Every Harmony Korine film reviewed

harmony korine

Harmony Korine is a controversial filmmaker born in 1973 – so controversial, I suspect he was really born in 1971. Reviewed: Kids (1995), Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Ken Park (2002), Mister Lonely (2007), Trash Humpers (2009) and Spring Breakers (2013).

Kids (1995) – 7/10

Director: Larry Clark
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Leo Frizpatrck, Rosario Dawson, Chloe Sevigny
“That shit is fucking made up. I don’t know no kids with AIDS.”

kidsThe manufactured thrills of Project X suffer in comparison to Kids. Mumblecore’s recent popularity has seen its stars praise John Cassavettes, but not so much this collaboration between Korine and Clark. It’s perplexing. Kids captures with authenticity the behaviour of disaffected youth, without shying away from violence or depravity. The pseudo-documentary spends a day with horny teenagers who beat up strangers, take drugs and have unprotected sex – all while oblivious of the AIDS crisis. It distils the hopelessness of a generation and ignored underclass; coping, yet with nothing to lose.


Gummo
(1997) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Jacob Sewell, Nick Sutton, Jacob Reynolds
“These two brothers, they murdered their parents. They both claim to be raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

GummoThere’s a video on Youtube of Harmony Korine on David Letterman’s show; he’s a nervous, fidgety 19-year-old mercilessly mocked by Letterman for poorly promoting Gummo. The audience laughs at – not with – Korine when he explains that his directorial debut reinvents the last century of cinema.

If only that audience had seen Gummo. After a tornado destroys a town in Ohio, its  residents continue their nihilistic lives. The vignettes use mostly non-actors in a manner so uncompromising, it forces a physical reaction. It portrays an underside of America never shown in the media without distortion, where activities include breaking chairs, using rifles and pretending to be dead.

As Korine promised Letterman, Gummo breaks the rules of filmmaking: improvised scenes are interrupted with shoddy home footage with an unconnected monologue. Werner Herzog praising a scene where in the background, a piece of bacon is taped to the wall. It’s an example of the recurring image of decay. Although no real animals are used, several cats are purported to be killed for nihilistic reasons. In the first few minutes a cat is drowned, and later one of the most memorable shots is of a young boy, dressed as a rabbit, proudly holding a dead cat to the camera. It’s never truly explained, but makes sense in the world of Gummo, where even a scene with a man wrestling a chair can be frightening. The only salvation is from music – whether it’s Madonna on the radio, or Roy Orbison on the soundtrack.


Julien Donkey-Boy
(1999) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Ewen Bremner, Chloe Sevigny, Werner Herzog
“The mailman loves me. He loves me not.”

julien-donkey boyThe Julien Donkey-Boy experience is akin to stepping into an exhibition at an art show; in a sideroom, you’re amused by the projected video for five minutes, then move to the next spectacle. By following Dogme 95’s rules, Korine uses distorted images with shuffled scenes; the meaning is shrouded by mystery and patience for shock tactics.

The viewer’s point of view is through a schizophrenic man, explaining the unconventional narrative which was probably made up on the spot and edited with precise inconsistency. It can sound provocative, even enticing: inventive use of camera, Werner Herzog drinking from a shoe, a masturbating nun. The reality is a lesser version of Gummo that delves into fewer characters with less to offer.

Despite a late surge of energy from a church choir, there’s little to enjoy. It also isn’t offensive, regardless of a few provocative set pieces (as I said earlier, there’s a masturbating nun). The hope is that a peculiar feature like this is an experience of some sort, but it’s more a satisfaction of endurance.


Ken Park
(2002) – 0.5/10

Director: Larry Clark
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Bullard, James Ransone, Stephen Jasso, Tiffany Limos
“Nobody loves me.”

ken park 2The disjointed feel of Ken Park is partly from the film’s structure: four depraved stories loosely bookended by a suicide. It’s also the case of a director working from someone else’s discarded script – written by Harmony Korine in 1993 when he was just 18. It’s possible that Ken Park was made a decade after its conception to capitalise on Korine’s fame, but that’s the cynicism you detect from a film that’s so desperate to shock; it’s easy to imagine Larry Clark thinking about the media controversy throughout the whole shooting.

