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The Humanizing Quality of Music in Harmony Korine's 'Gummo'

A sonic reading of a cult classic that came out 20 years ago and has continued to piss people off ever since.

by Emma Garland
Sep 7 2017, 4:30pm

I have never sat through a cinema screening of a Harmony Korine film without someone walking out before the end. Perhaps that is an unfortunate coincidence—seven unfortunate coincidences, spread over many years and locations—but the director has a real knack for pissing people off. Some find his "mistake-ist art form" completely unwatchable, others think his focus on people with disabilities and disorders—or bodies generally coded as "other"—is exploitative, and then there are those who simply don't care for worn VHS footage of delinquent seniors roaming the streets at night doing murders and shagging the bins, which is fair enough. Conventional narrative and plot tend to fall by the wayside. Instead, you're bombarded with a series of images and sounds, and any meaning you could deduce exists largely in the unspoken relationship between the two.

Most films written and directed by Korine open the same way: a few seconds of music rolling over credits on a black screen before introducing visuals that are often detached from the main cast. Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) opens with a rendition of "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi ahead of slow motion footage of a figure skater; Mister Lonely (2007) opens with Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely" ahead of slow motion footage of the protagonist (a Michael Jackson impersonator) riding a very small bike around a racecourse; Spring Breakers (2012) opens with Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" ahead of slow motion footage of stereotypically beautiful Americans who look so similar they all blend into one giant, stereotypically beautiful American getting shitfaced on a beach.

Every time, we're thrown into a specific world by melody first and image later. When people are introduced, their faces are obscured, out of focus or else not the focus at all. What we hear arrives ahead of what we see, and more often than not we spend the rest of the film playing catch-up, trying to establish cohesion between the two. It's a format Korine introduced with Gummo—his directorial debut, released 20 years ago next month—where the first thing you're confronted with is "Mom and Dad's Pussy" by Detroit "anti-rock" band Destroy All Monsters. The track features children's voices delivering a nonsense singsong that mostly serves to be both as meaningless and offensive as possible, which is essentially a modus operandi for the film at large. You know how people find it really annoying when artists make a bunch of inflammatory art that fans and critics spend the rest of their lives wringing their hands over, and then deflect all meaning when asked about it? That's what Gummo is like. You could read into and pull out a million different messages, easily, but a great deal of its charm comes from what's on the surface.

Set in Xenia, Ohio—a Midwestern American town recently devastated by a tornado (which actually happened)—Gummo is an examination of meaninglessness. It portrays small, poor members of a small, poor community that's been upturned by a random act of destruction and left to its own devices by a disinterested society at large. There is nothing to "understand" because no action within that world is performed with rhyme or reason. The characters go about pissing on traffic and wrestling each other and shaving their eyebrows off because: why not. They're often seen wearing band tees—Krokus, Dio, Poison—but that says less about their individual personalities and more about their collective experience of rural American poverty. Poverty, obviously, isn't massively fashion-conscious, you just pick up whatever's cheap or free and put it on. If you want to go deep on it you could view it as an interruption of the kind of gross classism that would consider these characters (most of whom are actual local residents, not actors) as "uncultured," but also they're just t-shirts.

Gummo is couched in an obscure language that isn't necessarily universal. Given that it's set in the sort of weird town in Anywhere, Middle America that lends itself to mystery—i.e. Stranger Things or Twin Peaks—it's often intentionally exclusionary. So it makes sense that would be reflected in the music, and the music itself would be exclusionary, too.

The soundtrack is made up mostly of black metal, sludge and powerviolence. It was compiled by a girl called Spider who worked at Printed Matter in New York, where she'd been corresponding with bands like Bathory and Mayhem. "I would hear these stories coming out of Norway, you know, the murders and church burnings and all that creepiness," Korine said, "But for me, I just thought the music was so extreme. It was just the least commercial music that a person create. It was like something that, no matter what, would never be on the radio. It was exciting and scary. It was devilish!"

On a level, it's an aesthetic choice. It's Harmony Korine selecting the most abrasive, obtrusive music he could find to match his abrasive, obtrusive film. The title card is written in a gothic font above an upside down cross, occult imagery appears throughout, and at one point someone literally carves the word "SLAYER" into their forearm—heavy metal has an obvious influence on Gummo's vibe. It's not exactly a film that lends itself to some sort of linear Jon Brion-esque score or a recognizable cluster of college rock tunes. Featuring a band whose ring-wing extremist singer served 15 years for murder and arson makes much more sense.

The music serves a greater purpose than reinforcing general overtones of subversion and violence, though. Gummo is rooted in loss. Conversations are littered with past tense—"he used to," "she looked like"—and the original score is made up of snatched fragments of sound. Jarring piano notes crashing together like a child hammering their little fists down on the keys, minimal 8 bit loops or single descending notes of dread. It's all fleeting noise; nothing that sticks. Similarly, nothing the characters do has any discernible consequence. There are two brothers who allegedly killed their parents but the scene sees them engaged in a loveable roughhousing while the voiceover remarks on how well dressed they were before going to prison. Two boys break into another kid's house and knock his elderly grandmother off life support, but even that is laced with a degree of empathy ("no way to live", one of them says). One of the most tender interactions in the whole film happens between a girl with Down's Syndrome who's being pimped out by her brother, and a boy who's paid to see her. Gummo's characters exist outside the confines and corruption of society at large, and for that reason are portrayed with a degree of purity. The vignettes allow the characters to present themselves in their own vacuum while music often works to touch upon and then undercut any stereotypes placed upon them from the outside.

