The Terrible Infant Speaks

Harmony Korine talks about his new movie Mister Lonely and coming home.

Still in his early 20s, Korine then wrote and directed two polarizing features — Gummo and its 1999 follow-up Julien Donkey-Boy — that were arguably the most boldly experimental American films of the decade. They were abrasive, plotless collages that dwelled in a zone of viewer discomfort and dislocation, possessed of a tone somewhere between the loony-bin talent night of Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies and the jokebooks Korine loved as a kid growing up the son of a documentarian, Sol Korine, who followed moonshiners and carnies throughout the South.

Korine's first film followed the residents of a tornado-stricken town on ritualistic rounds of cat drowning, eruptive fights, and diversions of the flesh. His second, made along the guidelines of the Dogme 95 cinematic "vow of chastity," used jarring edits and distorted digital camerawork to evoke the mental turmoil of a schizophrenic dreamer. Together, they mimicked the form of a dead medium — vaudeville, with its bring-on-the-next-act sketch structure — while heralding the coming of YouTube and its emphasis on bursts of random weirdness over long-form storytelling.

Reaction to the films, especially Gummo, was immediate and furious. Janet Maslin, the New York Times critic who hailed Kids as "a wake-up call to the world," declared Gummo the year's worst movie. Agreeing for once with Maslin, the Chicago Reader's influential critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called it "the worst movie I saw anywhere in 1997" — only to be countered by the Reader's other critic, Lisa Alspector, who declared it a four-star masterpiece. "If only the director didn't see the rest of humanity as found art, and himself as its appraiser," harrumphed Jim Ridley in Nashville Scene.

But filmmakers such as Werner Herzog (who also appears in Julien Donkey-Boy), Gus Van Sant (who cast Korine in a small role in Good Will Hunting), and Bernardo Bertolucci championed the film, while the hostile reviews only shored up Korine's punk cred. Hip-hop video auteur Hype Williams tossed a Gummo tribute into his feature Belly; a decade later, renegade porn director Eon McKai claimed Korine as an influence. "Korine, who at 25 is one of the most untamed new directors, belongs on the list with Godard, Cassavetes, Herzog, Warhol, Tarkovsky, Brakhage, and others who smash conventional movies and reassemble the pieces," Roger Ebert wrote of Julien Donkey-Boy.

Had Korine been European, or at least obscure, the acclaim might have been even more widespread. (On the other hand, had he been less notorious, the movies might have been smothered in their infancy.) But his work was overshadowed by his gift for offscreen troublemaking: interviews full of outrageous yarn-spinning and provocations, including a classic appearance with a flummoxed David Letterman; nightly hell-raising with a crew, dubbed the "Pussy Posse," peopled by luminaries such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and his friend and collaborator, magician David Blaine.

Tell Korine that profiles of him from this period read like Andy Kaufman–style performance pranks, and he doesn't disagree. "I wanted to blow things up," he says. "I literally wanted to burn it down, at that time of my life. Maybe I was beginning to get delusional with my head, but I really thought it was time to destroy the whole fucking thing. At least for myself, and then start again."

He launched a project called Fight Harm in which he would provoke fights with strangers, then let Blaine photograph as they beat the crap out of him. A bouncer broke his ankle, and an Arab man busted a mandolin over his head. In the basement, snapshots show Korine soaking in an ice bucket, nursing grapefruit-sized bruises with a fistful of Quaaludes. That was not the end of his self-destructive ways. At his lowest ebb, Korine recalls, he was wrapping himself in tinfoil, with rubber bands around his joints to permit movement and a shower cap atop his head to hold in his thoughts.

After a grim stay in Paris, Korine says he returned to Nashville four or five years ago to clear his head. He met Rachel, introduced by a mutual friend, and began the process of writing and filming Mister Lonely, which at one point could have starred Gene Wilder as a Jewish pope. Instead, it was filmed in the Scottish Highlands with a cast that includes Samantha Morton (as Marilyn Monroe), Denis Lavant (as a Hitleresque Charlie Chaplin), Rachel as Little Red Riding Hood, and the reunion of James Fox and Anita Pallenberg from Nicolas Roeg's Performance.

Korine is again making headlines, but this time—along with the tag "enfant terrible," which follows him with comic predictability (Google: 763 hits and counting) — they feature words like "redemption." At home, though, he seems less redeemed than refreshed. He may prove yet to be that rare figure: a peaceable homeowner who also admires, collects, promotes — and above all makes — dangerous art.

"It's the mistakes and awkwardness of real life that I've always been attracted to," he says. "But I'm not waiting for it to happen. I like to instigate it. It's like a real world that's slightly tweaked — a subtle science fiction. It's like when you put chemicals in a jar and shake it up, and then you document the explosion."

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