Harmony Korine, Maimed For His Art

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

with Harmony Korine

a tendency to speak to the press in the most highfalutin’ critical language,
about “my films,” Korine is down to earth and unpretentious. He’s
unguardedly earnest about movies and, perhaps because he’s had the opportunity
to make his own since he was 22, exhibits none of the bitterness and disillusion
that come with mandatory compromise. In casual mode he’s very funny. I
wish readers could hear all the different character voices Korine did while
telling the stories that appear below.

Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine published a non-narrative novel, A Crackup
at the Race Riots, and an art book of photographs of Macaulay Culkin and his
girlfriend (published in a limited edition for the Japanese collectors’
market, the book will be available soon at Printed Matter). He worked on two
feature film projects that were eventually aborted: one about tap dancing and
one called Fight.

clear that Korine’s movies aren’t for everyone, but there can be no
doubt, as far as this critic is concerned, that the guy’s got an eye and
an ear. What he does with them is arguably immoral or insane, sure. But if Korine’s
words and the images didn’t penetrate, there’d be no such arguments.

The first
question refers to a New York Times profile of Korine that appeared in
the Sunday, Sept. 12 “Arts & Leisure” section.

So, how
are you gonna stay hungry now that The New York Times is liking your

I don’t
know. It seems like my films are so divisive no matter what. No matter how many
people like it, just as many, I’m sure, will hate it. With Julien Donkey-Boy
I don’t really see what there is to lash out about it. There’s no
real argument about shock for shock’s sake. Even though, I was surprised
in Toronto that there were people who were offended by the way I show people–I
don’t really know.

Cheshire called it “aggressively ugly.”

Yeah, that’s
very bizarre to me. He said that, and “gnome-like egomaniac.” [It
was actually "elfin egomaniac."] Fucker. Who the fuck is Godfrey Cheshire

a good critic. He might just hate you for shooting on video. Did you read his
big long piece about “The Death of Film”?

I hate those
declarations, like Susan Sontag. It’s so ridiculous. Digital video, if
it’s a feature film, ends up on 35 millimeter. So it’s still film.
It’s not like it’s video and you’re watching it on the television

But they’re
going to have digital theaters. Movie theaters will, probably, become just huge
tv rooms.

Maybe. Things
change. I see good and bad in it. I think, creatively, [film] can be a handicap.
The reason I shot on video wasn’t that I was attracted to a video esthetic.
It was more that, after Gummo, I was kind of dissatisfied with the filmmaking
process–at the lack of intimacy it provides.

I think
[Julien Donkey-Boy] is the most beautiful-looking film I’ve ever
made. It seems a strange argument to me, this idea of purity. Like with music,
if you work with a computer or a sampler it’s not music anymore. Look at
the story. The idea of having to justify some technology, in this day and age,
seems like such a stupid kind of, such an old dialogue. It’s such a middle-age,
middle-class polemic. I hate it. Look at the story. Look at the characters.

still images.

Yeah. That
argument, it doesn’t even make sense to me.

It makes
sense to me to the extent that you don’t want to go overboard. Like when
CDs came in, it was absurd that all of a sudden you couldn’t get vinyl,
but that’s been corrected now, for the most part.

How can
anyone generalize? For this movie, it could only have been shot this
way. I wanted hidden cameras on the actors. I wanted spy cameras, and to send
actors into situations with people who didn’t know they were being filmed.
Real scenes–and then you get permission from the people afterwards. That’s
what we did. We had up to 30 cameras at a time. We shot 160 hours of footage.
I wanted to be able to improvise, almost like you improvise in music. I wanted
to be able to do everything on camera and not have to worry about lighting,
or the actors hitting their marks or anything like that. I wanted it to be free.

Talk to
me about the way you piece it all together. You’ve defended the break with
narrative structure in terms of poetry, that there can be poetry out of pictures.
Poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules that prose does, but it still has
rules. Do you feel like you’re making metaphors and rhythms when you edit
down 160 hours of footage? Is it just intuitive?

