The first of its kind in Canada, HARM: A Harmony Korine Retrospective, opened on November 8th at The Cinematheque. The retrospective opened with Korine’s first feature, Gummo. Screened on 35mm print, Gummo follows the lives of several people in a rural, blue-collar town in Ohio. Two teenagers pass the time by hunting and killing cats, sniffing glue, and bicycling from one misdeed to the next. There is a group of sisters who mostly take care of each other, sitting on the porch and painting each other’s nails (and sometimes kissing boys), who are also looking for their beloved and suddenly-missing cat. Chloë Sevigny gives a standout performance as one of the sisters, all bleached hair and charcoal-black eyeliner. There is also a boy in a pink bunny hat, who is the least violent of the bunch.
Gummo is a series of portraits of people whose lives have been similarly painted by misery. They are violent for the sake of violence, at times drinking too much and wrestling over broken furniture, or screaming all the obscenities they know at each other while kicking trash around a junkyard. Multiple narrators speak in near-whispers as they tell the tragedies they’ve suffered. Violence is the undercurrent that flows through all of the characters’ bleak lives, acting as an antagonist of sorts. However, the violence never feels performative; it flows naturally and earnestly from the characters. There are also moments of surprising humour despite the dark and at times disturbing content.
Gummo is full of striking images that stay with you: a young boy eating chocolate and spaghetti in a bathtub full of dirty water, the boy in the bunny hat taking turns kissing the sisters in a pool in the rain, a boy lifting homemade weights made of spoons while his mother tap dances in his dead father’s shoes, the dead cats in various disarray. While there is no discernable plot, fans of Korine may suggest that’s not the point. His films are meant to be absorbed, taken for what they are but not so easily, or immediately, digested.
Korine’s films have garnered much criticism and confusion while his status as cult icon has only grown. He wrote the screenplay for 1995’s controversial Kids when he was just nineteen. Directorial debut Gummo arrived in 1997, when he was only twenty-three. Gummo also received an honourable mention at the Venice Film Festival that year despite an underwhelming performance at the box office.
But generating box office revenue isn’t what Korine is known for, nor is it an accurate way to measure his success. Neither are critical reviews; Korine is an artist whose work is meant to be subjectively considered. Viewing his work in a theatre, alongside an audience who reveals their own interpretations through laughter or gasps or nervous chit-chat, is experience in itself. You might find yourself contemplating what you’ve seen for days after the fact, in idle daydreams or vividly disturbing nightmares. You may find your fascination with or appreciation for Korine’s work deepening as you desire to return to what you’ve seen, or further explore his body of work. The curiosity his work provokes is no doubt a part of what inspires his status as a cult-classic.
You can satisfy your Korine curiosity with julien donkey-boy (1999), Trash Humpers (2009), Spring Breakers (2012) and Mister Lonely (2007) through November 15th at the Cinematheque. Find showtimes and more info here.