Solomon and Tummler—two friends who mostly ride around on bikes, huff contact cement and murder cats for fun—fit the profile of the sort of kids who end up pumped with Ritalin, kicked out of school for setting fire to something and are otherwise given up on. True to that reading, they're immediately positioned as threatening. They enter the scene bombing it down a hill to Sleep's "Dragonaut" wearing combat trousers and patched denim; Solomon has an air gun slung over his back; they eye up residents on each side of the road as if they're hunting for something (it turns out to be cats). If they resemble anyone you went to secondary school with, you probably bought resin off them at lunchtime and your nan would have described them as "trouble." In Gummo, that stereotype barely lasts a minute before being fucked with. The music cuts out suddenly to make room for Solomon's voice whispering over photographs of Tummler: "Tummler sees everything. Some say he's downright evil. He's got what it takes to be a legend. He's got a marvelous persona." Sure, they might whip animal carcasses and trip to the tune of "Give The Human Devil His Due" by Mystifier, but there's also a fairly tragic scene of Solomon lifting weights (bundles of spoons) in his basement to Madonna's "Like A Prayer" while his mother is all up in his ear about how it'll wreck his growing body and then holds a gun to his head. Elsewhere, Tummler sings Roy Orbison's "Crying" as he talks about his trans brother who abandoned him to go to the "Big City."

Similarly, three sisters—Dot, Helen and Darby—are filmed in a way that flip-flops between sexuality and violence, sort of like a realist's Virgin Suicides. After talking about drowning their potentially pregnant cat's kittens and Dot and Helen rip strips of duct tape off their nipples to make them look bigger, they all jump on the beds in their shared room to the lullaby love song of Buddy Holly's "Everyday." In the next scene the song distorts as it plays over a topless Dot (Chloe Sevigny) licking her lips in slow motion. Earlier in the film Dot and Helen slap the shit out of a reporter who tries to sexually assault them (perhaps the only character who objectively elicits judgement, because he doesn't live or belong in Xenia), but it's a shared sexual experience that provides a three-way closure at the end of the film.

Bunny Boy is introduced with the solitary mantra of Almeda Riddle's "My Little Rooster"; his skinny body shivering alone in the rain accompanied by an isolated vocal absolutely reeking of vulnerability, making a later scene where he gets bullied for being a "queer-ass rabbit" by two kids cosplaying as cowboys all the more unpleasant. It also has the same unnerving childlike quality as "Mom and Dad's Pussy," further couching everything in a weird obliviousness. At the end of the film, Bunny Boy, Dot, and Helen end up kissing in a pool in the rain while, elsewhere, Tummler and Solomon take empty shots at an already dead cat. Roy Orbison's "Crying" plays over that, as well, uniting the main cast in their quest to hold onto whatever makes them feel good in an environment steeped in aimlessness.

That final scene is a precursor to the most memorable moment in Spring Breakers, 2012's hyper-stylized take on millennial American pop culture. Arriving at a point in the film where the characters have entirely disconnected from reality, "Everytime" by Britney Spears plays over a montage of three girls (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine) and a drug dealer (James Franco) they've befriended assaulting people and pirouetting against the sunset with AK47s. The scene begins with the girls asking Franco's character to play "something sweet, something uplifting… something inspiring" on the piano. It captures everything destructive and dreamlike about the film in one scene. "The movie was always meant to work like a violent, beautiful pop ballad," Korine said of its inclusion, "Something very polished that disappears into the night."

Around its release, Korine spoke at length about how he wanted music to have a physical presence in Spring Breakers to the point where it was structured like a piece of music. "I thought of it like loop-based music, where you'd have certain things that would repeat, and come back—refrains," he told Slant in 2013, "I even thought of pop music, where you have courses and mantras, which, in the film, almost become like catchphrases and hooks and earworms and things. So I always thought about the movie more in terms of a very physical music experience—something bombastic, with images and sounds falling from the sky."

Ultimately the "Everytime" scene in Spring Breakers and music in Gummo more broadly serve to humanize characters that would otherwise be viewed in a totally negative light. It locates something heartfelt in their desperation, even when that desperation leads to violence. The music alters the way you interpret what you're looking at, and the whole experience becomes something sensory.

The reason Gummo works is because it's simultaneously immersive and evasive; it's a portrait of a town and people unburdened by self-awareness and judgement. The fact that you're watching them, on a screen, trying to find out the meaning of it all, is a joke in itself. Music can airdrop you into their world and help you feel your way through it intuitively, but it doesn't have meaning in and of itself. Gummo is just a feeling in your nerve endings, images and sounds falling from the sky, and a bumper-sticker philosophy driving every single character that's so simple it will drive you mad: "Life is great. Without it, you'd be dead."

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