I think
the best films have a poetic truth to them. I don’t think there’s
ever an ultimate truth, even in documentary or cinema verite, there’s always
a manipulation or a point of view. But something hovers about the great works,
to me–like The Night of the Hunter or The Passion of Joan
of Arc
–there’s something more insightful than truth. Because my
syntax is different from, say, Martin Scorsese’s, I’m not gonna be
directly influenced by someone like Michael Powell or David Lean, or John Ford
or Nicholas Ray. I have my own set of influences and ultimately, when I’m
making a film, because my syntax is different–and I’m 25–I don’t
need to resemble a generation of filmmakers before me. That kind of narrative
film–even if I enjoy those movies–it’s not the way I think. It’s
not the way my brain works. Ultimately, it’s not the way I wanna make–or

What it
comes down to is that I’m writing these scenes and showing these images
because no one is giving me these things the way I want to see them: y’know,
projected. I feel like the only thing that might be shocking about my films
is that maybe it’s the first time you see this image projected in this
way. Or maybe it’s that if you film something that someone considers grotesque
in a beautiful way it’s upsetting, or vice versa–if you film something
that’s beautiful in an ugly way. It’s kinda confusing to certain people.

When did
you learn to shoot still photography?

just like movies. I dunno. For me there’s just images I want to see. I
know about framing and stuff, but I’m more concerned with what’s in
front–what I’m taking pictures of.

That brings
us to Fight.

I couldn’t
really finish it. It got to a point where I was getting really hurt and arrested
and weird shit started happening. I broke my left ankle and I couldn’t
tap-dance. I was gonna make this tap dance movie, too, and I literally can’t
tap-dance anymore. It fucked the whole thing up.

Well, what
was the idea?

Of the tap
dance movie or Fight?


For the
tap dance movie I was trying to invent new styles of tap. It was gonna be an
hour and a half of–I was trying to invent new moves for the tap world because
I felt like I hadn’t really seen anything new for a while. With Fight
I really wanted to make a great comedy. I thought that was the best way to achieve
it. And I wasn’t really feeling the pain until the next day.


Yeah. I’d
get a little drunk, but not so drunk that my motor skills weren’t working.
I did a few–one after the other. But what I didn’t really think about
was how short hard-core fights last. When you’re fucking hitting each other
in the head with bricks, it can only go two or three minutes, so…

would have needed at least 30 bouts for a feature.

Out of the
six or seven fights that I did, maybe I have 15 minutes of pure, hard-core bone-breaking.
And it’s really brutal!

Can I see?

No, I don’t
have it here. I was gonna actually show it at some gallery.

instigate people until they hit you?

I would
go around with a camera crew and the only rules were that I couldn’t throw
the first punch, and the person I was confronting had to be bigger than me.
Because that’s where the humor comes in. It wouldn’t be funny if I
was fighting someone my size. They had to be bigger than me, and no matter how
bad I was getting beat up–unless I was gonna die, that was the rule, unless
I was like passed out and they were still killing me–they couldn’t
break it up. Because that’s where the comedy comes in as well.

In the last
fight you just see this fucking bouncer from Stringfellow’s. I’m lying
in the street and my leg is up on the sidewalk–it’d taken me forever
to get him to fight me. I’d have to say whatever it took to make someone
fight me. I’d get in their face and I’d say whatever, it didn’t
matter, to get them to throw the first punch. And then once they threw the first
punch it was on. And we just went, y’know, mad.

So this
guy took forever. He’s a big bouncer, and he’s wearing a tuxedo and
shit… No matter what I said the guy wouldn’t do anything. Nothing
I could do. Just, “You fuckin’ little shrimp–get the fuck outta
here.” So then some stripper, some bitch that worked there, walked out
with a balloon on her wrist. And she’s in high heels, y’know, “What’s
going on?”

So I went
up to her and I went like this [a feigned backhand smack]–like my dad used
to do to me when he’d drive. Because I never used to be comfortable as
a kid. I was never comfortable as a kid. We’d drive and he’d go like
that right in front of my face. He wouldn’t hit me–he’d just
go [demonstrates]. So I was always, like, nervous.

