Harmony Talks Trash

harmony

Harmony Korine is gleefully recycling the diabolical tagline to the assembled press at London’s Mayfair Hotel: “It’s about people who fuck trash. Not just about people who fuck trash, but that is one of the things that they love to do.” It’s hard to know whether the overgrown wünderkind has hit the festival circuit to promote his latest romcom paean to the weird, Trash Humpers, or simply to offer a public warning. “I’m not trying to trick anyone or tell them it’s …” What is the opposite of humping garbage, though? “…about unicorns” he decides, shrugging his shoulders and bursting into his trademark cackle. Then, like a short circuit, he’s back to the safety of home turf: “IT IS ABOUT PEOPLE THAT FUCK TRASH.”

It’s not so much that plot spoilers are suddenly redundant: Harmony was never that into plot in the first place. It’s just that however much his wilful literalism tries to sidestep any critical backlash, it’s clear that there’s more at stake than he’s letting on. In the past he’s mentioned the project as having being born of his wonder at the “beautiful forms” of trashcans caught in the blind glare of streetlamps — and the video violence that the film offers up is certainly counteracted by the hypnotic bent of the outsider portrait. When he does manage to stop underselling himself, it’s clear that a kind of pure conceptual excess is the motivation. His humper protagonists are “artists of mischief” he elaborates, who “get such a true joy out of doing horrible things that they almost turn it into an art form. Smashing lightbulbs, burning down houses and tap dancing in parking lots becomes something very exceptional.”  

Harmony has always been seen as a bit of an exception in the film world — right down to his famed tap dancing habit. Ever since Larry Clark headhunted the then teen to write the screenplay for Kids, he has continued to make projects that descend into the queer corners of life and usually manage to find a strange beauty there. Pedro Costa, the ascetic Portuguese director known for sensitive portraits of the marginalised like Colossal Youth, recently said that 99% of films being made were worthless. The main gala content of the latest London Film Festival hasn’t done much to disprove the theory — a bland mix of Beatles nostalgia with Sam Taylor Wood’s Nowhere Boy and auteurs like Wes Anderson serving up readymade branded animation.  Harmony, whatever he is, is defiantly not a part of all that, which is why many continue to group him with the 1% of interest. His real is different from Pedro Costa’s, but it’s clear that he too is against the realm of pure fantasy; his world is never quite dissociable from life. Harmony’s view is surprisingly even-handed: “I’m not a fan of 99% of the movies that are made” he says, “but they probably matter to some portion of the audience.”

As becomes apparent, Harmony doesn’t like to indulge the big questions, but when asked about the future, he admits that “what constitutes a feature film is evolving or devolving, depending on how you look at it. I have this strange suspicion that the lengths of movies, that the way films are going to be viewed — even the style of stories told — is about to change.” Something has already changed. Korine’s world seemed extraordinary back in 1995 when Kids came out and MTV’s Real World was about as real as it got. Since then the rise of YouTube and the omnipresence of cheap digital video means anyone could theoretically mimic the intimist collage effect of his films by selective YouTube use. How has his view of filmmaking changed now that the world has started to catch up? The new technologies are “both good and bad” and “democratic” he says, “because they make things easy to access.” But Harmony, like most people, is uneasy about the glut of information, admitting “at a certain point everything becomes noise. I find it increasingly difficult for movies to have a lasting emotional resonance, the way they did when I first started watching. You would see something and it would live with you forever and could change the way you thought about things. There seems to be this shift where now it is just about consuming them. Even the movies that people say they love for the most part they forget the next day.”

Kids

That’s the thing about Harmony — for all the bravura and the big mouth, he has always been sentimental where his art is concerned. He once said he’d die for the cinema and, although it didn’t come to that, his deliberate provocation of passers-by led to his eventual hospitalisation and the scrapping of that other literally-titled project, Fight Harm. Werner Herzog, his bellicose sometime collaborator, has referred to him as a “soldier of cinema”. So who would Harmony want on his side in a fight for the future of film? “Carlos Reygadas is a soldier of cinema“ he bats back instantly. “Chris Cunningham. Clint Eastwood. Michael Mann. Kim Ki-duk.” From Hollywood grandees to British video nasties, it’s as eclectic as you’d expect — and Harmony will certainly be in the front line although for the moment he’s sanguine: “It is what it is. I’m not frightened. Maybe feature films are only going to be ten minutes long, more about a feeling or a single character. I don’t know but something is happening.”

