still in love with you: looking back at chloë sevigny and gummo, 20 years later
As Gummo celebrates its 20th anniversary, we salute the film’s legacy, and our continued fascination with its star, Chloë Sevigny.
What more can one possibly say about Chloë Sevigny's birth and early life in Connecticut, after reading the piece last month in the New York Times by Amanda Fortini, Going Home With Chloë Sevigny? What more is there to say about Chloë in general, whose status as "the coolest girl in the world" was cemented way back in 1994 in Jay McInery's New Yorker profile, and has continued long after her 40th birthday? Saying that Chloë is cool is like saying that water is wet, or like saying that, as a supposedly hipster art-graduate chick in my late twenties, I personally think that Chloë's cool. It would be strange if I didn't, as Chloë Sevigny — like Joan Didion, or the humble avocado, or the films of David Lynch — is one of those things that we all like. A cliché that has become a cliché because it is unequivocally pleasurable, or hip, or perfect in its assemblage. She's a human Velvet Underground album.
Alice Hines, more recently at the New Yorker, pins down Chloë's appeal with a perfect electronic-age metaphor: "For years, she resisted joining [social media], until two months ago, when a publicist talked her into it. Yet she's long been an unwitting fixture on the platform; her name has been tagged more than twelve thousand times." She is, in other words, someone we talk about but do not really know, which is far cooler than being transparent. You can't be in Gummo and have your opening line be: "Foot-Foot, you stinker bitch!" and still maintain a Garbo-esque air of mystery — and yet, here we are; and hereI am re-watching Gummo, two full decades later, and wondering what I really think about Chloë's performance. How can somebody bare herself like this, and be an enigma? "As childhoods go, Sevigny's in Darien, Connecticut, a wealthy town of 20,000 an hour's train ride from New York City, was as suburban as they come," Fortini explains in her profile. "The house, she remembers, had a big forsythia bush in the front yard. 'It was, like, my spot," she says, as we drive past gracious colonial-style homes with manicured lawns. "I always just chilled there, underneath. It was all very, you know...' She begins to laugh, a boisterous, asthmatic-sounding, from-the-gut guffaw that signals she's aware of the triteness, the irony or maybe just the sheer unlikeliness of what she's about to say: '... idyllic.'"
Gummo drops our heroine into a different typical American scene: the town of Xenia, Ohio, which has recently been wasted by a Tornado and is, in the words of the critic Janet Maslin in the New York Times, "a post-apocalyptic home movie hell." "At the start of Gummo," she snarled, in a vicious review, "Mr. Korine accomplishes the rare feat of showing the worst of his hand within 30 seconds. Little kids spout obscenities in voice-over; cinematography… is skittishly high-speed and hand-held and grainy… [he] casts nonprofessional actors, often freakish individuals whom the film flaunts contemptuously, like the simple-minded woman who treats a doll as her baby or the albino cook who proudly names Pamela Anderson and Patrick Swayze as her favorite movie stars."
Chloë Sevigny — like Joan Didion, or the humble avocado, or the films of David Lynch — is one of those things that we all like. A cliché that has become a cliché because it is unequivocally pleasurable, or hip, or perfect in its assemblage. She's a human Velvet Underground album.
If the film has a narrative, it's the story of two young boys who kill cats, and then sell them for meat. A man is pimping out his disabled sister. It is, in today's parlance, "problematic." Chloë plays a bleach-blonde girl with another bleach-blonde sister who appears, variously, while putting duct-tape on her nipples; cruising a teenage boy with ADD on the tennis court, wearing a tiger-print swimsuit; and then swimming out in a pool in the rain with a kid who wears rabbit-ears. "I grew up in the cinema," Korine has said. "Buster Keaton changed my life. I realised that there was something so pure [about cinema], there was a kind of tragic beauty that I had never seen before, and it was so moving and so big." This fixation — on a misguidedly idealised notion of "tragic beauty" — helps explain a lot. Gummo is as stunning and technically proficient and poetic as it's offensive. The film's a disasterpiece; like Chloë's bleached-out brows, a beautiful mess. You love it even as you're raising your hand to your mouth in concern.
Further on the subject of beauty: "Gummo is a difficult film," Sevigny told an interviewer at Indiewire, "and it's a film that people aren't sure how to relate to. It's an amazing, funny and hilarious movie. I think it's a beautiful movie, and it looks beautiful, and everything. All the kids that I know who saw it, loved it." Harmony shoots her throughout either like she's a bona fide star, or like a man in his twenties might shoot the cool girl that he's crazy about. There may not be a difference. A new book by the critic Charlie Fox, called This Young Monster, has a great essay about — among other things — Gummo, and Chloë, and Harmony. In it, Fox describes the film as "addled poetry…pitched weirdly between the scary and intoxicated." (Chloë, meanwhile, is: "a strung-out jezebel.") In her character's most famous scene, she lolls her head and licks her lips, slow-motion, to the sound of children singing Buddy Holly on worn-out tape; and it is, as strange as this may be to say, very trad Hollywood in its invocation of glamour, albeit as viewed through the lens of the sinister.
