The Harmony Korine Primer


There are three categories of people based on their reactions to Harmony Korine’s latest film and future cult classic, Spring Breakers: those that loved its chaotic storytelling and dark themes, those that asked “what the hell was that about?,” and those that have never even heard of the film. I am leading the charge of the first type; I was enthralled by the filming techniques, ambiance, and downward spiral into madness. This was a film that stayed with me several days after, and I have done a lot of pontificating on the internet about it. I’ve read and mulled over several theories including a feminist interpretation of the loss of innocence, a parallel to the Greek myth of the Manaed, and an ode to the decay of civilization. Then again, when I love a film, I want to read about it like crazy.

Now that Spring Breakers has officially made is mark on our cultural lexicon, and is very likely to inspire many Halloween costumes this year, it’s worth noting that this is writer/director Harmony Korine’s most conventional attempt at film making in his career. Conventional in the sense that there is a linear narrative and characters have a place in the real world (well, in the first half of the film, anyway). Certainly, as compared to mainstream movies and box office top fives, it is anything but Harmony Korine has never been concerned with “typical” storytelling in his films, and ostensibly doesn’t seem to care about critical praise. Perhaps enjoying Spring Breakers has prompted you to check out Korine’s earlier films. I feel it is my duty to help you through this journey, because you could really tread in some bizarre territory.

Kids (1995)

Kids is Korine’s first film and probably best known although it’s been seventeen years since its release. Nineteen-year-old Korine penned the screenplay about a day in the life of teenagers living in New York City. They drink, have lots of unprotected sex, smoke, fight, steal, get diagnosed as HIV positive, and prey on deflowering young virgins. Kids made an impact for two major reasons: one, it showed teenagers actually doing those things, which made the MPAA award the dreaded NC-17 rating. Okay, fine, that was to be expected.

Secondly, independent films were not as easily accessed by your average moviegoer and unconventional filming techniques and storytelling were not often seen in mainstream films. Kids does have a story and a plot, but the film was largely a collection of uncut vignettes about various interactions and behaviors. The lack of editing provided a “I dare you to watch” type of vibe, because there was a lot that was uncomfortable but the action continues well after the point of first discomfort. For instance, there is a violent brawl in Washington Square Park that seems to never end. (Ten years later, I attended graduate school at NYU and thought of that scene when I walked through the park daily.)

Something that struck my fifteen-year-old self was that actors were not pretty movie stars. In fact, this fascinated me. Telly, played by discovered-off-the-street skateboarder Leo Fitzpatrick, was a skinny-emaciated, with crooked teeth and a speech impediment, yet was a fierce seducer (and rapist) of twelve and thirteen-year-old girls. This was odd, yet fascinating to me. As a fifteen year old, this movie scared me. Not because I was scared of kids doing bad things (although, everything done in this film was so far from my every day life) but because such horrible, extreme behavior was being depicted in a movie, and the viewer was forced to watch. Not just the gore, but watching a girl (the film debut of Chloe Sevigny) receive the news that she is HIV positive, for example.

Surprisingly, Kids does result in a loose morality tale, warning the viewers about the dangers of unprotected sex, although it barely makes a difference because the characters have engaged in too much scary behavior for them to ever go back. Perhaps this was also made as a wake up call to parents about what their kids are up to. I’m hesitant to say that’s what Korine intended, because he seems like anything but a writer of PSAs.

Kids is on my list of favorite movies ever, not just because of its style, but because it reminds me of a New York City that no longer exists, and the image that I held as a child growing up on Long Island. I didn’t want to be doing the things these kids were doing, but I was excited to see what I could be doing had I made different life choices. It’s during a time when the city always has a threat of danger, before it became filled with Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyonds, and hoards of twentysomethings drinking gin from mason jars.

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. And get your hands on the soundtrack as well.

Gummo (1997)

After my fascination with Kids, I anxiously awaited the opportunity to see Korine’s next work. At this point, I fancied myself a more sophisticated film fan, not satisfied with what was in the theaters. Not coincidentally, I also started college so I didn’t have to settle with what my parents brought home from the VHS rental place. And Gummo is certainly not something you’d bring home for a family movie night.