Detractors might say the same thing about Clark and Korine’s earlier collaboration, Kids, but that took on a moment and followed an underclass rarely shown in film. The focus in Ken Park is less on real people, but how to challenge the censors; multiple instances of incest, rape and unsimulated sex are so overblown, it should be unintentionally funny if it wasn’t so dull.

Maybe Clark could be applauded for being bold enough to cross boundaries, but his intentions are transparent. For example, one character uses a knife to cut a cake, then walks into a bedroom to use that same knife to stab his grandfather for using a word in Scrabble that isn’t in the dictionary – oh, and he’s completely naked with an erection during the process. Earlier, that same character masturbates, with his erect penis in the centre of the screen; when he’s finished, the camera zooms in on his ejaculate.

These scenes keep following each other without any momentum or much point other than a determination to be weird with everything. Yes, everything. Even the simple things. A man drinks water from the tap. Use a cup! Bear in mind that Ken Park was never released in the UK because the director punched the head of the UK distributor in the face at a restaurant.

Maybe it could have worked if Korine was behind the camera, with Gummo finding beauty within the vile, but with Ken Park there’s little below the surface; when you watch a boy clip his mother’s toe nails, you realise that he is accomplishing more that you.


Mister Lonely
(2007) – 8/10

Director: Harmony Korine
Writers: Avi Korine, Harmony Korine
Starring: Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, Werner Herzog
“If you are pure enough, you will fly. God will be your parachute.”

mister lonelyHarmony Korine’s return to filmmaking follows an eight-year absence where he became addicted to drugs, tried to live on the streets, and became a lifeguard’s assistant. Apparently. It’s part of the antagonistic myth that helped build Korine’s career, but his comeback is easily his most conventional effort that confirms his talent extends beyond self-promotion.

Korine continues his lifelong ambition to create cinema that didn’t exist, but this time it’s with a surreal twist. The sad figure of Mister Lonely is a Michael Jackson impersonator who is rescued from Paris by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator; they’re both empathetic figures on their own, but the costumes and makeup amp up the pathos missing from last year’s My Week With Marilyn and, er, My Week With Michael.

Monroe takes Jackson to a Scottish commune shared by other impersonators including James Dean, Madonna and the Pope. It means their mundane lives become charming, as you watch Jackson and Abraham Lincoln ride a motorcycle around town, while back at the house is Charlie Chaplin losing his temper over table tennis.

There’s also a subplot with Werner Herzog and some nuns who jump off a plane hoping that God will be their parachute – I’ll leave you to guess their fates. When the strands are all put together, it’s overwhelming how Korine’s direction is achingly gorgeous. This isn’t like Gummo where the beauty was hidden under terror and vandalism, but it’s placed in the centre and in widescreen.


Trash Humpers
(2009) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Paul Booker, Dave Cloud, Chris Crofton, Rachel Korine
“It would be nice to live without a head. Think of all the money you’d save on shampoo.”

trash humpersHarmony Korine’s career-long quest to find beauty in unexpected places takes a nosedive with Trash Humpers, a VHS-shot tribute to grotesque destruction. The premise: vandals are dressed in makeup and masks to look disfigured and elderly; they sing obscene songs, smash objects and tell racist jokes. Oh, and they hump trash. Several times.

There is certainly an element of Korine producing the worst film possible, but by “worst” I mean something unique – the 78 minutes of Trash Humpers iscertainly an experience. With grainy footage that imitates an old video cassette, its simplicity makes Gummo look like Magnolia. It’s never as dull as it should be, as the wanton damage is too unpredictable to be repetitive, and shots of tree-fellating are too bizarre to become tiresome.

Like Julien Donkey-Boy, there are shades of Lars von Trier (particularly The Idiots) in its amateurish and spontaneous production. After a few scenes of “trash humping” begin to outstay their welcome, I wondered if there isn’t actually any social commentary. Maybe this is just a mischievous filmmaker testing whether critics could find positives in anything, and finding joy in taking something like Trash Humpers to festivals.

