I was first introduced to Harmony Korine last year during a class screening of Gummo. No one in the class had seen the film before, and all of us had no idea what to expect. As the film went on, most of my classmates got more and more unsettled; during a particular scene involving spaghetti and a bathtub, a few people had to look away in horror. By the time the credits rolled, several students said, “Thank God.” A few people outside were talking about how much they disliked it, calling it exploitative and disgusting. All I could say then was that I thought I liked it, but I didn’t know why. Like the rest of his filmography, Harmony Korine’s Gummo is so separate from what most people think of as “cinema” that it’s easy to dismiss it as trash. Yet, under the initial reaction of shock that comes with watching Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, or Korine’s other feature films lies an almost sincere and kind empathy for the forgotten or ignored people of America: the poor, the drug addicts, the mentally handicapped, the bizarre and the absurd.
Harmony Korine’s career started when he wrote the screenplay for Kids (1995) in his early twenties, directed by Larry Clark and about a group of teenagers in New York City during the AIDS crisis. From there, Korine made Gummo, his directorial debut, and has since directed five other features (his most recent film, The Beach Bum starring Matthew McConaughey, is now playing in theaters). The three features discussed below–Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy and Spring Breakers–each examine different types of people within America, but all use similar experimental narratives and dark humor to reflect the absurdity of life. The characters within these films search for some escape from their own limitations, yet those searches are almost always futile and change nothing. Korine depicts classes of people that are rarely represented on screen and challenges his audience to think and feel differently than they would by watching a more commercial film.
Taking place in Xenia, Ohio several years after a tornado hit, Gummo acts as a collage of several inhabitants of the town finding things to do to pass the time. Tummler and Solomon are two boys who ride bicycles hunting stray cats to kill and sell to the local butcher. The three sisters Dot, Helen, and Darby obsess over images of celebrities in magazines and on TV. A boy wearing pink bunny ears (aptly named “Bunny Boy”) wanders through town on a skateboard. Intercut with the main characters are a series of small vignettes: a kid playing tennis and talking about his ADHD, a drunken party of adults wrestling in a small room, two skinhead brothers boxing each other in a kitchen. The bizarre and ultimately destructive actions the inhabitants get into appear to be outlets for the frustration of living in abject poverty. Remnants of pop culture are recycled and used by characters to identify with a world so firmly separated from their own. Korine’s casting of mostly non-actors only further heightens the sense that we are watching real people in the heart of America.
Of course, there is disturbing imagery within Gummo: one long scene has Solomon taking a bath in dirty water and given a tray of spaghetti to eat by his mother. While the boy eats, his mother shampoos his hair. Another sequence shows a man pimping out his mentally handicapped sister to several different boys. The inhabitants of Xenia appear to have no morals and act indifferent to the dirt and grime surrounding them, but Korine nevertheless treats every character with sincerity. He never tries to find humor in the people themselves, but instead in the absurdity of their living conditions; there is no romanticization in Gummo, only raw depiction. It can be argued that the film is exploitative of the non-actors performing in small roles, but no film before or since has come close to representing the “white trash” residing in America and boldly provoking its audience.
Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)
Julien Donkey-Boy was Korine’s next feature after Gummo and followed a similar style: several characters were explored over an experimental collage of various vignettes; however, Julien focuses only on a single family and has a much clearer narrative ending. The film depicts a dysfunctional suburban family centered around Julien, a young man with untreated schizophrenia. The Father (played by legendary German director Werner Herzog) is domineering and cruel towards Julien and his other children, Pearl and Chris. In different instances, he makes fun of a poem Julien performed during dinner, pushes Chris to become tougher by spraying him with cold water, and in one harrowing scene yells at Julien and Pearl for being a “dilettante” and a “slut” respectively. In the climax of the film, the heavily pregnant Pearl suffers a miscarriage at an ice rink and loses her baby. At the hospital, Julien is allowed to hold the dead baby after insisting it’s his, then runs away in a grieved panic to his home with it.
Like Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy explores unsettling themes: severe mental illness, physical and emotional abuse, and incest. Korine again chooses not to romantically portray anything, instead of going for a disturbingly realistic depiction. Throughout the film, there is a sense of helplessness that there is nothing the family can do to help Julien or themselves; a pastor suggests Julien should visit or call a doctor during confession, but Julien never does and the subject is never brought up again. To represent Julien’s mental illness, he shot the film on DV tape, then blew the footage up to 35mm to create a low-quality, grainy look. Hence, much of the world around Julien–particularly when he loses control of his sense of space and time–becomes an intense digital blur where people and objects are hard to distinguish. The editing of the film adds to this loss of reality: the DV footage is intercut with still photography and parallel cuts like the one shown above, further distorting time and plunging the audience into feeling what it must be like to have schizophrenia. The cinematography and editing make Julien a much more difficult film to get into, but Korine’s empathy and refusal to ignore uncomfortable subjects makes this an essential movie to watch if you or someone close to you has dealt with mental illness.
Spring Breakers (2012)
Korine’s most recent feature before The Beach Bum marks a departure from his previous work and his first mainstream success. Spring Breakers starred easily recognizable actors (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, James Franco) and was given a wide release after favorable reviews. The plot follows four college girls going to Florida for their spring break and descending into drugs and violence with local drug dealer Alien. Three of the girls–Cotty, Candy, and Brit–are easily seduced by violence and money; they even rob a restaurant with squirt guns and hammers to get the money to go on break. Faith (noticeably the only girl without blonde hair) slowly becomes uncomfortable with Alien and leaves her friends halfway through the movie. Regardless of its story, Spring Breakers is very much a Harmony Korine film: it uses a nonlinear narrative fueled by emotion and sensory feeling and brutally satirizes racial and class politics within America.
In a history class at the beginning, two of the girls joke about spring break with each other while the professor drones on in the background about the civil rights movement, foreshadowing where the film will go. When the girls meet Alien, he takes them to a club owned by his rival and former friend Big Arch, a black drug dealer. Big Arch tells Alien not to sell drugs in his territory, but Alien ignores him; as a result, Big Arch orders a drive-by shooting on the group, injuring Cotty. In retaliation, Alien, Brit, and Candy travel to Big Arch’s mansion, where Alien gets shot and Brit and Candy go on to kill Big Arch and his entire gang. As we see the massacre of black gang members, a voice-over of the girls plays, talking about how they’ve changed and discovered a new part of themselves. Though Alien and Big Arch are initially shown to be dangerous, we see at the end of Spring Breakers that the white college girls exploited both men merely to have a “good time” and avoided any consequences. Though Korine may not be showing us an underrepresented group like with Gummo or Julien Donkey-Boy, his black humor and vitriolic critique of American society are still prevalent within Spring Breakers and expose the powerful privileges some people have over others.