Harmony Korine’s films are the cinematic equivalents of a dead baby joke. And I mean this as a compliment.
Revolting? Sure. Meritless? Not entirely. Dead baby jokes mine the darkest parts of our hearts and plumb our most repressed imaginings. They show us what horrors we are capable of inventing and then allow us to groan and shake our heads in disgust, quickly reestablishing the boundaries that keep us from hoisting BB guns and acting like …
Well, like Harmony Korine characters.
“I never set out to shock or offend people,” a disheveled, chain-smoking Korine told me at the New York Film Festival, where “Julien Donkey-Boy” made its U.S. debut. “It’s really simple: I make these movies because they’re the kind of movies I’d like to see, with characters that I want to look at. If someone else was showing me this kind of film, I’d just watch it. But no one’s doing it, so I have to — just to make myself happy.”
Like his unsavory oeuvre (the 25-year-old rabble-rouser wrote “Kids” and wrote and directed “Gummo” and now “Julien Donkey-Boy”) Korine seems to have a knack for pissing people off. His child stars are nihilistic, hedonistic and apathetic. He casts people with actual disabilities and real disfigurements. He indiscriminately intercuts documentary with narrative footage, blurring the lines between dream and reality. He confronts the audience with such unsavory characters as sexually predatory HIV infected teens; cat-killing, sex-buying youngsters; pot-smoking 10-year-olds; toeless Patrick Swayze fans; armless drummers; tap-dancing mothers; chair-wrestling fathers; and — you guessed it — a dead baby (in a pear tree).
Yet to say that Korine’s films work only as exorcisms of antisocial angst would be to shortchange them. By allowing himself to be perceived (and reviled) as an exploiter of the underprivileged and weak, Korine slips us an all-access pass to view these exploitations with impunity. And it’s a pass worth redeeming — never has such a disenfranchised class of people been given such ample, intimate screen time.
“I work really hard to make movies that resonate in such a way that you can’t describe it in words,” says Korine. “Because you’re so used to seeing films and being able to say exactly what it is, and what you saw … and that is just so simplified. I don’t want my films to exist like that.”
We may hate Korine for showing us disadvantaged characters in an unsentimental light (these are no Slingbladed Forrest Rainmen) but, unlike Gump & Co., his characters actually exist. This is exactly what troubles people and makes them question Korine’s motives.
“The blind ice-skating girl in ‘Julien,’ I first saw on an episode of ‘Hard Copy.’ She wanted to be in the Olympics and I had never seen anything like it. It was so amazing. I wanted to do a documentary on her, but then I thought, well, I should put her in the film,” he explains. “Everything in my movies comes from something I’ve seen people do, and then I just ask them to do it in front of the camera.”
Korine is far from a needy brat throwing an attention tantrum. In fact, he finds some attention unwelcome. “Interviews are not my favorite thing. I just want to get to the point where I don’t have to promote myself, where I just make my movie and let it come out and that’s it. A point where I don’t have to explain things.”
But many believe that Korine has a lot of explaining to do. There’s a scene in “Julien Donkey-Boy” where disabled people bust a rhyme, rapping, “I’m a black albino straight from Alabama.” The scene reminds me of an item available in an underground video catalog I saw years ago, “The Kids of Whitney High.” It was a pirated video of a variety show performed by disabled school children, in which they sang, danced, wore headgear and drooled. Available to whatever sicko saw it as $15 worth of hilarity, it, like a dead baby joke, equated one person’s tragedy with another’s entertainment.
Isn’t the underground dissemination of “The Kids of Whitney High” somehow more offensive than Korine’s semi-covert filmmaking tactics? The mainstream media doesn’t think so. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin called “Gummo” the worst film of 1997, adding that “no conceivable competition will match the sourness, cynicism and pretension of Mr. Korine’s debut feature.” The San Francisco Chronicle complained that it “came off like a mean-spirited prank.”
“The Kids of Whitney High” goes too far — those are real people, real children, real feelings on that VHS tape. Korine, too, uses real people, and even further muddies the moral quagmire by having them co-mingle with the types of fictional characters who shoot comatose grandmothers in the foot.
“I think about things in a feeling, the way it feels,” says Korine about his contentious editing. “Like [with 'Julien Donkey-Boy'], the whole movie was improvised. It was just a question of afterwards, with [over 80 hours of] this footage, assembling what worked the best emotionally.”
Separating Korine from the distributors of “The Kids of Whitney High,” then, is a very slight, but very important distinction: While the videographers of “Whitney High” look down on their subjects from a hidden-camera high ground, Korine places himself among his gang of forgottens and reprobates, both as a director and as an actor. As his equals, the characters are granted long, attentive takes, artful, loving photography and a chance to belong in a community, albeit a fictional one. In Harmonyville, they are only as freakish as the next wayward oddball. In Harmonyville, they approach normalcy.
Julien’s appearance is “very scary on the outside. There are elements of violence to him, and it’s so hard to get past that,” says Korine. “But the more you watch and the more you look, there’s a beauty as well, and a kindness.”
Adult America loathes these Spoon River Anthologies of delinquent lethargy, these imaginary neighborhoods of shiftless vagrants. But most of all, adult America disdains Korine’s total disregard of adult America.
Korine speculates that it’s because he tries to stay away from genre films. “The idea of being so restricted seems really retro, like going backwards and being complacent.”
Instead, Korine makes serious art about kids, featuring kids, and using a syntax and film language best understood by kids. Raised on the non-linear storytelling of music videos, the younger audience embraces Korine’s reflection of what they see as a lack of plot, point or direction in their own lives.
“I do think I’m influenced by MTV, but in a negative way,” Korine says. “A lot of it makes me nauseous, and I try to go against it. At the same time, I’m 25 years old, MTV is part of my culture, it’s one of those things I grew up around, so whatever kind of resonated, consciously or unconsciously. I don’t know.”
Next up for the enfant terrible is a stint in the “cinema of cruelty.” Its premise is simple: a hidden camera films Korine pestering and being subsequently beaten up by strangers. As Korine told the New York Times, “My intention was to fight every demographic, but I fought a bouncer who broke my ankle and three ribs, and I got arrested three times.” There is no script, no plot, no real point. Just the cruel, brutal, cathartic, tragicomic release of a classic dead baby joke.
“These are all elements that I’m drawn to,” shrugs Korine, laughing. “I don’t know why. I’m still figuring that out myself.”