If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
Harmony Korine: Interviews tracks filmmaker Korine's stunning rise, fall, and rise again through his own evolving voice. Bringing together interviews collected from over two decades, this unique chronicle includes rare interviews unavailable in print for years and an extensive, new conversation recorded at the filmmaker's home in Nashville.
After more than twenty years, Harmony Korine (b. 1973) remains one of the most prominent and yet subversive filmmakers in America. Ever since his entry into the independent film scene as the irrepressible prodigy who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark's "Kids" in 1992, Korine has retained his stature as the ultimate cinematic provocateur. He both intelligently observes modern social milieus and simultaneously thumbs his nose at them. Now approaching middle age, and more influential than ever, Korine remains intentionally sensationalistic and ceaselessly creative.
He parlayed the success of "Kids" into directing the dreamy portrait of neglect "Gummo" two years later. With his audacious 1999 digital video drama "Julien Donkey-Boy," Korine continued to demonstrate a penchant for fusing experimental, subversive interests with lyrical narrative techniques. Surviving an early career burnout, he resurfaced with a trifecta of insightful works that built on his earlier aesthetic leanings: a surprisingly delicate rumination on identity ("Mister Lonely," 2007), a gritty quasi-diary film ("Trash Humpers," 2009) and a blistering portrait of American hedonism ("Spring Breakers," 2013), which yielded significant commercial success. Throughout his career he has also continued as a mixed-media artist whose fields included music videos, paintings, photography, publishing, songwriting, and performance art.
So many artists have staked a claim to creating “subversive” work over the years that the term has practically lost its value. But that’s hardly the case for Harmony Korine, still one of the most prominent subversive filmmakers in America.
Ever since erupting onto the independent film scene as the irrepress- ible prodigy who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s "Kids" in 1992, Korine has retained his stature as the ultimate cinematic provocateur: He both intelligently observes modern social milieus and gleefully thumbs his nose at them at the same time. Now approaching middle age and arguably more influential than ever, Korine remains a knowingly sensationalistic and innovative creative mind.
But it’s been a bumpy ride. In 1995, Korine came out nowhere and became an overnight media darling, stealing the spotlight from "Kids" director Larry Clark and quickly taking advantage of the attention to project his bad boy image across the world. Korine’s origin story, the tale of a disillusioned NYU dropout discovered by Clark while skating around Washington Square Park, quickly overshadowed the sheer determination involved in his first completed screenplay. A serious film geek raised by a documentary filmmaker in Nashville, Korine turned Clark’s idea for a movie about promiscuous teenagers whose antics ultimately lead to an AIDS dilemma into a full-fledged screenplay over the course of three weeks. The young writer recorded conversations with his friends as the basis for a highly naturalistic flow of dialogue, resulting in a seminal portrait of New York’s underground youth culture. The movie portrayed a dark, depraved world, but it was especially haunting because it maintained a stark realism throughout.
A hit at Sundance and Cannes, "Kids" transcended the perceived limitations of its NC-17 rating and grossed $20 million at the box office, effectively turning Korine into a major pop culture figure. That same year, he appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and mystified a nation with a combination of wide-eyed innocence and scrappy demeanor. The media loved Korine’s playful behavior and foul mouth. He expressed adoration for vaudeville and certainly put on a good show, tap dancing for one interviewer and harassing pedestrians while hanging out with another. He was practically an auteur before even directing his first film.
The next few years unfolded in a whirlwind of creativity and scandalous gestures. Korine’s directorial debut, "Gummo," was shot in rundown Nashville neighborhoods on 16mm, eschewing plot for bizarre asides and eccentric character sketches. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin infamously called it the worst movie of the year, an assertion that "Gummo"’s producers considered placing on its poster. There’s no doubting the potency of a movie so dense with images and information, which dances a line between experimental documentary and lyrical portrait of an alienated lower class with such riveting intensity that it transcends any easy categorization.
Set in a decrepit neighborhood ravished by a tornado, "Gummo" contains an ensemble of pariahs, including a mute boy who wanders about town wearing bunny ears, a pair of boxing skinhead siblings, a gay dwarf, and two young rebels who kill stray cats for cash—one of whom, Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), receives questionable advice from his tap-dancing mother (Linda Manz). A kaleidoscopic peek into America’s marginalized inhabitants, "Gummo" tossed aside traditional plot in favor of freewheeling images and vignettes. It mystified even the viewers who loved it.
Next, Korine was invited to join the vaunted brotherhood of Dogme 95, the DIY movement kickstarted by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that required all participants to adhere to a set of arbitrary rules, like shooting on video with natural lights and no special effects. The sole American participant in the project, Korine’s effort (which admittedly broke some of the Dogme rules) was unsurprisingly brash, but also far more focused than his previous effort. The story of a schizophrenic man and his maniacal relatives (based on Korine’s uncle), "Julian Donkey-Boy" delivered a brutal, transgressive form of dramatic storytelling littered with eccentric digressions. Characterized by an ultra- grainy DV look and abrupt editing techniques, the film was anchored by Ewen Bremmer’s disturbing performance. It also owed much to German New Wave legend Werner Herzog—now one of Korine’s major advocates—in the role of the boy’s crazed father. Critics were once again divided on the merits of Korine’s output, but there was no doubting that the attention to his burgeoning artistry continued to increase.