The future might be unknown but the past has its own problems:  namely the kind of old school studio bureaucracy that accompanies any significant increase in budget. His last film, Mister Lonely, cost eight and a half million dollars — a huge step-up for Korine, and a drawn-out experience that seems to have echoed the eponymous Fellini portrait of a harried director in uncomfortable ways. It also explains the appeal of a lo-fi project like Trash Humpers. “It was a very old model,” he says of his last film. “Sitting around waiting for money to come and waiting for actors works against all your creative impulses. It feels like someone’s cutting off your head. Maybe it’s just my personality but I’m very impatient, I get bored and antsy. I just like making things. I want to try and figure out a way to move as quickly as I can think.”

Speed… although he has apparently kicked his former drug habit, there’s definitely still something of the addict in his ricochet answers and my, what big eyes he’s got. One wonders how he has made the transition to married life when there’s no way he’s slowing down for anything or  – as a recent father — anyone. Yet the Korine filmmaking model is firmly in place: hang out with friends, film your life, live day to day, do what you want. In Trash Humpers, both Harmony and his wife Rachel (she has played Red Riding Hood for Korine before) play the eponymous freaks, and it’s hard to imagine how they managed to fit that job around bringing up the baby.  Probably not the new bride’s dream? “ I had to do a lot of convincing” he laughs “because these characters were very sadistic.”

julien donkey-boy (1999)

The desire to do what he wants and play by his own rules seems to be a constant pre-occupation. Even Dogme bent over backwards to accommodate his Julien Donkey-Boy into the corpus, despite the hidden cameras, directorial credit and seemingly non-diegetic sound. With the new film, the concept was more simple: the film was basically a concept.  “You could almost make the argument that it’s not a movie“ says Korine. “The thing was for it to closely resemble a found artefact or an old VHS tape that someone had buried in a ditch somewhere.” (At the director’s Q & A later that night he ups the stakes by mentioning a blood-stained ziplock bag, so maybe he does do director-shtick after all).” I wanted to make something that worked on its own logic” he continues, “the only rule was that it had to be shot on VHS and edited on VCRs.”

Rewind to the 1980s and video was the hot platform; the shabby voyeurist technology encapsulated by Soderbergh’s Sex, lies and Videotape and reprised by ‘80s kid Korine in Trash Humpers. As one of the first to get to grips with the VHS cameras, he talks lovingly about using tapes over and over again. It’s unsurprising that he is sanguine about digitalization and what he sees as the lazy aesthetic currently in fashion: “Everyone is so obsessed now with clarity and pixels and high definition. I think there’s something hypnotic and beautiful about the fog of analogue… about forcing yourself to squint a little bit and work to see what’s behind the image.”

Trash Humpers

Chance and spontaneity are harder to stumble by these days when Blair Witch and assorted Hollywood disaster films like Cloverfield have schematized the confessional, home movie aesthetic for their own ends. But for Harmony at least, laissez-faire seems a natural stance. When it comes to the theory behind the new film, for example, he denies all knowledge: “We woke up, we walked around. I don’t like to analyse. I don’t like to know why I’m making things and where the impulse comes from. I don’t have much curiosity, I’d rather not know. I’d rather just create.” Now Harmony is visibly squirming on the velvet pouffe: “The only time I ever think about this shit is when you people ask me! It’s public psychoanalysis!” And the cackle is back.

