Since his arrival on the scene with the script of the 1995 Larry Clark film, “KIDS,” Harmony Korine has been something of an enfant terrible in the cinema world. One does not exactly enjoy the experience of watching a Harmony Korine film so much as appreciate the disparity between it and its contemporaries. With only a mere 5-feature films to his name across 16 years, he has managed to find a nice niche in popular culture, directing music videos for such big names as Sonic Youth, Cat Power, and The Black Keys and keeping busy with a plethora of smaller projects – short films, art exhibitions, and writing (including lyrics with Bjork and Lana Del Ray) to name a few.
Perhaps the greatest thematic through-line in Korine’s work is the focus and care with which it seems to pay attention to minorities. His films are filled with all sorts of social outcasts and pariahs from rednecks to robbers. It is the way these minority groups are observed that lends the films their power. Viewers are invited not to see the characters as minority groups at all, but instead merely as fellow human beings. How one internalizes and understands Korine’s body of work and the characters that inhabit it has to do with the roles they take on and how willing one may be as a viewer to actively try and understand their worldview.
What most might consider provocative comes across in these films more as mere expression. Displays of teenage boys taking drugs and shooting cats, suggestions of incest, a destructive gang that pretends to fornicate with trash cans, and young women trying to obtain the unobtainable endless party-of-a-lifetime are all a part of the seemingly mundane in Korine’s universe. Why characters engage in such behaviors is never explained outright, but there are always strong hints. Each group of characters ultimately belongs to a minority of some variety, and each seeks to understand why they are considered a part of the mysterious ‘other’ in some capacity. The protagonists in Korine’s films are always followed by their social stigmatisms. By followings such outcasts, the films challenge viewers to broaden their perspectives.
But even these bulky understandings of each film fail to really capture the nuance in Korine’s craftsmanship. These are films filled with ambiguity, which often makes for uneasy or challenging viewings, but the real challenge comes not from endurance tests of who can last longest through cringe-worthy moments, but rather to de-alienate situations which are so alien to most viewers. Featuring characters with physical and mental handicaps, terminal diseases, impoverished upbringings, and over-entitled upbringings, these are films about re-considering any group that might be considered a “minority” into being considered a normalcy.
The story goes that after seeing “Gummo,” Werner Herzog called up Harmony Korine and told him, ‘You are the last foot soldier in the army.’ It is high praise coming from such a legendary director, and perhaps not spoken undeservedly. Indeed, Herzog believed so much in Korine that he would go on to act in two of his later films. Aesthetically, it’s not hard to spot strong similarities between “Gummo” and many of Herzog’s early efforts. Indeed, “Even Dwarves Started Small,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” and “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser” all share a knack for dirty landscapes and scruffy characters.
One of the greatest qualities of “Gummo” – and one of the greatest qualities of Korine’s overall style – is the sense of authenticity it emanates. From the low-quality footage of real tornadoes, to the filth and grime of the mise-en scène, to amateur actors playing themselves, it is a testament to the beauty to be found in dirt. It is on this deeper level that one might cite Herzog and Korine as kindred spirits: both focus on small groups of troubled minorities. The citizens of Xenia, Ohio are all outcasts, seemingly banished to this town so they can live together as a collection of societies supposed mistakes.
Watching “Gummo” isn’t about looking down on these people or exploiting them for being uneducated. It’s about understanding that no matter how different or trashy or uncivilized some might appear to be, they are still people. They still have unrealized dreams. Some of the individuals given their 15 minutes of fame begin to spout racist sentiments as soon as the camera is trained on them. In a dark and strange way, even these individuals are a certain kind of minority who face prejudices. It’s a lesson in humility. Equality for all must include those who don’t want it. The idea of giving voice to the under-heard particularly shines in Harmony’s one-scene cameo, in which he drunkenly talks with and finally embraces a man belonging to three minority groups: a gay, black dwarf.