She can't help but look lovely, because she is lovely. She is Chloë from "Aryan Darien," even if she doesn't care to look pretty. And she does have something starry here, if not anything out-of-the-ordinary yet. You can take the girl out of Connecticut, but you can't take Connecticut out of the girl. You can't take out her icier-than-thou chill, either — honed by working at Sassy magazine, and living in Brooklyn, and knowing exactly where, as Jay McInerney once wrote, somebody might buy "a pair of Chinese fishnet sandals for two dollars" in Chinatown. You can lead a girl to Xenia, Ohio and bleach off her eyebrows; you can lead her to choose her own hip, thrift-shop wardrobe as if she is dressing for Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, or Sally Jesse Raphael — Help! My Movie Star Wants To Live in a Trailer Park! — but you cannot make her into an actual member of the American underclass. Placing Chloë in Gummo, with all of its "real" people, only makes her seem unreal. Try explaining to one of those "real" people what Jay McInerney means when he tells us that: "watching Chloë read a fashion magazine makes you think of Alexander Woollcott devouring a ten-pound lobster à l'américaine or Casanova undressing a servant girl." They aren't too dumb to know, whatever you might think. They're more likely to be smart enough to know it means nothing, or not to care. (In one scene, a young wild boy asks another young wild boy: "have you ever eaten a crepe suzette?" It is weirdly touching.)
Actors, of course, are supposed to pretend they're impossibly different from themselves. Playing someone who's absolutely your opposite offers a challenge; we believe that Julia Roberts, the film star, is Julia Roberts the single mother, provided that everyone else in the film looks like movie stars, too. Gummo cannot really be called a fantasy. There are moments in which it can barely be called fiction. Watching it in the aftermath of the U.S. election, 20 years after its first release, is disquieting — and, look, here I am being a tourist, too: an English commentator peering at the underbelly of Middle America, maybe Trump's America, and supposing that anyone gives the slightest damn what I think. The film is somehow tender and tone-deaf all at the same time, which might just be what happens when a 23-year-old genius is directing.
"I was born Harmony and it was weird because when I was a little kid, I was picked on so much that when I was 13 I changed my name to Harmful," Korine told Roger Ebert at Cannes in 1995. "I thought it was a tougher name, so I had it legally changed. And then, I don't know, it just didn't seem to catch on, so ... legally, my name is still Harmful, but I just said I'll go back to Harmony." It's a vaguely Sevigny-esque switcheroo — now you see me, now you don't. A muse can be a mentor in disguise, and it isn't wholly impossible that Korine got some of his weirdo evasiveness from his former dreamgirl-cum-collaborator: a liar in all of his earliest interviews, we know as little about his real life as we know about hers. We don't know what to make of him or her, or the movie, or what to think about class or voyeurism or, really, intent in it. "It's a great thing, for someone to feel that they can draw inspiration from you," she shrugged to the Guardian back in 2010. "And I don't think it's necessarily a man 'taking' from a woman. It can go both ways, both can stimulate, excite" (the profile later calls her "handsome," absolutely my favourite descriptor for female good-looks).
"I got two things from [the Jay McInery New Yorker profile]," she adds — "a lifetime subscription to the magazine, and a rubber Helmut Lang dress." Which is, you have got to admit, so Chloë. You could go back to Connecticut with her, the way that Fortini did, and still never really know, you know?
Watching Gummo back in 2007, on somebody's bootlegged DVD with its cover in Thai, I wasn't observant enough to see that the one thing Chloë Sevigny embodies is Chloë Sevigny; a weirdly inconsonant figure in Xenia, Ohio, but equally offbeat in Hollywood, and a woman all of her own. In 2015, she released a Rizzoli book of pictures of herself with a gingham cover, because of course she did. "Lots of photographers have made the mistake of trying to make Sevigny look cute or pretty," Hines explains in that New Yorker interview. "None of these photos made it into the book. Here's what did: Sevigny smoking a cigarette on the set of Gummo, eyebrows bleached; a senior-prom photo from the year she shaved her head; fan mail from her time as a Sassy intern; a flyer from cult rave boutique Liquid Sky."
On one page of the book, a picture of Chloë is printed alongside the headline "NOT NORMAL." We, the fans, could have told you that. Why else have I always thought that Dorothy's Kansas — as in, The Wizard of Oz — was a place in Connecticut?
Text Philippa Snow