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Flogging a Dead Cat

[whitespace] Gummo
All Ears: The speechless character Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell)opens and closes the film 'Gummo,' a sentimental freak show directed by Harmony Korine.

Harmony Korine's 'Gummo' gets the critical whipping it so richly deserves

By Richard von Busack

Gummo 'Milton' Marx (1893- 1977) was the fifth and least talented of the famous Marx Brothers, who dropped out of the act and devoted himself to business. His ineptitude as an entertainer is referred to in the title of Harmony Korine's film Gummo (plays May 21-27 at the Red Vic Theater).

Naming a film after the talent-free Gummo confesses to an inability to fulfill the old movie expectation of entertainment. Almost wholly free of plot, the film is a series of mostly unrelated sketches, interposed with video narratives by people we don't get to know--and some, maybe all, of these episodes are no doubt staged.

One of the main characters in Gummo is Nick Sutton's Tummler--the name is Yiddish for "jokester." Tummler, who is about 15, likes to pose as a stand-up comedian, but he's a veritable Gummo Marx. He drives home Henny Youngman rejects with the frenzy of desperation. Tummler's partner, Solomon, who is 13ish and played by the strikingly homely Jacob Reynolds, is pestered by his mother (Linda Manz), who likes to reminisce about how her dead husband used to tap dance. She's kept the man's shoes and puts them on for a grotesque twirl.

Gummo is a sort of unofficial amateur variety show set in Xenia, the Ohio town devastated by tornadoes years ago. The storm split open houses, killing pets and hurling people into the air, a narrator tells us. I wanted to see what's left of Xenia, but the setting was only nominal; Korine filmed in Nashville. There, he found many unusual types to dazzle the urban sophisticate: a bald-headed midget (Bryant L. Crenshaw), an albino, a woman with Down's syndrome, whom Korine paints up like a prostitute--and loads of obese people in T-shirts. Korine was on a star search for outrage, and to ensure outrage he wrote Solomon and Tummler as partners in the cat-meat business. The two hunt cats for recreation and milkshake money.

The characters bear only the slightest relation to each other; the cat Foot Foot (hello, Shaggs fans!) links the beginning of Gummo and the end--as does a speechless Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell), who opens and closes the film. Foot Foot escapes Solly and Tummler's air rifles at the beginning of the film, because he's a house cat instead of a stray cat--and therefore not lawful prey. At the end of the film, worsened by their contact with the weirdos of Xenia, the two pop away at the dead Foot Foot.

Spontaneous moments pepper the film until the death of the cat, and some of these are watchable: an actor named Mark Gonzales shows his wrestling techniques on a cheap kitchen chair; Chloe Sevigny examines her nipples in the mirror, commenting on them in that crushed-velvet voice of hers; and perhaps most evocative, the Hoosier Hotshots' version of "My Bonnie" (c. 1935) plays in the background of Tummler's comedy scene. The Hotshots' song hies back to a time when there were tornadoes, yes, but nobody mistook them for metaphors for divorce and the end of the nuclear family.

The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum had the last word on Korine's previous effort, the portentous Kids, which Korine scripted: " 'A wakeup call to the world,' wrote a New York Times reviewer ... declaring that rice paddy workers everywhere--or at least those with phones--should lay down their hoes and stop evading the problems of white Manhattan teenagers." And what The New York Times gives, it can take away. Gummo was called "the worst film of the year" when it was released last fall. As the story goes, that Times pan prevented it from being seen somewhere else.

Now, the question of critical power is one that fascinates critics, if no one else. If you've ever watched critics interrogating a director en masse at a press conference, you'll always hear this question: "Did the bad reviews hurt that disastrously performing film of yours?" Or you'll hear its corollary: "Do you read your reviews?" At the SF International Film Festival, Gummo was billed as the film The New York Times tried to kill, since it died there shortly after. Well, what if Gummo had been billed by The New York Times as, say, "A second wake-up call to the world, after the world turned over, put a pillow over its head and dozed after Korine's last wake-up call"? With a rave review, would Gummo have found an audience that could have endured this 95-minute gross-out, with its scenes of Solly and Tummler hitting cat-shaped prosthetics with sticks? Or, far worse, the truly stomach-turning scene of Solly eating a plate of spaghetti while sitting in a tub full of ochre-colored bathwater?

Korine is a filmmaker who found his stock unreasonably inflated and then dumped. The New York Times aside, there's nothing to Gummo beside its willingness to offend. There's no spine to Gummo, no direction to its attack. When you watch a Buñuel, David Lynch or John Waters film--or even something like City of Lost Children--there's a sense of Western civilization being stripped down to the bone. Korine's film is puny; it's mainly a protest film about parents who aren't nice enough to their kids. How is this sentimental freak show more avant-garde than mainstream mush like Sling Blade?

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From the May 18-31, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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