The Necessary Film and What it Means

When I was 19, I had very strong feelings about the 1997 Harmony Korine film Gummo. The film presents a fictionalized Ohio town, ravaged by tornado, drugs, poverty, and other cruelties, in a loose barrage of vignettes, some characters recurring and some appearing in raw visceral glimpses like sideshow performers seen through a tear in the tent. And a sideshow of depravity it is–twin skinheads beating each other up over shoes, barely pubescent boys killing neighborhood cats for money and huffing glue, toddlers in cowboy suits screaming obscenities in a junkyard, a murdered grandmother in an iron lung and her tremulously effeminate, be-mulleted grandson, a toe-less albino with a Patrick Swayze obsession–alternately shot on Hi-8 video, dizzying 8mm and 16mm amateur handhelds, and on 35mm with hypnotic fever dream virtuosity by French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier.

I had a poster the size of a pool table on my dorm room wall, and I could (and still can) quote it front to back.

It was also what I’ll call my Necessary Film: if someone wanted to date me, they had to watch Gummo and like it. To like me they had to like the dead cats, the gap-toothed rabbit boy with the accordion, the grinding death metal and warbling Roy Orbison soundtrack: all of it

Nine years later (fleeting youth!) this is a bit mortifying, and if I could I’d personally apologize to those poor fools who suffered through Korine’s sumptuous hell for my affection. But this idea of a Necessary Film exists beyond my own youthful embarrassment–I’ve witnessed it elsewhere enough to call it a small cultural phenomenon. I remember my older brother, a mild-mannered vegan, sitting his high school sweetheart down and insisting she watch Fight Club. Thousands (maybe millions?) live and breathe Star Wars. An old college friend of mine doesn’t trust anyone who doesn’t like the Muppets.

What does all of this mean? First, a caveat: it’s absurd and naive to only love people who share your tastes.

But the impulse behind a Necessary Film speaks to how powerful cinema can be. A Necessary Film is one that not only speaks to us with the clearest voice, perfectly echoing our sense of humor, our aesthetic, our earnest sweetness, some brooding, wild darkness inside us, whatever it is, but also speaks for us. What we can’t explicitly tell our loved ones–what we perhaps can’t put into words for ourselves–we can make plain on the screen. When we demand that someone like our Necessary Film, we are, in our pretentious and misguided way, demanding that they like us, specifically that they like our messy vulnerable unspoken inner world, our inner Kermit or Leia or Tyler Durden. We present audiovisual metaphors, stand-ins, maybe caricatures of ourselves, hoping to scare away anyone who wouldn’t “get us” before we show them the real thing, and hoping to invite anyone who might be a bit of a Kermit or Leia or Tyler Durden, too.