The cinematography here is some of the boldest and most powerful of anything with Korine’s name attached, and for that we must at least partially thank director of photography Jean-Yves Escoffier (who sadly passed away in 2003 but whose credits included “Good Will Hunting,” “Lovers on the Bridge,” and a Nissan commercial directed by David Lynch). Rarely do purposefully grungy visuals so powerfully compliment the ideas on display – especially in a directorial debut.
Despite its decidedly low-budget approach, the film feels distinctly cinematic. Sequences set to Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” Sleep’s “Dragonaut” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying” are hard to forget. They soar above the sum of their grime-filled parts in their extraordinary understanding of how to marry sound and image not only seamlessly, but in a manner which is truly impactful. I never before thought that a mostly static yet handheld image of a shirtless boy with pink rabbit ears running through a field in the rain carrying a dead cat might one day bring me to tears, but then again I’d never before anticipated seeing such a moving image at all.
julien donkey-boy (1999)
Earning itself an official Dogme 95 certificate despite a few minor infractions of the Dogme rules, “julien donkey-boy” is that rare film about a protagonist with a mental disorder which actually tries to understand what that individual’s experience of the world must be like. In Hollywood films, material like “julien donkey-boy” is treated the same as trying to look into a store window on a sunny day: you will only see your own reflection. The film is highly subjective and does not stray from this idea in even the smallest of efforts to maintain audience interest. This makes the film difficult to watch at times, but keeps it highly unique.
The two leads, consisting of Ewen Bremner (“Trainspotting”) in the title role, and Chloe Sevigny (“KIDS”) as his sister, Pearl, work together with a distinct chemistry and never feel like they are acting, but simply living their lives. Werner Herzog also appears – and none too briefly – as their troubled father, who seems burnt out on life and disappointed by the family he has been burdened with keeping. In a scene-stealing bit at the dinner table, Herzog (as his character remains nameless) interrupts Julien’s avant-garde poetry to recount the ending of “Dirty Harry” while praising it as real art – “the good stuff.” While the tongue-in-cheek nature of scenes like these could easily collapse under their own weight – they never fail to come across as anything other than authentic in the works of Korine.
Yes, there is a soft yet accusatory pointing and wagging of the finger at audiences who would dismiss all this “artsy-fartsy”-ness as utter nonsense, yet we aren’t given the sense that Julien’s father’s opinion is any less valid. Herzog’s character shows he is really passionate about the “Dirty Harry” scene, and why shouldn’t he be? It is not Korine suggesting that any form of art is inherently “better” than any other, but that what is important is how it moves us. Once again, broadening our perspectives proves to mean more than just telling others to do so.
Mister Lonely (2007)
The tone is set by a slow-motion unbroken opening shot which follows our protagonist on a comically small motorcycle, yet set to the classic song after which the film is titled, it is anything but comic. Instead, “Mister Lonely” is notable for perhaps being the most “plain” Harmony Korine film. It is partially auto-biographical in reflecting a time of personal depression and struggle while living in Paris. The film examines the lonely lifestyle of a Michael Jackson impersonator dancing on the streets for small change, and he doesn’t have it easy. In a second director-as-actor cameo, fellow rabble-rouser Leos Carax (director of “Pola X” and “Holy Motors,” among others) plays a friend of Michael’s who tries to help him get back on his feet in Paris. Michael is rather aimless, and only wants to stay true to his passion: being Michael Jackson, an ideal that proves somewhat difficult to sustain in a world built on pillars of commerce and exchange.
Michael’s luck changes when he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who brings him to a utopian farm house in countryside where a community of celebrity-impersonators lives together and everyone continues to pretend to be their idols. Abraham Lincoln, the Pope, and Charlie Chaplin (among others) all live happily side-by-side in this parallel universe where historical accuracy seems to be of very little importance or altogether nonexistent.
