A Beginner's Guide To The Films Of Harmony Korine, Part 2

Since the release of Spring Breakers, you may or may not have heard of writer/director/auteur Harmony Korine. Since Spring Breakers was an amazing film (fact), you may be interested in his previous work. I'm here to guide you through his career. Last week, we looked at Kids, Gummo, and Julien Donkey-Boy, and it just gets better/worse from here, depending how you look at it.

Ken Park (2002)

For reasons that I can't discern (i.e., Wikipedia didn't elaborate), Korine and his Kids director and collaborator Larry Clark had a falling out. However, Clark still completed Ken Park with Korine's screenplay. Korine may have not been intricately involved in the making of the movie, but his mark of young people acting abhorrently is all over this movie.

Ken Park was never officially released anywhere, except for a few film festival screenings. And you know what? It's probably for the best. Ken Park is, well, I'm not even sure how to describe it. A hot mess? Aimless? Unlikable characters? Stories that don't need to be told? Unnecessarily sexually gratuitous? Exploiting teens sexually? Answer: all of the above. I nabbed myself a copy because I am a rabid fan of some Larry Clark films (1999's true crime film Bully and of course, Kids), but I wish I could erase this from his oeuvre. And my mind.

!-- more -->Ken Park resembles an anthology film, with three different stories being told about three different teenagers. I say resembles because the stories are very loosely related. Teenager Stephen and his father fight constantly; his father puts him down for being unambitious and lazy. His pregnant mother enables the father and just sits idly by. One night, his father enters his room at night and sexually assaults him, and Stephen beats him up and leaves. And thus ends Steven's journey in this film.

Shawn is a punk-esque skateboarding kid who is having a secret sexual affair with his girlfriend's suburban housewife mom. He performs graphic oral sex (believe me, it's way more uncomfortable than arousing) on her while she's in the house folding laundry. Shawn is obsessed with this older woman, who clearly is in control of these relations. Oh, and also, it's rape. His teen girlfriend's family accepts Shawn and often has him partake in family dinners, and the wife does her best to hide it from her husband. And... that's it.

Peaches is an only child raised by her single, fundamentalist father who showers her with nothing but love and praise because she is so "innocent and pure." Her father walks in on her with a boy from school, who she has tied to her bed and has proceeded to perform oral sex on. Her father goes berserk, beating the boy almost to death, and forcing Peaches to engage in an incestuous wedding ceremony with her father, in some sort of messed up way to keep her purity. Peaches's story had the most closure, however horrifying.

Finally, Tate is a mentally disturbed teenager who lives with his grandparents, who are nothing but loving. Tate is violently abusive to them without remorse. He also engages in auto-erotic asphyxiation (again, very uncomfortable and in no way arousing for the audience), and ultimately bludgeons his grandparents with a knife while they sleep. The end.

The stories do not intersect at all, except at the end when Peaches, Shawn, and Claude engage in a threesome at one of their houses, spouting some supposed words of wisdom and musings on their life that are not at all coherent or relevant to anything we've seen. Again, the sex is graphic but hardly erotic because although all the actors were of age at the time of filming, they look incredibly young. They finally recount the death of Ken Park, a mutual friend of theirs who shot himself at a skate park because his girlfriend became pregnant. We see nothing of the titular character except showing up at the skate park and putting a gun to his head. Finally, the end.

I'm not against watching graphic sex or violence in a movie, especially if it adds to the film or has cinematic value, but Ken Park just feels exploitative . After Kids, Larry Clark was accused of exploiting teens in his movies, so it's almost like he did this film as a response to prove that the critics were right. The stories of these kids didn't need to be told. There's no insight, no resolution, no changes in characters' essence. We learn nothing of them, learn no lesson, don't gain visual aesthetic from watching their stories. Believe me, I don't need a clear narrative or traditional storytelling in movies, but there's nothing special about the acting, directing, or cinematography that makes this compelling either.

To Korine's credit, I can see the idea of this anthology to be stronger as a series of short stories, illustrating the landscape of boredom among the teenagers in central California, the expectations of suburban life, and in written form may provide more character insight. Alas, this was not work-shopped in an MFA program, but committed to film, which luckily, not many will have to experience.

Should you see it? A thousand times no. It's not released anywhere on DVD or online, so don't even worry about it.

Mister Lonely (2007)

At this point, Harmony Korine had not released a film in five years. Here's the story I'm making up (not verified). His other films were anything but commercially and critically successful, and would only get support and funding for writing a more conventional film. My research (Wikipedia) indicates that he was not happy with this film, both during filming and with the results. This was also co-written with his brother.

The film centers on a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, played wonderfully by Diego Luna (who is also a skilled dancer), who is lonely and unfulfilled by performing his craft only for street change. By chance, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by the always amazing Samantha Morton) who invites him back to her commune in the Scottish Highlands where she lives with other celebrity impersonators, including Abraham Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, Buckwheat, James Dean, and the Pope. Here, he finds his community as they work to put together the world's best variety show. Marilyn and he fight their attraction for each other while she also deals with an abusive husband. However, after she hangs herself after the show is a failure, Michael returns to Paris and starts to live as himself and not an impersonator.

