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This Is Forty?: The Spiritually Triumphant Films of Harmony Korine

By Patrick James; lead photo by Annabel Mehran on March 18, 2013

 

This Is Forty?: The Spiritually Triumphant Films of Harmony Korine

Whenever you watch a film by Harmony Korine, it’s tempting to try to locate the director therein. Sometimes he’s right there—perpetrating random acts of chaos behind a wrinkled mask in Trash Humpers, or perched on a couch, drunkenly seducing a dwarf in one of Gummo’s tamer vignettes. But where is Korine, himself? Do his own feelings of isolation or experiences in a Tennessee commune inform the refuge for Parisian celebrity impersonators in Mister Lonely?


He won’t answer that. He’ll say he doesn’t see himself in his movies or even want to know anything about himself, that all he’s concerned with seeing in his films is whether they hold true to his singular vision for them, though he doesn’t articulate precisely what that vision entails. 


He’s cagey, sure, but at 40 years old, Korine seems remarkably even-keeled—especially for those who recall the fidgety, giggly, puffy-eyed enfant terrible who trolled The Late Show with David Letterman in the 1990s. The persona on stage seemed so spaced out, so clever, so entertained by himself, that you had to wonder whether he was built for the long haul.


He wasn’t the voice of a generation, per se, because by the ’90s the notion of “one voice” was preposterous—Cobain was already dead when the Korine-penned Kids came out, with Tupac following soon. Plus, Korine’s films were so strange. Grotesque, even. He didn’t speak for everyone; instead he gave voices to people we rarely heard from: the poor, abused, scheming misfits who fill the vignettes of his 1997 directorial debut, Gummo, with its Rust-Belt-meets-Vaudeville-meets-black-metal pathos. Along with 1999’s exploration of mental illness and incest, Julien Donkey-Boy, that first film held a lens to folks who were previously invisible in popular culture—without subjecting them to freak-show-style ridicule. His boldly bizarre oeuvre endeared him to Werner Herzog, Gus Van Sant and Lars Von Trier (if not The New York Times). 


But so here’s where you’re supposed to talk about drugs and jail and how he antagonized passers-by into beating him senseless while David Blaine held a camera, how he got strung-out and burned down a house or two, that the fashion mogul agnès b. flew him to Paris to get sorted but that he was still “rotting from the inside out,” and that it took a South American vision quest and a return to Nashville to get clean and get married and grow up. And even if that all more or less did happen, imposing a tidy narrative like “Harmony grows up” feels a little contrived, no?


Because nothing is conventional with Korine. Certainly not his newest, grandest production, Spring Breakers, in which Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens (as well as Ashley Benson plus Korine’s own wife, Rachel) share the stage with James Franco (doing his best Riff Raff), as well as rapper Gucci Mane and the infamous ATL Twins. It’s a tale of wayward youth, hedonism and bikini-clad robbery, with a Skrillex-infused score that detonates from the opening frame.


How does a one-time advocate of the rule-mandated Dogme 95 alternative cinema movement go on to release an explosion of “pure pop poetry”? Korine phoned FILTER from his Nashville home to explain why he made this film, why he needed to keep Gucci Mane out of prison and the importance of discovering a burning couch in an empty parking lot at 3:00 a.m.


 

photo by Annabel Mehran


Most people know the story of you skating in Washington Square Park during your first semester of school at NYU in the early ’90s, meeting Larry Clark and then writing Kids for him. But when did you know you wanted to make films?


HARMONY KORINE: Well, I always loved Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, just the idea of the performer giving you 
everything, killing themselves to be funny. I loved that the humor was so base and bile and so stripped down to nothing. It was like pure shit. It was perfect… When I was a 
sophomore in high school [in Nashville, Tennessee], I was in a hot tub once and my dad asked me what I wanted to do. I had been into skateboarding, but I knew I wasn’t great at it. And I said, “I think I want to be a director.” That’s like the first kind of conscious articulation of that idea. 


So you moved to your grandma’s apartment in Queens and went to school, but you didn’t last long in class.


Just to learn the most basic things about structure or formatting was really beneficial to me, but I wrote Kids my first semester, and mostly I didn’t pay too much attention. What I liked and what was the best was just spending all that time in the city, sitting in movie theaters all day and media libraries, and hanging out with gypsies. 


