Friday, March 22, 2013

Why I Never Miss a Harmony Korine Film (Even Though I Have Yet to Like One)

The film of the moment – being discussed by seemingly every film critic in America – in undeniably Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. For reasons that are unclear to me, even though the film opened in limited release last week and goes semi-wide across America this week, it doesn’t open in Canada AT ALL until next week – at which point I hope to see it, although that depends on how wide it goes. Since I cannot discuss Spring Breakers yet, I thought I’d look back at Korine’s other feature films so far. I haven’t seen his (many) shorts, but I have seen his four features before Spring Breakers – Gummo (1997), julien-donkey boy (1999), Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2009). The only one I have come close to really liking is julien donkey-boy – and I pretty much loathed Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers. So why then do I get excited at the prospect of a new film by Korine? The answer is simple – no matter what I think of him or his movies, they are definitely one of a kind.

Korine first broke into movies writing the nihilistic screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) – which to me remains the best film Korine has ever been involved with. Korine wrote about the world he knew in New York – bored teenagers who do nothing but drink, do drugs, have sex and beat people up. It is a shocking film – but it should be. Korine also wrote the screenplay for Clark’s Ken Park (2002), although he wrote the screenplay years before the film was made, and had nothing really to do with making the movie. As that film has never really been available in North America, I have not seen it.

When Korine was 23 years old, he made Gummo. The film won prizes at the Rotterdam and Venice film festivals – and earned raves from filmmakers as varied as Jean Luc-Godard, Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog. The film was also pretty much despised by American critics – and it’s easy to see why. Gummo is an undeniably ugly film. Korine’s style in the film is harsh – the film was shot on video, and looks every bit as ugly as that sounds. The film has no real plot, but centers on the desperate residents of Xenia, Ohio – a town still affected by a hurricane that hit it in the 1970s. It seems the only people left in town are psychopaths and the mentally ill. Through the course of the movie, we’ll see two teenage psychos murder a lot of helpless neighborhood cats (in a scene near the end, they’ll hold one of these cats up to the audience, in one of the more deliberate attempts in the movie to shock). We’ll also see such things as eating a disgusting candy bar that dropped into dirty bathwater, men beating a folding chair for some reason, Chloe Sevigny pulling duct tape off her nipples, the long forgotten Linda Mantz (Days of Heaven), doing a soft shoe routine in a filthy basement and a woman with down’s syndrome pimped out a prostitute.

I have no idea what ANY of this adds up, or what it is supposed to add up to. Critics rightly called out Korine for doing things simply for shock value – he has done that in every movie so far, and from what I hear about Spring Breakers, I expect more of the same. But they also call out Korine for what they see as him “faking realism” – since he cast professional actors, and shot the movie in Tennessee rather than Ohio.

I don’t quite get this complaint. Surely, if Korine wanted to fool us into thinking that there really was a town as miserable as the Xenia, Ohio he shows, he could have easily shot the movie in Ohio and used non-professional actors. Had he done that, the reviews probably would have been a lot nicer – they would have praised him for capturing the real pain and suffering with an unblinking eye. But I have to think that Korine knew that going in – and that part of his point is that he is faking the realism. What’s his point? I admit, I have no idea, but I think he probably has one. I didn’t much like Gummo, have no desire to ever see it again, but it is unquestionably the film Korine wanted to make.

His best film as a director was his sophomore effort – julien donkey-boy (1999). In that film, he uses the rules of the then en vogue Dogme 95 filmmakers from Denmark (led by Lars von Trier), although as Roger Ebert points out in his review, Korine does admit to cheating on several aspects – since all props were supposed to be found on scene, and he imported a can of cranberries from a grocery store. And how Chloe Sevigny isn’t actually pregnant, but just has a pillow under her shirt (but said pillow, was found on scene.

The film isn’t much prettier than Gummo was, but it is much better – because as ugly as the characters may be, they are actual characters this time around, unlike Gummo, and they actually do grow and change in certain way during the course of the film. The film’s title character is played by Ewan Bremmer, who is schizophrenic, and hence the movie certainly has an unreliable point of view. What actually happens in the movie? What does he just imagine?

Werner Herzog plays the title character’s father – an outwardly cruel man, who belittles his daughter – Chloe Sevigny – in scenes that are shocking, funny and sad all at the same time. The film still has moments in which Korine is trying to shock the audience – a miscarriage and everything that comes after – and yet it is built around its characters. The film is undeniably a challenging one – not completely successful, perhaps not successful at all – but once again shows Korine going for broke. Again, I don’t know if I would describe julien donkey-boy as a good movie – I certainly cannot think of too many people I would actually recommend the film to – but once again, it is precisely the film Korine wanted to make.

