A Beginner's Guide To The Films Of Harmony Korine, Part 1

There are three categories of people based on their reactions to Harmony Korine's latest film and future cult classic, Spring Breakers: those that loved its chaotic storytelling and dark themes, those that asked "what the hell was that about?," and those that have never even heard of the film. I am leading the charge of the first type; I was enthralled by the filming techniques, ambiance, and downward spiral into madness. This was a film that stayed with me several days after, and I have done a lot of pontificating on the internet about it. I've read and mulled over several theories including a feminist interpretation of the loss of innocence, a parallel to the Greek myth of the Manaed, and an ode to the decay of civilization. Then again, when I love a film, I want to read about it like crazy.

Now that Spring Breakers has officially made is mark on our cultural lexicon, and is very likely to inspire many Halloween costumes this year, it's worth noting that this is writer/director Harmony Korine's most conventional attempt at film making in his career. Conventional in the sense that there is a linear narrative and characters have a place in the real world (well, in the first half of the film, anyway). Certainly, as compared to mainstream movies and box office top fives, it is anything but Harmony Korine has never been concerned with "typical" storytelling in his films, and ostensibly doesn't seem to care about critical praise. Perhaps enjoying Spring Breakers has prompted you to check out Korine's earlier films. I feel it is my duty to help you through this journey, because you could really tread in some bizarre territory.

Kids (1995)

Kids is Korine's first film and probably best known although it's been seventeen years since its release. Nineteen-year-old Korine penned the screenplay about a day in the life of teenagers living in New York City. They drink, have lots of unprotected sex, smoke, fight, steal, get diagnosed as HIV positive, and prey on deflowering young virgins. Kids made an impact for two major reasons: one, it showed teenagers actually doing those things, which made the MPAA award the dreaded NC-17 rating. Okay, fine, that was to be expected.

Secondly, independent films were not as easily accessed by your average moviegoer and unconventional filming techniques and storytelling were not often seen in mainstream films. Kids does have a story and a plot, but the film was largely a collection of uncut vignettes about various interactions and behaviors. The lack of editing provided a "I dare you to watch" type of vibe, because there was a lot that was uncomfortable but the action continues well after the point of first discomfort. For instance, there is a violent brawl in Washington Square Park that seems to never end. (Ten years later, I attended graduate school at NYU and thought of that scene when I walked through the park daily.)

Something that struck my fifteen-year-old self was that actors were not pretty movie stars. In fact, this fascinated me. Telly, played by discovered-off-the-street skateboarder Leo Fitzpatrick, was a skinny-emaciated, with crooked teeth and a speech impediment, yet was a fierce seducer (and rapist) of twelve and thirteen-year-old girls. This was odd, yet fascinating to me. As a fifteen year old, this movie scared me. Not because I was scared of kids doing bad things (although, everything done in this film was so far from my every day life) but because such horrible, extreme behavior was being depicted in a movie, and the viewer was forced to watch. Not just the gore, but watching a girl (the film debut of Chloe Sevigny) receive the news that she is HIV positive, for example.

Surprisingly, Kids does result in a loose morality tale, warning the viewers about the dangers of unprotected sex, although it barely makes a difference because the characters have engaged in too much scary behavior for them to ever go back. Perhaps this was also made as a wake up call to parents about what their kids are up to. I'm hesitant to say that's what Korine intended, because he seems like anything but a writer of PSAs.

Kids is on my list of favorite movies ever, not just because of its style, but because it reminds me of a New York City that no longer exists, and the image that I held as a child growing up on Long Island. I didn't want to be doing the things these kids were doing, but I was excited to see what I could be doing had I made different life choices. It's during a time when the city always has a threat of danger, before it became filled with Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyonds, and hoards of twentysomethings drinking gin from mason jars.

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. And get your hands on the soundtrack as well.

Gummo (1997)

After my fascination with Kids, I anxiously awaited the opportunity to see Korine's next work. At this point, I fancied myself a more sophisticated film fan, not satisfied with what was in the theaters. Not coincidentally, I also started college so I didn't have to settle with what my parents brought home from the VHS rental place. And Gummo is certainly not something you'd bring home for a family movie night.

Gummo depicts a devastatingly poor, rural town in Ohio who has recovered from a tornado that killed/destroyed much of the town. The film follows several residents of the town, namely Tummler and Solomon, two kids who aimlessly ride around on their bikes, encountering other weird characters of the town. They spy on teen girls through their window, watch their peers torture a cat, and encounter a father offering his retarded daughter in prostitution. Drunk rednecks beat each other up in a run down house. Characters are morally absent, disgusting, and lack no self awareness. There is no plot, just a series of interconnected scenes. Child actor Jacob Reynolds was cast for his unique look (almost deformed, or inbred, in a way) which in itself is a main element of the film. We're led to believe this character is worth following, that he is unique for some reason, and his genetics sure attest to that.

As an eighteen year old, I was furious with this film. It seemed, again, that it was made as sheer exploitation, for shock value. As a viewer, I resented having to watch these disgusting people living shitty lives, who lacked any intelligence or desire to change. Of course, I was also annoyed that I watched a whole film that had no plot whatsoever. [There's also a fair amount of animal abuse in the film, just as a warning.]

I rewatched Gummo recently, as both an act of masochism and also to see if my sophisticated film interpretation could find something from this film. No surprise, I still disliked it immensely. But, I could interpret it in a more meaningful way: it paints a landscape and a tone, and provides some thoughtful, intentional mise-en-scene and character studies. It's more of performance art than a movie. It also made me realize that Harmony Korine made this film as a "fuck you" to conventional cinema, almost daring everyone to criticize it. Watching Gummo is not an enjoyable experience, enduring it is a rite of passage for film buffs.

Also worth mentioning that Werner Herzog has often praised a scene in which a piece of bacon is taped to the wall above a bathtub. That's a good metaphor for the film.

Is it worth watching? It's not so much a pleasant viewing a experience, but maybe you want to up your indie film cred.

Julien Donkey- Boy (1999)

This is real rough film to watch. And I'm just talking about literally watching the screen, because the film was shot on MiniDV tape, transferred onto 16mm film, and finally blown-up on 35mm film, then transferred to film, so it's like watching scrambled cable channels. Oh yeah, and it's also hard to watch because of, you guessed it by now, loose plot and long scenes where things just happen. Ewan Bremmer is a schizophrenic, and lives with his dysfunctional family. He wanders the streets talking randomly to himself and others, and some steady cam work and unique camera angles help to portray the disorganization of the character's thoughts. The film also uses a slideshow-esque series of still shots, which is actually an interesting idea and adds variety, but it certainly doesn't cancel out the rest of the viewing experience.

Julien Donkey-Boy is frustrating, because it's got Harmony Korine's stamp of the weird and unusual, but it's almost not weird enough, so it evokes no real feelings except wondering when it will be over. As compared to Gummo which was actively unpleasant, Julien Donkey-Boy just felt repetitive and meaningless. The one bright spot is Chloe Sevigny, indie film darling, and then girlfriend of Korine (of course she is, right?). The thing I love about her is that no matter how bizarre, terrible, or unconventional the film is, she brings a sense of realness and clarity to her character. (How good is she in Big Love?) Still, she can't save this film. This movie defines the term "phoning it in."

Should you watch it? No. Not even for the cred.

Next week: we'll continue our journey through the Harmony Korine oeuvre and believe me, it just gets worse (or better, depending on how you look at it).

Go here for Part 2.

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