Life As Aimless Failure: A Harmony Korine Retrospective

Here's Andrew's retrospective look at the films of Harmony Korine.

Life as Aimless Failure: A Harmony Korine Retrospective

With the recent success of Harmony Korine's most explosive and painterly film, Spring Breakers, I couldn't help but double back in regard to the unusual steps in the young Herzogian director's ouvre that would land him here.  Never a filmmaker to reach a middle ground with critics and audiences, Spring Breakers has the distinction of being labeled either art or trash.  What it often isn't compared to, however, is Larry Clark's 1995 epic of juvenile delinquency, Kids. Since Korine wrote Kids at the age of 19, thus began a career depicting young lost souls living in the moment either by the choices they've made or the cards they were dealt, however far off the rails they may be. Much like the elder director of his first screenplay that would catapult Korine into the public eye, he is clearly obsessed with failure as a way of life and how the losers he's depicting win in their own ways. To better understand the mindset Korine continues to turn his cameras on, let us take a look at the films making up Korine's thread of eccentric misfits who, upon closer inspection, aren't too different from ourselves. 

Kids (1995 - directed by Larry Clark, written by Harmony Korine) 7/10

While not necessarily a directorial effort for Harmony Korine, it would prove to be the benchmark for his recurrent themes and motifs. In Kids, we're introduced to Telly, a juvenile delinquent roaming New York in search of the next virgin to deflower, alongside his morally adrift pal Casper.  Taking on the look of a documentary capturing on film their bored, drug addled sexploits, the film is a day in the life of wandering amoral spirits in search of the next fix.  When they aren't stealing from their parents or shoplifting from store clerks, they muse endlessly about their sex lives and the next skateboard high.  Meanwhile, a young former girlfriend of Telly's, Jennie, learns she contracted AIDS virus from her one sexual encounter with him, as opposed to her peers' numerous underage sexcapades.  With the revelation, a dynamic emerges that Telly is unknowingly spreading an epidemic as he deflowers one innocent girl after another. The film has been read as a cautionary tale of the AIDS virus, but in hindsight Clark likely sees the young delinquent demographic slowly careening towards death. Clark films the dumb teens without passing judgment, allowing us to wear the kids' shoes for two hours before returning to normalcy, left with a quiet despair for the nearest shower.  If Kids manages to disgust and disturb, it's because it deliberately doesn't declare an opinion of the teen lust on display, robbing children of their innocence with an alarming decrease in age. 

Amidst Harmony Korine's cameo appearance as a hopped up drug dealer selling hallucinogens to Jennie are several surreal anecdotes of New York life, notably in the subway scenes.  In the middle of one of Telly's numerous boastings of virgin sexual conquests, a homeless man with no legs emerges on a scooter with a can for coin donations, chanting pathetically 'I have no legs.'  It's these kind of eccentric “freaks”, if you will, that will form many of the characters populating Korine's eventual directorial efforts, pushing to the forefront people with disabilities or neoroses.  Unlike the scenes lensed by the notorious Prosperi and Jacopetti team behind Mondo Cane and Africa Addio, Korine's parade of the freakish dispossesed aren't intended to shock or outrage, but to present life as was for that group in that point in time.  There's a sympathy he has for the eccentric lifers you meet along the way in his films, anecdotal episodes with really unique figures you won't meet anywhere but in a Korine film.  Which leads us to...