In the wake of "Julian Donkey-Boy," he kicked off an ill-fated project called "Fight" in which hidden cameramen (including colleagues David Blaine and Leonardo DiCaprio) watched as Korine attempted to engage random street characters in violent brawls. After suffering major injuries and a handful of arrests, Korine abandoned the project; the completed footage has never screened publicly, and has become a central ingredient in the filmmaker’s irascible reputation, even once he cleaned up his act.
Korine was rarely sober when he made "Fight," but drugs could hardly mollify the impact of fame and expectations barreling down on him from every direction. His much-publicized relationship with actress Chloe Sevigny, who had appeared in all of his completed features up until that point, ended badly. By the end of the decade, Korine abruptly vanished from the public eye, heading out to Europe for a depraved three-year interlude in his career that remains largely undocumented. This period culminated in 2003 with his admission to a methadone clinic.
With help from advocates of his earlier work, including the fashion magnate agnès b., Korine gradually put his life back together. In 2005, he directed a television documentary about his old pal David Blaine. By then, Korine had quietly resettled in Nashville, where he fell in love with a local waitress, got married, and bought a house. In 2008, he unveiled the agnès b.–produced "Mister Lonely," arguably his softest, most accessible work—a delightfully surreal tale about a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who discovers a commune filled with other outcasts playing dress up, which takes place in parallel to another offbeat story involving Werner Herzog as a priest. The next year, Korine was making the rounds with "Trash Humpers," a scrappy production shot on lo-grade video featuring the titular characters (including one played by Korine) wandering around murky regions of Nashville and engaging in the eponymous sex act. But they also share poetry and tender monologues about the spiritual dimensions of being a pariah, statements that suggested the movie served as Korine’s mantra. Consolidating the aesthetics of his earlier films with more sophisticated pontifications, "Trash Humpers" is argu- ably Korine’s most personal work.
Korine started work on "Spring Breakers" the next year. The apotheosis of his attempts to subvert pop culture, the movie’s trim plot involved a group of college girls who rob a diner to fuel a hedonistic voyage to the center of the party scene in St. Petersburg, Florida. Filmed with an alarmingly bright palette and occasional shadowy interludes, set to a combination of pulsating electronic melodies and an ominous score by Cliff Martinez, "Spring Breakers"’ biggest coup was its cast: Pop star Selena Gomez led an ensemble of well-known faces as the women at the helm of the gleeful adventure, which abruptly shifts tones when they wind up arrested.
Rescued by a messianic pimp named Alien played with memorable exuberance by James Franco, the girls wind up thrust into a nightmarish inversion of the pleasure they initially sought. But the ones who choose to stick around for this next stage find themselves entranced by an even greater height of rebellion. Hence the true shock value of "Spring Breakers": rather than moralizing, Korine celebrates the dogma-fueling criminal antics for their capacity to undermine the rigidity of social mores. Describing this outlook as “gangster mysticism” in interviews, Korine proved he could maintain his outsider perspective even while creating a more commercial film.
The response to the movie seemed to validate his ambition. "Spring Breakers" grossed more in its limited opening weekend release than any of his previous films in their entire theatrical runs, landed on numerous critics’ top-ten lists, and even led to a serious awards campaign for Franco. Korine was no longer a rebel at odds with the establishment; he had successfully invaded it without selling out.
The irony of Korine’s reputation as a kind of twisted cultural insurgent is that he came from a relatively low-key background. Born in a commune in Salinas, California, Korine grew up in Nashville under the guidance of his documentarian father, who taught him how to make movies. In high school, encouraged by a teacher who liked his writing, Korine made a remarkable black-and-white short film called "A Bundle of Minutes" that featured an angry loner wandering about town, committing robberies and ranting about his life. It ultimately helped him gain acceptance to NYU and convinced Clark to hire him to write "Kids." Viewed in retrospect, "A Bundle of Minutes" outlines much of the restless excitement for deconstructing traditional storytelling methods visible in all of Korine’s work. At one point, fuming about the limitations of his world, the movie’s protagonist rants that he’s “the world’s most stupid genius.” That may well remain Korine’s means of self-justification: His movies cherish striking images and the flow of shocking events over cohesive ideas. He lets his unvarnished inspiration lead the way, which may be why he has always wrestled with the challenge of explaining himself to the public.
Yet it’s through the process of speaking to various journalists that he may have crafted his most intricate achievement. Throughout twenty years of interviews, Korine has developed into one of the great fabulists of our time, his storytelling antics extending beyond a handful of distinctive feature films and permeating the discourse surrounding them.
For that reason, his inclusion in the venerable Conversations with Filmmakers Series makes for a unique opportunity: Korine is one of the youngest filmmakers to receive this treatment and perhaps its most elusive subject.
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