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Surfin' USA: The Films of Harmony Korine

From "Kids" to "The Beach Bum," Harmony Korine has been drawn to the freaks and outsiders of America.
Greg Cwik
The Beach Bum
Early in his career, Harmony Korine was drawn to freaks—the aberrant and anomalous, the people who live (often badly) on the periphery of the mainstream. Hailing from Tennessee, he seemed to be saying, “Gooble gobble, one of us.” (“See, what people don’t understand is, we choose to live like freaks,” a man says in Trash Humpers.) At the age of 19, Korine wrote the script for Larry Clark’s notorious Kids (1995), which concerns a freckle-faced, HIV-positive skateboarder with a penchant for having unprotected sex with virgins. The film was met with reverence and revulsion, and launched Korine’s career. Two years later, he released his debut feature as a director, Gummo, which is about two teens (Jacob Reynolds and Nick Sutton) who live in a tornado-ravaged city in Ohio. Korine wanted to portray the kind of life he knew as a child. It’s a scabrous film of vignettes that recall Mark Twain, yet more horrific—a montage of stupidity done in the face of unrelenting boredom: skinheads pummel each other senselessly, people shave their eyebrows, handicapped children sing eerie songs, kidsrecount tales of abuse to mirthless ears. The film was heavily improvised, right down to its vacillating film stock (it was shot by Jean-Yves Escoffier), which gives the feeling of a town in perpetual flux but doomed to always stay the same. “If an actor is a crack smoker, let him go out between takes, smoke crack, and then come back and throw his refrigerator out the window,” Korine told Mike Kelley, for Filmmaker Magazine, in 1997. (Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay was a producer of Gummo.) “Let people feel they can do whatever they want with no consequence.”
A quote from Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love comes to mind: “They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.” 
Korine’s sophomore feature, Julien Donkey-Boy (whose title recalls John Barth’s seminal postmodern novel Giles Goat-Boy), depicts the inner and outer tumult of a young man named Julien (Ewen Bremner) who suffers from schizophrenia. Shot and edited on VHS cassettes, then blown up onto 16 and 35mm to lend the film an oneiric air, the unnerving, tragic feature is Korine’s most humane and most empathetic. (It ostensibly adheres the Dogme 95’s “Vows of Chastity,” though it breaks several rules.) It opens with Julien strangling a young child, then burying him in the snowy woods as he utters prayers to an unanswering God; it ends with Julien holding a dead fetus and mumbling to the same unanswering God. An assortment of oddball and unnerving characters—an armless drummer, a group of blind bowlers, a masturbating nun, an abusive Germanic father (Werner Herzog)—populate the film. None are caricatures, or exploited by Korine for their ostensible freakishness; rather, the filmmaker, only in his mid-20s at the time, treats everyone with palpable respect. (Gooble gobble.) The film probes the quotidian struggle of Julien’s dysfunctional family, which also comprises a pregnant daughter (Chloë Sevigny), who live in working-class Queens. Julien comprises short, aimless anecdotes, slivers of scenes, glimpses into the lives of Julien’s family. (His sister wanders through an undulating field of wheat, cooing songs about the Lord; his querulous father blasts him with the hose, demanding that he “be a man,” et cetera.)
From 1999 to 2007, Korine, bored by filmmaking, stop directing feature films (though he did write Ken Park with Larry Clark). He sequestered himself from the world, and killed time by mowing lawns and shooting guns. He emerged from his self-imposed exile with Mister Lonely in 2007. Less lo-fi than his previous features, but still suffused with sorrow and rife with crestfallen characters, it would prove to be a transitional film for the oddball auteur. A Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) becomes smitten with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), and goes with her to an island run by a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). Leos Carax, another filmmaker obsessed with the squalor of the human condition, makes an appearance (shot during his own hiatus from filmmaking). Sadness stalks these characters; they are kept company by their memories of halcyon days, of bygone epochs, while slumming through the present. The tragedy of being an artist, the loneliness, the pain, imbues the film.  
