“It just seems to me that those people who think with a certain level of depth are destined to lose. The more vulnerable your work, the more people want to trample it. If you think freely, then everyone wants your head on a platter. In essence you become the sole white sheep standing on green Astroturf roped off in an exclusive part of the yacht, far out at sea, and it is here that the aristocracy, those men who own the boat, take turns one by one on their knees fucking you in the ass…”
– Harmony Korine
Fucked in the ass, indeed. Thirteen films, a psychedelic musical stint with Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, and several broken bones and prison time later, American filmmaker Harmony Korine has courageously tried his hand at medium after medium only to be called- what Ken Miller describes in the Japanese culture magazine Tokion- “90% bullshit”. But the skepticism exists for good reason. Seventeen years since his entrance into the underground filmmaking scene, Korine remains as cryptic in his artistic intentions as ever.
His dogged insistence on dragging the people and places we fear and reject out of the dark and onto the surfaces of his mini DV and 35 mm (what a contrast) projections is fascinating. An obsession with bringing meaning in difficult subjects like addictions, isolation, and psychological turmoil to life through a raw adherence to the Dogme 95 manifesto (a vow to reject artificiality in filmmaking and produce truthful, unadulterated cinema) suggests that Harmony Korine wants his audience to acknowledge those who operate outside the social norm. An HIV positive teen obsessed with diseasing every virgin he can in Kids awakened by the electrifying hyperrealism of 35 mm film stock. A freak of nature tween dressed in a bunny suit brought to life in the visual pastiche Gummo by a discordant union of three different films (35 mm, 16 mm, 8 mm) and grainy Hi-8 and VHS cameras. The schizophrenic Julien in Julien Donkey-Boy realised by the degraded MiniDV grain shooting and blown up to exaggerate the distortion. But if Harmony Korine wants us to know about the people we try so hard to ignore, why does he present them to us in such an extremely repelling light?
Korine is the living manifestation of risk. His movies are wrought with nauseating graphics and revolting vulgarity that either make us completely reject him or at the least render us so seriously disturbed that we question giving his work a second chance. Take Trash Humpers for instance. It is literally what the title says: an hour and fourteen minutes of people humping and vandalizing every piece of trash they can find. When we see wrinkled, middle-aged men humping garbage cans and laughing maniacally as they slap women’s butts and have pseudo-sexual encounters with Barbie dolls in wheelchairs, there is little to be felt but scathing repulsion. How are we supposed to empathize with outcasts and minorities when we are shown are disgusting people performing disgusting actions on the screen? Moments like this make us question and more likely than not, if we’re first-timers, quit our journey to wherever the hell the Korine path is supposed to take us.
Korine’s place in cinema has been nebulous ever since he emerged as a hot, flaring voice in 1995 when he wrote Kids for photographer/skateboarder Larry Clark. There are many terms we could use to stamp the Korine flare with a distinguishable genre. We could call him an envelope-pusher of morally abusive transgressive art like John Waters, whose X-rated cult films explored incest, transvestites and men tying sausages to their dicks. Or we could call Korine a figurehead of the urban underground No Wave movement like Nick Zedd, whose shorts explode with viscious and carnal pornography that mechanizes sex. We could even name Korine a rebellious adopter of daring neorealism like Federico Fellini and Roberto Rosselini with their scathing portraits of the miserable human condition in Italian cinema. But Korine, all too familiar with jaded attempts of this nature to trap him into hollow characterizations has responded to the futile and obsessive “What Is Harmony Korine?” question with a label of his own: a “mistake-ist”. “It’s like a science project”, Korine says, “things blowing up in my face, what comes of that”.
A mistakist? This self-coined trademark could provide an invaluable context to understand the polarizing nature of Korine’s work. In a 2010 Film School Rejects interview with the director shortly after the release of his controversial Trash Humpers, Korine stated that he “wanted to find something deeper in the mimicry of life in mistakes… Something that can transcend neatness and transcend order, and that’s in mistakes”. Is this why the ultimate “meaning” in so many of Korine’s films is buried beneath what we deem meaningless? Does the mess of incoherent people and incoherent ideas we encounter in almost all of his work exist so that his characters have the chance to experience a series of mistakes and encounters in life that create their personas?
