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.

 

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.

CP: It strikes me as a generational thing. These days, much of the great world cinema goes largely undistributed, and the doomsaying critics don't seem willing anymore to expend the energy required to keep up with it--which only makes things worse.

KORINE: It definitely works both ways: There's a lack of directors making innovative films, but there's also a lack of critics and audiences trying to seek out such films. You know, the Sixties' New Wave came from something: It came from dissatisfaction, an unwillingness to accept the traditional narrative film. The New Wave was almost like an uproar, a kind of revolution in cinema. And now we have a culture dominated by these careerist "independent" filmmakers who aren't any different from studio filmmakers.

And almost all of the repertory theaters are gone. You can say, Well, if people wanted to, they could rent the great films on video--but that's not cinema. If I had seen all the films that influenced me in my home, on my TV set, I would be a much different director, a much different person. Those movies were conceived to be big; they were meant to be projected at 24 frames [per second]. Cinema is overwhelming and television is underwhelming, no matter what.

CP: Then how do you address critics who find fault with your choice to shoot on video and project on a big screen?

KORINE: I don't really understand that criticism. No matter if you shoot your film on video or 35[mm], ultimately, if it's going to be projected, it's on a strip of 35mm film. The way you go about shooting doesn't really matter. What drew me to video wasn't the aesthetic of video so much as the intimacy that video provided. It's just a completely different psychology on the set when you're using a palm-sized camera, shooting without huge lighting crews and huge sets, and without worrying about film stock. What video does for me is that it allows me to improvise, technically, as quickly as my mind is working--almost in a musical way. You can do things in-camera at the spur of the moment, shooting in different speeds, at different exposures--whatever I want. For some scenes in julien donkey-boy, there'd be 20 people each holding a camera in a single room.

CP: Sounds like a big job for the editor.

KORINE: Oh, yeah. There was, like, a hundred hours of footage. But [the film] only took about three months to edit. We just started pulling apart the movie and experimenting. There was no chronological order to the scenes until the second-to-last week [of editing]. The way the film was shot and how it ended up were totally different.

CP: Is this the way you made Gummo?

KORINE:No. Gummo was, like, 85 percent scripted. After Gummo, I felt dissatisfied with the way films were made--with the lack of intimacy, and with how impersonal they were. I didn't like the pressures of only being able to shoot a certain number of takes, because I wanted angles from all directions, and I wanted the actors to just keep going and going for hours if they felt like it. So immediately I thought the only way to shoot [julien donkey-boy] was on video. I wanted 20 cameras--and I couldn't shoot with 20 35mm cameras.

CP: What is the film about, for you?

KORINE: That's one of those things that I don't really talk about. I try really hard to make a film that defies description. julien donkey-boy is about so many different things, on so many different levels. I don't really think it's about any one thing. I just say it's about a life.

CP: What's the most gratifying response you've ever had from a viewer?

KORINE: After a screening of Gummo in Canada, this guy came up to me and called me a fascist. Then he tried to stab me with a fork. I took it as a compliment.

 

julien donkey-boy starts Friday at U Film Society; (612) 627-4430.

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