Since the advent of his career, Korine has deftly curated and controlled his own mythology. An enfant terrible, a wunderkind, a punk-cum-prodigy whose career took off when he was barely old enough to drink—watch his early interviews with Letterman and you get the sense that Korine knew what he was doing all the way back then, knew how to sell himself. Mister Lonely is his first film to address this notion of self-mythologizing, of taking control of one’s own brand. Like Herzog, whose career was eclipsed by his own transmutation into a meme, Korine is as much an idea as he is an artist, or even a person. In his review of Mister Lonely for Reverse Shot, Nick Pinkerton said, “As with Herzog, whose much self-referenced ‘madness’ and deliberate naiveté always came with an element of Hamletian calculation, it’s always been difficult to extrapolate just how much what Korine said was so much class clowning.” Pinkerton called Korine “an arthouse Dennis Miller,” which, even if meant as a pejorative, is an apt description of the filmmaker. (A recent profile in GQ paints the now-mainstream filmmaker as a cut-up.) 
The idea of conjuring a persona, of creating a mythos, permeates Spring Breakers (2012), the aesthetic and thematic forebear of The Beach Bum. The film, Korine’s introduction to the masses, and a jarring stylistic change, acts as a gateway drug to the rest of his oeuvre. It extrapolates his obsessions, the perversity and debauchery, and presents them in a slippery, shiny package. The film, which more resembles a Budweiser commercial than it does Korine’s earlier films, is rife with the beautiful bodies of former Disney Channel icons (Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez), now grown-up and ready to party. The sordid and salacious film is, with its neon-steeped images of voluptuous bodies aquiver, the prowling camera lapping them up, a trenchant depiction of the bastardization of the American Dream. A gaggle of bikini-clad college girls, desperate to enjoy their spring break, get ripped on cocaine and rob a restaurant with squirt guns, using the money to embark on a sojourn to Florida, where they engage in further insalubrious and perverse misdeeds. St. Petersburg during Spring Break in 2012 is a city of tremblinginevitability and dub step. Lubricious and vapid, these girls are looking for a good time at any expense. They eventually get arrested, and sequestered in a holding cell, but a rapper/drug dealer/hustler named Alien (an unfettered James Franco) pays their bail. He becomes their Morpheus, a sapiential pedagogue who revels in his accretion of material possessions (“Look at my shit,” he yawps). This is the American Dream, he declares—a grown man luxuriating in guns and drugs, his mouth adorned with metal and his bed filled with libidinous young women. The girls go from garrulous party animals to gun-toting gangbangers.
Korine has moved away from the anomalous characters and grotesqueries that fascinated him years ago, but The Beach Bum, certainly the best hangout film since Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, and may be Korine’s masterpiece, is no less debauched—it’s just more affable. Instead of depicting freaks, the ugly and unloved who populated his early films, Korine’s newest centers around an indolent pseudo-luminary named Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a writer-stoner floating through Florida, whose roguish refusal to follow the rules had garnered him a cultish following. He’s irreverent and lovable, and he aspires to write the Great American Novel, but spends his days railing lines of blow with Captain Wack(a riotous Martin Lawrence)and crushing cans of beer with the boys, squandering his talents. McConaughey, tanned and toned, is, like costar Zac Efron (on whose abs one could chip a tooth), far more conventionally attractive than previous Korine male characters. He’s a kind of counter-cultural figure, but a popular one, someone who has formed his own sort of mainstream. The film is freewheeling, absurd, as gorgeously gaudy as Spring Breakers but not quite as sardonic (which is not to say it’s a happy-go-lucky endeavor). The film’s casting is impeccable,: McConaughey was born to play Moondog, and Martin Lawrence, who hasn't appeared in a major film for almost a decade, steals the show as the captain of a Dolphin boat (he owns a cocaine-addicted parrot).  
The Beach Bum and Spring Breakers were both shot by Benoit Debie, Gaspar Noé’s cinematographer. Between this and Noé’s Climax, Debie is vying for the title of Year’s Best Cinematographer. He conjures a dreamy, languorous world, variegated and supersaturated, with opulent, sun-soaked vistas in TheBeach Bum, and in Climax, a nightmarish, hermetic one, steeped in crimson. If Spring Breakers recalls the hallucinatory weirdness of an acid trip, and Climax the same but for a bad trip, then The Beach Bum is a more mellow high, a fat joint passed around.


Harmony Korine
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