In Julien-Donkey Boy, Julien impregnates his sister, repeatedly hits himself, and roams the streets of his urban surroundings as a schizophrenic subhuman. His entire existence is founded upon his head-on crashes with walls of mistakes upon mistakes, ones that turn us off because we don’t want to see or accept a human being who fails to even remotely reflect our own behavior and values. There is a moment in the film where Julien, ordered by his deranged father to call his sister a “dilettante and a slut”, relays the message to her in a series of jumbled, incoherent words as he strums with frantic ugliness at random harp strings. Then, at his father’s command, Julien slaps his face violently. Again, and again, and again. Lost in some wretched mode of masochistic fear and pleasure, he pounds ferociously at his skull even in his sister’s firm and strangely romantic embrace, his desperate voice somewhere in between a cry for help and an adamant refusal to give up his amplifying pain. He lays on the ground, spewing out strings of unintelligible words and phrases that mean nothing to us. It’s like watching a raging outbreak of barbaric animals in a zoo cage. We simply cannot identify. But perhaps Korine’s role as the “captain of mistakism” is an attempt to show us that accidents in life, like Julien’s accidents, are all part of a lifelong journey in accidental self-construction. They aren’t these tabooed mistakes that we have any right to judge. “I don’t care about it if it’s not real,” Korine passionately said when asked about his views on surrealism in an interview with the independent cinema magazine Filmmaker in 1997. And if he only cares about what’s real, then what we think is meaningless has to be rooted in the meaningful world we inhabit. Doesn’t it?
It is crucial to note the astonishing parallel between Korine’s films and his personal history. In Anne Bogart’s essay “Stereotype”, which analyzes and then debunks the flawed misconceptions that exist about stereotypes in art, she says that our responsibility and “charge is to receive tradition and utilize the containers we inherit by filling them with our own wakefulness”. Harmony Korine’s work does this exactly, taking the patterns of reality and breathing the filmmaker’s own life – or “wakefulness”- into each frame of his storytelling. Spending his youth out in the field with his father Sol Korine, a documentarian for PBS who brought to life underrepresented southern characters in his work, Harmony’s eye for social misfits and rejects was planted in his experience before he ever set out to make his own movies.
In conjunction with the undeniable influence his father had on his aesthetic, whether consciously or subconsciously, Harmony’s childhood was dotted with people and places that bear unmistakable similarities to those of his films. Julien is strangely reminiscent of Korine’s schizophrenic Uncle Eddie, who was the filmmaker’s “first exposure to someone who was mentally ill. He’d wear his pants sideways, put cream cheese on his hair, jump out of windows and break his ankle, hear voices and try to kill me,” said Korine in a 1999 interview in The Face Magazine.The lost city skaters in Kids could be subtle caricatures of Korine’s teenage self, the one that dropped out of college to become a skateboarder who abused narcotics in Washington Square Park. And Korine says himself in an 2008 interview with Bomb Magazine that the absurd circumstances in Mister Lonely – a dramedy about dancing celebrity impersonators and nuns skydiving out of airplanes – was inspired directly by his own experience living in a commune as a kid, where he’d “firebomb several empty houses” with his parents and “suck on the milk sacks of many breastfeeding ladies”. The mistakism in his art is a reflection of the mistakism in his life. Korine evidently fulfills the first prong of Bogart’s concerns by “[setting]a fire, a human fire” – which is really his human fire- underneath the stereotypes he explores in his movies. And at the same time, he reifies Bogart’s complex question about an artist’s obligation to his audience’s “shared history of stereotype and cliché….what is supposed to happen on the receiving end?”.
Korine’s stories may stem from his own life, which justifies their seeming irrationality, but those of who haven’t shared these experiences are just lost in the continuum of Korine inanity. We would rather turn to the reliable “aristocracy” of filmmakers Korine so deeply resents than let him fuck us in the ass with material we don’t understand.