So you meet Clark and hand him a VHS tape with your grandma’s phone number on it, and he calls you and asks you to write Kids. What were you most concerned with when writing it?


I just wanted greatness. 


Was it great? 


That’s a good question. I don’t even know. 


Is that a common reaction after you make a film? 


No, it’s easier when it’s my own films. That film was written for Larry, so I always just think of it more specifically as his film. But it was definitely a pivotal movie and it affected a lot of people.


So then how did you feel when you wrote and directed Gummo? Was there pressure that was different than with just writing something? 


I didn’t feel pressure except from myself. I was just bursting. Exploding, really. I was a kid but I was on fire. I had this idea about films in a different way: images coming from all directions, falling from the sky. And I had been holding it all in and I was just so happy and grateful that because of the success of Kids I got a chance to make the film that I wanted to make. 


When you made Gummo and, later, Julien Donkey-Boy, it seems like you had a network of people who were supporting you—from Chloe Sevigny to Lars Von Trier to Werner Herzog to agnès b. Is that how it felt?


There was definitely a small group of people supporting me. Even if those people didn’t know what the fuck I was up to, they believed in me. But as unorthodox as [Gummo] was, the script was even more impenetrable.


Is it important to you to write non-linear films? 


No. Spring Breakers feels linear. But it’s important to me to make movies that have their own kind of logic and a liquid narrative. Something physical, beyond articulation, like a drug experience. [Nothing] where you could just say, “This guy’s good; this guy’s bad; this is what happens, and it’s over.”


 

 

So the meaning of an image onscreen is less important than what it makes you feel?


When you see, like, a couch on fire in an abandoned parking lot at three in the morning, what does that mean? I don’t know what it means, but I can definitely tell you I feel something from it. 


Are you concerned with ideas of isolation or interested in being an outsider?


You mean with the movies? [Laughs] Sure. All my movies have some thematic connection to marginalized characters, outcasts, people on the periphery. 


But does, say, the isolation or underlying sadness of the artists in Mister Lonely—did that come from life experiences? 


I don’t exactly know the answer to that. I’m not exactly sure where anything of mine comes from. I don’t do any type of self-analysis. I try not to know anything about myself, as far as that type of thing goes. 


Why is that? 


I don’t really know. It’s hard for me to say. 


It’s just: You’re fascinated with outsiders, and now you’re making a film with pop starlets. Granted, their characters manage to find the fringes of society, but it’s a departure from, say, Trash Humpers, or the Dogme 95 approach. Were you trying to make 
something spectacular?


I just conceived it like a piece of pop poetry… I had this image of girls in bikinis and pink ski masks with unicorn patches on a white beach holding guns. I wanted the colors to be bursting like an electric neon painting. I liked the idea of a film being like candy-coating, like these girls. And then all the message and the feeling is the residue of that. I told Benoît [Debie, cinematographer behind Enter the Void] that I wanted to light the whole thing with Skittles. I wanted the tone and ambiance to be the star, like you could touch it. Same with the sound: an audio barrage. I wanted the whole film to be experiential from beginning to end, very quick, and then just disappear into the night. To hit you and then evaporate.



Why did you choose these specific actresses, and how did you get them to do the film? 


They just needed to fit the characters and be able to do what the parts demanded. And I loved the idea of working with girls who were primarily known for this whole other world. I liked that it had a dual meaning to it: these girls are of that culture or representative of that dream.


Selena Gomez’s character, Faith, struck me as an allegorical figure testing the waters of sin... At first she seems like the center of the movie, but is she?


In some ways all the girls, to me, are representative of different aspects of one whole person. Faith is like the moral compass. The other girls are already on the edge, so once she leaves, the mania really kicks in.


Was there something intriguing in pairing these young stars with non-actors like Gucci Mane or the ATL Twins? 


Gucci Mane or the ATL Twins are like actors in real life. They are characters. But I never really think about it like actors, non actors, dada dada da. I just look for what they bring to the film. Movies are like chemicals: you take the different chemicals and put them in a bottle and shake it up and document the explosion. I love the idea of the ATL Twins doing a scene with Selena Gomez or Gucci doing a scene with James Franco. 


Was James Franco’s character, Alien, inspired by Riff Raff?


