Harmony Korine: Agent provocateur

Long hailed as American cinema’s great outsider artist, with the shamlessly provocative Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine is finally a hit


In Gummo (1997) a coke fiend attempts to pimp his Down Syndrome sister to two glue sniffing, cat killing teenagers. Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) sees director turned actor Werner Herzog swig cough syrup from a slipper. In Mister Lonely (2007), a Michael Jackson impersonator moves into a Scottish commune populated by fake celebrities – Samantha Morton’s Marilyn Monroe, Anita Pallenberg’s The Queen, James Fox’s The Pope – and the real Madonna. Trash Humpers (2009) does exactly what it says on the tin.

Welcome to the mad, marvellous, messed-up world of Harmony Korine; it’s not for everybody.

American cinema’s pre-eminent, polarising bad boy has been making waves since 1995 when the then-teen skateboarder wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s controversial Kids. With or without a camera, Korine’s reputation for anarchy and antics is unrivalled: Fight Harm, his intended sophomore film, featured its creator picking real-life street fights. The project, shot by illusionist David Blaine, was abandoned when the director was hospitalised after just six brawls.

Last week, David Letterman claimed that he banned Korine from his show in 1998 after he caught the film-maker rifling through Meryl Streep’s purse.

It comes to pass that Korine’s name is seldom evoked without the epithet ‘enfant terrible’.

“I understand why,” he says, almost apologetically. “I got into a lot of trouble. And the films caused a lot of trouble. I get it. But I don’t feel it. I know that the films are on the side of righteousness. Even if they’re disturbing, they’re coming from a good place, a pure place. I don’t think of them in negative terms. I let them come from a place that I don’t question too much.”

At 25, Korine was hailed by Werner Herzog as “the future”, and by critic Roger Ebert as belonging “on the list with Godard, Cassavetes, Herzog, Warhol, Tarkovsky, Brakhage”. At 40, the unpredictable auteur can still raise a wow.

Here’s a turn up for the books: the last director working in Maoist-era Godard tropes is finally a hit at the multiplex. As we catch up with him on the London leg of publicity duties for Spring Breakers, the movie is spending its second week in the US top 10. The director’s fabulously dislocated, Skittle Bräu-hued take on the Stateside bacchanalians of the title is indisputably the most challenging, uncategorisable title to crack that particular chart in years.

“It’s kind of an impressionistic reinterpretation of that world,” says Korine, who never likes to say what his films are about exactly. “I didn’t want to make a movie that was like some exposé or documentary or some kind of essay on spring break. I wanted to make something that was more like a pop poem. There’s a strange kind of dynamic at work in spring break: this kind of hypersexual world with all these childish pop-culture indicators swirling all around it: nail polish and backpacks and neon bikinis and Mountain Dew bottles.”

One of Spring Breakers’ many strange charms – and likely a key to its commercial success – is seeing former Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens at the heart of dumbfounding debauchery. Former teen star Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine – the film-maker’s wife and muse – complete the girl gang running riot through the film.

It wasn’t just stunt casting, insists Korine, it was about something bigger: “As I was writing it – as with anything – I started off writing about these girls who are in some ways representative of a larger pop mythology. They’re connected to that culture. I thought it would be nice if they could play against type and expectation, that it would add an interesting conceptual layer to it. I never thought that they would actually want to do it. I was so surprised.”

The star of the show – though the girls acquit themselves admirably – is James Franco, whose portrayal of a grill-wearing, gun-totting, drug-dealing white gangster rapper reinforces the actor’s increasing stock as a performance artist. Franco’s admirably Dadaist turn as Alien, the inverted Prince Charming who comes to the girls’ assistance, has been a long time in the making.

“I’d spoken to him a couple of years before,” recalls Korine. “We both wanted to work with each other because I’ve always felt he was capable of something really different. And for the year prior to shooting, I would send him images and audio clips and things I thought were somehow connected to his character who is like this strange gangster mystic sociopath clown. So that’s his interpretation of all that stuff. He was game from the beginning.”

Korine has never had difficulty attracting high-profile players into films that, prior to Spring Breakers, were lauded but rarely seen (save at the outer reaches of the arthouse circuit). A director’s director, Korine has waved a megaphone at Herzog, Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Diego Luna (Chavez) and has appeared in the films of Gus van Sant (Good Will Hunting) and Chan-wook Park (Stoker). An actor’s director, he’s worked with Johnny Depp, Denis Lavant, Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson.

They don’t have to be movie people. Gucci Mane, the rapper who plays Spring Breakers’ antagonist, was in prison when he was cast in the role. Korine first spotted Gummo star Nick Sutton on an episode of The Sally Jesse Raphael Show called “My Child Died From Sniffing Paint”.

What this eclectic constellation of collaborators share, says Korine, is fearlessness. “You want to work with someone when you notice something deeper than the surface,” he says. “You see an energy in their work and you want to nurture their risk-taking instincts and their willingness to go to places that are more graphic and extreme. You want to focus all your energies on those people when you find them. Everyone is so boring nowadays and so corporatised and so homogenised. It’s like they’re nothing. They’re blobs. Its nice when you see people who actually want to do something, who want to make something.”

Harmony Korine was always destined to make art. Born in California and raised in Tennessee, the author of A Crack Up at the Race Riots and sometime photographer started making movies as soon as his father, a producer of documentaries for PBS, supplied the Bolex camera. Many of Harmony Korine’s recurring themes – poverty, mental illness, alternate family structures – echo his early environment.

“I grew up in pretty non-traditional way,” recalls the film-maker. “I grew up in a commune and we lived in a carnival for a couple of years. Watching my dad and his partner Blaine making films and living in places with moonshiners and kids riding bulls – it was everything. It was all I knew.”

As well as providing practical instruction, dad Sal brought the young Harmony to see Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small on its theatrical run. The experience would fix an auteur-driven idea of cinema in the boy’s mind. He set about watching as many films by Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Cassavetes, Jean-Luc Godard and Alan Clarke as he could find.

It’s hard to picture a kid keeping himself pure for auteur cinema nowadays.

“I think you might be right about that and I’m not sure why,” says Korine. “It’s easier physically to watch or download anything you want to see. It’s far more accessible than it was when I was a kid. But I think there’s just so much noise out there. It goes to a larger discussion about what things mean now. Does anything mean anything? Can film or music or art sustain in the way it once did? So much of watching and experiencing art now is immediate. Even the stuff you like becomes disposable.”

He once said he’d die for cinema and almost did attempting to make Fight Harm. Does he still think cinema is worth dying for?

“Yeah. But I think what has changed is the idea of what cinema is. It doesn’t mean the same space as it used to. In some ways, it exploded when the lines between high culture and low culture exploded. And it’s all up for grabs. I can get as much excitement from a 30-second film as I can from a three-hour film. Now things are either interesting or not interesting. That’s what determines if they are cinema.”

In stark contrast with the clips of the younger, tired, emotional Harmony Korine currently diverting traffic on YouTube, the calm contemporary Harmony Korine – a husband and new father - could not be more lucid or articulate. He is, nevertheless, still fighting the good fight as an artist and provocateur.

“I want to make films that are magic and imaginative and inexplicable. I want to see films that are amazing. I don’t want films to be grounded in the earth. I want them to rise above it.”