Gummo – 1997 (written and directed by Harmony Korine) 7/10
 Harmony Korine's first directorial effort transports into Hell in the region of Xenia, Ohia, transformed by tornadoes and leaving behind a city of dispossessed miscreants and freaks, and gives us  something of a modern day Tod Browning Freaks. Using dirtied up still photos accompanied by voiceover narration from the two main characters, forming a collage-like tapestry of hillbilly trash art, we're thrust into a derelict landscape where teenage boys murder cats to sell their skins, glue sniffing with boozing and chair wrestling run rampant, all the while a meek, shirtless boy in shorts, worn tennis shoes and pink bunny ears with a skateboard and accordian roams about it all. Devoid of plot or conventional narrative, we live the lives of these grizzled figures and their daily activities to amuse themselves. Did I mention there are numerous cat murders and dead cats scattered throughout the film?
Foretold by the dancing boy with the accordian in the subway scene from Kids, Harmony Korine introduces a recurrent scene of people dancing to their own tune, however bizarre it seems to us.  For instance, one of the main character's mothers tapdances in shoes twice her size in a way that seems at once ridiculous but in the scheme of things and in Korine's world, absolutely appropriate.  A scene that floored legendary director Werner Herzog involved a bathtub with a piece of bacon taped to the wall.  While some have written off praise of the scene as tantamount to art-house pretension, you could look at it as life growing on the cracks of broken manmade landscapes, society as parasitic rather than progressive.  Though we may find ourselves laughing at the ridiculous and grotesque collage of broken life on the fringes, one has to feel a certain level of sympathy for these poor devils.

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999 – written and directed by Harmony Korine) 7/10

Speaking of Werner Herzog, he would find himself playing a tyrannical father hopped up on medicine as he listens to blues music while wearing a gas mask.  Sound like familiar territory for Korine?  We're only getting started.  Its main character, Julien, is a schizophrenic who may have a child with his sister (again featuring Chloe Sevigny), may have murdered a boy in the opening scene, and loses himself in episodes of psychosis.  His brother is a high school wrestler with father as his trainer.  Grandmother just seems to be there, indifferent and unaware.  As with Korine's previous effort, Gummo, it's a tragic collage of life in ruin and might well be Korine's heaviest film.  Unlike Gummo, it hits on an emotional level and you find yourself empathizing with the disturbed Julien, however erratic the man is.  Inspired by Korine's own experiences with his uncle and featuring his own grandmother in the role, it's a mixture of faux docudrama and experimental cinema with an even uglier pair of eyes than its predecessor.

The film is populated with physically deformed characters with disabilities and the like.  It also utilizes the familiar technique of still photos and fuzzy video with voiceover narration, only this time the entire film has the grainy look of a rotten hybrid child of handicam footage with 16mm film blown up to 35mm (the actual technique used to create the film's strangely beautiful ugliness).  There are further jumpcuts and frenetic handicam movement, as with a scene involving Herzog's character receiving a haircut.  In the strange domain Julien calls home, Herzog reigns supreme master of his own misguided psychosis.  When he isn't tugging the leashes of his two sons and daughter, he's off in his own eccentric innerspace, dancing to blues or ballet either in gas mask or undies.  At one point, he seems to be dressed as a nun simulating masturbation.  Very clearly, the aged master embraced Korine's bizarre cues for him.  It's worth noting Korine submitted Julien Donkey-boy to the Dogme 95 movement helmed by Danish auteurs Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, and received a stamp of approval under the movement's guidelines, making it one of the few American films certified by the European cinema edict.

Mister Lonely (2007 – written and directed by Harmony Korine) 6/10
After an eight year hiatus with short feature projects in between came Mister Lonely, a tale of a Michael Jackson impersonator who befriends a Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) impersonator who welcomes him into a castle filled with other celebrity impersonators living their daily lives as those characters in between circus shows.  Intercut with the Michael Jackson story is a thread involving nuns who in trying to provide food and supplies for the poor with the help of a mad raving priest (Herzog again in top form) discover they may in fact have miraculous powers.  Meanwhile a dysfunctional relationship is forming between Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplain that takes a toll on the group and the Michael Jackson impersonator's own commitment to his artificial persona.

Of Korine's efforts, it's the cleanest and most fleeting, shot in widescreen with elegant vistas of nuns leaping out of airplanes with aerial views of jungle landscapes in between the fantasy castle world of celebrity impersonators playing out their roles.  Once again we're watching lives lived fully in spite of being off the rails, but without the volatility of Korine's prior work.  Even when Korine exploits eccentricity for all it's worth, its not an altogether unpleasant universe.  For a while, the castle serves as a utopia of sorts for the lost souls inhabiting it, allowing for them to be near one another without facing the fear of declaring one's true self.  Director Leos Carax cameos as the Jackson impersonator's mentor, along with actor Denis Lavant portraying Charlie Chaplain, a unique pair who would eventually go on to make the enigmatic Holy Motors.  Although at times a whimsical effort, it's the most passive of the director's work, too polished for Korine in a visual and storytelling sense.  Sensing maybe he had become a bit user friendly at this point in his career, he decided to take a giant step backwards in an almost dadaist work of high-brow Jackass.