So I did
that exact same thing to her. In the video you see, I turn around and [the camera
crew] are across the street, sitting on a stoop–four or five people. There’s
some producer with a clipboard, writing shit down, [keeping track of] whoever
gets in the frame. And as I’m turning around you see the guy take me by
the back of the head and the belt and just throw me into the middle of the street.
I just get tossed into the middle of the street. So I jump up and I’m like,
“Yeah, right on!” He comes running out, and the guy is so pissed.
I took a brick–it was like a piece of broken sidewalk–and smashed
him in the head when he got close. Really hard. All this blood went everywhere.
It went on his shirt and my shirt.

It hit him
in the forehead?

In the side.
I whacked the fuck out of his head. All this blood just went kshhhhht.
Then I started taunting him. So he starts running after me. We’re going
around this car, running in circles, and that’s where the whole Buster
Keaton thing comes in. It’s really high comedy.

he catches up to me and just goes boom. Busts me in the face. Right on
the lip. I just go flying back. And this is the funniest part. This is where,
really, the comedy comes in. I’m like, “Yeeeees,” because I’d
get off on the pain. It’d just make me like, mmmmmm. Because as a kid,
growing up, in Tennessee, violence was just a way of life. Everybody, no matter
how big you were or anything–I’m a teeny guy, and I was even a smaller
kid–but it was like no matter what, you had to fight. It was one of those
things–a real redneck thing. Violence was part of life. I hated getting
hit, but I never minded it so much when it was a fight. I hated getting hit
by teachers, or by my parents, I didn’t like that. But a fight’s all
right, as long as you have some kind of chance.

So anyway,
I got back up and tried to throw this trash can. There’s a trash can on
the sidewalk and I’m like, “C’mon you cocksucker!” I go
to pick up this trash can and throw it at him, but the fucking thing is chained
to a lamppost! And the guy just knocks me out. Literally knocked me out. I fell
back on the street and hit the back of my head.

So my left
foot is–you can see on the video that my left foot is up on the sidewalk.
And you just see the guy run up and go [mimes a two-footed stomp] and snap my
fucking ankle.

Both feet?

Yeah, both.
My ankle just goes like that [gestures as if snapping a twig]. I’m smiling
in the video. You see me get up and go to hit him or whatever. I had no idea.

You must
have been more than a little drunk.

No, you
just get to this point where you’re like, “Yeeeeah!” Then the
cops came. The producer is right across the street–tried to explain it.
Y’know, “We’re making a movie here.” And she’s like,
“Can we have your signature on this release form? It’s a film!”
And the guy, the bouncer–it’s amazing–got so sad when he found

was all staged.

He was like,
“Oh my God, if I knew this, I never would have touched the guy!” And
so he signs the release form. And the girl beside him is totally in tears, the
stripper. She’s like, “Don’t sign it! He’s not a director–he
needs to be locked up in a mental institute!” And then the cops are trying
to figure out what the fuck’s going on. They don’t understand or believe
any of it. So they’re like, “Let me see the camera.” And all
I could think was, “Please God don’t let them confiscate the tape.
Don’t let them take the footage.” They were pressing buttons and shit.
They pressed pause and they couldn’t get it off pause. They couldn’t
even figure out how the fuck to watch it. So they handed it back and of course
they arrested me.

I remember
being in the cell, in the station right by my old place, and I’m sitting
there and all of sudden blood started pouring down the front of my face. They’d
handcuffed me and shit. And I was like, “Can I have a napkin or a tissue
to wipe this off?” And I just remember the guy bringing me like one tissue.
I wasn’t like even a Brawny or a stack of four or five tissues. The guy
gave me one of those really thin pizza tissues. Y’know, one of those pizza
napkins. I was like, “Jesus, thanks a lot.” It fuckin’ didn’t
do anything. I put it up there, and he’s asking me questions, y’know,
where I live, my name. And nothing I said made any sense. It came out–it
was totally–I couldn’t gather my thoughts at all. And I realized I’d
had a concussion.

But wasn’t
your ankle just hanging by a thread?

