The mischief starts before the first image appears. As the Fine Line Features logo unfurls, a child chants, "Peanut butter, peanut butter..." and as the Time Warner name burns in, the chant continues: "Motherfucker!" Writer-director Harmony Korine's audacious, confrontational feature debut, "Gummo," was scheduled to open across the country between the end of October and Christmas. The week that "Gummo" opened in New York and Los Angeles, Korine made a splashy appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show." A half-dozen under-thirty filmmakers I know in those cities raced to see the movie. To a person, they were impressed that a largely visual, overtly experimental narrative had found its way onto a megacorporation's release slate.
Yet New York reviewers slaughtered Korine's film. The Times' Janet Maslin -- who seems to be selling Harmony Korine futures short after her deep investment in the esthetic stock of "Kids" -- said "Gummo" is "the worst movie of the year." (She must have missed "Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag.") Then there's movie-reviewer-turned-cultural-critic David Denby in New York magazine: "Beyond redemption... An instructive artifact of the late twentieth century, an example of extreme disgust with the media that expresses itself in the media..." As a result of their mischief, "Gummo" will be conservatively parceled out to the country, slowly playing off over the next six months, rather than reaching dozens of mall theatres all at one time.
"Whenever you have a platform release, you're looking to be launched in as big a way as possible," says Liz Manne, New Line's executive vice president of marketing. "In this case, the critics didn't do us any favors."
Korine, writer of Larry Clark's "Kids," again flexes his talent for outrage with this eclectic teenage white-trash fantasia, which is 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 Gus van Sant's upcoming "Good Will Hunting," the near-plotless "Gummo" alternates gorgeous, sometimes-dreamlike imagery with poker-faced scenes that can be 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, incuding Super 8, video and Polaroids, marks "Gummo" as bold work.
Korine sees his movie as a mix of realism and absurdism, captured by whatever means -- "Mistake-ism" is the word he's coined -- yet the movie tumbles along to its own blissed-out rhythm, never pretending to the alleged ethnographic veracity of "Kids". After all the provocative quotes attributed to Korine, it's a gratifying surprise to meet an articulate 23-year-old autodidact instead of a Ritalin-deprived brat. Korine, mistaken for a New York club kid after the release of "Kids", in fact spent his formative years near Nashville, Tennessee, where "Gummo" was shot. "Gummo" is a Southern piece through and through, particular in its embrace of a dark and freakish mood. "Oh, it's completely Southern, it's totally, one-hundred percent Southern," Korine agrees. "I'm a Southern boy so how would it not be? I'd say 'Gummo' is an American film; it's Southern, but it's strange. But it's a genre-fuck. I love the South, love it. I didn't leave until I was eighteen. I had to move out to understand it. I couldn't have made that film if I hadn't left Tennessee for those four or five years."
Korine expresses disappointment that more journalists have not been rude to him. "I would like that instead of these polite questions like, 'Do you feel like you're exploiting people?' Exploiting people, I don't know what they mean." I ask how he would react to "Gummo" getting labeled "self-indulgent." As if anticipating the howls of hatred to come, Korine says, "How can an artist be expected not to be self-indulgent? That's the whole thing that's wrong with filmmaking today. Ninety-nine percent of the films you see do not qualify as works of art. To me, art is one man's voice, one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person. Self-indulgent to me means it's one man's obsession. That's what great artists bring to the table. When fucking critics or whatever say, 'he's self-indulgent,' I don't know what that means. The reason I stopped watching films is because so many people lack any kind of self-indulgence. Entertaining to me is what it's all about. We can talk about esthetics and influence but in the end when I go to see anything all I want is to be entertained in a different way. I don't want to be bored by the bland and generic. Film is like a dead art because of people not taking chances."
About the "peanut butter" opening, Korine says, "I love it. That to me is the future. The most subversive thing you can do with this kind of work, the most radical kind of work, is to place it in the most commercial venue. When Godard did 'Breathless,' the reason it changed the cinematic vernacular is that it came out in a commercial context. I only think things change when they're put out to the masses, regardless if somebody dislikes them." He has a ready example: "The Velvet Underground put out their first album, and almost nobody bought it, but everyone who did started a band that sounded just like them. For me, getting it out to as many people as I can is much more subversive than giving it to the same three theatres with the same crowd that always goes to independent films."