words, aligning that bigotry with simple, thoughtless, “edgy” humor. Seeing this vignette in tandem with the porch conversation, it’s clear that Korine wishes to acknowledge the bigotry that many feel is inextricable from the rural Midwestern setting while also taking the optimistic view that maybe they just don’t know better.
The impulse here is clear: the film wants to build sympathy for a setting that it expects its audience will feel unsure about. To this end, it meets its imagined audience halfway by waving away bigotry as a whole. Unfortunately for “Gummo,” this image of bigotry as pastoral, ridiculous, and unthinking is misguided. In this respect, “Gummo” may be read as a period piece as much as anything else. “Gummo” voices a kind of 90s romantic liberal optimism, where America’s rural white populations, so long popularly identified with prejudice, are finally on the cusp of overcoming their bigotry — if only they could be enlightened.
This is a woefully quaint way to approach American race relations, especially in retrospect. While the prejudice exemplified by Donald Trump’s voter base has always existed, Trump’s election in 2016 made it undeniable to many more eyes that a huge portion of this country will lend support to obvious, unmitigated bigotry. Regardless of how much or little Trump’s base truly looks like Korine’s Xenia, it’s difficult to imagine a sensible viewer today who will appreciate the film’s clunky approach to race relations.
Even given these shortcomings, “Gummo”’s portrayal of the cohabitating family of Dot, Helen, and Darby feels genuinely celebratory in a way that brings a lot of charm back into the film. Korine described the wardrobe choices for Dot and Helen as reflecting a “homeschool hip language” or an “inbred vernacular,” which feels appropriate. The pair’s outfits look considered but always feel slightly off — all animal prints and crunchy bleached hair — in a way that makes the characters feel far more like people who live lives off-screen. Well-removed from any of the country’s centers of pop culture, the pair’s fashion choices feel exactly right for two young women who have to define their own “cool” in an insular community where few will even notice another’s fashion. These little choices go a long way toward making “Gummo” feel like it cares for its female characters.
Beyond the details, the broad strokes of Dot and Helen’s narrative work just as well. The scene of them tearing electrical tape off of their tits to make them look bigger is an obvious beauty-is-pain moment that feels immediately true to the difficult expectations placed on women. This sentiment is echoed in a scene in which “Girl in Car,” as the film’s credits call her, claims that her main reservation about the mastectomy required to treat her breast cancer is that men won’t find her attractive anymore.
Later, a scene in which a man gives Dot, Helen, and Darby a ride — purporting to help them find their cat — allows for almost an exact opposite portrayal of sexual misconduct as the scene mentioned prior. When the man tries to grab Helen’s thigh, all three of the girls start hitting him and yelling insults at him before exiting the car. Somehow, this feels extremely optimistic, praising the trio’s familial closeness and the importance of mutual support between women in the face of universal misogyny. The scene nips assault in the bud, putting the emphasis on the women asserting their agency instead of on the physical act of sexual misconduct.
This is also the case of the scene involving Cassidey (Bernadette Resha), a young woman with Down’s Syndrome who is being pimped out by the man she lives with and who Tummler and Solomon both buy time with. After Tummler has sex with Cassidey off camera, Solomon has a conversation with her where Korine allows Cassidey to dictate the conversation, non-judgmentally establishing her as a distinct character. Cassidey’s response to Solomon’s question of “Do you think I’m attractive?” — “No. You look fine just the way you are — skinny.” — is instantly endearing, showing enough confidence of scriptwriting to take a kind eye to a person in a horrible situation. A lesser film would turn a plot beat like this into trauma porn, but “Gummo” handles Cassidey’s portion of the film with almost uncharacteristic tact.
So too with the film’s portrayal of queerness. The question of queerness in rural areas is always a difficult one, as queer people are often silent in the face of the small, gossipy, and often homophobic and transphobic populations that surround them. It often seems that many people can hardly imagine a vision of small-town America that includes queer people, residents of those small towns included. “Gummo” strives to locate queerness in its film in the same way that it does everything else, portraying it as variously awkward, sadistic, confused, hidden, proud, and beautiful.
There’s the scene featuring a too-drunk Harmony Korine trying to simultaneously flirt with, kiss, and trauma dump to a man (played by Bryant Crenshaw) sitting with him on a couch, accusing him of lying about being gay when he, understandably, doesn’t reciprocate. This is the silliest of the film’s queer scenes but certainly in step with the rest of them thematically. In another scene, one of the movie’s most compelling, Solomon and Tummler discuss Tummler’s sibling who has moved to a city and come out as trans. Tummler is obviously unhappy with his sibling’s choices, but Solomon asks him if she’s pretty, and Tummler guesses that she is at least “pretty enough to have a boyfriend.”
And then there’s Jarrod. The primary conflict of Tummler and Solomon’s narrative is that they find that Jarrod, another local kid, has been killing cats too, reducing the supply available for the pair to kill. Tummler and Solomon enjoy shooting cats, tying them up and flaying them, and burning them in barrels. They find that Jarrod instead just leaves poison out for them, leaving their carcasses where they lie for unexplained reasons. But he still kills cats. When Tummler and Solomon break into Jarrod’s house (and take his grandmother off life support), they find hidden Polaroids of Jarrod wearing lipstick and dresses. Not much is made of them. They’re shown on screen for a few seconds, and the film moves on. Tummler and Solomon are unable to understand queerness as anything other than a big-city pastime and yet here they are, looking at pictures of a hometown queer — and Jarrod kills cats, too.
Is it appropriate that “Gummo” is remembered as a weird film with a spaghetti scene instead of as an attempt at an all-encompassing political statement cast in microcosm in rural Ohio? Maybe not, but it’s hard to blame any viewer for choosing to focus on the parts of the movie that are genuinely inspired. “Gummo” aims high, and visually, it’s a success, but it unfortunately lacks much of the tact and chops to make good on its more thematic ambitions.
Author: Laila Alderson (She/Her)
Copy Editors: JQ Shearin (She/Her), Bella (She/They)