Trash Humpers (2009 – written and directed by Harmony Korine) 7/10
Probably the most deliberately visually ugly film since Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Harmony Korine's most nightmarishly bizarre film Trash Humpers follows the exploits of three sociopaths(?) whose pasttimes involve wearing old people masks, vandalizing, sitting around, and dry humping trash cans.  Shot and edited on VHS recorders before being transferred to 35mm film, it's a swan dive into surreal filth and vermin, at once vexing and disgusting.  If you thought the intolerable antics of Tom Green as filmed by Jeff Tremaine sounded like an apalling mixture, just wait for the horrors Korine unleashes here.  Devoid of narrative or pragmatic purpose, watching it is akin to seeing a man farting in a loaded elevator.  You aren't sure if you want to snicker or feel sick, probably both in equal measure.  Through all the increasingly insane attacks on common sense, good taste, and rationale, these three appear to be making some kind of movie of it all for their own amusement(?).

While no doubt akin to the freeform narrative of his first feature, Gummo, there's an element of implaceable madness here not even reached by the schizophrenia of Julien Donkey-Boy.  It could be Korine's purest film, throwing out all the basic ingredients for a film to function.  It's Korine's answer, in a way, to Lars Von Trier's Dogme 95 film The Idiots, which chronicled via intentionally ugly digital video a group of perfectly normal individuals who just want to get in touch with their inner idiot through a series of shenanigans at once toxic and orgiastic.  The film appears to self-terminate as soon as it unspools, but as it progresses, a theme begins to emerge that provides Trash Humpers and the audience watching it an eerie moment of clarity.  For the uninitiated, this is probably Korine's most taxing film, a perfect object designed to confound and infuriate without relent or, for most, purpose.  It's also meant as a state of mind for people finding a party out of thin air and how the party, for some, inevitably comes to an end.

Spring Breakers (2012 – written and directed by Harmony Korine) 8/10

At long last, after four features as both writer and director, Harmony Korine finally made his most transcendant masterpiece with his most colorful and lush film to date, Spring Breakers.  Echoing the spirit of Trash Humpers with, this time, rainbow candy colored eyes, we're thrust headlong into the grandiose and epic debauchery that is Spring Break, where college students from all walks of life gather together for one giant beach party of sex, drugs, and the heavy bass of rap and dubstep.  The film follows four college girls who will do whatever it takes to earn enough money to go on Spring Break, and they proceed to rob a restaurant at gunpoint.  After partying and drugs catch up with them, they are arrested and bailed out by a white rapper gangster, aptly named Alien (James Franco incognito) who literally invades their world.  Whisked aboard the gangster's way of life, the foursome shacks up in Alien's crib and partake in his looting of fellow Spring Breakers, gradually descending into increasingly dark territory culminating in violence. 

Called by Korine “a Britney Spears video as envisioned by Gaspar Noe” (who loaned his longtime DP Benoit Debie to Korine for the film's voluptuously saturated color scheme), Spring Breakers is at once a hunk of MTV sensory overload and a continuation of the themes of derailment from the rest of ordinary society Korine has been obssessed with all his life. For these four Spring Breakers, the party doesn't stop even after it has obviously ended.  It's an indictment of the event as a distinctly American rite of passage for many, swimming in a pool of sin before returning to normalcy. The high for these kids isn't so much the party itself as the steps it took to climb there. There's also a sense that Alien was once a Spring Breaker himself, and has reached this height with nowhere else to rise.  Though these girls push the envelope as far as they can in search of the heights of fun, once they meet Alien you don't blame them for wanting to return to Earth.

-Andrew Kotwicki