Harmony Korine

by Fergus Grealy

To a sizeable majority of film enthusiasts, the question of Harmony Korine being considered a ‘great’ filmmaker is a ludicrous notion. Most would automatically rule out any consideration of ‘greatness’ due to his low output of films, only having completed two feature length productions to date. Even more telling is the fact that Korine has continually attracted condemnation towards his distinctive directorial style from critics and members of the film industry. Widespread derision has focused on the absence of fully developed story lines and conventional structure in his films; his obscure and almost demented aesthetic sensibility; and claims that he intentionally sets out to shock his audience. Consequently, Korine is not even vaguely seen as a major power in contemporary film.

However, there is also a group of people who champion the work of Harmony Korine and consider these unfavourable views to be ignorant and desperate. In effect, a strong case could be made that Harmony Korine is vastly misunderstood. Equally, it could also be claimed that his detractors simply do not want to understand him, renouncing the unknown and succumbing to the age-old paradigm of rejecting the attempts of a new generation to redefine an art form because it is too taxing and challenging. (1)

I align myself with this view and assert that, in my opinion, Harmony Korine is indeed a ‘great’ director. He may not have produced an enormous quantity of work, but these films—Gummo (1997) and julien donkey-boy (1999)—reveal his considerable talent and a filmic mastery that belies his age and experience in the industry. It is clear that Korine is a true original, boasting an inimitable slant on his craft and a vision that he is determined to achieve at any cost. It is this desire to redefine the art form rather than rehash past film traditions that sets him apart from other contemporary directors. Still in his 20s, Korine already truly embodies the ideals of the auteurist tradition. He approaches cinema like nobody before him and, accordingly, should be considered a film ‘great’.

julien donkey-boy

In investigating the factors that have influenced the development of his idiosyncratic style, Korine’s upbringing and family background offers some pivotal clues. Korine was born in suburban California and raised in Tennessee, both strongholds of one of his favourite subject matters—middle-class America. Although his inventive descriptions of his parents have differed from being “trotskyites” (2) to secretive recluses,(3) it has been said that his father was in fact a director of public access documentaries for American television channel PBS and his mother stayed at home with Harmony and his two siblings. In such an inconspicuous, even mediocre environment Korine was anything but, attending a ‘progressive’ school and, with the influence of his father, discovering the joys of cinema. These circumstances may well have influenced the initial formation of Korine’s aesthetic—typified by the combination of highbrow intellectualism juxtaposed by the banality of the less salubrious; a bastion of high-concepts in surroundings saturated with mediocrity and simple-mindedness.

This combination of influences was further reinforced by his encounters of the varied forms of life in New York City, to where he relocated with his family when in his teens. In New York, he immersed himself in the city’s repertory cinemas that screened auteurist films from Europe and the American avant-garde, but he was equally fascinated by the developing youth skateboard culture and the dilapidation of the city streets—the hobos, the sex workers, the scum. Korine has cited cinematic influences in Cassavetes, Godard, Herzog and Fassbinder (4), but has also stated that he is “influenced by negative things as well as what [he likes].” (5) In a profile of Korine for The Guardian, Sean O’Hagan clarified these ‘negative influences’, claiming that Korine is “obsessed by the more extreme detritus of American popular culture—tabloid TV, gangsta rap, deviant sex.” (6)

Kids

This wide-eyed fascination with the goings-on of the environment around him is evident in the script that the then 19 year-old Korine wrote for Larry Clark’s controversial feature debut, Kids (1995). The script was insightful and perceptive, chronicling the lives of teenagers in mid ’90s New York City with startling honesty, depicting their forays into gang culture, underage sex, drug use, disease and crime. At the core of the story are three teenage protagonists—Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose favourite pastime is ‘de-virginising’ young girls; his underling Casper (Justin Pierce) who, among other things, dabbles in hard drugs; and Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) who has recently contracted AIDS from Telly. Countless other nameless faces frequent the film, playing equally lurid and frightening parts in the bleak and hopeless tale. The film never meanders, but never really goes anywhere—underscoring the dismal reality of the lives they lead.

Kids attracted much outcry for its brutal portrayal of its characters and was predominantly met with revulsion. This was primarily due to Clark’s cold, unsentimental and sterile treatment of the kids. His direction was one-dimensional and unmoving, doing no justice to Korine’s script, which showcased his incredible ear for dialogue. The performances in Kids were so authentic due to the verbosity Korine provided his characters with, flawlessly capturing the ignorance, cockiness and the self-imposed invincibility that the kids assumed. At the same time, Korine subtly underlined the fragility and naiveté that also predominates the age group. Unlike Clark’s direction, this displayed the undeniable tenderness Korine directs towards his characters, a feature that is evident in his later directorial works.

In hindsight, Korine made claims that he would have made a vastly contrary version of Clark’s Kids if he had assumed the role of director. He stated, “I would have made a very different film from Larry’s. In fact, I’d have made it more non-judgmental and detached”, (7) emphasising the fundamental distinction between the way they both viewed the filmmaking process. Korine has shown that he is not interested in making judgements and creating ‘meaning’ in a film, he is more intent on presenting a story for its intrinsic values and instilling ‘feeling’ into film. The desired reaction to Korine’s films is not that they contain some vague meaning (that ultimately leaves the audience feeling empty), he wants the film to ‘feel right’.

