The controversial cult classic Gummo was released 25 years ago, dividing critics and audiences alike. While the New York Times heralded it as “the worst film of the year,” some of cinema’s most pioneering filmmakers, such as Werner Herzog and Gus Van Sant, overwhelmingly praised its vision. Whether you love or hate Gummo, its impact on popular culture and cinema cannot be ignored. Since its release in 1997, images of Chloë Sevigny, complete with bleached eyebrows and duct-taped breasts, or Bunny Boy sat on the bridge, have come to define certain internet aesthetics and items of clothing – most recently, certain stills have decorated the front of Supreme T-shirts.
The experimental independent film was written and directed by Harmony Korine, who gained prominence after writing the contentious Larry Clark picture Kids when he was just 19. The film, which follows a bunch of teenagers as they navigate adolescence, sex and drug-taking in New York during the AIDS crisis, was released in 1995 – two years before the release of Korine’s directorial debut. Kids demonstrated the ideas that Korine brought to the forefront in Gummo and when speaking to Herzog, he stated: “With Gummo, I wanted to create a new viewing experience with images coming from all directions. […] I can’t stand plots, because I don’t feel life has plots. There is no beginning, middle, or end, and it upsets me when things are tied up so perfectly.”
Gummo is the perfect example of plotless cinema, with vignette-style clips interspersed between a loose storyline, showcasing the different inhabitants of a run-down, poverty-stricken Midwestern town. Narrated by Solomon (played by Jacob Reynolds), the film is the antithesis of Hollywood. Gummo revels in the grotesque, violent and cruel, depicting the harsh reality of life for many people that is typically overlooked. There is no glamorisation to Korine’s display of poverty, as is often the case in Hollywood, and this is mainly achieved through the meticulous production design.
Although the film is set in Xenia, Ohio, Korine decided to shoot in Nashville, Tennessee, which is where he had lived during the 1980s. While scouting out locations, Korine would walk around fast-food restaurants and bowling alleys to try and find local people to cast in the film. Eventually, he managed to find a collection of houses and locations to film in, as well as a group of non-actors to put in the movie – this kind of realism is what makes Gummo so special.
Speaking about the locations that Gummo was shot in, Korine said: “I grew up in Nashville, so I knew the neighbourhoods. Certain houses were just the worst – people were living like pack rats. In one of the houses, I found a piece of a guy’s shoulder in a pillowcase. As far as production design went, it was about taking things away to make it cleaner. At times the crew would refuse to film in those conditions. We had to buy them those white suits like people wear in a nuclear fallout.”
He added: “I got angry with them because I thought they were pussies. I mean, all we’re talking about is bugs and a disgusting rotting smell. I couldn’t understand why they had no guts. I was like, ‘Think about what we have access to,’ but I guess most of them didn’t really give a shit. But Jean Yves [Escoffier], the cinematographer, was fearless. When the others were wearing their toxic outfits, he and I wore Speedos and flip-flops just to piss them off.”
One of the most memorable moments from Gummo is the bathtub scene. Solomon sits in the bath, the water a murky green colour. The gloomy blue walls are covered in mould and there are pieces of bacon taped to the tiles. As Solomon eats a bowl of spaghetti and drinks milk in the bath, his striking appearance is emphasised by his slicked-back shampooed hair. Surrounded by squalor, he does not hesitate to eat his chocolate bar after he drops it into the dirty water, with confrontational medium close-ups framing his chewing.
Nothing conveys the extreme poverty of these towns more than this scene – in what is meant to be one of the most developed countries in the world. The film’s producer Cary Woods noted that “we’re essentially seeing the kind of poverty that we’re used to seeing in Third World countries when news crews are covering famines, [but] seeing that in the heart of America.” Gummo does an excellent job of portraying the harsh and uncomfortable realities of many people in America, which is still resonant today.
Korine forces the audience to confront the actualities of much of American life by using unconventional structure, non-actors, and depressingly bleak locations and production design.