Harm Reduction

Photo: Martien Mulder

It’s hard to imagine this today, but Harmony Korine was once considered a threat to something besides himself. The son of a PBS documentary filmmaker, he grew up trying to escape into movies, obsessively watching Godard and Fassbinder before dropping out of NYU to skateboard. Then he met Larry Clark, who persuaded him, at 19, to write Kids, the 1995 teen sex–drugs–HIV parable that was as alarming as it was voyeuristic.

Suddenly, Korine became famous, and he thought he knew what he wanted to do with it. Together with his muse and then-girlfriend, Chloë Sevigny, the runty, spacey prankster was hailed as an indie-film visionary by a Hollywood Establishment then in the market for such things, and he quickly found an audience in the press for declarations like the one he made in Cannes that year: “I’m going to make movies like nobody has ever seen before.” He was so uncooperative as a guest on The Late Show that David Letterman mused sarcastically, “You know, I could pretty much have this conversation with myself.”

He then wrote and directed the nearly indecipherably claustrophobic white-trash-anomie epic Gummo, followed by Julien Donkey-Boy, a jittery movie about longing and schizophrenia. They were difficult to watch, but amazingly original-looking. “I never cared so much about making perfect sense. I wanted to make perfect nonsense,” says Korine, over coffee. “I wanted to tell jokes, but I didn’t give a fuck about the punch line.”

They also made people quite angry (the Times dismissed Gummo as “the worst film of the year”). Many thought the movies were merely cynical affronts to audience expectations, and felt attacked, mocked even, for sitting through all the cat killing and hookers with Down syndrome. But in the end these films were more an exploration of Korine’s inchoate self-pity than a thumb in the eye of conventional morality. All those freaks were, of course, some part of him, especially when he was drinking a great deal and smoking crack.

“It’s the cinema of isolation,” Korine says, with mock gravitas. Even if he sometimes kicks his leg up for no apparent reason, he’s much easier to talk to these days, married now, sober, living in Nashville, making European TV commercials. Mister Lonely, his first feature in eight years, is having its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. He’s staying with his friend David Blaine, the magician (“I got up at like 4 a.m. to use the bathroom, and he’s reading a comic book in a hyperbaric chamber breathing only 9 percent oxygen”), who’d first sought Korine out at the Kids premiere. Otherwise, he doesn’t see many people from his old days, and doesn’t talk to Sevigny much in her hyperbaric celebrity chamber. “That’s where she belongs … It’s not necessarily for me.”

Unlike other downtown art boy-men, Korine seemed to have a hard time maintaining himself. “I used to party with him,” remembers Ryan McGinley, who made his name photographing dissolute downtowners. “Being bad with Harm back then was like shooting dope with Burroughs.” Korine and Blaine were reputed members of Leonardo DiCaprio’s late-nineties “pussy posse.” And all the notoriety wasn’t doing much to fuel his work. “It was very important for me, my whole life, from the time that I was a kid, all I wanted to do was be a director,” he says. “And when I was finally a director, all I wanted to do was quit. It just started to mean very little to me.”

In this context, perhaps it’s not surprising that his project after Julien was called Fight Harm, for which Blaine videotaped Korine getting people to beat him up (he’d take quaaludes first). Korine called it his Buster Keaton snuff film. “I thought that was the essence of humor,” he says today. “A guy slips on a banana peel and cracks open his head … ” He stopped it after he went to the hospital repeatedly and was arrested several times. Besides, he hadn’t counted on how short fights are, or how bad Blaine’s camerawork would be.

He’d been living next to the Gramercy Park Hotel, but then moved to Connecticut to work on a screenplay called What Makes a Pistachio Nuts? (“It was about a kid that would put this adhesive on the pig’s hooves and ride it around, and ride it up walls, and they would throw fire bombs. It took place in Florida—after a kind of race war”), which “was going to be my definitive work, my legacy.” Then his house burned down, and he lost the script. Then a second house did, too. Eventually, he ended up in a room in Paris, doing so many drugs that his teeth started to fall out.

Harmony Korine directs Samantha Morton.Photo: O'South/Courtesy of IFC Films

Korine tried to make another film, with Gus Van Sant, but couldn’t finish it. He was also spending a lot of time painting eggs. “I was messed up. I was living like a tramp. You start to run out of money, and friends. It gets a little bleak.”

Fortunately, one of the people whom he’d befriended was the fashion designer Agnès b. She’d met him at the Venice Film Festival in 1999 after the screening of Julien Donkey-Boy, and to this day she can quote from the scene in which Julien’s father, played by a sadistic Werner Herzog, offers Julien’s brother $10 to wear his mother’s dress (“Just put it on, Chris, and dance with me”). “That’s why Harmony loves humanity—he can do things like that with no judgments,” she says.

“My whole life, all I wanted was to be a director. When I was finally a director, all I wanted to do was quit.”

And, with equal open-mindedness, she helped him clean up. “I wanted to give him time,” she says. “I think that time is the best thing that you can give an artist.” They started a production company, called O’Salvation, which took as its logo the trident tattoo on Korine’s right hand. “I went through a lot of places like hospitals and psych wards, and also I spent a lot of time in the jungle,” he says.

Mister Lonely, which Agnès b. produced, is, in the end, a recovery film. Its origins came from an image Korine had of nuns falling out of airplanes without parachutes, praying, and landing safely. A gorgeous piece of extreme-sports nonsense he shot in Panama, the nun footage is intercut with a story about a Paris-based Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton, in the role Sevigny might have played) who persuades him to move to her impersonators’ commune in Scotland.

About halfway through the movie, the Michael Jackson character has a monologue, while painting eggs, in which he addresses “Dear World, and everyone in it.” It’s both sad and gentle and, one suspects, genuine. “I have noticed that over the years you have tried to pass me by,” he says. “I don’t think I ever felt the same that you felt, and I’m not exactly angry about it. Never quite getting things the ways that everyone else gets them. It’s hard to laugh when you don’t know what people find so funny … ”

Moviegoers have felt similarly dislocated in his filmic world, of course. But unlike his earlier works, Mister Lonely is not grim. There’s lots of yellow.

In the run-up to the movie’s opening in May, the IFC Center has been screening Korine’s old films at midnight. “I’m glad that new people will get to see them projected in theaters,” he says. “But I don’t think about those movies that much. I don’t own any copies.”

2008 Tribeca Film Festival Guide

Harm Reduction