Uncomfortably entertaining cinema

May 6, 2014

Harmony Korine’s movies for cinephiles and hipsters

by Vaiva Mikelionytė


gummo-50fbb558bf8e0There is no article about Harmony Korine that could escape calling him enfant-terrible, provocateur, or creator on the edge, even when it is done with suspicion. Although he once called himself a commercial director without financial success, he is mainly known to cinephiles and just plain hipsters. What makes him not so easily approachable? And why is it worthwhile to watch his films?


It is difficult to pin him down because of his poetic approach to filmmaking. Usually avoiding linear storylines, Korine mixes different scenes that are not coherently connected. As he says about himself: ‘I never cared so much about making perfect sense. I wanted to make perfect nonsense.’


This nonsense can make sense, because his storytelling usually avoids the clear narrative structure. However, the characters or subjects of the films are chosen very precisely. They are usually marginalised members of society: bored teenagers from problematic backgrounds (Kids, 1995, Gummo, 1997), celebrity impersonators (Mister Lonely, 2007) or sociopathic elderly outsiders (Trash Humpers, 2009). All the events are set in America, and its values and hidden phenomena are expressed through people’s everyday life filled with boredom and aggressive frustration.


Even though social themes are visible in Korine’s films, he avoids grand statements and declarations always leaving a gap for a random joke or abstract visual trick. This quite often provokes anger and fury between the critics, especially those who seek clear conclusions and well expressed statements.


Immoral freak show


Elusive style combined with unusual subject matter became a trademark of Korine since his directorial debut Gummo. The film portrayed the life of people in Xenia, small town in Ohio, after it was hit by a tornado. People’s lives are shattered as the town itself. Two young teenagers spend their time killing cats and sniffing glue. Some guy earns money by offering sexual pleasures with his handicapped sister. Homophobia, racist remarks, animal cruelty, you will find anything. The moral compass does not work at all in this type of environment.

But the griminess of depicted reality was not the main target of criticism. The majority of actors featured in the film, such an albino woman or a deaf couple, were unprofessional and never acted before. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin titled Gummo ‘the worst film of the year’, immoral ‘freak-show’ pleasing voyeuristic tendencies and treating the subjects as mere visual curiosities. Moreover, Korine’s ‘genre fucking’ style, which hints at being documentary truthful, manipulates the viewer in a cheap way.

However, even if the accusation seems strong, but to a certain extent all cinema is built on the pleasure of looking. The aesthetisation of the subjects in Gummo does not seem conventional or voyeuristic. Korine seems to be sincerely interested in the characters he portrays, and do not fetishes them. Most of them he knew personally, and that gave him a possibility to film the characters with empathy and sincere interest. There is always a lot of humor involved, as well as moments of tenderness which allow to see through the shock value and notice dark, twisted beauty. One of the most touching scenes is when Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) takes a bath eating spaghetti while his alcoholic mother washes his hair. Shabby and muddy environment, pink milkshake and dead barbie dolls on the wall create a visually stunning scene. Korine manages to connect contrasting elements that leave a long lasting impression.


The viewers are also made aware of their looking practice instead of confronted with alternative reality for pleasurable oblivion. The depth and value of the film depend on the viewer. And the moral of the story is left vague on purpose. The director doesn’t even have an aim to say something grandiose, just forces to see people who are usually outside mainstream representation, and does it without airbrushing. This is disturbing and fascinating at the same time.


A giant tongue


This strategy of avoiding to choose a clear position is evident in Korine’s latest film Spring Breakers which also as Gummo was blamed for being morally irresponsible. Moving away from his previous works, the director floods the screen with glamorous surfaces and acid colours, representing pop culture as seducing and thrilling, but also violent and hypersexualised space. However, many critics failed to see the hidden social commentary and became slaves of their own projections.


Many criticisms were directed to issues of sexism. In an article for The Guardian, Heather Long even criticized the film as encouraging rape culture. But this is a very flat interpretation. Focusing only on the objectification of women, Long seems not being able to pay attention to the basic concept behind the film – to subvert the cliche from the inside.


Hypersexual imagery is similar to advertising campaigns in mainstream media or MTV videos, but also pushed to the limits. ‘Girls in bikinis’ (heavily drinking and losing their mind) is more of a cultural trope on which the comment is made. Korine criticizes the subject with its own guns. Just mixes everything in an unexpected way.


