Daniel Kraus / Gadfly / January - February 2000
1. A newspaper reporter realizes that his wife has been lying about her age. This makes him wonder what else she has been lying about.
4. A former prostitute with a low IQ poisons her priest.
16. A gay man gets hit by a car and no one cares.
The above excerpt is taken from Harmony Korine's 1998 "novel," A Crackup at the Race Riots, a collection of one-page vignettes, sketches, snatches of dialogue, celebrity rumors, really bad jokes, suicide notes and imaginary letters from Tupac Shakur. Occasionally disarming in its lack of any distinct design or purpose, Crackup is, by its chaotically episodic nature, unsatisfying. But it does illuminate the inner workings of this twenty-five-year-old artist who is responsible for writing the brilliant, controversial Kids (1995), directing the misunderstood, but potentially life-changing Gummo (1997) and directing the immediate and disturbing new movie, julien donkey-boy.
Also found in Crackup are lists labeled "Titles of Books I Will Write," "Rumors" and "Her Two Favorite Cigarette Jokes." As with all things in Korine's art, they are instantaneous thoughts, caught on the cusp of being cultivated, stopped short and thrown immediately into the artistic mix. And, like most ideas before they're ruined via committee, they are sole and streamlined and, therefore, fascinating.
Korine's first film, Gummo, was a surreal, yet extremely authentic, nonlinear nightmare mash of improvisation, documentary footage and fictional scenes detailing the scattered, ruptured community of children in the tornado-ravaged town of Xenia, Ohio. The only nod at continuity involved two recurring characters, Solomon and Tummler, as they wandered through the town of albinos, deaf-mutes and black dwarves, killing cats and selling them to a Chinese restaurant. After Gummo's 1997 release, Korine became the stuff of nihilist legend. His film was so loathed by mainstream media (The New York Times called Gummo "the worst movie of the year") that critics like CNN's Paul Tatara joined the thrashing of the uppity youngster, cracking that the film was "the cinematic equivalent of Korine making fart noises and eating boogers." The New Yorker's David Denby called it "beyond redemption." Meanwhile, the unfazed Korine made a legendary, quietly aggressive appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and gave repeated interviews trashing such current Generation X film heroes as Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy). If this is the future of film, preached Korine, then I want to be dead.
Aside from the endorsement of high-status fellow provocateurs like Bernardo Bertolucci, Abel Ferrara and Gus Van Sant (who aptly called Korine's shiftless, watchful characters "heavy-metal Holden Caulfields"), no one wanted to be near the kid, lest they catch his fatal media disease. Then, as Korine prepared his new film julien donkey-boy, the notorious Danish filmmaker and rule-breaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots) rang Korine and asked if he would like julien to be an official "Dogma 95" release (more on Dogma 95 later). Korine, whose ideals of realism were already heading in a Dogma direction (Korine was planning to shoot most of julien with hidden, spy and surveillance cameras), said yes.
I hung out with Korine on the eve of his U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival.
Daniel Kraus: I want to read you this quote: "To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff will come out and some people who normally wouldn't make movies will be making them and suddenly one day..."
Harmony Korine: The Coppola quote?
Kraus: Yeah, ". . . and suddenly one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the next Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's little camera, and for once the so-called professionalism of movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form."
Korine: That's a good quote. It's like he's making better quotes than movies.
Kraus: That's what I was thinking.
Korine: For me, just speculating, it's like [Coppola] wishes one thing but he can't do what he really wants to do, because he's got like one hundred wine cellars and four thousand people to feed and has to live in some kind of mansion and can't be the Fat Girl that he really wants to be.
Kraus: I know, and it's hard to feel sorry for him. He used to be so good. It makes me wonder: Is film dead?
