Director in Focus: Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine may be the single most divisive filmmaker in the world. When he releases a film, critics are quick to dismiss him as provocateur and a hack. On the other end of the spectrum, Korine has a devoted fan base that hail him as a true visionary genius. His 1997 film “Gummo” appeared on three critics lists and two directors lists for the 2012 Sight and Sound poll as one of the ten greatest films ever made.

His first foray into the world of film came to light with a script he wrote at the age of 19 entitled “Kids.” A 1995 film directed by Larry Clark, “Kids” is the story of a group of teenagers who live in New York at the height of the AIDS pandemic. It dealt with drug abuse and sexual promiscuity, and quickly made headlines as the most controversial film of that year.

“Kids” remains a shocking and relevant portrait of teenagers behaving badly. Korine’s script is incredibly perceptive and orchestrates his knack for writing witty and authentic dialogue. It is unlikely anyone could have predicted this young screenwriter would go on to make some of the most challenging works to come out of the American underground.

With a budget of less than $1 million, Korine’s directorial debut “Gummo” remains one of the most provocative films of the 90s. With its elliptical editing and philosophical narration, the film has more in common with the directing style of Terrence Malick than many of Korine’s detractors would like to admit. The movie polarized critics and audiences, with many dismissing it as pretentious and disgusting.

The story takes place in a small Midwest town that was struck by a tornado. It explores the residents of the town, most of whom take part in destructive and abhorrent behavior in a very loose and unrestrained narrative. Criticized for its shocking imagery, the humanity and desperation in Korine’s film are often overlooked. “Gummo” remains a sad and beautiful masterpiece about the aftermath of tragedy and a film in serious need of a critical re-evaluation.

The 1999 film “Julien Donkey-Boy” took his avant-garde aesthetics even further. It was shot on digital video and followed the life of a schizophrenic, Julien, and his strange family. Korine recruited another legendarily filmmaker, Werner Herzog, to play Julien’s father in a truly hilarious and bizarre performance. This film, similar to “Gummo,” was unfairly panned by the masses, and Korine was labeled as a shock-filmmaker. In reality, Korine’s film was showcasing a side of America that people never see, and maybe are afraid to see.

Korine fell into a deep depression after “Julien Donkey-Boy” and started abusing hard drugs. He didn’t make another film until 2007’s “Mister Lonely” — a tale about celebrity impersonators living on a commune together. It was not the invigorating return-to-form that many had hoped, and it alienated fans of his older work. Korine, however, was not discouraged, and came out with another film just two years later.

The 2009 release “Trash Humpers” served as a sigh of relief to his fan base as it contained all the rawness of a passionate filmmaker. Shot on VHS, the film has a nostalgically sloppy quality that is shocking and gorgeous.

Korine became more steadily prolific afterward, directing videos for The Black Keys and Die Antwoord and releasing a number of short films.

Korine is set to release a new film that is currently making its festival rounds. The movie “Spring Breakers” stars Disney starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez as two booze-drinking, hard-partying teenagers that descend into a life of crime. It also stars James Franco in one of his oddest roles yet. The film got a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and is receiving outstanding reviews from the people who have seen it. It was recently picked up by a distributor and is set to be released in 2013.

It cannot be stressed enough that it’s necessary to dive into Korine’s previous work before viewing his most mainstream effort to date. His films show the abstract beauty of America’s wastelands and the heart and soul of the characters who populate them. It is essential to view his movies with an open mind. They are deeply challenging and rewarding, and perhaps some of the most misunderstood films of our time. Love or hate him, Korine is an original who never shies away from the misrepresented side of this country. America should be proud.


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