DIGITAL BABYLON INTERVIEW
Shari Roman / Digital Babylon / September 2001
The following is an article that originally appeared in the book Digital Babylon: Hollywood, Idiewood and Dogme 95 (Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2001) by Shari Roman.
"I make my films from the inside out," drawls Harmony Korine, Manhattan's favorite bad-boy auteur in a slow (...) voice that Kerouac might have coveted. "I have to in order to blur the lin between what really happened and what is made up, manipulated, fictitious, and completely correct, until I don't recognize it anymore."
Slight of build and disarmingly fresh-faced, Korine's notoriety ignited at age eighteen when he had a chance encounter with photographer Larry Clark in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. Although he'd just completed a semester at NYU, Korine dropped out to write the script for Clark's 1995 film Kids, a provocative portrait of sexually active teenagers. Two years later Korine assumed the auteur mantle with his own Gummo, a hypnotically scuzzy journey of two glue-sniffing boys who sell dead cats, which immediately established him as an anarchic lightning rod in the filmmaking community.
Korine extended the discomfort zone with julien donkey-boy, another intimate, darkly skewed tale, which Korine shot under the auspices of Dogme 95. Based in part on the life of his uncle, an institutionalized schixophrenic, julien focused on the inner life of a mentally disturbed man who finds salvation working in a school for the blind. Lensed primarily in Korine's grandmother's house in Queens by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the film revels in a variety of low-tech imagery (obtained with up to thirty different kinds of video cameras, including a variety of nifty "spy" devices) and a nonlinear storytelling technique that is both infuriating and lyrically arresting. It was also largely improvised by a cast that includes Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner in the title role, longtime collaborator Chloe Sevigny as his sweetly dreamy pregnant sister, Korine's grandmother Joyce as Julien's grandmother and icon/filmmaker Werner Herzog in an funny/scary turn as Julien's abusive father.
Bremner proved a brilliant choice for the titular hero, and prepared for the role by visiting Korine's uncle at New York's Creedmoor Pyschiatric Center and working in a hospital for six weeks. But Bremner was not the director's first choice. "I was going to try and get my uncle out of the institution for the movie, but that proved impossible," says Korine. "I was nervous about using Ewen because he has this thick Scottish accent, and is certainly not schizophrenic... it got really scary toward the end," relates Korine. "I wouldn't have like it if he was the kind of actor that switches on and off, but he was in character all through the shooting and towards the end I was nervous that he had gone... off. I saw no trace of Ewen, and I wanted him back. I was glad when the movie was finished."
Utlizing the rapid-paced approach Dogme provides took the actors to a place they wouldn't have been able to reach otherwise. There was a screenplay, Korine says, but one far different than the norm. "There were very detailed scene descriptions, describing what should/could happen, so the story could evolve and the narrative progress. But other than that, it was really up to the actors. We shot for hours using video, which sounds chaotic," he adds, exhaling a long plume of cigarette smoke which forms a punumbra over his head, "but, there has to be a certain system for me. Even if it's chaos, there has to be a way to anticipate the chaos, to recognise it, and then make sense of it. People always speak of 'truth in cinema,' but that's a fallacy. It's all subjective. The truth is, if I didn't have film, I'd be a lost soul."
Shari Roman: Pessimists worry that the digitalization of the medium spells the end of movies. Utopians prophesy their ultimate democratization. What do you think?
Harmony Korine: I do not care one bit. Technology bores me. It's just more films of the same kind... don't let any of it fool you. It is only a machine. It steals from man what it can never gave back. I will just react of hibernate.
Roman: Will celluloid go the way of vinyl?
Korine: I hope so. The answers are in the crackles and the scratches. Like I have said for years now, I am a "mistakist" artist. All the best artists of this era are. "Mistakism" is the greatest form of all. Post-modernism has long been adopted and dwarfed by "mistakism" but I have been saying this since I was 18, I am bored by it all. When I am dead perhaps people will latch on.
Roman: Do you see cinema today as an art form?
Korine: I don't see cinema today.
Roman: You have created intense tapestries of sound and image, yet that's not necessarily the story. What are the themes that call to you? What moves you? What do you find daunting?
Korine: I have no insight to share. It is all in my work. I find everything else daunting. I am not exaggerating. I wish I was born a happier person; I wish I could have been born Meg Ryan. I want to be her. She is so happy and this makes me envy her every second of every day. Harmony Korine is worshipping at the altar of When Harry Met Sally.
