“Q: WHY ARE YOUR MOVIES SO HORRIBLE!? A: why is your face like a douche”; “Q: Is Harmony short for Harmonica? A: Yourmommica”; “Q: Are we going to see a lot of titties in the movie? A: of course. thats what lifes about.” These are just a few of the choice responses that Harmony Korine gave in his typo-laden and completely baffling Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread, in which the director was supposedly promoting his new film, Spring Breakers.
Anyone who has seen the video of Korine’s infamous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1997 will know that this isn’t the first time he has given a perplexing and frankly quite odd interview. His performance was such that you can’t tell whether he’s genuinely that strange or if it is some sort of elaborate put-on. In many respects, the same could be said of his cinematic output. Since writing the script for Larry Clarke’s 1995 vérité teen AIDS drama Kids at the age of 19, for which he was hailed as one of the most exciting voices of his generation, Korine has been one of the most divisive figures in American cinema. Spring Breakers, already one of the most talked-about films of 2013, doesn’t look likely to put an end to the debate about whether he is one of the most visionary filmmakers of his time or merely a con-artist peddling provocative for its own sake, meaningless nonsense with pretentions to high art.
The case for the latter is bolstered when you consider just how deranged some of his unreleased film projects sound: one project entitled Fight Harm comprised of footage shot by David Blaine of Korine engaging members of the public in fights that would continue till threat of death. After six fights Korine was hospitalised and was forced to abandon the project. Another unfinished project, which Korine claimed “was going to be my masterpiece,” was called What Makes Pistachio Nuts? and was about a pig named Pistachio and was set during a race war in Florida and featured a boy who would saddle the pig, put adhesive on its feet, climb up walls and throw molotov-cocktails. Korine’s inclination towards provocation is self-evident: One of the most remarkable stories about the making of his first film was that, finding the conditions of the filthy, cockroach-infested houses they were shooting in unbearable, Korine’s film crew forced him to buy them hazmut suits to wear. Finding this offensive, Korine, in a typical act of defiance, chose to wear Speedos and flip-flops “just to piss them off.”
Korine made Gummo (1997), his directorial debut, at just 23 years of age. Set in Xenia, Ohio twenty years after a devastating tornado, the film starred Jacob Reynolds and Nick Sutton, who Korine discovered on a drug prevention documentary about paint-sniffing, as the two adolescent main characters who spend the majority of their time hunting feral cats in order to sell them to a local Chinese restaurant. Korine opted to forgo a traditional linear narrative claiming he wanted to make a different kind of movie. Instead the film is a bizzare and unsettling impressionistic collage of loosely-related vignettes showing various, often disturbing, slices of life.
Gummo is one of those rare films that, whether or not you enjoyed it, leaves an indelible mark due, in part, to the sheer audacity of a 23 year old first-time director choosing to make a work of such originality- absolutely devoid of any points of reference. Far from being a cold exercise in experimentation for its own sake, Gummo possesses a genuine emotional poignancy and exhibited a side of America rarely documented before. The film’s reputation has grown over time: the film hold a score of 33% on Rotten Tomatoes and upon its initial release The New York Times review asserted that it was “the worst film of the year” in the first sentence. In an unusually revealing interview with the Guardian, Korine revealed his irritation at the poor critical reaction: “Americans don’t like films about real America- if you show them something unromanticised, they call it exploitation. Which is how the critics destroyed Gummo.”
Despite critical opprobrium, Gummo won him the patronage of august filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, and Werner Herzog. Writing about the film, Van Sant stated “I feel somewhat the same way that middle aged pro golfers must feel when they watch the twenty-one year old Tiger Woods play golf. They want to go out and play like that too.” Unfortunately, following his debut, it seemed to be a case of diminishing returns for the director. For his sophomore effort Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Werner Herzog, who also starred in the film, told Korine to “Be bold. You’re the last footsoldier in this army.” It looked like that Korine believed the hype and the film turned out to be a hubristic folly. Notable for being the first American Dogme 95 film, Jullien Donkey-Boy showed rare glimpses of what made Gummo so special, but seemed hollow. It seemed that Korine was so in thrall of the idea of being a great filmmaker that he forgot to actually make a great film.
Following an eight year hiatus, in which Korine split from his long-term girlfriend and muse Chloë Sevigny and struggled with heroin addiction, he returned with Mister Lonely (2007). By far his highest-budget and most conventional film to date, Mister Lonely showed none of the youthful effervescence that defined his earliest and best work; at 35 Korine looked to be a creatively spent force. Then, in 2009, Korine returned to his anarchic, back-to-basics roots with Trash Humpers. Disillusioned with the bureaucracy involved in making an expensive film, Korine wanted to make a film in as short a time period as possible. Set in Korine’s hometown of Nashville and shot on distorted VHS tape, the film is a nightmarish version of Jackass which follows four delinquents in grotesque prosthetic masks shrieking and dry humping trash cans.
Trash Humpers is, independent of whether you think it is actually any good, an undeniably powerful film. The problem for Korine though was that there are only so many people you can provoke when making a film on such a small scale: anyone likely to seek it out would be predisposed to, if not liking it, then at least take it seriously as a work of art before declaring it to be pretentious bollocks.
Spring Breakers appears to be a reaction to this and, at 40, Korine has pulled off his greatest coup so far: smuggling an unapologetically esoteric art film into the mainstream. Starring former teen Disney stars Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) as bikini and ski-mask-clad teen bank-robbers alongside James Franco playing a corn-rowed gangster rapper with a score composed by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez (Drive), Spring Breakers has already been heralded as the wildest, most debauched film of 2013.
Speaking about the film, Korine has claimed that he aimed to make a “pop poem” and “wanted the film to be closer to a drug experience- something that had an elevation, a transcendence, and then disappeared.” Not exactly what you’d expect to be playing in multiplexes alongside G.I Joe: Retaliation then. Yet to be released in the UK, anticipation for the film has reached fever pitch. Spring Breakers has already outgrossed all of Korine’s previous films combined in its first weekend of play in the US and has eliciting numerous hand-wringing articles about its questionable morality. It seems that the former enfant terrible of American independent cinema has finally got the reaction he wanted. Whether Spring Breakers turns out to be a masterpiece or just Project X in arthouse clothes remains to be seen, but one thing can’t be denied: Harmony Korine has regained his crown as one of the most vital filmmaker in the business.