SOUTHERN CULTURE ON THE SKIDS

Tom Lyons / The Eye / 16 October, 1997

"Do you smoke?"

"Crack? I smoked a big rock of crack last week."

"No. I just meant cigarettes."

"Oh... no... but you can smoke if you want."

Well, like almost everyone else I've been interviewing at the Film Festival, Harmony Korine doesn't smoke. But he certainly stands out. He is 23, but I would have guessed his age to be about 16 or 17. He is dressed in baggy track pants and sweatshirt, and looks like he should be hanging around the Eaton Centre with a skateboard and a boom box. He makes a few vague, half-hearted rap gestures with his hands as he leads me over to the interview table, but by the time my ailing geezer brain can figure out how to respond, he has sat down and dropped his homeboy act.

"I wrote Kids when I was 18," says Korine, when asked about the screenplay which brought him to the world's attention a couple of years ago. "It was just luck, I guess. I'd never written a script before. I just met this guy Larry [Clark] in the park, and it just kind of happened. He started taking photos of me and my friends, and we talked about movies. He asked me if I could write a script, and I said, I never have before, but I'll try. So I went back to my grandma's house, and in seven days I wrote it. No re-writes or anything."

The film was a nihilistic look at a group of rebellious New York teenagers who spent their days smoking dope and screwing and trying to ignore the AIDS virus that was spreading through their ranks. Critical response to the film was divided (one hack dismissed it as a "sexual sizzler"), but Korine's dialogue was so realistic that many people thought Clark had simply followed a gang of teenagers around with his camera.

"So many people thought Kids wasn't scripted," says Korine. "But everything was scripted. Ninety-five per cent. Only one scene was improvised. The boy on the couch at the ending."

Korine not only wrote but directed his new film, Gummo, and he shot it in the environment that he says means most to him, the rundown outskirts of Nashville where he grew up. The movie is filled with sordid images of white trash depravity - teenaged cat-killers, dumb-ass weightlifters, gross hookers, tattooed midgets, garbage dumps and houses swarming with cockroaches and filthy laundry - and Korine's supporters have been likening Gummo to the work of photographer Diane Arbus.

I can't help asking whether he is actually familiar with the work of Arbus, or of writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, who also explored images of the grotesque. He says "of course," and starts discussing the Southern gothic tradition at length, and then starts rambling on about earlier writers in the grotesque tradition, like Laurence Sterne, that I never actually got around to reading. So of course I start to feel stupid for having doubted him in the first place, and make a mental note to upgrade the film from two to three eyeballs. (But he looks like one of The Beastie Boys - how the fuck was I supposed to know?)

Despite its many genuine excursions into the grotesque, though, the film as a whole seems extremely uneven. Korine has tried to dispense with plot altogether, and the various scenes are merely juxtaposed with one another.

"But there is a narrative in Gummo," Korine insists. "Just by virtue of the scenes being next to one another, a narrative comes through. But if you think of the word plot, I mean, the word plot is disgusting to me. I mean, think of where we are in history right now. In the beginning of cinema, you start with [D.W.] Griffith, and what he was doing with early commercial narrative, and then see where we are now, there's almost no progression. And look at the art form of the century being collage, and yet commercial film has never grasped that. And the idea of plot, it's fake. It's a device I can't stand. I mean, life has no plots..."

Yeah, okay, kid. Sorry to cut you off, but you've already got the extra eyeball, and I really don't want to get into the fact that my knowledge of collage is limited to distant memories of Grade Two arts and crafts class.