Harmony Korine, Maimed For His Art

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:37

    Q&A with Harmony Korine

    Despite a tendency to speak to the press in the most highfalutin' critical language, about "my films," Korine is down to earth and unpretentious. He's unguardedly earnest about movies and, perhaps because he's had the opportunity to make his own since he was 22, exhibits none of the bitterness and disillusion that come with mandatory compromise. In casual mode he's very funny. I wish readers could hear all the different character voices Korine did while telling the stories that appear below.

    Between Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine published a non-narrative novel, A Crackup at the Race Riots, and an art book of photographs of Macaulay Culkin and his girlfriend (published in a limited edition for the Japanese collectors' market, the book will be available soon at Printed Matter). He worked on two feature film projects that were eventually aborted: one about tap dancing and one called Fight.

    It's clear that Korine's movies aren't for everyone, but there can be no doubt, as far as this critic is concerned, that the guy's got an eye and an ear. What he does with them is arguably immoral or insane, sure. But if Korine's words and the images didn't penetrate, there'd be no such arguments.

    The first question refers to a New York Times profile of Korine that appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 12 "Arts & Leisure" section.

    So, how are you gonna stay hungry now that The New York Times is liking your movie?

    I don't know. It seems like my films are so divisive no matter what. No matter how many people like it, just as many, I'm sure, will hate it. With Julien Donkey-Boy I don't really see what there is to lash out about it. There's no real argument about shock for shock's sake. Even though, I was surprised in Toronto that there were people who were offended by the way I show people?I don't really know.

    Godfrey Cheshire called it "aggressively ugly."

    Yeah, that's very bizarre to me. He said that, and "gnome-like egomaniac." [It was actually "elfin egomaniac."] Fucker. Who the fuck is Godfrey Cheshire anyway?

    He's a good critic. He might just hate you for shooting on video. Did you read his big long piece about "The Death of Film"?

    I hate those declarations, like Susan Sontag. It's so ridiculous. Digital video, if it's a feature film, ends up on 35 millimeter. So it's still film. It's not like it's video and you're watching it on the television set.

    But they're going to have digital theaters. Movie theaters will, probably, become just huge tv rooms.

    Maybe. Things change. I see good and bad in it. I think, creatively, [film] can be a handicap. The reason I shot on video wasn't that I was attracted to a video esthetic. It was more that, after Gummo, I was kind of dissatisfied with the filmmaking process?at the lack of intimacy it provides.

    I think [Julien Donkey-Boy] is the most beautiful-looking film I've ever made. It seems a strange argument to me, this idea of purity. Like with music, if you work with a computer or a sampler it's not music anymore. Look at the story. The idea of having to justify some technology, in this day and age, seems like such a stupid kind of, such an old dialogue. It's such a middle-age, middle-class polemic. I hate it. Look at the story. Look at the characters.

    It's still images.

    Yeah. That argument, it doesn't even make sense to me.

    It makes sense to me to the extent that you don't want to go overboard. Like when CDs came in, it was absurd that all of a sudden you couldn't get vinyl, but that's been corrected now, for the most part.

    How can anyone generalize? For this movie, it could only have been shot this way. I wanted hidden cameras on the actors. I wanted spy cameras, and to send actors into situations with people who didn't know they were being filmed. Real scenes?and then you get permission from the people afterwards. That's what we did. We had up to 30 cameras at a time. We shot 160 hours of footage. I wanted to be able to improvise, almost like you improvise in music. I wanted to be able to do everything on camera and not have to worry about lighting, or the actors hitting their marks or anything like that. I wanted it to be free.

    Talk to me about the way you piece it all together. You've defended the break with narrative structure in terms of poetry, that there can be poetry out of pictures. Poetry doesn't have to follow the rules that prose does, but it still has rules. Do you feel like you're making metaphors and rhythms when you edit down 160 hours of footage? Is it just intuitive?

