From ‘Gummo’ to ‘Spring Breakers’

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Gummo.

It must have been after midnight. IFC, before commercials interrupted the movies, must have been on my television. Now showing: Gummo.

Everything about Harmony Korine’s directorial debut stuck with me. The images, the sounds, the music, the dialogue, the characters, the people’s faces, the locations. Everything. It made a great impression on a high school kid just starting to find his way through the depths of cinema.

That’s why I smiled from ear to ear when I saw “A Harmony Korine Film” in neon letters boldly flashed up on the screen at the local cineplex before the first frames of Spring Breakers.

The latest (and possibly greatest) film from Korine, Spring Breakers is electric noir basking in the glow of acidic neons. It’s the most polished film Korine has made yet. With Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and James Franco at his will, Korine has made the mainstream his audience.

Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens star in Spring Breakers.

Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens star in Spring Breakers.

There are a lot of ways to take Spring Breakers. Is it condemning of a generation? Or more cautionary? Is it satire and parody rolled into one? It’s likely that Korine intended to make his film do a lot of things (he takes on so much over the course of 90 minutes), for which there’s not one or two or three good labels or ways to describe it. Just don’t try to tell me that Korine is trying to “troll” anyone. That’s discounting the man’s entire process and accomplishment.

I’m more interested in Spring Breakers for its infectious merits than its commentary. Korine films, for me, have always been like chaotic poems. They are lucid and dreamy. While Spring Breakers has one of the more connected narratives of all of Korine’s films, it’s still this very disconnected and surrealistic voyage of human existence and self-discovery that pushes forward on the strengths of Korine’s ability to create hypnotizing combinations of images and sounds. There are moments in all of his films that seep into your brain and never leave like a catchy song you’re singing to yourself all day long, whether you want to or not.

Gummo presented people existing in a sort of psycho-American hell, living in the cultural wasteland of a post-disaster scenario and getting by in the only way they know how. Julien Donkey-Boy is a disturbing portrayal of a dysfunctional family that’s so distorted it almost seems real. Mister Lonely, the profiling of a collection of lost minds belonging to celebrity impersonators, and the “elderly” pranksters of Trash Humpers round out Korine’s films.

But back to Korine’s debut, Gummo. There are a lot of moments in film that have been etched into my mind. This is the kind of film that when I watch after not having seen it for more than a couple of years I can still finish entire sequences of dialogue. It’s very much like revisiting an old folk tale or an old song. Korine’s lack of narrative and structure in Gummo is what helps it, not haunts it. It doesn’t need a beginning, middle or end.

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Jacob Reynolds in Gummo, Harmony Korine’s directorial debut.

Take, for example, the relationship between Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon (Jacob Reynolds). The cat-killing and glue-huffing friends are certainly two of the main characters in the film. Nothing really happens with the two as far as conflict and result is concerned. They go through their days and we watch. We watch them kill cats to sell, we watch them buy milkshakes, we watch them visit a prostitute and we watch them talk like any similar real life incarnations of the two might after huffing bags of glue. There’s something so interesting about the two. In an interview with Werner Herzog that Korine did in 1999 he talks about how these were people that he was interested looking at.

“When I go to the movies, there’s usually nothing on the screen that compels me, and with this film I wanted to see people who were amazing looking. I was watching an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael called “My Child Died From Sniffing Paint,”and I saw this kid on it named Nick [Sutton] who’s a paint – sniffing survivor. They asked him, “Where are you going to be in a few years?” and he said, “I’ll probably be dead.” I loved him and wanted him to star in the film, so we tracked him down. He told me he’d been on acid on the show.”

“Jacob Reynolds. I’d seen him in a small part in The Road to Wellville [1994], and he was also in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial I liked, so we cast him. He’s got an amazing face. Most of the others I’d grown up with or gone to high school with or knew from hanging out.”

– Harmony Korine “Gummo’s Whammo” [Source]

It wasn’t until I read Korine’s take on the people in his film that I really understood it. It isn’t a connected or complete narrative, it was instead peering into another kind of lifestyle. It’s not exploitative, it’s not voyeuristic. It’s not the trash some critics wanted you to think it was. While it’s disturbing and sometimes questioning of a certain lifestyle, it’s also honest and sympathetic. Gummo is a poetic tribute to a place he once knew, to people he once met. He captured life around him in a devastating and beautiful way.

I found myself glued to the screen throughout Spring Breakers for similar reasons. While the nubile female leads sure are interesting to look at, also pay attention to the rest of the film and the way Korine fills it. You can’t take your eyes off of Alien (James Franco), the rapper from another planet with all the shit, and his curious friends. Korine’s films, all of them, are interesting to look at.

There’s also the fact that Spring Breakers is this amazing and flowing film. The collection of images and sounds set to a truly mesmerizing score by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez keep on coming and coming. One scene pierces into your eyes and ears and then connects with another one that does the same. It’s Korine’s rhythmic pacing, evident in all of his films, that keeps you interested despite the often lack of a clear narrative or structure. Even though it appears distorted, it feels more like a seamless montage.

Also helping, especially in Spring Breakers, is the fact that Korine’s dialogue is so lyrical, poetic and nearly songlike. His use of repetitious dialogue doesn’t just slam a point into your head (“Pretend it’s a video game,” etc.), but it creates a flowing and rhythmic beat. It’s been funny and a little confusing to hear complaints from the more mainstream viewers of Spring Breakers. They don’t gel with a repetition chorus in a movie, but you’d be willing to guess that they wouldn’t have a problem with that kind of technique in other art – like a pop or hip-hop song.

What it’s all about, though, are the moments. There are moments in all of Korine’s film that you’ll never forget. We won’t forget the scene in Gummo where Solomon is taking a bath in dirty water and there’s a piece of bacon taped to the wall. You don’t forget Werner Herzog’s rambling soliloquies spurned on by abusing cough syrup in Julien Donkey-Boy. You can’t forget the strange portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and other celebrities in Mister Lonely. These are the moments Korine injects in to his films that become lasting. They are strange, bizarre, dangerous, disturbing and so much more.

Spring Breakers also has its great share of moments we won’t forget. The barrage of crime and violence beautifully set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” Alien showing us all of his shit, the girl’s preparing to commit their first big crime. Spring Breakers is an interesting film with a lot of motivations. It isn’t flawless, and sometimes might tackle too much for its own good, but it’s one more success in Harmony Korine’s bank of passionate and unique accomplishments.

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Moments like these is why Spring Breakers will last a lifetime.

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