Roman: Is the feeling of authenticity, a current concern in cinema and the holy grail of the cinema verite movement, a product of techniques and rules as rigorous as the choreography of an MGM musical or the editing of a Hitchcock thriller?
Korine: This question would be better asked of a Chinese person.
Roman: There have been many good movies recently. Do you think this signals a return to the heyday of '70s filmmaking?
Korine: No. To hell with '70s cinema idolatry and to hell with each and every one of your heydays.
Roman: Do you believe that filmmaking must be linked to a certain kind of truth, or a certain kind of risk?
Roman: Relative to Dogme 95, what do you think of Dancer in the Dark? Can you see the post-Dogme transformation in von Trier's work and in yours?
Korine: This question would be better asked of a Northern Korean censor... but Lars is a special man. I take my hat off to any provocateur who has in equal measure talent. Why and how should I answer this question? Yes I can. I still love the brothers of Dogme 95.
Roman: You've said you enjoy using improvisation in your work. Have you ever longed to work within an ultra-strict framework?
Roman: Have you ever lifted a scene from someone?
Korine: I am not yet strong enough to lift an entire scene. I have lifted several half scenes and one three-quarter scene, but one day I will lift an entire one. You must remember, even though I am a man, I am still very slight and small boned. To lift an entire scene requires long hours of focus and training and I get bored very quickly.
Roman: What do you think about current DV films from other filmmakers, e.g. Mike Figgis' TimeCode, Miguel Arteta's Chuck & Buck, et. al?
Korine: I told you I don't care. If what "they" do is direct films, I am of a another trade. Not just these men you have mentioned... although I have nothing in particular against them. In fact I have never even heard of them. I hope you understand this, and do not take it in the fashion of Yves Saint-Laurent.
Roman: The word "genre" has become the most abused word in cinema language. How can that change?
Korine: I don't care about these questions. I just want people to realize that I simply do the things I do because no one else does. Because real life if a disappointment to me, it always has been a constant misery and suffering, and not worth living if it weren't for God allowing me to write and direct as I please. Other than that, I do not care to pontificate or represent some kind of false restless spirit that has led to a "Nouvelle Vague" of even more bullshit... and I am certainly no spokesman for that or anything else.
Roman: Historically, what is your favorite period of filmmaking? Favorite filmmakers? Actors?
Korine: When Mao died. Carl Dreyer and Buster Keaton. Alain Delon and Zeppo Marx.
Roman: Much like the "New Wave," do you think that this interest in DV aesthetic is emerging for a particular cultural or political reason?
Korine: I don't care.
Roman: What do you find inspirational? In film, or any walk of life.
Korine: The Red Army Faction. The Baader-Meinhof gang. I am writing a book on Steppin' Fetchit (the first black actor who starred alongside Will Rodgers), the name of my novel will be called, "Steppin Fetchit: A Man Named After A Race Horse."
Roman: After your experience making julien donkey-boy, how do you feel about more traditional forms of filmmaking?
Korine: julien donkey-boy was a very traditional film, isn't that obvious? It was the complete directory of the "mistakist" tradition.
Roman: As a culture, is our appetite for reality matched only by our craving for fantasy?
Korine: Please, I feel like I am losing a bit more life with every question asked.
Roman: When someone's lifework is the creation of 'fantasy,' what happens to cinema? How does it affect the audience? Does it induce us to forget the difference between seeing and dreaming?
Korine: Jesus, I have a razor to my wrist at this very moment.
Roman: Walter Benjamin said that the best way to discover a city is to get intelligently lost in it. Do you feel that is the best way to approach filmmaking?
Korine: He also said, "The greatest novel of the century would consist entirely of other peoples quotations." I like that one better. Benjamin was actually my mother's second cousin. In one of his letters to my dead grandmother Elaine, from Prague, shortly after he completed his Arcades project, he wrote that he wanted to finish out his years as a boy scout leader in the name of a Zionist militia. When he killed himself, inside his wallet my grandmother's brother Jakob found only a picture of his mother and a twelve-year-old boy fondling his testicles in a strawberry patch.
Roman: Do you feel that filmmaking is viewed as a romantic profession?
Korine: Because romance is so profound, ask God yourself, only he knows the answers you are looking for and he is probably on pins and needles waiting to answer them for you.
Roman: What is your next challenge?
Korine: Isn't it obvious. Must I really explain any further?
(love always, Harmony Korine)