    I think the best films have a poetic truth to them. I don't think there's ever an ultimate truth, even in documentary or cinema verite, there's always a manipulation or a point of view. But something hovers about the great works, to me?like The Night of the Hunter or The Passion of Joan of Arc?there's something more insightful than truth. Because my syntax is different from, say, Martin Scorsese's, I'm not gonna be directly influenced by someone like Michael Powell or David Lean, or John Ford or Nicholas Ray. I have my own set of influences and ultimately, when I'm making a film, because my syntax is different?and I'm 25?I don't need to resemble a generation of filmmakers before me. That kind of narrative film?even if I enjoy those movies?it's not the way I think. It's not the way my brain works. Ultimately, it's not the way I wanna make?or watch?movies.

    What it comes down to is that I'm writing these scenes and showing these images because no one is giving me these things the way I want to see them: y'know, projected. I feel like the only thing that might be shocking about my films is that maybe it's the first time you see this image projected in this way. Or maybe it's that if you film something that someone considers grotesque in a beautiful way it's upsetting, or vice versa?if you film something that's beautiful in an ugly way. It's kinda confusing to certain people.

    When did you learn to shoot still photography?

    It's just like movies. I dunno. For me there's just images I want to see. I know about framing and stuff, but I'm more concerned with what's in front?what I'm taking pictures of.

    That brings us to Fight.

    I couldn't really finish it. It got to a point where I was getting really hurt and arrested and weird shit started happening. I broke my left ankle and I couldn't tap-dance. I was gonna make this tap dance movie, too, and I literally can't tap-dance anymore. It fucked the whole thing up.

    Well, what was the idea?

    Of the tap dance movie or Fight?


    For the tap dance movie I was trying to invent new styles of tap. It was gonna be an hour and a half of?I was trying to invent new moves for the tap world because I felt like I hadn't really seen anything new for a while. With Fight I really wanted to make a great comedy. I thought that was the best way to achieve it. And I wasn't really feeling the pain until the next day.

    Adrenaline rush?

    Yeah. I'd get a little drunk, but not so drunk that my motor skills weren't working. I did a few?one after the other. But what I didn't really think about was how short hard-core fights last. When you're fucking hitting each other in the head with bricks, it can only go two or three minutes, so?

    ?you would have needed at least 30 bouts for a feature.

    Out of the six or seven fights that I did, maybe I have 15 minutes of pure, hard-core bone-breaking. And it's really brutal!

    Can I see?

    No, I don't have it here. I was gonna actually show it at some gallery.

    You'd instigate people until they hit you?

    I would go around with a camera crew and the only rules were that I couldn't throw the first punch, and the person I was confronting had to be bigger than me. Because that's where the humor comes in. It wouldn't be funny if I was fighting someone my size. They had to be bigger than me, and no matter how bad I was getting beat up?unless I was gonna die, that was the rule, unless I was like passed out and they were still killing me?they couldn't break it up. Because that's where the comedy comes in as well.

    In the last fight you just see this fucking bouncer from Stringfellow's. I'm lying in the street and my leg is up on the sidewalk?it'd taken me forever to get him to fight me. I'd have to say whatever it took to make someone fight me. I'd get in their face and I'd say whatever, it didn't matter, to get them to throw the first punch. And then once they threw the first punch it was on. And we just went, y'know, mad.

    So this guy took forever. He's a big bouncer, and he's wearing a tuxedo and shit? No matter what I said the guy wouldn't do anything. Nothing I could do. Just, "You fuckin' little shrimp?get the fuck outta here." So then some stripper, some bitch that worked there, walked out with a balloon on her wrist. And she's in high heels, y'know, "What's going on?"

    So I went up to her and I went like this [a feigned backhand smack]?like my dad used to do to me when he'd drive. Because I never used to be comfortable as a kid. I was never comfortable as a kid. We'd drive and he'd go like that right in front of my face. He wouldn't hit me?he'd just go [demonstrates]. So I was always, like, nervous.

