Featured in Issue 1
Harmony Korine has a new film. I’ll swim against a current of haters and say that this has always been a good thing. I started my swim late one night in September of 1999, the day I saw Korine attempt public speaking twice.
A little back-story: at that point in his career, Korine was known primarily for two works: Kids, the 1995 Larry Clark film he’d scripted as a teenager, and Gummo, his 1997 debut as writer/director. I’d discarded Kids quickly, bored with its transparent shock tactics. Gummo was something else altogether. Many people who love this film say they’d never seen anything like it. I loved it because I had: Werner Herzog’s transgressive Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), which launches an island uprising of little-person inmates against an army of little-person guards, leading to ever-escalating anarchy and chaos.
Seeing Gummo in its first run alongside an appreciative crowd at a then-adventurous Charles Theater was a challenging experience. This dark, jarring fantasy of glue-huffing cat-hunters in a small Ohio town following a devastating tornado clearly wasn’t the work of a dilettante who’d lucked their way into filmmaking, but of a brash and gifted student of the strangest corners of film history—albeit one who’d lucked his way into filmmaking. Loved and despised for its confrontational scenes of animal violence (simulated and Humane Society-monitored, I’m relieved to discover while writing this), its introduction of black metal to a wider audience, and its booby-trapped relationship with “white trash” stereotypes, Gummo struck me as a major film.
Cut to the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival two years later. In preparing their 1999 festival, the programmers managed to include Korine twice in one day. First, they honored him as one of only eight attending filmmakers (out of several hundred) invited to present a favorite film: 1970’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? by Michael Fengler and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (then and now, my single favorite filmmaker). They’d further allowed Korine to write a short story in lieu of Herr R.’s program notes, in which Korine described how Fassbinder’s work freed him from recurring fantasies of murdering his sister. Secondly, Korine was to introduce his sophomore feature as writer/director, Julien Donkey-Boy, hotly anticipated as the first American film to follow the precepts of the emerging Dogme 95 school as set forth by Lars von Trier in The Idiots and Thomas Vinterberg in The Celebration (both 1998). I hungrily bought tickets for both Herr R. and Julien.
The Fassbinder screening was held in a tiny multiplex. At the appointed time a disheveled Korine waved to the audience, declined to say anything, and the film rolled. When the lights came back up, there was an awkward pause as Korine slouched to the front. Typically, the filmmaker would now speak about their love of the film before fielding questions from the audience. Realizing after another awkward pause that Korine intended to say nothing, the programmer scrambled forward. “Any questions for Harmony?”
As far as I know there’s no record of the ensuing Q+A, but this paraphrasing captures its essence:
Audience Member 1: Why did you pick a Fassbinder film?
Korine: Uh… uh…
Audience Member 2: Would you say Fassbinder is an influence on your work?
Korine [staring at his feet]: Um…
Audience Member 3: Fassbinder was so prolific. Do you have another favorite of his?
Korine: Uh… well… he has a lot of cool ones.
Audience Member 4: What particularly about Fassbinder’s work draws you to it?
Outraged Joe Citizen in the Back of the Theater [rising to his feet]: MISTER Korine! I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but this theater is filled with people who spent good, hard-earned money to see this film in the expectation that you would have something intelligent to say about it! Are we now to assume that you have no intention of saying anything at all?
Korine: Uh… Oh.
Hesitant Audience Member: Are you planning to see other films here?
Korine: Um… I didn’t hear the question. I was still thinking about what a dick that last guy was.
Increasingly Hesitant Audience Member: Are there other films or filmmakers here you’re interested in?
Korine: Well… yeah. Fucking Gus Van Sant’s right there, man. [Gestures to Van Sant in front row, leaves auditorium via emergency exit]
I left with my adrenaline pumping, yet feeling dejected. I’d found so much depth and meaning in Gummo—had it been wishful thinking? Korine now seemed to embody all the bad things people were saying about him: an asshole; a fraud; a lucky hipster in over his head; a con artist with attitude but nothing much to say.
I dreaded that night’s screening of Julien Donkey-Boy; obviously, the movie would be trash, the Q+A tense and pathetic. Reluctantly I seated myself in a packed Uptown theater, which seated 1000 (sadly demolished soon thereafter). The programmer introduced Korine, and I braced myself for a shitstorm.