Korine: It's a weird thing, all these sixties critics that decided on "auteurism" [one person as sole artistic creator of a work] in film and what cinema is in a very narrow definition. A lot of them have declared the death of cinema. But for me, in a historical context, you have to look at it next to something like the novel, where the written word has been around for so long and come full circle so many times, with something like James Joyce's Ulysses and all these novels that have done so much. Film to me, after one hundred years, is just in its infancy, it's just now being born, it's like a foot coming out of the birth canal. There's so much more room for it to progress and get more complicated and more interesting. That's not to say I have faith in a movement or group of filmmakers that are going to push it ahead. But there'll always be a few people who are concerned with this stagnation and want to prevent it in film.
Kraus: Would you say we're at such stagnation now?
Korine: Definitely, for the past, you know, since the eighties, and there's a lot to that, what audiences want and what they're willing to accept and if they even want an "art film" to exist, if they even want to be challenged in a different way.
Kraus: I don't know if the "art film" does exist anymore. We just have a lot of these Sundance "indies" that follow a very rigid "indie" formula.
Korine: Yeah, they're just like regular movies but look worse. The idea of independent cinema is like, to me, there's no such thing. It's like alternative music. What is it alternative to? I mean, I'm not an "independent" director; I make my movies through a studio system. It's just that I'm independent minded, maybe.
Kraus: What was the last movie you saw?
Korine: I saw the new Woody Allen [Sweet and Lowdown]. I haven't really liked a lot of his later pictures; his new film was just kind of minor. The thing about Woody Allen is that even a bad Woody Allen movie is better than ninety-nine percent of movies that come out.
Kraus: Did you see Spike Lee's Summer of Sam?
Korine: I walked out of it. I was just bored.
Kraus: A movie I didn't like was Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
Korine: I didn't like it either. I mean, the whole thing was just depressing. It wasn't a great picture.
Kraus: But surely there's one popular filmmaker you like who is "independent minded"?
Korine: Not really. There's nothing about everyday films or filmmakers that excites me.
Since Dogma 95's inception in 1995, the once-laughable declaration of apparent pomposity has turned into the most influential film movement of our time. The "Vow of Chastity" set out by von Trier and fellow Dane filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), was an attempt to shake off the falsity and distance that the mechanizations of modern cinema impose on the art and to narrow the chasm between actor and filmmaker. Included among the rules: no sets, no lights, no props, no sound effects, no musical score, no tripod, no superficial actions (guns, murders, etc.) and no credited director.
It is perhaps fortuitous that Dogma 95 surfaces just as the so-called "Digital Revolution" is dawning. Although predicting the rise of a revolution before it happens is rather suspicious, the hoopla surrounding the cheap, high-quality digital cameras now available has some merit. It seems that we are heading into an age in which the practical occupation ceases to exist; we'll all be filmmakers with our own home computer editing systems, and the already saturated film market will reach a hurricane-status flood. However, despite this deluge, as Steven Soderbergh (herald of the original Sundance "revolution" with his 1989 film sex, lies and videotape) is credited as noting, there will still be only two or three good movies a year. It'll just take more work to find them.
Dogma 95 embraces and gives artistic credibility to the Digital Revolution and is very aware of the particular aesthetic properties that video carries with it - a "cheap" look and a sense of intimacy that until now have been used only for very personal home videos. Although seemingly exclusive in nature (an accepted film gets to put a big, official-looking certificate at its start), the supposed democratic beauty of Dogma 95 is that anyone with a video camera and a dream can join.
During Korine's first Q&A at the New York Film Festival, he used such lofty phrases as "the Dogma Brotherhood" and "a redemption in cinematic terms." The Danish filmmakers added, "Dogma 95 desires to purge film, so that once again the inner lives of characters justify the plot." "Purge," by the way, isn't a nice word. To purge is to rid of impurities, to empty the bowels. Take this pill, this magic vow of chastity, and rid yourself of the shit of your art.
It isn't hard to see why some regard Dogma with disdain.
Kraus: What were some of the problems that you ran into while making a Dogma film?
