The following article was published in N-SPHERE October 2010 issue.


There are many films nowadays that use the depiction of freaks, street life, sex and drugs as a selling point since it is very easy to take a position that appeals to the masses and make an emotional film about it, which may not be – in the end – a bad film, but, at its core, just a dishonest one. Amusingly enough, these films are either acclaimed or overlooked (by making a mainstream comedy about sex drugs and freaks even; and the worst thing is that critics would consider it “unfunny”). However, when a film approaches these issues in a more honest and disturbing manner, they are “obnoxious”, “immoral” and so forth.

Korine’s work falls in the “obnoxious” category mostly, which is not something entirely new, nor would it be original if it were only that. Nevertheless, there is an intimate quality surrounding his films, something you can’t label, can’t work your way around it, but yet [if you feel], to whom you feel drawn unto. The best example in this case is Gummo, a film that on a level of “disturbing-ness”, makes films such as My own private Idaho or Happiness look like a timid nun speaking about anal sex.

On the surface, Gummo is ugly, unpleasant and depressing, but it has an intimate quality, something that makes the most outlandish of characters convincing.

For those whom are not familiar with the storyline, Gummo’s plot revolves around a small town (Xenia) – hit by a tornado, three years ago – and its inhabitants. Although saying this, I basically reveal nothing since the film was shot without a formalized script or a formalized plot, for that matter. And while we are given the impression that we watch an odd documentary about a small town that faced disaster, the fact is that Xenia is a fictional town and so are its inhabitants. And yet, there is something real in all that outlandishness, that voice, those gestures, those reactions, in other words: the surface, what we can see for ourselves every day. That surface is convincing. And here is the interesting part: most films choose a different approach: they either have an off-the wall character depicted as such from the very beginning, hence using familiar material to sustain it (familiar ideas, fragments of familiar dialogue, to articulate and bridge the gap between the familiar and the alien), or they start from a character that seems normal and then they reveal his true identity, thus providing the “conspiracy theory” market new and satisfied customers. Harmony Korine doesn–t do that, he does not label his characters. He does not judge them, henceforth he does not see them as “weirdoes”. Therefore, in this case, what we first may perceive as weird becomes familiar.

There are some other interesting connections: Xenia &Xenius as Zeus &Athena, Athena being the goddess of wisdom (in Greek mythology, of course) – wisdom devastated by tornadoes, its seedlings preying their own world(s), anyone? Looking at it, this may not seem an implausible scenario.

So what’s up with Gummo, anyways? It is not a documentary, although it acts like one, and maybe the same thing can be said about the actors too. While some of them are well-known actors (Chloe Sevigny, Jacob Reynolds), I think that most of them were first–timers and remained first–timers afterwards, as well. So after which point does the fiction become a real documentary and the acting reality?

His next project, Julien, Donkey Boy, however, had a more straightforward approach, but this doesn’t mean that it entirely became more accessible. It still retains a rather bleak tone and the fascination for “freaks”… [and "introducing" Werner (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Fitzcarraldo, Herz aus Glas) Herzog]. Again, there is no formalized script and the pacing is even more contemplative than that from his previous endeavor.

The film itself doesn’t hold a deep meaning, but it is an honest and heartfelt look at things that most people wouldn’t be noticing.

Eight years later, Harmony Korine returns with another film called Mister Lonely. Unlike both Gummo and Julien, Donkey Boy, Mister Lonely’s tone is by far not that disturbing. While it retains a certain fascination for depicting off-the-wall characters, there is a childlike touch piercing throughout the whole film. We also meet Werner Herzog again, playing the role of Father Umbrillo.

Unlike his previous cinematic endeavours, here there is a far more accessible plot and a sense of familiarity about it. But this doesn’t compromise the film. The tone is still a contemplative one, there are sequences of sheer beauty playing well by themselves and the plot, even if more concrete and accessible, is not easy to handle. Instead of playing with our dark corners, this film is playing with our dreams and fantasies and the off–the–wall moments are here framed in an overall gentle tone.

All in all, Mister Lonely is a welcoming change of pace, proving that Harmony Korine can shift approaches without losing his trademark.

Two years later, the director resurfaced with Trash Humpers, which marks a return to his early roots with Gummo. But while Gummo had its poetic moments, Thrash Humpers is downright nightmarish and horrifying. There is no beginning, there is no end, and while his previous works held an obvious contemplative tone to counterpart their disturbing side, this one’s point seems to make films such as Mundo Trasho , Multiple Maniacs or Pink Flamingos look like fairy-tales.

Yet, in some cases the movie can be quite effective and – depending on the viewer – a point might emerge. This film contains only representations, no plot, no rhetoric, no eye–candy visuals, just the characters themselves, the representations themselves…

All in all, Harmony Korine’s work – even if consisting of only four films – does a fine job examining aspects that for many people are discomforting and disturbing and there isn’t one to be ignored for those whose tastes meet movies such as: El topo, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, Even Dwarves started small, Begotten and so forth.

Movie still:  Gummo. 1997.

by Shade

Full article here.