    So I did that exact same thing to her. In the video you see, I turn around and [the camera crew] are across the street, sitting on a stoop?four or five people. There's some producer with a clipboard, writing shit down, [keeping track of] whoever gets in the frame. And as I'm turning around you see the guy take me by the back of the head and the belt and just throw me into the middle of the street. I just get tossed into the middle of the street. So I jump up and I'm like, "Yeah, right on!" He comes running out, and the guy is so pissed. I took a brick?it was like a piece of broken sidewalk?and smashed him in the head when he got close. Really hard. All this blood went everywhere. It went on his shirt and my shirt.

    It hit him in the forehead?

    In the side. I whacked the fuck out of his head. All this blood just went kshhhhht. Then I started taunting him. So he starts running after me. We're going around this car, running in circles, and that's where the whole Buster Keaton thing comes in. It's really high comedy.

    Finally he catches up to me and just goes boom. Busts me in the face. Right on the lip. I just go flying back. And this is the funniest part. This is where, really, the comedy comes in. I'm like, "Yeeeees," because I'd get off on the pain. It'd just make me like, mmmmmm. Because as a kid, growing up, in Tennessee, violence was just a way of life. Everybody, no matter how big you were or anything?I'm a teeny guy, and I was even a smaller kid?but it was like no matter what, you had to fight. It was one of those things?a real redneck thing. Violence was part of life. I hated getting hit, but I never minded it so much when it was a fight. I hated getting hit by teachers, or by my parents, I didn't like that. But a fight's all right, as long as you have some kind of chance.

    So anyway, I got back up and tried to throw this trash can. There's a trash can on the sidewalk and I'm like, "C'mon you cocksucker!" I go to pick up this trash can and throw it at him, but the fucking thing is chained to a lamppost! And the guy just knocks me out. Literally knocked me out. I fell back on the street and hit the back of my head.

    So my left foot is?you can see on the video that my left foot is up on the sidewalk. And you just see the guy run up and go [mimes a two-footed stomp] and snap my fucking ankle.

    Both feet?

    Yeah, both. My ankle just goes like that [gestures as if snapping a twig]. I'm smiling in the video. You see me get up and go to hit him or whatever. I had no idea.

    You must have been more than a little drunk.

    No, you just get to this point where you're like, "Yeeeeah!" Then the cops came. The producer is right across the street?tried to explain it. Y'know, "We're making a movie here." And she's like, "Can we have your signature on this release form? It's a film!" And the guy, the bouncer?it's amazing?got so sad when he found out?

    ?it was all staged.

    He was like, "Oh my God, if I knew this, I never would have touched the guy!" And so he signs the release form. And the girl beside him is totally in tears, the stripper. She's like, "Don't sign it! He's not a director?he needs to be locked up in a mental institute!" And then the cops are trying to figure out what the fuck's going on. They don't understand or believe any of it. So they're like, "Let me see the camera." And all I could think was, "Please God don't let them confiscate the tape. Don't let them take the footage." They were pressing buttons and shit. They pressed pause and they couldn't get it off pause. They couldn't even figure out how the fuck to watch it. So they handed it back and of course they arrested me.

    I remember being in the cell, in the station right by my old place, and I'm sitting there and all of sudden blood started pouring down the front of my face. They'd handcuffed me and shit. And I was like, "Can I have a napkin or a tissue to wipe this off?" And I just remember the guy bringing me like one tissue. I wasn't like even a Brawny or a stack of four or five tissues. The guy gave me one of those really thin pizza tissues. Y'know, one of those pizza napkins. I was like, "Jesus, thanks a lot." It fuckin' didn't do anything. I put it up there, and he's asking me questions, y'know, where I live, my name. And nothing I said made any sense. It came out?it was totally?I couldn't gather my thoughts at all. And I realized I'd had a concussion.

    But wasn't your ankle just hanging by a thread?

    At that point I didn't even realize it. My friends that had waited for me tried to get me to go to the hospital [when I got out]. They were trying to talk to me but I wasn't making any sense at all. So they got really worried. I got really tired so I fell asleep, and they watched me. And then the next day I woke up and oh my God I was in such pain. I took my shoe off, my sock off, and my ankle?we took photos of it. My ribcage was just all purple and yellow. The pictures were in Thrasher magazine?my ankle was just like?the bone never healed right. I even put a cast on it, but the thing never healed right. Look at that. [He removes shoe to show a weird protrusion just above the heel.] It fuckin' hurts every time I try to? There's no hope of me tap-dancing. I remember putting a pair of tap shoes on a few months later, but it couldn't work.