Korine: There's no problems I had with Dogma. Dogma's just like this set plan, that if you follow these ten rules, you'll be forced to reckon with something, some kind of truth or some kind of substance that you couldn't get if you were making a film in a different way.
Kraus: Vinterberg, after he finished The Celebration, drew up a list of ways he had cheated the Vows. Give me some of your own examples.
Korine: How I cheated? Or how I sinned?
Kraus: Is that what they call it?
Korine: Yeah, a sin against the Vow of Chastity. Just really technical things . . . I mean, Chloë [Sevigny, star of julien and Gummo and occasional Korine flame] wasn't really pregnant, so we had to put a fake belly on her. [The actual "confession" states that Korine would have to impregnate Sevigny himself, but there wasn't enough time.]
Kraus: There's a scene in which Julien's father relates a story in voice-over while we watch his daughter cut his hair. I thought a voice-over was against the rules.
Korine: Not how we did it. We used a microcassette recorder and taped him telling the story to live music. When we filmed that scene, we had Anthony [Dod Mantle, the cinematographer of both julien and The Celebration] holding a one-chip camera in his hand, and we played the song into the camera's speaker, and it was all done naturally on the spot.
Kraus: Cinema has always been predicated around a certain artificiality, though. Dogma 95 says that all Dogma filmmakers must declare "I am not an artist" and even reject screen credit. Yet you use overt narrative and editing techniques that really draw me out of the story and make me contend with you as a distinct artist. Isn't that at odds with Dogma?
Korine: No, that's the irony of all of this; it's an anti-aesthetic approach to filmmaking, but if you look at every one of the Dogma films, there's a unique artistry involved. I think it's one of the things that attracts certain directors to Dogma. Even though it's like an anti-auteurist, anti-bourgeois rescue action, you still end up with a very artful group of films.
Kraus: You seem to abhor plot.
Korine: Well, I like stories, and I don't mind the narrative. I think there's a narrative to julien. I just think that plots are so easy, and it's always one of the things in movies that in general kills it for me, because it's like this simple device that's thrown in arbitrarily to keep audiences happy. In life I never feel or see plot, I just see things as existing, and I just want my films to mimic that.
Kraus: To achieve that, you use "real" footage mixed in with your fictional stuff, like the little kids swearing and the handicapped girl who shaves her eyebrows off for the camera in Gummo. Those two scenes piss a lot of people off.
Korine: I had heard those kids cursing around, "suck my cock," at the craft service table, and I was like "holy shit." I had never heard kids talk like that, you know, little babies, so I asked their parents if I could put them in the movie and they were like, "I don't give a fuck what they do." So, yeah, it's real as far as she was actually shaving her eyebrows, it's really happening, but it is doubly compounded by the fact that there's no history of realism in America, except for maybe John Cassavetes. It's like the history of American cinema is escapist cinema and in England all they have is realism.
Kraus: So, in Gummo, you're essentially saying that cats are tortured, kids piss off overpasses and handicapped people have sex every damn day.
Korine: Yeah, right, but as soon as you show it, these are things certain people don't want to see.
Kraus: I think it's because you're removing them from their context, their own hypothetical documentaries. For example, who is the eyebrow woman? What is her official medical condition? You just leave us with the condition itself.
Korine: But I think documentary is fake as well. I'm manipulating all my characters, so in one way, my movies aren't that much different than Star Wars.
Kraus: And, along those lines, you'd say Star Wars is not that different from a...
Korine: A documentary, right, surely, in the way that people go about getting what they want in order to make a dramatic feature. The whole thing for me is: What I remember from films are specific scenes and images, so in my movies I don't want to have to hear the story to justify the images, I just want to make a movie to see [those images], only.
Kraus: Every adult I encountered hated Gummo, but most kids love it.
Korine: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, it's weird, I just started to notice that, it's like an ageism, an ageist sort of thing. It's like my first memory growing up in Tennessee was Ozzy [Osborne]. When I was ten years old, I had never heard of Ozzy, but all the parents in the churches were getting upset because Ozzy was coming to town, and it was the first time I heard people with a passion saying something was horrible for kids, so I had to see it, I had to see Ozzy, because all the parents were against him.
