Stranded in the Jungle--24

Harmony Korine

TORNADO. "Life is beautiful. Really it is. Full of beauty and illusions. Life is great. Without it, you'd be dead." These words are spoken in voiceover, so tonelessly that they almost pass us by. On screen, we see a collage of heavy metal videos and grainy Super-8 footage of pissed-off teenage boys. It's a sequence from Harmony Korine's 1997 film Gummo. The speaker is Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), a scrawny fourteen-year-old with an unearthly look. His hair is short, wavy, and tousled. His face is narrow and egg-shaped. His expression is blank, yet intense at the same time. He never cracks a smile. He's too old to be cute, but still too boyish to exude an air of menace. He is so self-contained, and so impassive, that he might as well have come from another planet. Solomon spends most of the film tooling around on his bike with his pal Tummler (Nick Sutton). They hunt for stray cats, which they sell to the local butcher. They drink milkshakes. They sniff glue. They have sex with the sweet, mentally retarded town prostitute. They break into a house, and turn off an old lady's respirator, so that she can finally die in peace. And sometimes they just stretch out for a while in the sun, and Tummler tells Solomon about his cross-dressing older brother. The film doesn't have a conventional plot line. It's more a series of slice-of-life vignettes. Some characters show up again and again, like Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell). He wanders all over town, wearing only shoes, shorts, and a set of pink rabbit ears. He never speaks. We see him pissing and spitting from a freeway overpass, skateboarding down the street, playing the accordion in a toilet stall, and frolicking in a pool during a rainstorm. Other characters appear in only a scene or two. There's the girl who has just had a mastectomy. She's afraid that boys will never find her attractive again. There's the albino woman who boogies to music from her car radio, as she speaks directly to the camera. She tells us about her pale skin and her deformed feet, and what music she likes, and what she is looking for in a man. Korine himself appears in one scene as a desperately drunk gay teen. He comes on to a midget, who gently turns him down. Most of the film's characters are underage. Most of them are white; a few are black. The one thing they have in common is that they are all powerless and poor. They have all been excluded from the official, Hollywood version of America. Gummo was the fifth Marx Brother, the one who never appeared on screen. True to its name, Korine's Gummo shows us lives and events that we don't usually get to see in the movies. It gives voice to the voiceless. The film is set in Xenia, Ohio. Some years ago, this town was ravaged by a tornado. People and animals were killed. Houses were destroyed. The town never recovered from the damage. Today, it is a place without prospects or hope. Yet the tornado seems almost magical in retrospect. Gummo begins and ends with jerky video footage of the storm. We see strange visions. The twister looms on the horizon like a living thing. A dog is impaled on a rooftop TV antenna. "I saw a girl fly through the sky," Solomon remembers, "and I looked up her skirt." Korine's camera, just like the tornado, shows us the world from a new angle. Gummo is filled with terror, disgust, and grotesquerie. But these are all transmuted into wonder. The beauty is in the details. I love the scene where Solomon takes a bath. He sits in the tub. His hair is soapy with shampoo. Before him is a tray on which his mom has served him dinner. He drinks a glass of milk, and eats spaghetti and meatballs. As he opens a candy bar, he fumbles and drops it into the filthy bath water. But he fishes it out again, and bites into it without a thought. Now his mouth is smeared with tomato sauce and chocolate. Nothing really happens in this scene. But isn't that precisely the point? Korine is not interested in drama. His movie gives us access, rather, to different states of being. He seduces us into a sweet complicity with the people we see on the screen. He places them before us, free of condescension or judgment. Such intimacy is a matter of keeping exactly the right distance. If we came any closer to these people, we would suffocate from their contact. If we moved any further away, we would lose touch with them entirely. But just at the point where we are, we can see the beauty of their lives. For all that it might seem crass or sensationalistic, Gummo is a film of enormous tenderness.

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