Gummo Harmony Korine ( USA; 1997) Jacob Reynolds, Nick Sutton, Chloe Sevigny, Linda Manz
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 23 July 2023; ticket:£7
and another american dream
Looking at the year in which Korine made ‘Gummo’ I remembered that Michael Haneka had made his first version of ‘Funny Games’ in that same year, 1997. Haneka’s film, had its metaphysical roots in Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, an artistic testament pointing to the need for violent physical actions and determinations to break through the audience’s carapace against ‘reality’: a kick in the balls to wake up.
Haneka’s movie is a brutal assault on the American middle class consumer. The original Funny Games was shot and made in Germany, but it was clear that the intended target of the eviscerating satire was the ‘home’ of consumerism, the USA. To make this clear Haneka re-made Funny Games shot for shot in 2008, this version filmed and located in America. The films achieved their effect by sabotaging standard Hollywood script protocols using the mind scrambling device of complete inversion of the power relations between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters, and writing the dialogue so that the bad guys were scripted all the vicious triumphant violence and got all the best ‘one liners’. There is no ‘Dirty Harry’ play out.
What Haneka shows in ‘Funny Games’ is that Middle Class America is defined by occupation of space without any real claim on it (hence their love of hotels and the imitation of hotel style interiors) and the propensity of this class to define themselves by the products they choose to buy. Haneka’s middle class family are sort of interlopers, with an incorporeal claim on the space in which they live; with aplomb and certitude they possess great wealth of material matter, but lack awareness of what they actually have, represents. Time to call in the avenging angels.
I have talked about Haneka’s movie because for me it suggests a way into thinking about what Korine was doing in making ‘Gummo’. It’s set in the poor white community of Xenia, among the people regarded as ‘white trash’ by those who consider themselves socially superior. Korine’s ‘Gummo’ represents the people who are the antithesis of the family in ‘Funny Games’, but have a certain phantom relationship, in as much as the lives of the poor whites can be seen as a strangely distorted sometimes warped shadow of mainstream middle class culture.
At the heart of ‘Gummo’ is the idea of the fragility of life. This is an idea for the most part alien to the Middle Class ethos. Perhaps this explains the resistance of the wealthy in industrialised and post-industrial populations, to accept the inescapable reality of encroaching climate change. They don’t understand their relationship to what is happening. ‘Gummo’ opens with a voice over by Solomon (the film’s main adolescent lead) spoken over grainy images (super 8 or VHS) of the passage of a tornedo through Xenia. Solomon tells what he saw of the death and destruction left in its trail. Nature can wipe you out any time. It’s a moral perspective.
And Korine’s ‘Gummo’ is a film made with moral intent. His use of violence is an intrinsic part of the film’s design; violence that is allowed to play out to its aesthetic moral and logical conclusions. A design that makes a claim on many of his scenes as spectacles of cruelty. The sometimes demented, sometimes coldly inflicted, nature of the violence, is (as in Heneka’s Funny Games) intended to cut straight through the viewers’ resistance to get through to the moral quick of the perception that I believe guides and drives Korine’s movie. As per Haneka’s observations in ‘Funny Games’, the middling classes walk through life seeing nothing, without understanding the complex relations upon which their comfortable lives are built. They possess, without ever having to fight for their possession. Their claim on wealth is by right of inheritance, an inheritance that they have forgotten was itself won by acts of applied violence. Haneka’s middle class couple have been able to write even the possibility of violence, out of their life scripts; for the most part, they’re able to envelope their well protected privileged lives in the stultifying justificatory re-assuring blandishments of corporate speak. They have the magic pass for getting through life.
Korine’s underclass possess no such magic pass. The conditions and experiences of any underclass are generally shaped by a high level of physicality. It is a culture that revolves closely about the body: health housing proximity social relations are all primary physical experiences. And this closeness to body engenders a sort of primary honesty that mediates the way people live and transmits to the children. There is (at least until social workers come along) nothing to hide. The violence in ‘Gummo’ both in the adult world and in the world of children expresses something of this honesty and something of the core physicality of the world as experienced.
Middle Class parents work hard to socialise their children in accord with standards of behaviour in which violence cruelty and antisocial tendencies are traits, tendencies, inclinations, to be suppressed, transmuted into more socially acceptible and progressive impulses. But there can be an honesty in violence as a prime response. And there no doubt that children can readily take to violence and cruelty, both for their own sake and to gain advantage for themselves. It may be that many children (but not necessarily all children) are self centred, lack empathy, and struggle to understand the suffering of others. I think it is certainly true that causing hurt and pain can be a particular way that some children use to explore experiment and exploit their relations with the world. Solomon and his friend kill cats. They kill cats for money to buy glue and visit a local whore. It’s an instrumental act on their part: more or less neglected and penniless, they kill cats. As children they kill honestly and without remorse: like children they know it’s wrong but they lack the inhibiting conditioning or empathic ability to cause them to stop. And for this reason the film, in the form of Korine’s script does not judge them. It observes them and how they live, as does the viewer.
It might be a criticism of Korine that he is exploiting underclass American culture for his own ends as a film maker. To make a sensationalist film. The film’s setting is not his background. He is not ideologically driven (as say was Pasolini) in any obvious manner. He makes ‘Gummo’ to assert himself as a film maker. Difficult charge to answer, we don’t have access to his thinking. However he says that what he shows in ‘Gummo’ is an America that is more or less hidden, unexplored in the dynamic of film. There are some documentaries, but nothing that uses the resources of drama to probe the psychic realities of marginalised life. But this aspect of America, the derelict communities abandoned by the post industrial world are an enduring part of this society and a necessary element in understanding how America works. They are the cannon fodder. In some ways Korines world and his characters, in particular the children are the wasted heirs of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. And of course the Solomon’s of America are the boots on the ground of the American army, the front line of Vietnam and Iraq, togather with the blacks they are the backbone of the country’s projection of power.