Kraus: Marilyn Manson said about you, "I'm relieved that America has someone new to hate other than me."
Korine: I don't know about that.
julien donkey-boy, which has already garnered a surprise rave from Entertainment Weekly ("an astonishing leap forward . . . out of the [Dogma] limitations has come aesthetic brilliance") as well as a rather hesitant recommendation from old Korine nemesis The New York Times ("visually arresting"), seems poised to grant Korine what, to a certain extent, he deserves: credit as a harbinger of change and a potentially major influence in cinema. In fact, it's hard to imagine seeing his two films and not being influenced by them; their vivid images burn into your eyes.
The mainstream media seem to be waiting for Korine to "grow up" and step into the shoes of an adult, narrative filmmaker. But what these critiques seem to miss is that Korine never looks down on his misfits - he's always hunkered right down among them, watching them to such a thorough extent that it begins to be a free-for-all of unprecedented honesty. What's so shocking to the younger generation of Korine viewers is not that elementary school kids smoke pot and kill cats, or that middle schoolers sniff glue and have sex, or that high schoolers dress up like girls for kiddie-porn Polaroids; it's that someone has put it accurately on film. This is the Truth, shows Korine to the older generations, and it is uglier than Hell.
But it is a Hell handled with startling tenderness and empathy. Having grown up in the carnival and educated himself, Korine finds pieces of humanity, if not of himself, in each of his miscreant characters. Among those miscreants are Julien, a wild-haired, gold-toothed schizophrenic, his pregnant ballerina sister, his athletically driven brother, his blind ice-skating girlfriend, and his calmly domineering father, played with an eerie tranquillity by famed director Werner Herzog, who originally championed Gummo to the International Critics' Prize at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. Interestingly, Herzog's own films (most notably the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo where, to shoot the hauling of a boat over a mountain, Herzog actually hauled a boat over a mountain) epitomize the extreme ends of the kind of firsthand filmmaking that Dogma and Korine strive for.
Kraus: How did you feel that this first screening of julien went?
Korine: I wasn't there.
Kraus: I wasn't sure everyone was into it. Does that worry you?
Korine: I don't really make movies for a massive audience or for a general audience, but an audience that's willing to take on a certain kind of film.
Kraus: So, I guess twenty percent of a grab-bag festival audience is sort of on track for you.
Korine: Uh yeah, I guess. (laughs)
Kraus: For the first twenty minutes of the movie, Julien, our protagonist, is really scary. Was this intentional?
Korine: The thing is, the disease of mental illness, it is very scary. And at least with what I've witnessed with my uncle [the basis of the Julien character], it's extremely scary on the outside and it's so hard to get past that appearance. I wanted to show a dimension to Julien that you think he's going to be one way and he's not in fact at all that way.
Kraus: I like that, how he changes.
Korine: Well, really he doesn't change appearance, physically. You just become more at ease with him as the movie goes.
Kraus: But it's a change on our part -
Korine: Right, exactly.
Kraus: There are many issues of family in julien, whereas in Kids and Gummo there was a distinct lack of family.
Korine: Yeah, but in Gummo and even in Kids, it's like there is a sense of family, it's just more scattered, or it's just like these two sisters [in Gummo] are the only family they have. With julien I wanted to show a more complex unit and how they all deal with Julien's illness in a different way, like his father feels only shame and hatred and resentment and the brother is embarrassed and the grandmother is just oblivious and the sister is very affectionate.
Kraus: There's a scene where the brother, who is training to be a wrestler, beats up a garbage can. It's a lot like the chair beating in Gummo.
Korine: (pause) I guess it's a motif. I like people wrestling with these kinds of objects. (laughs)
Kraus: I love that you found Nick Sutton [one of the stars of Gummo] on an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael entitled "My Child Died from Sniffing Paint." Any similar discoveries in julien?