Gummo depicts a devastatingly poor, rural town in Ohio who has recovered from a tornado that killed/destroyed much of the town. The film follows several residents of the town, namely Tummler and Solomon, two kids who aimlessly ride around on their bikes, encountering other weird characters of the town. They spy on teen girls through their window, watch their peers torture a cat, and encounter a father offering his retarded daughter in prostitution. Drunk rednecks beat each other up in a run down house. Characters are morally absent, disgusting, and lack no self awareness. There is no plot, just a series of interconnected scenes. Child actor Jacob Reynolds was cast for his unique look (almost deformed, or inbred, in a way) which in itself is a main element of the film. We’re led to believe this character is worth following, that he is unique for some reason, and his genetics sure attest to that.

As an eighteen year old, I was furious with this film. It seemed, again, that it was made as sheer exploitation, for shock value. As a viewer, I resented having to watch these disgusting people living shitty lives, who lacked any intelligence or desire to change. Of course, I was also annoyed that I watched a whole film that had no plot whatsoever. [There’s also a fair amount of animal abuse in the film, just as a warning.]

I rewatched Gummo recently, as both an act of masochism and also to see if my sophisticated film interpretation could find something from this film. No surprise, I still disliked it immensely. But, I could interpret it in a more meaningful way: it paints a landscape and a tone, and provides some thoughtful, intentional mise-en-scene and character studies. It’s more of performance art than a movie. It also made me realize that Harmony Korine made this film as a “fuck you” to conventional cinema, almost daring everyone to criticize it. Watching Gummo is not an enjoyable experience, enduring it is a rite of passage for film buffs.

Also worth mentioning that Werner Herzog has often praised a scene in which a piece of bacon is taped to the wall above a bathtub. That’s a good metaphor for the film.

Is it worth watching? It’s not so much a pleasant viewing a experience, but maybe you want to up your indie film cred.

Julien Donkey- Boy (1999)

This is real rough film to watch. And I’m just talking about literally watching the screen, because the film was shot on MiniDV tape, transferred onto 16mm film, and finally blown-up on 35mm film, then transferred to film, so it’s like watching scrambled cable channels. Oh yeah, and it’s also hard to watch because of, you guessed it by now, loose plot and long scenes where things just happen. Ewan Bremmer is a schizophrenic, and lives with his dysfunctional family. He wanders the streets talking randomly to himself and others, and some steady cam work and unique camera angles help to portray the disorganization of the character’s thoughts. The film also uses a slideshow-esque series of still shots, which is actually an interesting idea and adds variety, but it certainly doesn’t cancel out the rest of the viewing experience.

Julien Donkey-Boy is frustrating, because it’s got Harmony Korine’s stamp of the weird and unusual, but it’s almost not weird enough, so it evokes no real feelings except wondering when it will be over. As compared to Gummo which was actively unpleasant, Julien Donkey-Boy just felt repetitive and meaningless. The one bright spot is Chloe Sevigny, indie film darling, and then girlfriend of Korine (of course she is, right?). The thing I love about her is that no matter how bizarre, terrible, or unconventional the film is, she brings a sense of realness and clarity to her character. (How good is she in Big Love?) Still, she can’t save this film. This movie defines the term “phoning it in.”

Should you watch it? No. Not even for the cred.

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Ken Park (2002)

For reasons that I can’t discern (i.e., Wikipedia didn’t elaborate), Korine and his Kids director and collaborator Larry Clark had a falling out. However, Clark still completed Ken Park with Korine’s screenplay. Korine may have not been intricately involved in the making of the movie, but his mark of young people acting abhorrently is all over this movie.

Ken Park was never officially released anywhere, except for a few film festival screenings. And you know what? It’s probably for the best. Ken Park is, well, I’m not even sure how to describe it. A hot mess? Aimless? Unlikable characters? Stories that don’t need to be told? Unnecessarily sexually gratuitous? Exploiting teens sexually? Answer: all of the above. I nabbed myself a copy because I am a rabid fan of some Larry Clark films (1999’s true crime film Bully and of course, Kids), but I wish I could erase this from his oeuvre. And my mind.

!– more –>Ken Park resembles an anthology film, with three different stories being told about three different teenagers. I say resembles because the stories are very loosely related. Teenager Stephen and his father fight constantly; his father puts him down for being unambitious and lazy. His pregnant mother enables the father and just sits idly by. One night, his father enters his room at night and sexually assaults him, and Stephen beats him up and leaves. And thus ends Steven’s journey in this film.