Alien is an American archetype: white gangster, living by the beach, drug dealer. He’s an amalgamation of people I knew growing up in Nashville back in the day. I’m friends with Riff, and Riff was one of the people that correspond visually to the character.


You’ve said Gucci Mane is a hero of yours. Why?


He’s just one of my favorite people. The first time I spoke to him, he was in jail. And his manager [at the time], Coach K, introduced us over the phone. I think he was gonna be out in a couple months. I told him I was “putting this movie together and I’ve got this part for you and when you get out of jail, just stay out of jail, because I need to you to do this.”


You’ve long said you’re not concerned with the reception of your films. Do those feelings ever waver?


I always felt that I had a purpose and that my purpose and my intentions were pure. I never wanted anything to dilute that. At the same time, I always thought of myself as a commercial director, and some of my films were commercial failures but spiritual triumphs. 


And there’s so much that’s out of your control anyway? 


You make the film, you write it, you direct it, you put it out into the world. The way it’s interpreted is beyond me. And even if I could control it, I wouldn’t, because I enjoy the response. I enjoy not knowing and seeing where shit falls. I’m just devoted to this dream, this idea, this singular vision. Nothing else really matters to me. With the new movie, on top of all that, I really wanted it to be entertaining. I don’t enjoy talking too deeply about [my films]. People get too caught up with “getting it,” like they’re riddles or something. I don’t ever want someone to feel like they have to qualify themselves. 


Someone shouldn’t need “The Harmony Korine Film Companion Reader” to watch your movies?


I would hope not. I mean, if someone writes one of those, that’s cool, but I’m not so deep, myself.


WHY YOU ACTIN' 'SPICIOUS?:

James Franco On Harmony Korine


The mercurial artist James Franco first met Harmony Korine at an art opening in New York a few years ago, but their mutual appreciation (and epistolary relationship) goes back even further. Although Spring Breakers isn’t their first collaboration—Korine contributed to Franco’s Rebel show at MOCA last year—it’s by far their biggest. Here, the Oscar-nominated actor explains how Korine works and what it’s like to embrace pop culture while giving it the finger. 


How did you get involved with Harmony Korine? 


James Franco: It goes back to when I first saw Kids and I was in high school, years before I was acting professionally. Years later, we met over email and he sent me the treatment for Spring Breakers. He wanted it to be a Britney Spears video mixed with a Gaspar Noé film. I said, “I’m on board.” Then he went to Daytona [during] spring break two years ago to be around real spring breakers, but I guess they drove him crazy, so he got out of there and went to stay at a golf course where there was a small person wrestling contest or something. Then he wrote the script in a few weeks—he writes very fast.


I hear he sent you photos and videos of hip-hop personalities like Riff Raff and Dangerous, who’s from St. Petersburg and is in the film, to help you create a voice for your character. Was it hard to disappear into this role?  


Harmony can create environments that support extreme characters, so my performance wouldn’t be over the top. I knew it was going really well when we shot a scene in the strip club when Archie, Gucci Mane’s character, and I confront each other. It seemed like there were a lot of actual scary, tough people in that scene. And a bunch of people said to me, “Yeah, you’re pulling it off.” So I felt like it was working.


You had to show emotional vulnerability, but not enough to look weak in front of everyone.


Yeah. Every scene that humanizes Alien helps to prevent the character from becoming a cartoon. 


Is Harmony particularly attentive to that: highlighting absurd characters without making fun of them? 


He’s really good at having his cake and eating it too. This is a movie that’s a critique of pop culture, but it also uses all the flashy, exciting things about pop culture. It’s embracing it while also giving it the finger.


Which is interesting, given that your co-stars are to some extent part of the culture that’s being critiqued.


Harmony was very smart to cast them. They were good actresses and gave great performances. And because they had done so much work of a certain kind, they were very excited to do something different and really threw themselves into the roles. It’s not as if the actresses are winking at the audience in the movie and saying, “I’m Selena Gomez and I’m a pop culture icon.” She gives a very good, contained performance. But there is this extra bit of significance—they bring their history or former selves to the movie. That history clashing with Harmony’s history is like a culture smash, so it makes everything just a little more electric, because of all those currents being crossed.  F


Spring Breakers premieres nationwide this Friday, March 22.


Spring Breakers production stills courtesy A24

All others courtesy of Harmony Korine


 

This article is from FILTER Issue 51