    Were you able to tap-dance before?

    Well, I invent my own styles. I got a few hours of me just tapping in a raincoat.

    Wasn't there an MTV spot of you dancing? Did I dream that? I only saw it once?

    Yeah. I did a thing where I was dancing in Chinatown. There's a lot of dancing in my new movie.

    Is that all from growing up in Tennessee, that you're into tap dancing and vaudeville and old-time music?

    There wasn't much vaudeville in Tennessee.

    I just mean that kind of down-home entertainment.

    I don't know?I always liked it. I like to watch people who don't dance, or who can't really dance in a formal way, really dance. I like to ask people to really go all out and dance. There's something amazing about how people interpret dance moves through their body. That's why I put this girl who's an 11-year-old blind figure skater in my movie. She was on Hard Copy or something. There was something about a girl who's 11 and totally blind and wanted to be in the Olympics. They showed this footage of her and it was so amazing. It was the girl and obviously she couldn't see, she was totally blind, so she had no way to reference what it looked like to ice skate. So she was bumping into walls and shit. She was like Stevie Wonder on ice. She was kinda making up her own moves, doing these really exaggerated kinda ice skating moves, and then kinda falling. But also, because she was blind, everyone would clap, really cheer her on. So I think she was like, "Yeah, I'm going to the Olympics!" I was like, fuck, that's amazing. Whenever she'd say she's going to the Olympics?no one would tell a blind 11-year-old, "No, you're blind. You're not going to make it to the Olympics." So everyone's like, "You'll go there," so in her head, she was totally like, "I'm gonna be an Olympian."

    When I saw that I wanted to make a documentary about her?but then I just incorporated her into [Julien Donkey-Boy]. She's really good.

    Did you read what David Denby just wrote about Dogma? He said [in the Sept. 13 New Yorker] it was just a way for filmmakers to say they're pious. It seemed like you and him were kinda in agreement, seeing as you broke some Dogma rules and wrote a comic confession.

    [The confession appeared, without Korine's consent, in a Julien Donkey-Boy ad in the Sept. 12 New York Times.]

    He wrote a scathing thing about Dogma?

    It was more dismissive than scathing.

    So weird. I don't understand. There's all these 60s analysts, these jaded movie critics. I don't see how you can dismiss [Dogma] as a movement. Especially if you look at films that it's yielded, even if you don't like them. At least people are trying to do things differently. At least there's filmmakers who care about cinema and care about the direction. It's easy to write it off and say it's a hype thing, or marketing, but if you look at the films, I think it's good work. I think it's a good idea?a rescue action. It's about the elevation of cosmetics to God. It's not about hiding behind a facade and trickery. You can argue the rules but for the filmmakers, at least, it's not about arguing?it's about accepting it like you would accept the Ten Commandments or something. Blindly accept it.

    Obviously all my films won't be Dogma films, but it's good to know that Dogma exists, because as a filmmaker you can go back and it is a kind of redemption. It's a way to redeem yourself in cinematic terms. You purify yourself by following the Vow of Chastity.

    It's like kosher law.

    It's just religion. They're all laws and rules, with faith involved.

    What's the faith part, that film can be art?

    Right. That you're pushing some kind of?that you're not doing it for an esthetic purpose, you're doing it more for a?the idea is that you're forcing some kind of honesty or truth, or something close to truth, out of a situation. That it's more about documenting something than it is about manipulating it.

    So what's the faith?

    That by following these rules?you'll be forced to reckon with some kind of truth, or some kind of poetic truth.

    It would be simple to make a Dogma movie that's fairy-tale as well. It would just be more organic-looking. I'd like to make a $100 million Dogma movie? It has nothing to do with economics, or indie or anything.

