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By Ray Pride

MARCH 9, 1998:  Harmony Korine's audacious, confrontational, overtly experimental feature debut, "Gummo," finally reaches Chicago. While the likes of The New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote that "Gummo" was "the worst movie" of 1997, it seems many critics' fear is more of disadvantaged white Southerners than of Korine's kaleidoscopic collage (after all, Maslin did praise the dreadful, distasteful "Deconstructing Harry," the milieu of which is closer to her chosen lifestyle). Korine, writer-for-hire on Larry Clark's "Kids," flexes a talent for outrage with this eclectic teenage white-trash fantasia, composed mostly of vaudeville-like routines, vignettes that incorporate an albino and a shaven-headed bald black dwarf (a childhood friend of Korine's), and unlikely actors such as a grown-up, tap-dancing Linda Manz, from "Days of Heaven," as a silly-if-loving mom. Teenage beauty is lovingly portrayed, unlike Clark's prurient approach in "Kids," and Korine is knowing in his depiction of teenage fear of "the other"--whether boys' fear of girls, boys' fear of other boys, girls' fear of men at large, or a general suspicion toward the world. Korine's teenagers, like Terrence Malick's, are innocents who make it up as they go along. As photographed by the great Jean-Yves Escoffier, cinematographer of Leos Carax's luminous films, as well as van Sant's "Good Will Hunting," the near-plotless "Gummo" alternates gorgeous, sometimes-dreamlike imagery, with poker-faced scenes that are sometimes intensely distasteful. (There's glue-sniffing, cat-torture and the murder of an invalid grandmother.) Yet Korine's use of music and sound is rich and inventive, and his sometimes-startling use of mixed media, including Super 8, video and Polaroids, marks "Gummo" as bold work. Korine sees his work as a mix of realism and absurdism, captured by whatever means--"mistake-ism" is a word he's coined for himself--yet the movie tumbles along to its own blissed-out rhythm, never pretending to the alleged ethnographic veracity of "Kids." 88m. (Ray Pride)

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