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Saturday Night at the Movies

By James Maker.

Autumn 99 saw the release of Harmony Korine’s Julien: Donkey-Boy. Made under the aegis of the Danish collective, Dogme 95, its manifesto adheres to certain creative tenets to ensure a new kind of honesty and purity in filmmaking. This includes filming in natural light, dispensing with artificial sound, shooting scenes in chronological sequence and using hand held cameras. For Korine, motivated against the mediocre, formulaic milieu of American cinema, it signifies a liberating departure from the elitism of that genre. Starring Ewen Bremner, Werner Herzog and Chloe Sevigny Julien: Donkey-Boy is an unscripted, improvised story concerning a schizophrenic teacher and a school for the blind. Reviews are mixed. He explains his embryonic assault on the values of mainstream cinema:

“Cinema, as Herzog says, is still a form in its infancy. Like a baby where the first leg is sticking out of the uterus. It’s like we’re only just plopping out of the womb and already our sensibilities are jaded almost beyond repair. In a sense, my whole approach is fuelled by anger [at the denigration of this century’s most powerful art form.”]

Artist, photographer and novelist, in his short yet incendiary career Korine’s iconoclasm has largely engendered controversy rather than captivation. His first international foray was as writer of Kids. Directed by Larry Clark, Kids follows a promiscuous teenager unknowingly living with the HIV virus on a safari of unprotected sex with innumerable partners. It’s an ambitious attempt to characterise the enervated, amoral gestalt of adolescent inner city New York kids; dispassionately recording them as they smoke heroin, copulate and gangbang.

Its release predictably caused a furore in the far right Republican lobby of America, which accused Korine of exploitation and depravity, leading its distributors Miramax almost to the point of withdrawal. In truth, the origins of Kids can be traced back to the American teen movies of the late 50s whose spirit served a similar yet less-provocative purpose; Kids is a hardcore cross fertilisation of High School Confidential and Warhol’s My Hustler and is, ultimately, a very moral film about unsafe sex and the spread of HIV.

Landing the Critic’s Prize at both the Venice and Rotterdam film festivals, Korine’s first directorial effort is set in his hometown of Xenia, Ohio — themed here as a tornado stricken dystopia in the Rust Belt. Gummo is a coruscating montage of Wild America’s feral, aimless, K Mart bound youthdom. We’re journeying into the inverse world of the Great American Dream. Of course, we’ve ventured down the crooked road to Weirdsville before, except that with Korine it feels like a genuine visitation.

In contrast, the contorted biology of Cronenberg’s metanarratives or Lynch’s preoccupation with the dualities of American society are intrigues of dark fiction. Korine is American Verité to their American Gothic. His dispossessed exist entirely within a recognisable landscape. If Korine is indebted to anybody, it is to the European auteurism of directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Korine employs no theatrical exposition in the traditional sense and little in the way of a linear narrative. Xenia, Ohio doesn’t need metaphysics, drama or tornados — it’s already been bombed. Its citizens are irretrievably lost, perma-adolescent. Adults are inattendant — unless you count the boozed up bunch of armwrestling shitkickers who demolish their own kitchen furniture when their 12-pack runs dry.

So, Things To Do In Xenia When You’ve Got No Future: gluesniffing; drowning cats; disconnecting life support machines; tap dancing in the basement and gluesniffing. The incongruous or unusual becomes normality through recurrence. Certainly, one is gazing upon garden variety mid Western nihilism but, refreshingly, Gummo transfixes and fails to descend into longeur. Amid the realm of Death Metal, Satanism and mindbending vacuity there are episodes of unflinching tenderness, rendering this an intensely human film. And a remarkable one at that, for it is a skill to both repel and inveigle the audience simultaneously.

In a scene of unforgettable pathos, an adolescent prostitute with Down’s syndrome awaits clients from the incongruity of her toy-littered, bubblegum pink quilted bedside. Korine appears in one vignette himself, seated on a couch with a physically stunted black male whom he attempts to kiss while recounting the emotional severance of his mother. He resolves: “I’ll die on this couch with you.” A proclamation of love which, in that Ishmaelite society, is as despairing as a suicide note.

The appearance of Bunny Boy is, possibly, a metaphorical Korine. Variously playing the harmonium, skateboarding and frolicking with Chloe Sevigny, he appears to be a free radical against the prevailing barbarism until, in a parody of queer bashing, he is symbolically slain. He reappears — Lord of the Flies style — at the close of the film triumphantly holding aloft a rain-sodden, rigid cat.

If Todd Solondz taps the vein of dysfunctionality to reveal the erosion of family, convention and society in Happiness — a counterpart to the exquisite ennui of Ang Lee’s The Ice StormGummo is more a search and destroy mission on the post nuclear family. If Solondz draws from the reel-to-real school of the chronically dyspeptic Woody Allen, Korine hails from the party monster domain of James St James’ Disco Bloodbath.

Korine has been charged with wilful indulgence and, while undoubtedly true, that same indulgence is exonerated by realism. Besides, indulgence can be a superior quality. Interesting, because if the encumbrance of drama is in discovering the truth of things, both Gummo and Kids paradoxically grasp it with ease. The storytelling of big budget Hollywood, regressing ever further towards Gumpification, appears disinterested in the exploration and the cognisance of that quality, instead pushing us towards expectancies that are patently unrealistic.

Why should we be interested? Because we need experimentalism more than ever. Korine’s transgressive films concern themselves with the world of the disenfranchised. They might be unsettling or violent but I prefer his denomination to the carpetbombing catholicism of Jan de Bont or Paul Verhoeven. He, at least, stands for more reality and more accessibility within the industry.

He represents an Anti-Hollywood.
Which is good.
For Hollywood.

First posted: Saturday, September 26th, 2009.

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