Shawn is a punk-esque skateboarding kid who is having a secret sexual affair with his girlfriend’s suburban housewife mom. He performs graphic oral sex (believe me, it’s way more uncomfortable than arousing) on her while she’s in the house folding laundry. Shawn is obsessed with this older woman, who clearly is in control of these relations. Oh, and also, it’s rape. His teen girlfriend’s family accepts Shawn and often has him partake in family dinners, and the wife does her best to hide it from her husband. And… that’s it.

Peaches is an only child raised by her single, fundamentalist father who showers her with nothing but love and praise because she is so “innocent and pure.” Her father walks in on her with a boy from school, who she has tied to her bed and has proceeded to perform oral sex on. Her father goes berserk, beating the boy almost to death, and forcing Peaches to engage in an incestuous wedding ceremony with her father, in some sort of messed up way to keep her purity. Peaches’s story had the most closure, however horrifying.

Finally, Tate is a mentally disturbed teenager who lives with his grandparents, who are nothing but loving. Tate is violently abusive to them without remorse. He also engages in auto-erotic asphyxiation (again, very uncomfortable and in no way arousing for the audience), and ultimately bludgeons his grandparents with a knife while they sleep. The end.

The stories do not intersect at all, except at the end when Peaches, Shawn, and Claude engage in a threesome at one of their houses, spouting some supposed words of wisdom and musings on their life that are not at all coherent or relevant to anything we’ve seen. Again, the sex is graphic but hardly erotic because although all the actors were of age at the time of filming, they look incredibly young. They finally recount the death of Ken Park, a mutual friend of theirs who shot himself at a skate park because his girlfriend became pregnant. We see nothing of the titular character except showing up at the skate park and putting a gun to his head. Finally, the end.

I’m not against watching graphic sex or violence in a movie, especially if it adds to the film or has cinematic value, but Ken Park just feels exploitative . After Kids, Larry Clark was accused of exploiting teens in his movies, so it’s almost like he did this film as a response to prove that the critics were right. The stories of these kids didn’t need to be told. There’s no insight, no resolution, no changes in characters’ essence. We learn nothing of them, learn no lesson, don’t gain visual aesthetic from watching their stories. Believe me, I don’t need a clear narrative or traditional storytelling in movies, but there’s nothing special about the acting, directing, or cinematography that makes this compelling either.

To Korine’s credit, I can see the idea of this anthology to be stronger as a series of short stories, illustrating the landscape of boredom among the teenagers in central California, the expectations of suburban life, and in written form may provide more character insight. Alas, this was not work-shopped in an MFA program, but committed to film, which luckily, not many will have to experience.

Should you see it? A thousand times no. It’s not released anywhere on DVD or online, so don’t even worry about it.

Mister Lonely (2007)

At this point, Harmony Korine had not released a film in five years. Here’s the story I’m making up (not verified). His other films were anything but commercially and critically successful, and would only get support and funding for writing a more conventional film. My research (Wikipedia) indicates that he was not happy with this film, both during filming and with the results. This was also co-written with his brother.

The film centers on a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, played wonderfully by Diego Luna (who is also a skilled dancer), who is lonely and unfulfilled by performing his craft only for street change. By chance, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by the always amazing Samantha Morton) who invites him back to her commune in the Scottish Highlands where she lives with other celebrity impersonators, including Abraham Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, Buckwheat, James Dean, and the Pope. Here, he finds his community as they work to put together the world’s best variety show. Marilyn and he fight their attraction for each other while she also deals with an abusive husband. However, after she hangs herself after the show is a failure, Michael returns to Paris and starts to live as himself and not an impersonator.

I can imagine how this sounded as a pitch for a movie. Pretty great, right? Charmingly indie? Quirky? Sure. Sadly, it doesn’t work in practice. There’s not much stake for the characters, and although I am certainly capable of suspension of reality, but there was no sense of purpose of why these characters lived together, other than for the purpose of providing Michael with the experience of living with them. The characters were only given surface-level introductions, so there was no connection or no stakes raised for them. The idea itself is a sort of magical realism, expecting the audience to suspend disbelief (Why do these impersonators all live together? Are they ever out of character?), but the story plods on without any real effort made for the audience to invest. There’s an ongoing conflict about whether to shoot their heard of sheep because they are diseased, which, you know, means something.

Despite being known for purposely making films that defy the traditional movie aesthetic, this film shows that he can do those things exceedingly well. The cinematography is the highlights of the film, showcasing the Scottish Highlands and the contrast of characters in colorful, unique costumes. Shots of the interior of the castle are stunning. Still, that can’t make up for a superficial connection with the story.