Gummo

This ideal is almost indefinable, but when it occurs it is instantly apparent. Never is it more evident than in Korine’s directorial debut, the audacious and blatant Gummo. Indeed, in an interview for IndieWire Magazine, Korine said, “I wanted to make my movie the way they should be made. Something more like a feeling.” (8) The film presents a surreal slant on the breakdown of society in the fictional town of Xenia, Ohio, ravaged by a tornado a few years back and never having quite recovered from it. Not based on a concrete screenplay, the film is, at best, a rough assemblage of vignettes about the lives of the Xenia townsfolk—predominantly a group of “no-hopers” and simpletons in the rural American town.

It seems that the only narrative device that binds these characters together is their mutual location. There is an albino girl with a penchant for Patrick Swayze, a group of drunken hicks that start a wrestling match with a dinner table and chairs, two glue-sniffing teenage boys that hunt cats for a local restaurant, a pimp that sells time with a retarded woman, and even a gay teenager (played by Korine himself) who tries to seduce a black dwarf. And that just scratches the surface of Korine’s mélange. These characters are the mutation of fallout from a mass media, MTV influenced society, affected by the failure of the family unit and a future devoid of hope. Their reactions to their situation are bizarre and perplexing, it seems that they are almost part of a ‘freak-show’.

Responses to such a representation have incited claims of exploitation and manipulation. However, Korine attempts to instill integrity in these characters despite their imperfection and portray them without any judgment—there is no moral barometer, no characters in film to point out the flaws in these people. Even though Korine flaunts his use of ‘freaks’ and minority groups, they are just a tool for him to express his unique view of contemporary society. As American critic Matt Seitz claims, Korine’s affection for his freak-show is evident in the way he portrays them, stating, “The rhetorical question a lesser filmmaker would have posed would read, ‘Aren’t these folks odd?’ Instead, the movie asks, ‘What’s so odd about these folks?’” (9)

Gummo

Korine’s interpretation of the contemporary world around him makesGummo special and creates an aura of artistic freedom that is infectious and permeates throughout. It is, as Seitz states, “alive in a way that few films are.” (10) Using the film’s measly budget of $1.3 million to his advantage, Korine assumed total artistic control that was never interfered with in the way that major studio productions usually can be. Recognising this, Korine set about to make a film to his inimitable standards, challenging the status quo, dismantling the boundaries of filmic convention and redefining the cinematic experience.

It is obvious that Korine meticulously controlled every aspect of the film to his satisfaction. This included a dazzling manipulation of aesthetic features and postmodern strategies—including pastiche, the fragmentation of narrative structure and the breakdown of the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. By rejecting the use of a coherent plot, Korine allowed no rhythm or pace to eventuate, continually jolting the audience and forcing them to question the film that they are viewing. Constant juxtaposition of contrary scenes—such as the ‘bubblegum’ style segment of the albino girl and her Swayze obsession with the graphic sequence of identical twins bathing each other—furthers this technique. Matters are further confounded by Korine’s humorous use of irony and effortless fusing of the mundane with the serious—a boy mourning his father’s death by lifting weights made of cutlery to Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”, or the intensity of the ‘gang warfare’ over turf rights for cat shooting.

There is so much detail, so many radical ideas crammed into the film that, as filmmaker Gus Van Sant famously quipped, “a chainsaw couldn’t cut it.” (11) Perhaps the way in which Gummo perplexed audiences and critics alike is best summed up in a review by Jaime N. Christley.

…It is not a documentary. But what is it?…What is questionable is the very reality [that Korine] is recording, since it is clearly staged, or, more to the point, since it mixes fact with fiction to meet artistic ends… Where do the actors end and where does reality begin? And what are we to make of scenes that are unrehearsed and spontaneous, placed next to scenes that are clearly fabrication? (12)

The fact these questions are posed is unequivocal proof that Harmony Korine has produced an entirely original creation. Gummo is brimming with abundant ideas that constantly compete for the audience’s attention, confounding and mystifying, and establishing a new way of looking at cinema. The genius of Korine is not simply that he can draw inspiration form such disparate influences into his films, it is the fact that he can filter all of these elements into one cohesive vision that is unique to him. In doing so, he has captured for himself and those that connect with the film, the sense of ‘feeling’ that he constantly desires. Although it is panned by many, to some it is undeniable thatGummo ‘feels right’.