At that
point I didn’t even realize it. My friends that had waited for me tried
to get me to go to the hospital [when I got out]. They were trying to talk to
me but I wasn’t making any sense at all. So they got really worried. I
got really tired so I fell asleep, and they watched me. And then the next day
I woke up and oh my God I was in such pain. I took my shoe off, my sock off,
and my ankle–we took photos of it. My ribcage was just all purple and yellow.
The pictures were in Thrasher magazine…my ankle was just like…the
bone never healed right. I even put a cast on it, but the thing never healed
right. Look at that. [He removes shoe to show a weird protrusion just above
the heel.] It fuckin’ hurts every time I try to… There’s no hope
of me tap-dancing. I remember putting a pair of tap shoes on a few months later,
but it couldn’t work.

Were you
able to tap-dance before?

Well, I
invent my own styles. I got a few hours of me just tapping in a raincoat.

there an MTV spot of you dancing? Did I dream that? I only saw it once…

Yeah. I
did a thing where I was dancing in Chinatown. There’s a lot of dancing
in my new movie.

Is that
all from growing up in Tennessee, that you’re into tap dancing and vaudeville
and old-time music?

There wasn’t
much vaudeville in Tennessee.

I just mean
that kind of down-home


I don’t
know–I always liked it. I like to watch people who don’t dance, or
who can’t really dance in a formal way, really dance. I like to ask people
to really go all out and dance. There’s something amazing about how people
interpret dance moves through their body. That’s why I put this girl who’s
an 11-year-old blind figure skater in my movie. She was on Hard Copy or
something. There was something about a girl who’s 11 and totally blind
and wanted to be in the Olympics. They showed this footage of her and it was
so amazing. It was the girl and obviously she couldn’t see, she was totally
blind, so she had no way to reference what it looked like to ice skate. So she
was bumping into walls and shit. She was like Stevie Wonder on ice. She was
kinda making up her own moves, doing these really exaggerated kinda ice skating
moves, and then kinda falling. But also, because she was blind, everyone would
clap, really cheer her on. So I think she was like, “Yeah, I’m going
to the Olympics!” I was like, fuck, that’s amazing. Whenever she’d
say she’s going to the Olympics–no one would tell a blind 11-year-old,
“No, you’re blind. You’re not going to make it to the Olympics.”
So everyone’s like, “You’ll go there,” so in her head, she
was totally like, “I’m gonna be an Olympian.”

When I saw
that I wanted to make a documentary about her…but then I just incorporated
her into [Julien Donkey-Boy]. She’s really good.

Did you
read what David Denby just wrote about Dogma? He said [in the Sept. 13 New
] it was just a way for filmmakers to say they’re pious. It seemed
like you and him were kinda in agreement, seeing as you broke some Dogma rules
and wrote a comic confession.

[The confession
appeared, without Korine's consent, in a Julien Donkey-Boy ad in
the Sept. 12 New York Times.]

He wrote
a scathing thing about Dogma?

It was more
dismissive than scathing.

So weird.
I don’t understand. There’s all these 60s analysts, these jaded movie
critics. I don’t see how you can dismiss [Dogma] as a movement. Especially
if you look at films that it’s yielded, even if you don’t like them.
At least people are trying to do things differently. At least there’s filmmakers
who care about cinema and care about the direction. It’s easy to write
it off and say it’s a hype thing, or marketing, but if you look at the
films, I think it’s good work. I think it’s a good idea–a rescue
action. It’s about the elevation of cosmetics to God. It’s not about
hiding behind a facade and trickery. You can argue the rules but for the filmmakers,
at least, it’s not about arguing–it’s about accepting it like
you would accept the Ten Commandments or something. Blindly accept it.

all my films won’t be Dogma films, but it’s good to know that Dogma
exists, because as a filmmaker you can go back and it is a kind of redemption.
It’s a way to redeem yourself in cinematic terms. You purify yourself by
following the Vow of Chastity.

like kosher law.

just religion. They’re all laws and rules, with faith involved.

the faith part, that film can be art?

Right. That
you’re pushing some kind of–that you’re not doing it for an esthetic
purpose, you’re doing it more for a–the idea is that you’re forcing
some kind of honesty or truth, or something close to truth, out of a situation.
That it’s more about documenting something than it is about manipulating

So what’s
the faith?

That by
following these rules…you’ll be forced to reckon with some kind of
truth, or some kind of poetic truth.

It would
be simple to make a Dogma movie that’s fairy-tale as well. It would just
be more organic-looking. I’d like to make a $100 million Dogma movie…
It has nothing to do with economics, or indie or anything.