It is agreeable that Korine slips a little bit, and it would be difficult to justify the camera moves that, in the words of David Edelstein, ‘glides up, down and around these women’s bodies like a giant tongue.’ But a morally responsible preacher is a role Korine would never take. And he does this intentionally. Surely, I might be just a failed feminist, but I find this strategy of making a comment far more interesting than just a criticism from the position of a detached outsider.


Moreover, Korine also makes fun of traditional masculinity which manifests itself with guns, drug dealing and Calvin Klein underwear. The comical character of Alien (James Franco) is a perfect satire of the traditional aggressive masculinity soaked in materialism. A guy is just a fearful loser who chose his path by unlucky circumstances early in his life and now just has to move further following these ideals, until the bullet hits his head.


To blame Spring Breakers for encouraging rape culture is far too strong. As it makes rather explicit comments on the ideal of normative aggressive masculinity which is the cause of this culture. Spring Breakers is not the only film where Korine addresses the standards of masculinity: it is worthwhile to remember a chair destroying scene in Gummo or the cold, rude behavior of the father in Julien Donkey-Boy. In almost every film the director does not miss the opportunity to poke machismo.


Probably the biggest problem with Korine and his critics is that the director refuses to moralise his viewers. And formal innovations in film are more important for him than making grand statements. Korine pisses off the viewers who seek well formed morals from cinema.


With Trash Humpers (2007) Korine managed to do it as well, and also make fun of film world elitism by presenting almost unwatchable material. At first, it is really difficult to find pleasure in seeing old men masturbating to the trash bins. Moreover, visual style is as antisocial as the subject matter. Everything looks like home video created with an amateur camera. Sure, it was a decision. Korine suggested he wanted to create something as a found object, wasted information. At the beginning, you could seriously feel your soul being destroyed, but eventually get used to the vulgarity, and recognise poetic elements that are typical of Korine.


Trash Humpers is like an ode to vandalism and anarchy. Nothing special happens. Just a sequence of elderly sociopaths smashing things, getting drunk and masturbating. A haunting and creepy effect is obtained by expressive masks worn by the main characters, and also horrific soundtrack, consisting of annoying laughter and especially memorable song ‘Three little devils’ repeated through the whole film a few times.


However, to see the trailer of the film is pretty much enough. There are many sequences of boredom and repetitiveness. Nonetheless, without them comic parts and certain monologues wouldn’t have such a lively effect. It’s a secret of Korine’s ‘mistake-ist’ approach. It is difficult to claim that his movie is bad or good. Either way you are right according to your expectations.


Life outside the normative ideals


Korine is surely first interested in the language of cinema. Emotional intensity and impression count the most. But Korine could not be called apolitical. According to Tom Austin O’Connor, ‘instead of being apolitical, Korine is better described as a dismodern or “micropolitical” filmmaker.’ This is often overlooked by his critics, and his abtract way of telling stories is interpreted just as self-indulgent formalism.

There is a grain of truth in such claims, especially it could be said about the film Mister Lonely. The film has two main storylines: the first gives a look at melancholic and humorous life of celebrity impersonators, and the second portrays the life of nuns who convince themselves that they are capable of flying due to their strong faith. The stories seem not connected at all, and some episodes as the confession of the unfaithful man seems entertaining even if without a purpose.


Mister Lonely is very different in the context of other Korine’s movies, as it is quite mellow and not that shoking, except some dangerously funny scenes of nuns jumping out of the plane without parachutes or Michael Jackson impersonator, shouting at the group of pensioners, in a high-pitched voice, if they want to live forever.


Such precious moments makes you forgive some of the faults. As film critic Roger Ebert perfectly expressed ‘there is the temptation to forgive its trespasses simply because it is utterly, if pointlessly, original.’ But even if Mister Lonely is more praised for its unique cinematic approach than subject development, it is still possible to notice favorite themes of Korine: people who are lost or trapped in their own little planets and creating life outside the normative ideals.


Korine’s poetry of cinema lies on the margins, and this is not the easiest place to be. His films could be interpreted as a challenge to American middle-class values, but he is not concerned to make his messages explicit. He mostly cares about presenting images, characters and situations that never leaves you indifferent.


Korine is a versatile director always offering something uncomfortably entertaining, that makes you keep thinking long after the movie is over. In a world of postmodern pastiche and a constant flood of adaptations, reinterpretations and the same old stories, his films create unexpected and original experiences.