    Well, you gotta understand that if people are dismissive it's because Hollywood people and celebrities talk pretentiously about art and religion all the time?like Alanis Morissette thinks she's a poet, Madonna studies the Talmud.

    Right, right, right.

    So as a critic you have to resist by writing that these phonies are pumping out pure product.

    Right. But it's weird because it's like being angry.

    It's being cynical.

    It's definitely cynical. Most critics are cynical?most people are cynical. But it's like being anti-French New Wave. How can you be dismissive over such a wide?if you look at the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, those directors have very little to do with one another. Even though I don't like 95 percent of the films that were made by the so-called New Wavers, there are certain movies, mainly films by Godard, that are good. So it's like saying: I hate all black people. You have to take every person, or every film, on its own merits. Julien Donkey-Boy, besides the Vow of Chastity, has very little to do with The Celebration, or The Idiots or any of the Dogma movies. None of them have much to do with each other except for that. So it's weird to be that dismissive. But anyone who's gonna be like that, who the fuck cares what they think?

    I loved when they all hated Gummo. It was exciting for me, as a young critic, because I could see what was good about it and the establishment couldn't. With rock 'n' roll, almost no matter what we liked, the boomer critics were right behind us, loving it too.

    That's why I liked Ozzy at a young age. Ozzy was the first guy, at least in Tennessee, who all the parents were?when Black Sabbath or Ozzy came to town it was like, "You can't go," the church would picket, so I was like 10 years old and I immediately wanted to see Ozzy. I never even heard his music before, but I was like, Fuck, this guy's gotta be great. He was on the news. He pissed on the Alamo, he's biting off the heads of bats. "This guy's gotta be amazing!" So I went and saw Ozzy and it was such a big thing.

    Rolling Stone always called Sabbath stuff like "aggressively ugly." But I'm getting to that age, I guess, where I'm starting to question youthful rebellion?if there's really any value in it.

    No, it's good just to like things that are horrible because everyone hates it. I like that kinda stuff. It's good when you're young. Now?there's no Ozzy right now.

    What's with the tattoos?

    Did your mom get upset when you came home with a cross tattooed on your finger?

    [imitates] "You're a Jewish boy!" Oh yeah, forget it, hates it. I just thought getting an upside-down cross on my finger would be the best thing to do. What would be better?

    If you're gonna disqualify yourself from a Jewish cemetery it might as well be with a cross.

    When I lived at my grandma's house the Hasids used to always yell at me.

    You mean out in Queens?

    Yeah. I remember I almost got in a fistfight once. I was 17 or 18. I was living at my grandma's house. I would write all day long and then?there's a Blockbuster down the street from my grandmother's in Kew Gardens?so I'd walk to the Blockbuster at night and rent movies. I remember walking to Blockbuster and it was so hot, the middle of summer, like 110 degrees. And there's a 30-year-old Hasid with full garb on, sweating his ass off, wearing like six layers, jackets and four overcoats. He had a huge plastic bag full of tin cans, Pepsi cans and stuff. It was draped over his shoulder. And he looks at me and he goes, "Do you know where there's a recyclable machine near here? Something I can put my cans in?" And I was like, "No, I have no idea." And he goes, "Are you Jewish?" I was walking away, and I said, "Yeah," and he goes, "Then where's your yarmulke you FUCK?" He said that! He called me a "fuck." And I was like, "What the hell? You son of a bitch!" When I was like 400 feet away the guy wouldn't stop yelling at me: "You're no Jew, you bastard, you dirty bastard!" I was like, "Look at you, with your cans in the sun. Asshole."

    When you try to tell a story without using traditional narrative, do you try to structure it like a dream?

    I never remember my dreams.

    You don't know what a dream is like?

    No. I've always been jealous of people who like keep a dream diary. Usually I hate dreams. There's nothing more boring than when someone's like, "I gotta tell you about my dream last night!" There's nothing worse than hearing somebody's dream.

    Yeah, but they're interesting when you have them.

    I've never been able to remember mine. I go to sleep and I wake up and it's like?