Well, you
gotta understand that if people are dismissive it’s because Hollywood people
and celebrities talk pretentiously about art and religion all the time–like
Alanis Morissette thinks she’s a poet, Madonna studies the Talmud.

Right, right,

So as a
critic you have to resist by writing that these phonies are pumping out pure

Right. But
it’s weird because it’s like being angry.

being cynical.

definitely cynical. Most critics are cynical–most people are cynical.
But it’s like being anti-French New Wave. How can you be dismissive over
such a wide–if you look at the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, those
directors have very little to do with one another. Even though I don’t
like 95 percent of the films that were made by the so-called New Wavers, there
are certain movies, mainly films by Godard, that are good. So it’s like
saying: I hate all black people. You have to take every person, or every film,
on its own merits. Julien Donkey-Boy, besides the Vow of Chastity, has
very little to do with The Celebration, or The Idiots or any of
the Dogma movies. None of them have much to do with each other except for that.
So it’s weird to be that dismissive. But anyone who’s gonna be like
that, who the fuck cares what they think?

I loved
when they all hated Gummo. It was exciting for me, as a young critic,
because I could see what was good about it and the establishment couldn’t.
With rock ‘n’ roll, almost no matter what we liked, the boomer critics
were right behind us, loving it too.

why I liked Ozzy at a young age. Ozzy was the first guy, at least in Tennessee,
who all the parents were–when Black Sabbath or Ozzy came to town it was
like, “You can’t go,” the church would picket, so I was like
10 years old and I immediately wanted to see Ozzy. I never even heard his music
before, but I was like, Fuck, this guy’s gotta be great. He was on the
news. He pissed on the Alamo, he’s biting off the heads of bats. “This
guy’s gotta be amazing!” So I went and saw Ozzy and it was such a
big thing.

always called Sabbath stuff like “aggressively ugly.” But
I’m getting to that age, I guess, where I’m starting to question youthful
rebellion–if there’s really any value in it.

No, it’s
good just to like things that are horrible because everyone hates it. I like
that kinda stuff. It’s good when you’re young. Now…there’s
no Ozzy right now.

with the tattoos?

Did your
mom get upset when you came home with a cross tattooed on your finger?

“You’re a Jewish boy!” Oh yeah, forget it, hates it. I just thought
getting an upside-down cross on my finger would be the best thing to do. What
would be better?

If you’re
gonna disqualify yourself from a Jewish cemetery it might as well be with a

When I lived
at my grandma’s house the Hasids used to always yell at me.

You mean
out in Queens?

Yeah. I
remember I almost got in a fistfight once. I was 17 or 18. I was living at my
grandma’s house. I would write all day long and then–there’s
a Blockbuster down the street from my grandmother’s in Kew Gardens–so
I’d walk to the Blockbuster at night and rent movies. I remember walking
to Blockbuster and it was so hot, the middle of summer, like 110 degrees. And
there’s a 30-year-old Hasid with full garb on, sweating his ass off, wearing
like six layers, jackets and four overcoats. He had a huge plastic bag full
of tin cans, Pepsi cans and stuff. It was draped over his shoulder. And he looks
at me and he goes, “Do you know where there’s a recyclable machine
near here? Something I can put my cans in?” And I was like, “No, I
have no idea.” And he goes, “Are you Jewish?” I was walking away,
and I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “Then where’s your yarmulke
you FUCK?” He said that! He called me a “fuck.” And I was like,
“What the hell? You son of a bitch!” When I was like 400 feet away
the guy wouldn’t stop yelling at me: “You’re no Jew, you bastard,
you dirty bastard!” I was like, “Look at you, with your cans in the
sun. Asshole.”

When you
try to tell a story without using traditional narrative, do you try to structure
it like a dream?

I never
remember my dreams.

You don’t
know what a dream is like?

No. I’ve
always been jealous of people who like keep a dream diary. Usually I hate dreams.
There’s nothing more boring than when someone’s like, “I gotta
tell you about my dream last night!” There’s nothing worse than hearing
somebody’s dream.

Yeah, but
they’re interesting when you have them.

never been able to remember mine. I go to sleep and I wake up and it’s

like you blinked?

