By Patrick James; lead photo by Annabel Mehran on March 18, 2013
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.
This article is from FILTER Issue 51