    ?it's like you blinked?

    No, I know I dreamed because sometimes I'll have a dream but I'll have no idea what it was when I wake up. I can't remember any dream I've ever had. It's the worst, whenever I hear about, like, Jack Kerouac's dream book. Ugh. Horrible. There's no foundation in anything real.

    Werner Herzog said something funny about you and him having late puberty in common. He said that had something to do with filmmaking.

    Yeah, that's funny, I forgot about that. He also said his being cast as my father is "no accident."

    All of a sudden, [director Bernardo] Bertolucci became a big fan of my movies too. It's really strange. I read things he was saying in interviews, about the cinematic landscape or something. Then I got a phone call from him right before Venice. We gave him a private screening [of Julien Donkey-Boy] right before Venice. He's a nice guy.

    I like the one he did called Luna. It's a movie with Jill Clayburgh about incest. He made it in the 70s?all the critics just hated it and it's so good. She plays this opera singer, kind of neurotic, and her 15-year-old son is a heroin addict. There's this amazing scene, it's so good. They're in Italy and he's kicking, in such pain, on the couch shivering, and she doesn't know what to do. She starts to rub him. She starts rubbing his leg. He moves a little bit and the next thing you know she's rubbing his cock. She starts to jerk him off, and it's an amazing scene because it's confusing. There's so much there. She starts touching like she wants to comfort him, because he's ill, and then she ends up masturbating him. Even that is, in a weird way, so sexy because it's done out of the motherly?it's sexual but she's making her son come to reveal his pain. It's an act of motherly love, to ease his pain. She does it in a real loving way. The act itself is kind of not motherly, but how she does it, it's very motherly.

    But that movie almost ruined her career. People really hated it. They hated her for it.

    So, to generalize: You like images that are dissonant.

    Oh yeah, definitely.

    That's funny because your name's Harmony.

    Yeah. You couldn't have given me a less apt name. "Harmful" is so much better. Anything I do, the best art for me, works on a few different levels. It's like life?to not just work on a single emotion. One person thinks it's funny, another person thinks it's sad, or to make you feel guilty about laughing or enjoying something is always a great feeling. Even more?the best stuff makes you question why you're feeling or thinking [what you're thinking or feeling]. It makes you question yourself.

    What's with dressing casual and talking arty? That upsets the press. You should talk like Sylvester Stallone if you're gonna dress like that.

    That's true. I grew a beard because of this enfant terrible thing. It took me months?I'm serious. It was like, Okay, if I shave I look like I'm 16. So I made a conscious decision, I was sick of hearing that. I want people to write more about the movie and less about me. So I figured if I grew a beard that would but help. But now I look like a 16-year-old with a beard? I know that Sylvester Stallone has to have soft-core porn in his trailer. Not hard-core. He's gotta get, not the Playboy channel?Spice. He's addicted to the Spice Station. He doesn't want to see any real intercourse. He needs that.

    It's probably a boxing thing. He's probably saving sperm.

    Oh yeah, I do that too, while I'm directing. Conserve my semen.

    You save sperm?

    Nah, I don't conserve it. I splash it everywhere.

    Everybody's got their secrets for success.

    There's some great boxer, he's like a featherweight. I don't know his name. His whole thing is he would drink two or three espressos right before [a fight]. That was always his edge. It was true?you could see. He would drink these espressos a few seconds before he walked out and the guy, his eyeballs were like bursting. It's so much better than coke, y'know. It was so much of his winning technique, the espresso.

    He'd be like sitting in the corner between rounds with the little cup?

    Yeah. I saw this one fight?they showed the other guy, backstage, he's shadowboxing and jumping rope. And then this guy, he's on a red velvet couch and he had a little cappuccino in a really nice cup, with a coffee dish underneath it. And he was drinking with his pinky up. It was so good. And the guy with the cappuccino just destroyed him. And you know how most guys are like, "I wanna thank God"?he was like, "I wanna thank so-and-so coffee on 54th St. for making the best damn 'spresso this side of the muthafuckin' Mississippi!" It was so good.