“Mister Lonely” was the only Korine-helmed effort to feature a co-writer: his own brother, Avi Korine (who went on to co-write 2013’s “The Double” with Richard Ayode). Coupled with the casting of Harmony’s own wife-to-be, Rachel, the whole project appropriately feels like a family affair of sorts. The social outcasts form a family of their own, and accept one another in ways outside society never did: for who they “really” are. Just as “julien donkey-boy” takes viewers more than a mile in someone else’s shoes, “Mister Lonely” takes us a mile in the shoes of an individual already walking in someone else’s shoes – this time they just happen to be Michael Jackson’s.
Trash Humpers (2009)
Arguably the most divisive film in an already challenging filmography, “Trash Humpers” certainly takes home the cake for the “Most Crass Title” award. The film began as an idea on Korine’s part to create an artifact rather than a typical narrative film. Appropriately shot on VHS tape, Korine imagined leaving copies around for innocent individuals and perhaps even the police to find and scratch their heads over.
Starring friends Brian Kotzur, Travis Nicholson, Rachel Korine and Harmony himself as a character who shoots the film’s events on tape, the movie is a strange romp of images of such low quality that they often verge on abstract experimentation. The group’s activities are never innocent, but as the very loose narrative goes on, they reach increasing levels of graveness and illegality.
The vaguely Marxist ideas of the film’s protagonists posit that their continuous acts of destruction are, in fact, creative acts that seek to wake the bourgeoisie from their material comfort—induced mental slumber. The film’s message ultimately boils down to this, and nothing else in the slender 78-minute runtime feels anywhere near as revelatory as a scene near the end in which the gang drive around a middle-class neighborhood at night and a monologue slightly smarter than any of the film’s characters is delivered straight from Korine’s mouth.
Ten years after “julien donkey-boy,” this effort again takes viewers through highly subjective, grainy, low-definition imagery to try and understand the actions of those supposedly below us in intelligence, to remember what it means to express one’s self in an increasingly confining capitalist scenario. The gang of trash humpers are a minority because who else would react by humping garbage? In a world where crisp, clear, digital images are the norm, “Trash Humpers” should at the very least be commended for its freshness – or rather, its bold moldiness?
Spring Breakers (2013)
When it was announced that Harmony Korine’s newest film was to feature a group of young Disney stars, young fans of the starlets and Korine fans alike were not quite sure what to make of such a strange and unheard of cross-over. Youngsters and their mothers feared their idols might’ve fallen to the dark side of filmmaking. Cinephiles feared they might’ve lost their own idol to the more commercial side of filmmaking. The film finally arrived after a great deal of media attention around how scantily clad the starlets were and many hard-partying collegiate viewers left the cinema disappointed.
This was not the Skrillex-backed feel-good spectacle they had been promised by the previews. The film did come good on its promises of debauchery and illicit behaviors, but not exactly in the exploitative way suggested. Instead of perpetuating a masculinity-fest of feeling superior and being able to manipulate and coax those lower than one’s self, the film fooled its own targeted audience into coming to see the film to be put-down, as it were, and came away with a profit of over $25 million along the way.
What begins as a self-indulgent display of excess slowly proves to be far more self-aware and socially conscious. After a long spring break of partying, the protagonists find what they have been searching for – an escape from the “boring” lives they knew – as they meet Alien, whose name excellently embodies the unfamiliarity of his lifestyle. Alien takes the group beyond even the comfort zone they thought they no longer had, as his friends are even more daring than they are, and oftentimes to seemingly dangerous ends. The film slowly shows that even while trying to escape the “majority,” the young women in the leads were still only exploring within their comfort zones. Once this boundary is breached, the first of the girls decides she is no longer having fun and heads home.
As things begin to get inverted, we are shown more non-white folk as a majority on-screen, and nudity becomes a thing of emotional beauty rather than a spectacle on display. This is best exemplified in a stand out moment of Rachel Korine crying in the shower. Harmony’s sense of authenticity shines through in moments like these, as he and his actresses – in contradiction to the Hollywood machine – are bold enough to shown the human form as it really is: imperfect. The women in the film are not the objects a similar film would take them for, but real human beings with real feelings. “Spring Breakers” serves itself well by never pointing fingers at any one person or thing as being guilty of pushing any of its characters into unfavorable situations and instead emphasizes that people who end up in criminal situations are still people. They are just another kind of minority who have been discriminated against instead of empathized with.
