This search for purpose in Korine’s work surfaces time and time again in the startling films he makes. Take, for instance, his abandoned 1999 movie Fight Harm. Korine’s goal was to spur as many physical fights as possible between himself and random strangers on the street and make the next great American comedy (the man compared his brutal concept to classic Buster Keaton humor, an outrageous analogy in and of itself). And in following his vision, Korine broke his ankles, got thrown in jail, and sparked heated controversy about his violently artistic intentions. With Fight Harm, he wasn’t finding any deeper meaning in the extreme violence that society rejects. He was literally just provoking more of it. He experimented with the natural course of human behavior to produce a contrived and supposedly comedic representation of violence and its roots; he forced mistakism. There are segments in Fight Harm where a drunk Korine initiates bone-smashing sessions using bricks with strangers for minutes on end. His mistakist “science project” surely blew up in his face, and took out a few rudimentary body parts in the process. Senses of Cinema writer Fergus Grealy raises an important question. Korine’s work “is not a documentary. But what is it? Where do the actors end and where does reality begin? And what are we to make of scenes that are unrehearsed and spontaneous, placed next to scenes that are clearly fabrication?”. Korine confirms this anomaly when he says that “Everything seems like it’s normal, everything is presented like it’s 100 percent true, but at the same time a lot of the stuff that goes on is kind of outrageous, made up”. For a director who claims to take immense pride in his strict adherence to realism, this is yet another paradox that complicates the Korine enigma.
This perplexing coexistence of a concrete reality and something that transcends it isn’t just characteristic of Harmony Korine. According to American critic and theorist Stephen Greenblatt in his essay “Culture”, there is an eternal interplay between the “constraint and mobility” of society that should be in the DNA of every good artist. Greenblatt gives Shakespeare’s King Lear as an example of art that is predicated on a historical and cultural context and uses that as a playground to execute new visions. The great English playwright “borrows an often-told pseudo-historical account of an ancient British king” and then gives his audiences a wholly new and invigorating experiencing by taking what already exists and supplementing it. He liberates a seemingly immobile history with neoteric ideas. And because of this, the original cultural foundations King Lear was constructed from are nourished. The old and the new feed off of each other in a stunning, circular exchange of enrichment.
But in the path of progress stands a second, more obstructive meaning behind constraint: “a pervasive technology of control, a set of limits within which social behavior must be contained,”. To play with this status quo is to walk a delicate balancing act, too much weight in unfamiliar territory seriously disturbing the world as we know it. And that’s why Greenblatt believes that an artist who understands constraint and mobility as a relationship and not just separate entities would “take symbolic materials from one zone of the culture and moves them to another, augmenting their emotional force, altering their significance, linking them with other materials taken from a different zone, changing their place in a larger social design,”. If this is what Greenblatt thinks an artist who has mastered the crucial exchange between constraint and mobility is capable of doing, then could Korine himself be a captain of reinvention? Could the reason we resist him be because he takes the “materials” from the culture we know – misfits, outcasts, and perverts- and “[alters] their significance” (301) in a way that we aren’t mentally prepared to endure? Because he turns teenagers who could have started off just like us into raging, drug addict whores in Kids? Seniors who could be our grandparents into sickening animals jacking off aggressively to garbage in Trash Humpers?
Perhaps rewinding to 20th century Italian cinema can help us better contextualize Harmony Korine as a societal reviser. In the 1960s, following Italian Neorealism’s transformation of filmmaking into a medium of truthful expression, a poet-turned-director by the name of Pier Paolo Pasolini sparked bitter and widespread controversy in the artistic community. His films exposed a shocking grittiness on screen that took neorealist characteristics to an entirely new plane, one that audiences weren’t braced for. In 1975, Pasolini directed Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a violent and sexually raged portrait of extremist fascists who enslave a group of teenagers and expose them to brutal physical and psychological suffering. The graphic depictions included prostitution, coprophagia (the consumption of feces), and savage murder through human dissection. Needless to say, as outlined in British Film Institute’s feature on Salo and its public reception, the film went through twenty-five merciless years of international censorship and backlash before it was released in its raw, uncut form in England. Pasolini was branded a madman, and with oddly coincidental timing, was murdered two weeks after the film was completed.
In his often overlooked abstract “The Cinema Of Poetry” which analyzes the way film works at the metaphoric level, Pasolini says that “characters cannot be chosen from outside the cultural limits of the filmmaker; that is, they are analogous to him in culture, language, and psychology….if they should belong to another social world, they are mythicized and assimilated by being categorized as abnormal, neurotic, or hypersensitive…”. The ideology of an artist only being able to develop characters who are in some way berthed in his own culture and deforming those who don’t fit into the prescribed confines of that culture lay at the core of Pasolini’s creative process. Moviegoers globally thrashed Pasolini for portraying the fascists in Salo in such a scandalous and derogatory light. From the Italian communist publication Ivzestia which branded the film “the worst accumulation of sadism and masochism as well as perverse and disgusting deviations that has ever been seen in cinema,” to The New York Times which called it “thin and superficial…bitter and empty”, Salo was an international punching bag.
