Harmony Korine has been making headlines for his new pop-culture romp, Spring Breakers, with the usual fanfare and some reviewers decidedly giddy with the possibility of maybe “getting it” or maybe not. The film is apparently non-stop debauch and at least one critic has pointed out the work’s contribution to rape culture in the US, on the heels of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case.
Love him, leave him or hate him, Korine has sparked controversy and inspired debate in film and culture circles (and of course with audiences) since he wrote the racy script for Kids (directed by Larry Clark in 1995). To mark the occasion of Korine’s return to the culture-and-politics spotlight we’ve dug out a gem from 1998, inside the the Hays Files, with a short updated intro from the author below.
It’s so funny to see Harmony Korine getting such gushy mainstream attention with his latest film. I found his first feature, Gummo, to be a revelation. I remember a critic at the Gazette who took real offence by this movie. I think that’s what Korine was pretty much aiming for. I still recall that after this cover story ran, I got several frenzied calls from the office of Vice (then based in Montreal). They desperately wanted to know how to track down Korine, they liked what he had to say so much.
It’s difficult to know what to make of a film like Gummo. We learn in the earliest moments that it’s set in a small Ohio town called Xenia, a roach-infested dump of a burg which was devastated by a tornado two decades ago. Throughout the film we are introduced to various townsfolk, and it appears the populace of Xenia never quite recovered from the trauma of the disaster.
Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), the characters who crop up most frequently, wander the town shooting stray cats, earning a few extra bucks by selling them to the local Asian restaurant. They use the money to buy glue, which they then sniff as they exchange their observations on the world. They also visit a man who pimps for his sister, a prostitute played by a woman with Down’s syndrome (in what is certainly the film’s most controversial representation).
If it sounds bizarre, consider that this description is merely the tip of the iceberg of Gummo’s cast of white-trash freaks (when the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, there was no shortage of walkouts). Some critics were hissing and even yelling out at this abrasive and auspicious directorial debut.
And if it’s difficult to figure out the film, the 23-year-old director and writer behind it is no easier. Harmony Korine is the same man who, at the tender age of 19, wrote the screenplay for Kids, a film which drew loud critical praise while simultaneously horrifying and repulsing audiences.
Kids, which was directed by photographer Larry Clark, shocked in a profoundly simple way: the filmmaker used a straightforward, documentary style and married it with the technique of using unknown non-actors in lead roles. In that case, Clark cast actual teenagers, who brazenly and amorally caroused and screwed their way through the film’s 90 minutes.
With Gummo, Korine employs the same technique, to similar effect. Since the film’s run on the fest circuit (Italian animal rights activists attempted to block the film’s release there after witnessing the depiction of a cat being drowned), Korine has been accused of fascism, exploitation, reckless irresponsibility, immorality and amorality–among many things.
“A critic got in my face in Toronto and I tried to stab him,” Korine recalls of one of the more extreme exchanges to occur after a screening of Gummo. “He came up with his girlfriend after a screening and they were almost crying. She had braces on her teeth and they were chattering, she was so upset. He called me an exploiter, and said what I was doing was unforgivable — he said that I was aestheticizing mental illness. I don’t have any kind of problem with a political debate, but I don’t like people getting in my face, so I had a knife and I went to stab him in the throat. The ushers threw him out, ’cause it was my movie. I was going to stab her, too.”
But the reactions haven’t all been so nasty. Gummo has polarized critics and audiences; it is, by far, the most astounding film of the year, full of wild innovation, contentious images and arguably the ugliest ensemble ever assembled. It has a long list of renowned admirers, including Gus Van Sant (who writes an endorsement of the film included in its press kit) and Werner Herzog.
Though as original as any film could hope to be in the late 20th century, Gummo has led to numerous comparisons by critics: a nihilism that evokes the work of Gregg Araki; performance styles that smack of John Cassavetes; an anti-narrative, collage-like structure which suggests the hallmark of Godard’s oeuvre; and a surrealism which surprises like Fellini.