It took Korine 8 years to follow-up julien donkey-boy with another feature (there was a nervous breakdown in between) – and that was Mister Lonely (2007) – a film I completely loathed. The film was about a commune in the Scottish Highlands, that is inhabited by celebrity impersonators – oh, and it also features nuns jumping out of an airplane with no parachutes and landing, unscathed, on the ground. My blog wasn’t running at the time, but I was writing reviews and this what I had to say about the film then:

“The commune, which is not the paradise that Michael hoped it would be. Marilyn’s husband is Charlie Chaplin, but he is hardly a lovable scamp, but a cruel, manipulative man. Abraham Lincoln swears constantly. James Dean, for some reason, tells jokes. Sammy Davis Jr. tap dances. Madonna doesn’t really do anything. The Pope and The Queen sit around. Shirley Temple is adorable. Buckwheat is still a racist stereotype. The Three Stooges screw everything up. And, for some reason, Little Red Riding Hood is running around.

I’m sure Korine has a point to make in all of this somewhere. And I’m sure it has to do with the culture of celebrity, which has become a sort of religion for some, although it remains empty, just like the nuns falling out of the plane. But watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that it was all a waste. Diego Luna does a decent Michael Jackson –especially when he’s dancing – but the rest of the impersonators don’t even come close. Are they not supposed to? Why are they living the way they do? What do they get from it all? And where are Buckwheat’s parents, and how does a kid that young even know who Buckwheat is? And why the hell are the eggs singing? (yes, there are singing eggs, no, I have no idea why).”

No, I still have no idea why there were singing eggs, and I still have no idea precisely why Korine made this film – what made him feel like he had to make this film. What is clear, as it was in Gummo and julien donkey-boy is that Korine doesn’t think much of our modern day culture – he views it as shallow, and he has a point. But why he felt the need to address it like he does in Mister Lonely, I have no idea. Still, I will say this for the third time, although Mister Lonely is, to me, a god awful film, it is still the film Korine wanted to make.

Which brings us to Trash Humpers (2009). The film made my “worst” list in 2010 (when it was released), and nothing has changed my mind on that. In a way, Trash Humpers can be viewed as a sequel to Gummo – this isn’t a film about teenagers doing destructive things, but old people doing destructive thing. But they aren’t really old people – they are people like Korine and his wife – in deliberately bad old age makeup and masks. As the title suggests, they quite literally spend much of the movie humping trash. Unless they are giving a blow job to a tree branch. The film was shot on VHS, to make the whole thing look even worse than it otherwise would. Mission accomplished.

I hated Trash Humpers. It was boring and repetitive in the extreme, and I’m sorry, I didn’t get much out of the experience. And yet, I still said the following two things in my extremely negative review:

“While I somewhat admire the fact that Korine made precisely the film he wanted to make - I cannot really say that it is an experience I ever want to go through again”


“Korine is a real filmmaker, and a real artist. To me, julien-donkey boy, with its weird performances and style remains his best film. He is a unique filmmaker, with a strange vision of the world around him.”

You’re sensing a pattern here, and you’re right. To bring this post back to its title, the reason why I will never miss a Harmony Korine film, even if he hasn’t made a film I’ve really liked, and certainly not a film I would ever want to watch a second time is simple – Korine is one of a kind. He is a real artist and he makes precisely the films he wants to make. So many films today are interchangeable. And too many filmmakers don’t take any chances whatsoever. Korine constantly takes chances, and no one else would make the films he makes. There is a reason for that, of course, but Korine doesn’t care what that reason is. He doesn’t follow trends – he just makes whatever the hell he wants.

That is why I am so fascinated by Spring Breakers – and why I cannot wait to see it. Yes, Korine is making a movie with movie stars – James Franco – and former Disney stars – Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. And yet, I also know that the film itself, no matter what it’s like on the surface, will still be Korine’s. That he didn't just cast movie stars for commercial appeal, but because he's got something else up his sleeve (not having seen the film, I have no idea what that is - but I cannot wait to try and figure it out). He is a real artist – even if I haven’t much cared for his art so far. But every artist has detractors. I hope Spring Breakers will be the film I always thought Korine could make. He's certainly kept me waiting awhile.

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