Yet, Pasolini made the film as a conscious reaction to the corrupt Italian politicians he thought were ruining his country. His decision to draw from what he had contentions with in reality and then hyperbolize the circumstances to render what people would certainly react to falls right in line with what Harmony Korine is doing twenty-five years later: taking “obsessive characters- or people- who live outside the system or are slightly tweaked…and [inventing] their kind of lifestyle” (Korine, 2008) in his movies. Pasolini took fascism and mutated it in a blender of shocking reinvention. He eclipsed societal constraints with the artistic mobility Greenblatt describes in “Culture”, and “[awakened the] opposition and disagreement” Bogart discusses in “Stereotype” to the socially accepted perceptions of fascists. The product? A disturbing contortion of reality that for the most of the world lay somewhere between a harsh exaggeration and an outright fantasy. Yet, the unsettling screen manifestations were rooted in Pasolini’s own judgments of the revolting world he believed he lived in. He just redesigned that world to make his point blatantly clear. Similarly, the characters who inhabit Korine’s world are psychological deviants of the people who actually exist in our known reality. Perhaps these two artists are resorting to altered recreations of reality to amplify the shock factor of their work. Or maybe, as Pasolini believed, the reason some characters are so extraordinarily bizarre is because they “belong to another social world”. Characters that we can only consider in the framework of our own reality if they are made “abnormal” or “neurotic”. Ones that could belong to “rarefied demographics.”
In the “Projections 11: New York Filmmakers on Filmmaking” interview series, Tod Lippy says it is possible to see Korine’s realism ideal and his invention of fake truths coexist. Lippy defines a rarefied demographic as any group that is a far cry from what we are ordinarily accustomed to. In Kids, an HIV positive teenager’s disturbing obsession with infecting every virgin he can find against the backdrop of a sex and drug raged urban landscape rings with the terrifying possibilities of reality. In Gummo, a lonely boy dressed like a bunny, a homosexual dwarf, and a crazed molester are all graphic representations of people who resemble living humans in the physical world. But Korine makes these characters part of rarefied demographics by tackling his story like Pasolini tackled Salo. He reinvents the conventional ideas of adolescent immaturity, social isolation, and consuming impulses- ideas we can grasp- through a combination of raw humanity and total absurdity to create a group of people that tread a thin line between horrifyingly real and downright unbelievable. But like Julien in Julien Donkey-Boy who steals his sister’s dead baby – the one he likely fathered- from the hospital and cradles it against his chest as he rides home bawling, these seemingly monstrous characters are anchored in emotional soils of the reality we know. Through Korine’s reinvention, they manifest demographics of their own. They may not literally exist in the real world, but by capturing them on screen and equipping them with a palette of human sentiments, Korine’s cinema makes us believe that they very well could. And by wielding reality in one hand and recreation in the other, Korine is able to do what Greenblatt argues in “Culture” is the most imperative responsibility of an artist: “to assemble and shape the forces of their culture in novel ways,” (300). To humanize a freakish schizophrenic with tears of love and fear, to pluck a distant yet simultaneously familiar note on the chords of loneliness which vibrate within a boy dressed as a bunny. There is something real beneath the veneer of the imagined.
Korine undoubtedly draws from a pallet of preexistent movements- transgressive art in Trash Humpers, No Wave Cinema in Julien Donkey-Boy, neorealism in Kids- that structure his take on Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity” for pure filmmaking. But rather than fully embracing any specific genre in his art, he samples the most powerful bits and pieces from each to create a whole that is far more potent than its parts. And just like Shaksepeare’s slave Caliban in The Tempest, who emerges “out of the uneasy matrix formed by the interweaving of cultural materials” as an “odd, discordant voice…the voice of the displaced and the oppressed, that is heard scarcely anywhere else…”, Harmony Korine’s voice becomes an amalgam of the real and the imagined which together, bring us to a meaningful reinvention of what has always been here.
The public expectations of how a story should be told, Korine says, “is over with. It’s been obliterated, it’s been spat upon, kicked in the gutter. Movies are more like moods… that [are] just made and watched and felt.” This philosophy breathes through every frame of Korine’s work from the dystopic recreation in Kids of the same urban New York Korine knew as a teen to the social experimentation in Fight Harm that used real people in real places to create shockingly provoked violence. It is a philosophy that screams to the world that its beholder is a “captain of mistakism”, a societal reviser, and a master of reinvention. The reason we are so averse to the work of Harmony Korine isn’t because his characters are such a stark departure from what we know. It’s not because his stories about misfits, outcasts, and perverts are purposefully trying to “fuck us in the ass”. Rather, Korine is making a perverse sort of love to humanity, taking the people he knows- us – and reinvented them, “changing [our] place in a larger social design” in a way he understands. We don’t have to agree with these representations, but to understand, in a more expansive sense, that what shocks and alienates us has a life beneath its thorny surface could be enough to leapfrog us into new realms of perspective and understanding. Not just with Korine, but with life experiences as a whole. And maybe if we overcame our trepidations and endured, just surrendered to the temporal mental difficulties could ultimately lead to some kind of lasting meaning in the “absurdity” that is often an offshoot of a human reality, a visionary like Harmony Korine wouldn’t be “a sole white sheep standing on green Astroturf …destined to lose.”