Imperfect Harmony

With julien donkey-boy, director Harmony Korine continues his tradition of making flawed but fascinatingly belligerent cinema

Last fall, when Harmony Korine's eye-gouging julien donkey-boy screened at the New York Film Festival, reviewers who wished to meet its 25-year-old perpetrator in the flesh had to pass an audition with his publicist. This may be because New York Times critic Janet Maslin had earlier deemed Korine's imaginatively off-putting Gummo (1997)--whose endless atrocities include a scene of two kids selling cat meat to a butcher in trade for private time with a retarded young whore--"an aimless vision of Midwestern teenage anomie" and "the worst film of the year." Or perhaps the careful selection of interviewers stemmed from julien donkey-boy itself--a digital-video free-for-all (shot in not-so-strict adherence to the tenets of Lars von Trier's Dogma 95 collective), which follows its titular schizophrenic (Ewen Bremner) from his impulsive murder of a young boy through his more or less random adventures with a sadistic father (Werner Herzog), a pregnant sister (Chloë Sevigny), and, ultimately, her aborted fetus. (I'll save discussion of the armless drummer and the masturbating nun for another time.)

In any case, my diplomatically stated claim to Korine's flack that his film was interesting managed to get me in the room--that is, a top-floor suite overlooking Central Park. Korine came late and yawning to our noontime chat, wearing a pink oxford over a fuzzy teddy-bear T-shirt, the tender costume obviously calculated to clash with his ongoing goal of remaking Tod Browning's Freaks as a series of ever-more-garish indies. Much weirder was that this antagonistic enfant terrible--who wrote Kids as a Washington Square skate punk in 1993--would prove so articulate on the subject of what ails American film culture these days.


Anger is an energy: julien donkey-boy director Harmony Korine
Anger is an energy: julien donkey-boy director Harmony Korine

CITY PAGES: Why are exceptions to the rule of formulaic filmmaking so rare?

HARMONY KORINE: I think the movie business in general--at least in America--really looks down upon people trying to make films in a different way. Film has always been such an elitist art form--there's so much money involved that it's basically art by jury. That's why it's a miracle every time you see a movie on the screen that's really great, you know? It's such an unusual art form, because as a director you really have to battle with people to convince them of your vision. It's not like being a painter, where you can just stand up and paint on a canvas.

CP: And yet, in spite of these obstacles, you've made two features now, and both have been distributed. To what do you attribute your success--aside from your talent?

KORINE: Well, I said it back when I wrote Kids, the summer after I turned 18: I would only make films the way I wanted to make films--exactly. I didn't want to get into this business and start having to compromise and collaborate with people whose opinions I don't respect or care about. I love cinema, and I wanted to make movies because I felt like I wanted to see a different kind of film that no one else was making. Luckily, I've worked with the same producer [Cary Woods], and he basically trusts me and understands me. I'll say, "I need this much money--now leave me alone and I'll give you a movie."

CP: It seems no coincidence that your work has emerged around the same time as the rise of digital video. The inexpensiveness of shooting digital would seem more conducive to your contentious style of risk-taking.

KORINE: There's also just a lack of talent out there. By the time most people get a chance to direct, they're so worried about their careers that they'll squelch whatever experimentation they might have brought to it. They'll make a film like everyone else makes. It's a kind of self-censorship.

CP: Are there other working American filmmakers whose careers you're interested in?

KORINE: American-wise, there's not really anyone--besides maybe someone like Clint Eastwood. Current American cinema is just not something that inspires me--which isn't to say that I'm not looking to be pleasantly surprised, but it just doesn't happen. I think there are a few directors in this world right now who are trying to push the form ahead, like Lars [von Trier] and Thomas [Vinterberg]. I like Leos Carax [The Lovers on the Bridge], I like Claire Denis [Nenette et Boni]. Chantal Akerman [D'est] is interesting. Godard still makes good films.

CP: Where did your love of movies come from?

KORINE: Well, my dad didn't really talk to me all that much when I was growing up, but he really loved movies, so going to films was something we always did as a family. I lived really close to Vanderbilt University, and they used to have an art cinema that would play a different double feature every night for two dollars. That's how I got to see the old European masters. As a teenager, I became very voracious. I would go to movies every day.

CP: Were movies your first artistic love?

KORINE: Yes. For me, cinema was always--and it still is--the greatest art form. It has the potential to do things that no other art form can do. It can go deeper, because it's everything combined--sight, sound, text, anything you want it to be. Just the act of going to movies is a kind of [pauses]...deeply personal act. I've figured out more about myself sitting in theaters than anywhere else. The thing is, there's a certain group of people--the Sixties-era, auteurist critics--who have a very narrow definition of what cinema is and what it can be. They've been declaring the end of cinema, saying that we've reached a point where we can't do anything else. And I think that's ridiculous.

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