I can imagine how this sounded as a pitch for a movie. Pretty great, right? Charmingly indie? Quirky? Sure. Sadly, it doesn't work in practice. There's not much stake for the characters, and although I am certainly capable of suspension of reality, but there was no sense of purpose of why these characters lived together, other than for the purpose of providing Michael with the experience of living with them. The characters were only given surface-level introductions, so there was no connection or no stakes raised for them. The idea itself is a sort of magical realism, expecting the audience to suspend disbelief (Why do these impersonators all live together? Are they ever out of character?), but the story plods on without any real effort made for the audience to invest. There's an ongoing conflict about whether to shoot their heard of sheep because they are diseased, which, you know, means something.

Despite being known for purposely making films that defy the traditional movie aesthetic, this film shows that he can do those things exceedingly well. The cinematography is the highlights of the film, showcasing the Scottish Highlands and the contrast of characters in colorful, unique costumes. Shots of the interior of the castle are stunning. Still, that can't make up for a superficial connection with the story.

There was a secondary storyline that was intriguing, but just seemed out of place. A nun accidentally falls from a plane during a food drop, and miraculously survives. The rest of the nuns start jumping from planes to experience the miracle, which provides for some shots of skydiving nuns with pseudo-philosophical voice-overs. In a bout of irony worthy of a hit Alanis Morrisette single, they prepare to travel to the Vatican to meet with the Pope about their miracle, they all perish in a plane crash. SYMBOLISIM! IRONY!

The film seems sluggish and going through the motions. It's sad for this sake, and not really because of the character's so-called journey. Again, this movie makes me feel as if Korine's visions may actually work better in the written form, and I wonder if he has any aspirations for producing literature, which I would gladly read.

Trash Humpers (2009)

Allow me to school you about the "found object" movement of Modern Art, which I am qualified to do since I was three classes away from an Art History minor in college. Found object art is when someone takes a pre-existing object from the real world, which has little or no meaning, but puts it in the context of art (i.e., displays it in a gallery) so then its very presence makes it the art. The art becomes more than the object, it's a concept. Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" is an exemplary piece of found object art. I see much of Harmony Korine's films like a found object: the quality of it is negligible because it is presented as a film. The quality or purpose is not as important, because it is presented as an indie film and there is justification for finding meaning and interpretation.

Such is the case with Trash Humpers, Let me first explain what it is. Believe me, this is not a lie: three people wear masks and wigs that portray them as senior citizens. Two men wear a contraption that makes them look as if they are joined in the head by a large growth. They go to dumpsters and trash containers and literally hump them. They force each other to eat pancakes covered in dish soap. They destroy electronics. They dance the jig and do yoga poses. They have nonsensical conversations. They fellate trees. For 85 minutes. To top it all off, it's filmed on VHS, making it appear as the worst found footage film ever.

If there ever was a fuck you to the art form, it's this. Korine explains that he made this as a reflection on growing up in Nashville among vagrants and peeping toms. Using the found object theory, the art comes not from the aesthetic of watching it, but perhaps from the visceral reaction viewers will have when watching this. It's a type of performance art, more for the performers and for the viewer. It's a notch in the culture snob's belt for seeing this and for him for making it.

It's actually shocking that Spring Breakers was the next film that he made, considering it is the most commercial. Perhaps he needed to make Trash Humpers to get it out of his system before going too commercial.

Worth watching: Are you crazy?

Lotus Community Workshop (2012)

This is a 22-minute vignette that is part of the anthology film, The Fourth Dimension, produced by Vice.com (you can watch it here). It is worth mentioning here because it is definitely worth knowing about (and can easily be viewed online). If Saturday Night Live were to make a parody sketch of a Harmony Korine film (if only), it would be Lotus Community Workshop. That's to say that it has all the elements of a Harmony Korine film (neon lights, a rambling diatribe, a small unsophisticated town, questionable morals, mundane activities filmed as important, etc.). These are things he can do really, really well.

The scene is a neon-decorated roller rink in Anytown, USA. Hector, played by Val Kilmer, is introduced as a motivational speaker selling his way of life. Val Kilmer, looking very much like a Val Kilmer who has let himself go, spouts rhetoric about changing his life, punctuated by the bleep-boop sounds of old video games, provided by the house DJ. They are unrelated, but put together, it never stops being great. Intercut are scenes of Kilmer riding his bike at night around the deserted town, trying to convert the locals. He meets up with a corn-rowed Rachel Korine, real life wife of Harmony and future co-star of Spring Breakers, where they wander a video rental store deciding what to rent. They decide on a video game, which they play in silence at his well-off home. Are the two scenes unrelated? Maybe. Maybe the juxtaposition has meaning. It's hard to tell, and the stark differences is what Harmony Korine does best. It's tempting to make meaning of this, but even if you can't it's visually pleasing and somehow the characters are worth trying to figure out, at the very least.

Is it worth watching? Sure, it's even just as long as it needs to be without getting belabored.

There are only a mere few of his films that I would objectively say are "good," but there is definitely something fascinating about the personality of Harmony Korine, and it's entertainment in itself to see what he does next. If Spring Breakers is any indication of the direction he is going, I am on board and will be the first in line on opening weekend. Korine has joined Lars Von Trier in filmmakers I love to hate the most.

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