by Rebecca M. Alvin
It is difficult to imagine a filmmaker who more clearly embodies the concept of “filmmaking on the edge” than Harmony Korine. He is a filmmaker of intelligence and originality. His work is alternately exalted or reviled, depending on whom you talk to. There is no question, many of the images he has given us since his directorial debut, Gummo (1997), have been startling, brutally real, and horrifying–a fact made all the more disturbing because his work so often involves children and youth.
Gummo and his later film Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) are provocative works of art, but they struck a nerve with film fans and critics because of Korine’s refusal to submit to the tyrannical insistence on cohesive narrative structures. It’s an odd predicament: no one would insist that a painter must create figurative or narrative works, and yet if we agree that film is an art form, why is there such insistence on classical narrative structure, clarity of meaning, and an easy viewing experience? Does everything always need to be so clearly spelled out, or is there room for ambiguity, for a visceral experience that defies conscious reality and logic?
The uncomfortable imagery, unfamiliar structures, and overall doomed vision of American youth are hallmarks of Korine’s work. But what is really striking about this filmmaker, and I suspect, the reason he was chosen as this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge honoree at the Provincetown International Film Festival, is his ability to make films that stay with you, even when you don’t want them to. Korine creates scenes that are not the building blocks of narrative plots, but rather tell a story by themselves: like audio-visual snapshots strung together over time to create an overall sense of his characters’ lives.
His work is definitely not for everyone. It is difficult, avant-garde, and even painful to watch sometimes, but after 100 years of classical Hollywood filmmaking, and a recent trend in moviemaking that centers primarily on technology worship, Korine’s voice rings out as one of the few real alternatives. Grainy images, use of formats like VHS, casting non-actors who live in the margins of society, and pointed critiques of the business-as-usual methodology in mainstream filmmaking are all key components of Korine’s body of work.
Korine first came to our attention in 1995 with Larry Clarke’s controversial film Kids, which Korine wrote at the age of 19, reportedly based on the everyday experiences of kids in his skateboarding circle. The film was brutally honest, and its focus on kids engaging in sexual activities in a completely irresponsible way during the AIDS years, caused an uproar.
He appeared several times on Late Night with David Letterman after Kids came out and was received as “pleasantly odd,” although that label barely scratches the surface. Although more recent interviews show a less jittery, more coherent Korine, his ideas, as displayed on film and in his book A Crack Up at the Race Riots (1998), are as eccentric as ever.
Despite harsh criticisms, Korine has garnered praise from other filmmakers as diverse as Bernardo Bertolucci and Werner Herzog, and he has built a cult following based on the very same things that the mainstream hate about him. Critics who understand how to look at his work see it through the lens of neo-surrealism. Korine’s work just might be what Surrealism founder André Breton would call the quintessential surrealist act: that of “dashing into the street, revolver in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”
French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard has said, “Cinema is truth 24 frames-per-second.” Korine seems to understand this, as his work is very much concerned with truth. Korine’s truth is troubling and dark and it makes people uncomfortable. Gummo features a pair of adolescent boys who spend their days killing cats and sniffing glue in a depressed Ohio town. His short video triptych The Diary of Anne Frank Part II horrified those who saw it in 1997 for its transgressive content, including a disabled man simulating masturbation, the burial of a dead dog, and heavy metal kids vomiting on a Bible. Julien Donkey-Boy revolves around a young schizophrenic and his frighteningly dysfunctional family. His comparatively lighter 2008 film Mister Lonely follows a group of celebrity impersonators in Scotland. In 2010, he returned to his core with Trash Humpers, a film that features (as the name suggests) a trio of aged misfits who hump trash, torture dolls, and engage in all sorts of bizarre behaviors.
Certainly, Korine’s most recent film Spring Breakers is already generating heated debate, although early reviews suggest it is going to be one of his more critically successful films, at least here in the U.S. Perhaps he has altered his approach, which he refers to as “mistakist cinema.” Or maybe the use of bona fide Hollywood actors, like James Franco and Selina Gomez, makes his nightmarish tale of vapid youth culture more palatable. But maybe audiences are actually ready for this kind of film now–one that as Korine put it at a press conference in Toronto, “leaves something in the margins of the undefined.”
Harmony Korine will receive his Filmmaker on the Edge Award and participate in an interview with John Waters at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. at 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 22. His new film Spring Breakers will be shown at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 20 at the Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd floor; Kids will be shown at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St., on Friday, June 21 at 5:30 p.m.; and Mister Lonely will screen at 10 p.m. Friday, June 21 at the Waters Edge Cinema. For tickets and information visit ptownfilmfest.org.