There’s probably a lot of truth in that, but there’s poignancy mear the end. One man delivers a monologue about feeling sorry for people who go to work and pray on Sundays. “We choose to live like free people,” he says. “We choose to live like a people should live.”

It’s the only eloquent moment of the film, and it succinctly explains the chaos and structureless vandalism. When a drunk woman looks to the sky and asks God for direction, you realise there’s more behind Korine’s vision than at first glance.


Spring Breakers
(2013) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, James Franco, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine
“I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve been. It’s way more than just having a good time.”

spring breakers ashley benson vanessa hudgens gun ski masksOn Korine’s first Letterman appearance in 1995, he’s insulted and has his name mispronounced before even saying a word. Dressed like a nervous schoolboy, he claims Kids was meant to be a sequel to Caddyshack; the studio audience is silent. He possibly welcomes that hostility (look up Fight Harm on Google), but Spring Breakers is a bolder attempt to manipulate the media.

If Hudgens and Gomez really wanted to shred their Disney images, they should have invented a metaphorical shredder or signed on for Trash Humpers. Instead, they’re in a crime-drama that’s on everyone’s lips because of the self-aware marketing: four babes in bikinis rob a bank and make friends with a Riff Raff impersonator. To hammer the point, check out the cast. (By cast, I don’t mean podcast.)

Much of the debate (back-and-forths on Twitter; newspaper comment pieces; middle-aged men explaining the ticket receipt in the bin) stems from whether Korine is being satirical or spending millions on a very dedicated masturbatory fantasy. Every aspect is self-aware, so surely there’s a message? It’s unclear. There’s pure sadness as its hungover core, conveniently glossed over in the promotional campaign. The farming of human bodies during spring break is frightening and bleak, and you’re reminded by the breaks from fantasy: extras party in what’s possibly real handheld footage, which, at best, would lead to IMDb pages without headshots.

Peer pressure motivates the alcohol and drug abuse, most obviously with Gomez’s Christian role; committing crimes against her will, it’s a wink to her audience who crave for Perez Hilton articles about a Lohanesque breakdown. Friendships are destroyed (the springs are broken!) by the binge culture that’s in love with hedonism and physical pleasures, but only the kind that you don’t want your parents to see on Facebook. What worries conservative viewers is Korine’s reluctance to hold back.

Instead, he accentuates the fantasy with pop violence – “Pretend it’s like a videogame,” becomes a mantra. The camera leerily exploits its female cast without shame; with pool scenes, it dips underwater like a shark. Hudgens doesn’t punch the camera in the nose (that’s a shark joke), but has absurd sentences like, “All this money makes my pussy wet.”

It’s a crude line, but sums up the MTV bastardisation of the American Dream. With every generation rebelling against its elders, these teenagers are trying to shock in the age of the internet. Franco even namedrops the American Dream in his hysterical “Look at all my shyeet” soliloquy that mentions Scarface more often than anything Hamlet vomited about ghosts and Pyrrhic victories.

Beneath the haze and hue, Korine crafts a world beyond a hip hop video – maybe amusing to some for a few verses, but depressing for 90 minutes. Riff Raff, upon whom Franco is based, is infamous on the internet (among people like me who don’t sleep enough) for a white rapper adopting black culture beyond caricature. It’s with him the girls feel safe, not Gucci Mane or Franco’s friends. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the school lecture they ignore is on black civil rights. It’s not just Western culture, but a fashion drilled in by advertisements, pop videos, and now film parodies.

Considering Korine’s history with sympathetically portraying outsiders, you have to understand his main aim is for the viewer to experience what’s on screen; whether the Britney Spears tributes are ironic are not, it’s worth the cinema trip for the faux-religious experience. This is what has become of teen culture; it’s ugly, glorious and hypnotic.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

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About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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2 Responses to Every Harmony Korine film reviewed

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