Selected Short Films
Harmony Korine’s style seems to be an especially good fit for the short-film format, which comes as no major surprise given the heavy use of vignette stand-alone type scenes across “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers” alike. It seems around 2010, Korine came to this realization himself and directed a small collection of shorts across a 2-3 year span.
Act Da Fool (2010)
The first of two strange hybrid commercial-short films to promote fashion lines, “Act Da Fool” is strangely hypnotic in its brief examination of poverty disparity and growing up in a meager socio-economic setting. A strange subject indeed for a promotional video for fashion, perhaps even a not-so-subtle subversion of fashion-world ideals. Even if only for a few brief minutes, the film gives voice to a young African-American girl who might not otherwise be heard.
Umshini Wam (2010)
The most ambitious and accomplished of Korine’s shorts, “Umshini Wam” is a special kind of sublime. Starring two-thirds of the South African rap group Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Visser), it is cinema vérité blended with outrageously wacky props and scenarios delivered in ace dead-pan style. “Umshini Wam” is Zulu for “Bring me my machine,” a chant used against apartheid in South Africa. The short has a few direct lines about racism, including an instance in which a man selling high-end wheelchairs refers to the pair as “white niggers.” Yolanda and Ninja ride around in wheelchairs of their own, physical manifestations of the handicap they face in a society filled with prejudice, especially against slacker rule-breakers who shoot guns in the woods and smoke absurdly large joints.
Blood of Havana (2011)
Among the most forgettable of the batch, “Blood of Havana” plays like a short free-form visual poem, with narration delivering a peculiar poem over what are presumably deleted scenes from “Trash Humpers,” featuring the gang on vacation.
While all of the shorts listed here unquestionably qualify for the descriptor of “strange,” “Snowballs” takes the cake with its voice -manipulated fat man who breathes fire and seems to have escaped from an unmade David Lynch script. The short’s narrators and stars are a pair of female twins, wearing Native American headdresses, signifiers of their symbolic status as a minority.
Curb Dance (2011)
Pulsing with a free-form short shape reminiscent of “Blood of Havana,” “Curb Dance” oozes with strangeness and good feeling. It is of a dark optimism so signature of Korine that leaves one wondering whether tears of joy and sadness are mutually exclusive. The only short to star Harmony himself in the role of a minority, his appearance as a pink dress-wearing curb dancer who nonchalantly narrates the story of a pair of brothers who ate dirt and committed murder relates the story free of judgment.
Lotus Community Workshop (first segment of the 2012 omnibus film “The Fourth Dimension”)
Starring Val Kilmer and Rachel Korine, “Lotus Community Workshop” plays as something of a primer for “Spring Breakers,” while slyly exploring the border between fiction and meta-fiction. In a few brief instances, camera crew members are clearly visible, yet their appearance is never directly mentioned or made clear. All this while Val Kilmer (his character’s name is the same) delivers a strange speech about aliens and alternate dimensions. The short indirectly posits the existence of films as alternate realities instead of fictions.
Examining these films chronologically, it is comforting to see how Korine has grown as an auteur without losing any of his creativity or charm. Just as “Gummo” featured avant-garde use of multimedia in a narrative feature (through the incorporation of Super 8, 16mm, 35mm, and still photographs), “Spring Breakers” cleverly employed a brief bit of data-moshing for a party sequence (still only one of two examples this writer has seen in a narrative feature, the other example being “Holy Motors”). Continually emphasizing minority groups and the various ways they are discriminated against, his body of work is one which feels fresh at every turn. Although the sheen of his final products has been cleaned up a great deal, his ideas have not.Continue Reading Issue #28