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What's it like to be an outsider in America? Welcome to Xenia, Ohio.

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  GUMMO, THE DELIGHTFUL and scary first feature by 23-year-old writer and director Harmony Korine, has little in common with ordinary movies. There's not much of a plot, some of the dialogue is inaudible, and it features very few professional actors. It's these very differences that make Gummo powerful, along with Korine's off-kilter, but strangely coherent sense of form.

Gummo is set in Xenia, Ohio, a town that's been "hit by a tornado," as Solomon, our glue-huffing narrator tells us. The tornado seems more metaphorical than actual, though, and the scenes of Gummo themselves spin out in a haphazard whirlwind. Everyone in this Ohio town is disrupted, unrooted, or damaged. It seems to be populated mostly by children and teenagers, who lead boring lives punctuated by moments of trauma or cruelty. Like Kids (which Korine also wrote), the young people in Gummo don't seem to actually have parents. After the first hour or so, a few parents do show up, accompanied by tales of abuse, or violent outbursts, or relentless weirdness. It's even more disturbing to see that the adults don't have control of their lives either.

Gummo is a collection of scenes that only slowly add up to a whole. Korine uses all sorts of formats--video, 35mm, Super-8--to give the film a constantly shifting texture. At first, there's a lot of video and Super-8 footage, and the beginning of Gummo feels like a home movie of somebody's extremely dysfunctional family where little boys fight and claim that the cops hate them because they "get more pussy than they do." Eventually the film settles into a form that is deeply influenced by documentary filmmaking, especially cinema verité from the 1950s and '60s. Different constellations of unhealthy people in squalid surroundings live their lives in front of the camera, for no particular reason. It's quite fascinating.

Korine used mostly non-actors and a Cassavetes-style, partially improvised script to achieve this real-life feeling. One of the main characters, a kid named Tummler, who, along with Solomon, kills cats for a living (and sells them to a butcher shop), was spotted by Korine on a drug-prevention episode of The Sally Jesse Raphael Show. Other cast members were recruited around Nashville, where the film was shot. As in documentaries, these non-actors tend to be expressive in a way that doesn't rely on dialogue. Korine's dialogue is fine, and often just weird, but it's really what he manages to capture visually that makes Gummo so arresting.

What he does capture, and what seems to hold the film together, is a deep sense of being an outsider in America, even among the strip malls and highways of the mainstream. The kids in Gummo don't seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone; they're like the mountains of trash piled up in the hallways of their houses. (To achieve an incredible level of domestic squalor, Korine used real locations in Nashville and manipulated them as little as possible. In the scene where a little boy takes a picture off the wall and a cloud of cockroaches swarms out, he just used a cockroach-infested house.) There's an overwhelming sense that no one belongs in Xenia, and that their displacement is permanent. It's a city of outcasts.

For this powerful mood, Korine owes a debt to the visual motifs of a series of still photographers, beginning with Diane Arbus. Interspersed between the antics of bored kids are interview-style scenes with human oddities--albinos and retarded folks and dwarves--which have some of the arresting strangeness and empathy of Arbus' photographs. He also owes a debt to Larry Clarke (who directed Kids) and Nan Golden, for an insider's view of a drugged underclass. In the strangely saturated colors of Gummo (which required special fluorescent lights), Korine seems especially influenced by Golden.

It's interesting to be able to even pick out such influences in a film, because so many directors today aren't very interested in the visual possibilities of the medium; instead, they give us talky movies that translate well onto video. One of the most visceral scenes in Gummo has hardly any dialogue: It simply shows Solomon in the bathtub, eating a plate of spaghetti while his mother washes his hair. There is something so vividly wrong about this, so counterintuitive, that it almost feels like we're watching some taboo act. Gummo reminds us how powerful pure imagery can be.


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