Korine takes umbrage at the frequent Fellini comparisons (“I’m not really wild about his work”), preferring instead to describe Gummo as “surreal realism.” Korine says that “people think the movie is real, even though it isn’t.” (A charge laid against Kids as well.) “They think there’s no script [but] 75 per cent of the film was scripted. I think film is the ultimate lie, it’s 24 frames of lies, but what you can get is a certain kind of poetry in cinema. That’s more what I’m interested in. Everything I do I try to base on some kind of truth, even if it’s oddly surreal.”
However, Korine does acknowledge a debt to another Euromaster, Godard. “He looks at films in a different way, like a symphony, the way I think films should be made — in layers, with depth. I wanted to experiment, with images coming from all different directions.” Yet Godard has been a strong believer in using self-conscious formalism as a way of furthering political beliefs, while Korine has indicated he has no political bent whatsoever.
“It’s a similar technique, except that I’m not interested in politics. I think of it more like someone like Walter Benjamin, who said the greatest novel of the century would be a book full of someone else’s quotations. I’m really into the idea of a randomness–a sort of just looking at things without being told any kind of message.” (For the record, Korine says he will never vote, but he does comment on the current scandal rocking the White House, saying of the president’s relations with his famous intern: “I’m sure he fucked her.”)
Korine has also been accused of being humourless, as Variety critic Emanuel Levy did last September. But Gummo is infused with a vaudeville sensibility (its ostensibly nonsensical title is in fact derived from the lesser-known Marx Brother). One scene has Tummler getting up on a coffee-table, post-coital tryst with the prostitute with an extra chromosome, and performing a monologue originally performed by Henny Youngman.
“I’ve always been such a big fan of vaudeville, ever since I first saw the Buster Keaton films. I like Jimmy Durante and Al Jolson — I just like the humour. It’s an evil kind of humour, so I adapted and appropriated it for the film.”
Gummo is populated with a cast that finally provides a challenge to Todd Browning’s chilling use of actual circus freaks in his oft-censored landmark 1932 film Freaks. This has understandably led to charges of exploitation, something Korine firmly rejects.
“I don’t even know what that means. As long as the person that you’re filming knows that they’re in a movie, then I don’t understand the idea of exploitation. If people want to call me names because of that, that’s okay. I guess I don’t care because I’m a selfish filmmaker.
“I cast completely, 100 per cent by looks. I never ask people to read or audition. Film is a visual medium and people seem to forget that you’re watching pictures. When I see someone who looks interesting, then I cast them.”
And Korine’s director cameo would give Hitchcock nightmares. In one scene, he plays a drunken gay man who makes a prolonged and highly embarrassing pass at a black dwarf. “I’ve known that guy for a long time,” Korine says of his co-star in the scene. “We went to high school together. I knew that in order to get to that point, I had to get intoxicated. It was the last scene in the movie that we shot, and after it was done I threw my sister through a plate glass window.” =
And why on earth did Korine do that? “I was excited. I thought that was a way of celebrating. She dropped the charges, it was more the line producers who were angry. I have a tendency toward violence, not because I’m saying I’m a tough kid or anything, just because I have a temper.”
Korine’s unrelenting anger appears to stem from an abusive childhood, one in which he was repeatedly hit by his father. (“But he didn’t do it because he hated me, he did it because he thought I needed it.”)
A rather precocious existentialist, Korine still recalls a Grade 5 episode in which he tried to sign out a collection of writings by Kierkegaard from his school library. “The librarian yelled at me, saying I was too young to be reading that book. Right then I knew there was something wrong, that my relationship with adults was not right. The next week she went sky-diving and her parachute didn’t open and she died. So I went to her funeral and danced on her grave. Because that’s when I realized that I was meant to do something else. Something without the help of librarians.”
Korine saves similar disdain for critics who ragged on the first film he directed, and the film company which he says withdrew support for Gummo when the controversies surrounding it became too hot.
“After [New York Times critic] Janet Maslin wrote her review saying that I was a fascist and an exploiter, and that what I had done was unforgivable, and that her narrow vision of cinema didn’t include Gummo, the number of prints being made went from 80 to around 10 or so. I don’t really give a fuck. I knew that was going to happen. There are critics at the end of their careers who are going to die soon and they just don’t understand. I think there will be some kind of shift in aesthetics sometime soon. These people are primed for death.”