Showing his versatility as a filmmaker, Korine’s next project was something of a departure fromGummoJulien donkey-boy saw Korine adopting the contentious Dogme 95 doctrine. The doctrine comprises of a set of ten restrictive tenets that its architects—a collection of avant-garde Danish directors spearheaded by Lars von Trier—believed would make the film experience more pure and illuminative. When asked about his use of the doctrine, Korine responded that “…For [julien donkey-boy] it seemed to make sense. It was liberating. I want to make different kinds of movies in different ways…” (13) It is possible that Korine wanted to make a far more concentrated and resolute film, and felt that the overload of ideas and constant tangents that Gummo took could be pared down by the discipline of the Dogme guidelines.

julien donkey-boy

Even though the film is not based on a fully developed screenplay, the plot of julien donkey-boy is far more concrete than that of Gummo. The film centers on the torment and joy of the life of Julien (Ewen Bremner), a schizophrenic loosely based on Korine’s own uncle of the same name. Julien is part of a highly unstable family—a much-talked about mother that is no longer around; a father (Werner Herzog) who alternates between taunting his children to telling magical dinner table stories about Brezhnev and Dirty Harry; sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny) who is carrying Julien’s baby; an aspiring wrestler for a brother (Evan Neumann); and a dog loving grandmother (Joyce Korine) who is bordering on senility. This family situation forms the basic core of the storyline and the film never moves too far from this premise.Julien donkey-boy doesn’t take the viewer on an epic journey or impart any significant meaning; rather it gives insight into the life of such a family and, more importantly, of a schizophrenic, a subject close to Korine’s heart.

This narrative technique is achieved in masterful fashion. The film is made up of what seems to be fairly mundane parts—such as Julien washing the feet of his blind, ice-skater girlfriend Chrissy, or asking bystanders which tree on the street is his family tree—that do not mean much on their own. But, cumulatively, they come together like an intricately weaved tapestry, creating a rich and tender portrayal of the film’s protagonist. As critic Roger Ebert said, “[julien donkey-boy] doesn’t always work in its individual moments, but it works as a whole. It adds up to something, unlike a lot of movies where individual shots are sensational, but they add up to nothing.” (14)

Whereas Gummo was brash and colourful, julien donkey-boy is far more muted in scope and in vision. The pace of the film is far more contemplative than its predecessor and it seems as though the vibrant colour scheme evident in Gummo has been stripped away for a gloomy landscape dominated by greys and blues. This is achieved to startling effect—Anthony Dod Mantle’s camerawork is inventive and beautiful; the soundtrack is also stripped to its bare elements and lingers; and the performances, especially Ewen Bremner’s phenomenal portrayal of Julien, are uniformly well measured and delivered. This mastery of film techniques indicates Korine’s growing maturity as a filmmaker.

Although it may seem like a vastly different project, the hallmarks of the unique Korine signature prevail over julien donkey-boy. There is, once again, the bold use of music—traditional folk songs “Frère Jacques” and “My Bonny Lies O’er The Ocean” are an example of the many songs that are used in an entirely new context. And, of course, there is Korine’s cheeky sense of humour—the film’s strong religious overtones are provided by a schizophrenic, and wit is evident in virtually every word of dialogue that Werner Herzog delivers in his portrayal of Julien’s father. In fact, Herzog’s performance seems to be the embodiment of Korine’s aesthetic and vision. The performance, like Korine’s incomparable style, expertly balances the precarious combination of ‘high’ culture with the ‘low’, includes ironic humour tempered with the serious, and reality with the surreal.

Since julien donkey-boy, Harmony Korine has been involved in plenty of film projects, namely the ambitious street fighting film Fight Harm that failed primarily due to injuries to the young director, and also the script for Larry Clark’s Ken Park (2002). Having almost single-handedly redefined the perceptions of cinema at such a young age, the future augurs well for Korine. Due to his singular and original vision, Harmony Korine has changed the film process for evermore, and duly deserves to be considered a ‘great’ director.

FILMOGRAPHY

As director:

Gummo (1997) also writer

Sunday (1997) music film clip for Sonic Youth

David Blaine: Magic Man (1998) short film for TV segment

julien donkey-boy (1999) also writer

OTHER CREDITS

Kids (Larry Clark, 1995) writer

Ken Park (Larry Clark, 2002) writer

ENDNOTES

  1. See Sean O’Hagan, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, The Guardian, 13 March 1999 
  2. Tom Cunha, “A Conversation with Harmony Korine, Director of Gummo”, IndieWire Magazine, 6 October 1997, http://www.angelfire.com/ab/harmonykorine/tomcunha.html
  3. Werner Herzog, “Gummo‘s Whammo”, Interview Magazine, November 1999 
  4. O’Hagan, ibid 
  5. Gus Van Sant, “Forward” New Line Features: Gummo, 1997,http://www.finelinefeatures.com/gummo/topabout.html
  6. O’Hagan, ibid 
  7. O’Hagan, ibid 
  8. Tom Cunha, ibid 
  9. M. Seitz, “Review – Gummo” New York Press, 1997 
  10. Seitz, ibid 
  11. Van Sant, ibid 
  12. Christley, J. “Gummo” Film Written, 1997, http://www.filmwritten.org/reviews/1997/gummo.htm
  13. P. Zimmerman, ”Chaos Controlled”, Independent Film Magazine, 22 August 1999 
  14. Roger Ebert, “Julien donkey-boy”, Chicago Sun-Times, 5 November 1999 

From Senses of Cinema

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