Out walked a sharply dressed Korine. He reached into his breast pocket, elegantly withdrew a document, unfolded it, and began to read. This was his pledge of fidelity to the Dogme principles, an expression of admiration for his “brothers” von Trier and Vinterberg, and a confession of those Dogme rules he’d violated in making Julien. The document was astute and hilarious, Korine’s reading of it executed with a master’s sense of audience control. Only once was that morning’s petulant bad boy on display, as Korine paused to light a cigarette, eliciting gasps, this act being comparable in the eyes of Toronto’s well-heeled festival-goers to unzipping and placing his penis on the podium. Out came Chloë Sevignyfrom the wings, sheepishly confiscating the cigarette with a whispered reprimand, at which point the reading, still dynamic, resumed. It ended to thunderous applause.
That morning had seemed a train wreck of audience disdain; that night spotlighted a bold talent, knowledgeable of film history and confident of his place in it. Together they formed a winking performance piece by an artist already aware that his bad reputation had power; already enjoying toying with audience expectations, willing to flirt with failure and redemption both in life and on screen.
Still, as with the public personas of Vincent Gallo or Crispin Glover, that evening’s whiff of Andy Kaufman-ism wouldn’t have held lasting power ifa strong film hadn’t backed it up. And while Korine’s introduction of Julien was received ecstatically, the film itself, if not resulting in a riot à la Rite of Spring, inspired walkouts in the hundreds. Indeed, it’s fashionable now to look down on this period of Korine’s work, and it’s never not been in style to badmouth Julien Donkey-Boy—as if to say, “I may be a hipster, but I’m not that kind of hipster.”
I understand this stance, but honesty compels me to counterbalance it. Filmgoing in the late ‘90s offered few moments as exhilarating as the chair-wrestling scene in Gummo or Victor Varnado’s “Black Albino” rap in Julien. This was cinema’s equivalent of a Dennis Cooper novel or an Arab on Radar album; a fucked-up far cry from Bill Murray whispering in your ear; an unfettered and garbage-fed release for cinephiles who believe film needs to stake out the right to speak with infinite voices of increasing variety and complexity.
And if Julien, even more than Gummo, succeeds most as a hypnotic collage and falters when it makes too many concessions to narrative structure, I question any eyes that don’t see beauty in it. Korine’s transfer from shooting format MiniDV first to 16mm and then to 35mm resulted in a living surface exhibiting more dancing, near-palpable grain than perhaps any other narrative feature film. In so doing, he’d magically found a way to embrace the digital era while simultaneously delivering a festishistic gift to film purists.
It was with Julien, too, that the fertile cross-pollination between Korine and Werner Herzog became direct. Herzog was reportedly so moved by the sight of bacon taped to the wall during Gummo’s climactic bathtub scene that he leapt from his seat in admiration. He would subsequently appear not only as the Dirty Harry-obsessed Father in Julien, but also as coach to skydiving nuns in Korine’s next feature, Mister Lonely. Between the two films came a long, dark period for Korine, reportedly of self-hatred and addiction, and I applaud Herzog for sticking by Korine’s side.
Herzog hasn’t been in Korine’s newest two features, but he probably approves. Spring Breakers’ slick look (Korine to Filmmaker: “I envisioned the movie lit by nail polish and Skittles”) may seem a million miles from his last feature Trash Humpers, but the surface differences are deceiving. Both films delight in luring unsuspecting audiences: the senior citizens who inexplicably dropped $20 at Toronto 2009 to see a VHS-shot film about masked misfits having simulated sex with trash cans; the soon-to-be-corrupted teens lining up for Spring Breakers at multiplexes in 2013. Both films have mantras of sorts: Trash Humpers’ “Make it, Make it, Don’t Fake It”; Spring Breakers’ “Spring Break Forever, Bitches” and “Look at My Shit!” These catch phrases, which function also as audience taunts, propel exploratory, drone-y films that could only come from one irreverent filmmaker.
Harmony Korine has a new film: Spring Breakers. It’s hilarious, self-satirizing, and perverse. In its efforts to exaggerate and magnify genre into a new comedic form, it would pair well with Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Its lascivious subject matter and celebrity cast (James Franco, Selena Gomez, Gucci Mane) will put it in front of more eyes than any previous Korine film. This is a good thing: film culture is a bit less boring and predictable for it.