Like Jean-Luc Godard, one of his recorded influences, Harmony is suspicious of words. At one point he says that his favourite dialogues are “the Buster Keaton films, when they don’t speak” and he also name checks the Wizard of Oz, Pee-wee Herman and John Huston’s Fat City all of which make perfect sense when you think about the Loony Tunes tone of some of his work. Instead, he’s into ambiances and emotions, possibly because, as he once said, “no one remembers the plot.” Trash Humpers is exemplary of his disinterest in any kind of linear narrative — an iterative loop of moments, linked by song but not by any development or character arc (once a humper, always a humper, it seems). “I feel the same way I did when I was 15 “ he says. “It’s not that I ever set out to destroy plot, it’s just that what has moved me about movies is specific moments, scenes and characters. Something intangible, that you can’t necessarily articulate. Very early on I thought why would I use the same three act structure as everyone else? I could throw them in but it would feel forced. I don’t think like that and I don’t feel life is like that.”

Gummo

With the life that he’s had, it’s unsurprising that Harmony naturally shrinks from the worldview promoted by most mainstream film. If his childhood resembles any film, though, it might be Todd Browning’s Freaks, which would certainly explain the continuing appeal of offbeat characters to the director – from the cat chasers in Gummo to the truly terrifying child preacher who rides the humpers on leashes in his latest. The way Harmony tells it, he lived in a freaky Eden, until the jaded world pointed out his friends looked weird: “I spent a lot of time growing up in carnivals, travelling with the circus. I always got a great energy there. I never thought of them as freaks until other people started pointing it out.” He still can’t explain his attraction to them – “Why do you see someone in the window and think they’re beautiful and someone else disgusting?“

Capturing the offbeat poetry of life is the stock in trade of photographer William Eggleston, whom Harmony interviewed recently. He seemed interested in Eggleston’s work as a social document of the Tennessee everyday life, of brands and food stores that no longer exist – even if the maestro and his disciple refused to get too nostalgic. New York is certainly different since Harmony’s Kids supposedly showed life how it is, but as he explains it, his work is more about a leap of the imagination than any faithful ethnology: “There’s certain things in the world that you want to see. Maybe they exist in real life, maybe they exist only partially. What you’re left with is this desire to make those images exist so that’s what [you] do. “You photograph them, project them, putting them in a certain context. [You] create a story, a world.”

Mister Lonely

Harmony makes a lot more sense once you know his own context. His father was a documentary-maker  who made portraits like Mouth Music (1981), a record of the carny barks and ? This influence can be seen in Trash Humpers – which is almost a musical – and also in the cut-up mix of Harmony’s record. Does he have any plans to record any more? “I’m a very terrible musician” he giggles, embarrassed. “You must be among the five people who have heard my record”. But just before we met he was apparently discussing the possibility of another musical collaboration even if “We keep goofing around” is all he’ll admit to. Also on the goof agenda is another art show planned for next year in New York. Harmony’s art has already been displayed in gallery contexts but seemingly most has not: “I’ve accumulated a lot of work over the past 15 years that I’ve never shown.”

It’s clear that Harmony has great expectations and he feigns confusion when confronted with the reality of people walking out of his films or – perhaps less dramatically—the cult niche that his work seems to have fallen into. In a response worthy of his pal Herzog he claims that people misunderstand and walk out on his films “because they’re so great. Most of those people don’t know how to take in such greatness. There’s so much emotion, it’s too intense.” Although he recognises that the readymade audience of the film festival circuit is an ideal place for someone like him, particularly with the changing climate, his real aims lie elsewhere and the bravado is just a dime store mask for vaulting ambition. For a second it becomes clear that the director really does just work with what he knows, and that in a parallel world he could just as easily be making Mean Girls to tween acclaim. It’s a compelling image that coats the saccharine emotion of the real world with the real emotion of Harmony’s weird world: “I’m always a bit delusional. I always think this [the next film] is going to be a humongous success that plays in the shopping malls and that Miley Cyrus and all her friends are going to start singing songs about the movie. Moment by moment, layer by layer, I’m always disappointed in the end that it’s not the case. “

2 Comments

  1. Carl
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if it’s necessarily surprisingly, but I’m quite happy that Korine is still interesting after so many years. I’m not a fan of his collaborations with Larry Clark, but all of his work holds up really well. Saw Julien Donkey Boy and Gummo again recently and both were even better than I remembered. Trash Humpers looks fantastic from that preview. Thanks for the interview/article.

  2. Posted March 28, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    harmony would never harm a knee. not like that tanya hardon, who likes to smash other skater’s knee*caps !!!!!

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