There was a secondary storyline that was intriguing, but just seemed out of place. A nun accidentally falls from a plane during a food drop, and miraculously survives. The rest of the nuns start jumping from planes to experience the miracle, which provides for some shots of skydiving nuns with pseudo-philosophical voice-overs. In a bout of irony worthy of a hit Alanis Morrisette single, they prepare to travel to the Vatican to meet with the Pope about their miracle, they all perish in a plane crash. SYMBOLISIM! IRONY!

The film seems sluggish and going through the motions. It’s sad for this sake, and not really because of the character’s so-called journey. Again, this movie makes me feel as if Korine’s visions may actually work better in the written form, and I wonder if he has any aspirations for producing literature, which I would gladly read.

Trash Humpers (2009)

Allow me to school you about the “found object” movement of Modern Art, which I am qualified to do since I was three classes away from an Art History minor in college. Found object art is when someone takes a pre-existing object from the real world, which has little or no meaning, but puts it in the context of art (i.e., displays it in a gallery) so then its very presence makes it the art. The art becomes more than the object, it’s a concept. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is an exemplary piece of found object art. I see much of Harmony Korine’s films like a found object: the quality of it is negligible because it is presented as a film. The quality or purpose is not as important, because it is presented as an indie film and there is justification for finding meaning and interpretation.

Such is the case with Trash Humpers, Let me first explain what it is. Believe me, this is not a lie: three people wear masks and wigs that portray them as senior citizens. Two men wear a contraption that makes them look as if they are joined in the head by a large growth. They go to dumpsters and trash containers and literally hump them. They force each other to eat pancakes covered in dish soap. They destroy electronics. They dance the jig and do yoga poses. They have nonsensical conversations. They fellate trees. For 85 minutes. To top it all off, it’s filmed on VHS, making it appear as the worst found footage film ever.

If there ever was a fuck you to the art form, it’s this. Korine explains that he made this as a reflection on growing up in Nashville among vagrants and peeping toms. Using the found object theory, the art comes not from the aesthetic of watching it, but perhaps from the visceral reaction viewers will have when watching this. It’s a type of performance art, more for the performers and for the viewer. It’s a notch in the culture snob’s belt for seeing this and for him for making it.

It’s actually shocking that Spring Breakers was the next film that he made, considering it is the most commercial. Perhaps he needed to make Trash Humpers to get it out of his system before going too commercial.

Worth watching: Are you crazy?

Lotus Community Workshop (2012)

This is a 22-minute vignette that is part of the anthology film, The Fourth Dimension, produced by (you can watch it here). It is worth mentioning here because it is definitely worth knowing about (and can easily be viewed online). If Saturday Night Live were to make a parody sketch of a Harmony Korine film (if only), it would be Lotus Community Workshop. That’s to say that it has all the elements of a Harmony Korine film (neon lights, a rambling diatribe, a small unsophisticated town, questionable morals, mundane activities filmed as important, etc.). These are things he can do really, really well.

The scene is a neon-decorated roller rink in Anytown, USA. Hector, played by Val Kilmer, is introduced as a motivational speaker selling his way of life. Val Kilmer, looking very much like a Val Kilmer who has let himself go, spouts rhetoric about changing his life, punctuated by the bleep-boop sounds of old video games, provided by the house DJ. They are unrelated, but put together, it never stops being great. Intercut are scenes of Kilmer riding his bike at night around the deserted town, trying to convert the locals. He meets up with a corn-rowed Rachel Korine, real life wife of Harmony and future co-star of Spring Breakers, where they wander a video rental store deciding what to rent. They decide on a video game, which they play in silence at his well-off home. Are the two scenes unrelated? Maybe. Maybe the juxtaposition has meaning. It’s hard to tell, and the stark differences is what Harmony Korine does best. It’s tempting to make meaning of this, but even if you can’t it’s visually pleasing and somehow the characters are worth trying to figure out, at the very least.

Is it worth watching? Sure, it’s even just as long as it needs to be without getting belabored.

There are only a mere few of his films that I would objectively say are “good,” but there is definitely something fascinating about the personality of Harmony Korine, and it’s entertainment in itself to see what he does next. If Spring Breakers is any indication of the direction he is going, I am on board and will be the first in line on opening weekend. Korine has joined Lars Von Trier in filmmakers I love to hate the most.

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