Stephen Gillespie’s review published on Letterboxd:
LB Friend Fest 2021 - 5/20 (Wider details here)
Samantha, or Mayqueen to her online friends, is a welcoming, warm, funny and kind person. She puts up with my madness, and actively encourages it, shares my appreciation for ridiculous cinema and is just an all round great person. She treats film in a very open and interesting way, her background in visual arts bleeding into her fabulous writing. She has an artist's eye and you can see it in her reviews. This perspective is a step removed from my English Lit brain and therefore she always gleans out moments, touches or readings that I could never - or have never. Just one of many reasons why I love reading her work.
Why this film?
After hating Trash Humpers, and not liking Spring Breakers, but being somewhat fascinated by both, I was eager to check out more Korine. Samantha's 4.5 rating of Gummo was all the encouragement I needed.
This film takes it's name from the fifth Marx Brother. That's right, the fifth. The one that left the group before they hit show business and will therefore only ever be a footnote in history. This name is echoed, really nicely, by a moment in this film. A core character performs a slap-dash stand-up routine built around one-liners and word association, a style that is very Groucho Marx. But it also comes with an outsider energy, the camera pushes in and pulls out on him - making the moment feel energetic and even dangerous. It is shot from below also, as the character stands on a table - his wild gesticulations feeling targeted at the viewer that he is pushing towards. It feels confronting, it feels random and it feels odd.
This moment is Gummo at its best. A skewed strangeness that taps into something John Waters esque - an independent energy that feels thrown at the audience as they are treated to an uncanny experience. The name Gummo goes deeper than this though; it is key to the film's purpose. Just as Gummo Marx is a footnote of history, the characters of Korine's Gummo are footnotes of society. He focuses on those living in poverty, or severe deprivation, a sub-culture at the edge of society. We focus on the people of Xenia, Ohio and, by being in the film, they become movie stars. Throwing a light on the people of Gummo is like throwing a light on Gummo Marx, it pushes the question: why? Why look here, what is the purpose, surely we should be looking at the main events?
Forcing this question is interesting, as it makes us consider what film does document and how that contributes to how we view society. But the answer is more of a plain one: these people are interesting. Just as there is a fascination in the idea of the unfortunate status of the Marx Brother that didn't become a Marx Brother - on the edge of eternity; there is fascination in seeing how the people on the edge of society live and what they do. Korine is fascinated, and the viewer will be too - though I am not sure if this is enough.
The enduring question throughout Gummo is 'why'? But it is a much wider 'why'? Put more plainly: what is the point of this? The film is a work of fiction but it often wears the clothes of documentary. At points, it jumps to documentary style - feeling like a montage of actual found footage. A lot of it is filmed like home video, and is contextualised thusly. It is a sporadically structured film and, every now and then, we just see some blurry strangeness depicting people we don't know doing odd - or shocking - things. This widens the social scope and does set an interesting tone, and cements the idea of a social portrait - or should I say landscape - of a place and a people.
There is a narrative here, and it is the strongest feature, though it is hidden by structure. There are core characters, Solomon (the boy off of the poster) being our de-facto protagonist. The arcs of these people are really interesting. Korine seems to care about these characters and gleans some emotional resonance from their journeys. This only works more as their journeys don't feel like journeys. The collage style makes each sequence seem incidental and therefore character builds in an almost imperceptible way. The core film is just a chronological sequence of scenes involving the main characters - that do build on each other - but by obfuscating the clear chronology it normalises the idea that people grow. Growth feels incidental, as does life, pushing the idea of stagnation that is central to this work.
This is undercut, somewhat, by an overbearing falsity. One key example of this is that many moments feel like they stop when the camera stops rolling. Too many sequences feel performed for the camera - people playing a role that dissipates when Korine says cut. I like a lot of Gummo but I feel it is harmed by Korine being quite a weak social observer. The film works best when it feels like documentation, like found reality - though even then it still runs into voyeuristic territory - but it is not great at achieving this. Something that needs to be noted is that the film takes place in a real place, a real place that Korine had not visited. This sits uncomfortably with me and makes the film more of a propagation of stereotypes, or a work of calculated controversy, as opposed to a genuine portrait. The feel of this is in the film: characters don't feel like a window into an underclass forced by social conditions - and entrenched inequality - characters feel like mouthpieces for Korine to express weird things. A lot of the weirdness is grating - edgy for the sake of edgy - and also is, at points, just a tiresome use of outdated, or offensive, material under the guise of being 'provocative'.
There are moments though when it pulls away from shock-tactics - though Korine cannot resist this mode - and finds a humanity, a poetic one even. The use of music throughout is excellent and there are bewitching sequences. It is just that the film would be stronger if it was more sincere and less ironically affected. Korine wants to be the talk of the town, the 'oh no you didn't' filmmaker. This is at odds with the presumed purpose of Gummo - to explore the left behind and to put them centre stage - and it is a shame. So, while I am left thinking it is somewhat of an exercise in pointlessness, I still have to admit that so much of this film just worked for me. It finds a rhythm and a frequency that is utterly unique and it speaks strongly across this wavelength. The crassness undermines this and Korine's motives are suspect - and the lack of reality bothers me - but Gummo is a fascinating thing and easily Korine's strongest work I have watched.