No, I know
I dreamed because sometimes I’ll have a dream but I’ll have no idea
what it was when I wake up. I can’t remember any dream I’ve ever had.
It’s the worst, whenever I hear about, like, Jack Kerouac’s dream
book. Ugh. Horrible. There’s no foundation in anything real.

Werner Herzog
said something funny about you and him having late puberty in common. He said
that had something to do with filmmaking.

Yeah, that’s
funny, I forgot about that. He also said his being cast as my father is “no

All of a
sudden, [director Bernardo] Bertolucci became a big fan of my movies too. It’s
really strange. I read things he was saying in interviews, about the cinematic
landscape or something. Then I got a phone call from him right before Venice.
We gave him a private screening [of Julien Donkey-Boy] right before Venice.
He’s a nice guy.

I like the
one he did called Luna. It’s a movie with Jill Clayburgh about incest.
He made it in the 70s–all the critics just hated it and it’s so good.
She plays this opera singer, kind of neurotic, and her 15-year-old son is a
heroin addict. There’s this amazing scene, it’s so good. They’re
in Italy and he’s kicking, in such pain, on the couch shivering, and she
doesn’t know what to do. She starts to rub him. She starts rubbing his
leg. He moves a little bit and the next thing you know she’s rubbing his
cock. She starts to jerk him off, and it’s an amazing scene because it’s
confusing. There’s so much there. She starts touching like she wants to
comfort him, because he’s ill, and then she ends up masturbating him. Even
that is, in a weird way, so sexy because it’s done out of the motherly–it’s
sexual but she’s making her son come to reveal his pain. It’s an act
of motherly love, to ease his pain. She does it in a real loving way. The act
itself is kind of not motherly, but how she does it, it’s very motherly.

But that
movie almost ruined her career. People really hated it. They hated her for it.

So, to generalize:
You like images that are dissonant.

Oh yeah,

funny because your name’s Harmony.

Yeah. You
couldn’t have given me a less apt name. “Harmful” is so much
better. Anything I do, the best art for me, works on a few different levels.
It’s like life…to not just work on a single emotion. One person thinks
it’s funny, another person thinks it’s sad, or to make you feel guilty
about laughing or enjoying something is always a great feeling. Even more–the
best stuff makes you question why you’re feeling or thinking [what you're
thinking or feeling]. It makes you question yourself.

with dressing casual and talking arty? That upsets the press. You should talk
like Sylvester Stallone if you’re gonna dress like that.

true. I grew a beard because of this enfant terrible thing. It took me
months–I’m serious. It was like, Okay, if I shave I look like I’m
16. So I made a conscious decision, I was sick of hearing that. I want people
to write more about the movie and less about me. So I figured if I grew a beard
that would but help. But now I look like a 16-year-old with a beard… I
know that Sylvester Stallone has to have soft-core porn in his trailer. Not
hard-core. He’s gotta get, not the Playboy channel–Spice. He’s
addicted to the Spice Station. He doesn’t want to see any real intercourse.
He needs that.

probably a boxing thing. He’s probably saving sperm.

Oh yeah,
I do that too, while I’m directing. Conserve my semen.

You save

Nah, I don’t
conserve it. I splash it everywhere.

got their secrets for success.

some great boxer, he’s like a featherweight. I don’t know his name.
His whole thing is he would drink two or three espressos right before [a fight].
That was always his edge. It was true–you could see. He would drink these
espressos a few seconds before he walked out and the guy, his eyeballs were
like bursting. It’s so much better than coke, y’know. It was so much
of his winning technique, the espresso.

be like sitting in the corner between rounds with the little cup?

Yeah. I
saw this one fight–they showed the other guy, backstage, he’s shadowboxing
and jumping rope. And then this guy, he’s on a red velvet couch and he
had a little cappuccino in a really nice cup, with a coffee dish underneath
it. And he was drinking with his pinky up. It was so good. And the guy with
the cappuccino just destroyed him. And you know how most guys are like, “I
wanna thank God”–he was like, “I wanna thank so-and-so coffee
on 54th St. for making the best damn ‘spresso this side of the muthafuckin’
Mississippi!” It was so good.