Korine: I always keep a pen and pad on my bed and whenever I'm watching television late at night and there's something unique on, I jot it down. A few years ago I had seen this documentary made like twenty years ago on the Learning Channel at two in the morning, and there was this guy playing the drums with his toes and it was an amazing image. I'd written him into this movie, not knowing if he was still alive or if we'd ever find him. We had people track him down in Canada and it took three months or something.
Kraus: Julien hears lots of voices. I got the impression that one of them was God.
Korine: Hmm. I mean, yeah, that could be right, that sounds as good as anything else I've heard.
Kraus: And another of the voices is obviously Hitler.
Korine: A lot of it's just stuff I've seen my uncle do and it's just me basically regurgitating it. As far as how I see it or what my intent was, it really doesn't matter, 'cause it's just another opinion ultimately.
Kraus: Did your uncle hear Hitler?
Korine: It was always, "Christ, trying to kill me, Christ, Christ," this, that and the other, and there were always religious figures and Hitler and, well, there'd be Frank Sinatra and Jesus Christ.
Kraus: I see a lot of similarities between your work and the films of John Waters. Waters uses so-called "freaks" as actors. You use so-called "freaks," too.
Korine: Yeah, but he's using his characters to make fun of them, and that's something I try never to do. If I use a character that somebody considers grotesque, I'll try to go the opposite way with them.
Kraus: Maybe this is why people are so vehement in their dislike and mistrust of you. It's almost impossible to separate film and filmmaker, especially in "exploitation" film. Even Dogma 95 stated that they were willing to proceed "at the cost of any good taste." Since both you and Waters are obviously using real "freaks," then that must mean that you consort with these freaks and therefore that you are not to be trusted and it is not beyond you to pull some dangerous and illegal shit.
Korine: Of course, yeah, sure. Definitely.
It seems to me that Harmony Korine has been mislabeled. He is not a bad-boy shockmeister or petulant demon-child; instead, he goes to great pains to explain that it is not and was never his intention to shock anyone. And though that seems slightly naive, I understand the intention behind these words‹he wants to give screen time to those who've never been given it. "The media are in New York and L.A.," explained Korine. "And anything that happens in the middle they either don't want to see, or they're going to fabricate. So when they do see [an accurate portrayal] they're going to get angry, or deny it, or not want to like it."
Korine is not disrespectful, angry or even, for that matter, possessed of genius - he himself has trouble explaining why he makes certain artistic choices. What Korine does possess, however, is an extraordinary ability to watch life move around him and to pluck out the moments which cry out the loudest. It is his luck - and our good fortune - that there are people who will take a chance on an instinct without convention, fear or even a script (julien was entirely improvised). Though his influences seem overtly European, he stoutly maintains that he is "an American boy," and his appetite for American pop-culture is, refreshingly, subordinate to his affection for an American subculture.
A random, untitled Q&A from his novel:
Q: A person can characterize himself as a democrat, a tyrant, a Christian, a resistor, an anarchist, a liberal, a conservative. How do you describe yourself?
A: I'm a romantic anarchist.
Kraus: I noticed folk singer Will Oldham in the credits of julien donkey-boy. Why?
Korine: He actually named it. (laughs) You're the first person I've told that to, but it's true. He just called me up one day and said [in a country accent], "You gotta call it Julien Donkey-Boy."(laughs) He's a good friend of mine.
Kraus: Would you say you know how to make a movie?
Korine: Well, I've made movies, so, well, I know how to . . . Yeah, I know how to make a movie.
Kraus: But if someone gave you $80 million to make a movie, what would you do?
Korine: I'd probably make twenty little movies. Or maybe not, if I had a movie that was $80 million worth of story. But it's rare that I would think there are stories that require $80 million to tell.
Kraus: There's probably not. I can't think of any.
Korine: I can't either. (laughs)