The Terrible Infant Speaks

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

The snapshot, smudged with soot, shows a man with a puzzled expression propped up in a hospital bed. He is clearly a patient of some kind. The object cradled in his arms explains the puzzlement: a clown-red baseball bat. Another soot-rimmed snapshot later, his position and expression have changed. He's lunging forward, plainly pissed. The bat looks headed straight for the photographer. Turns out the man had just awakened from a coma.

"I used to break into hospitals sometimes, and we would dress up the patients," Harmony Korine says. "We would crawl through the windows of these hospitals, and I would give them baseball bats and plastic gloves."

He says it fondly, amusedly, in the offhand way someone might recall a Cub Scout jamboree. The concrete floor of his basement is barren, except for some big green storage tubs stashed under a bare light. The lid of one forms a makeshift tabletop heaped with snapshots, most streaked with smoke and soot. The host picks up one Ziploc bag filled with photographs, then another, then another.

There's a wild-eyed man with a shock of silver hair, contorted into lurid scenarios of domestic mayhem with a fleshy woman whose forehead bears a crucifix tattoo. "They're these next-door neighbors I used to have in New York that I would get to strangle each other," Korine says. "They were this weird fucking couple I found out was into sadomasochism." There's a teenage Korine in minstrel get-up with a broomstick jutting out of his fly. There's Macaulay Culkin, bathed in babes and sickly light for a Sonic Youth video Korine directed. There's a gaunt stranger whose expression is so dramatic that a guest assumes he must be an actor. Korine shakes his head: "That was back when I'd break into mental wards."

From another photo, a slim, blurry wraith peers out from a backdrop of greenery, while the host's 22-year-old self looks on. "There's Chloe," he says — actress Chloe Sevigny, his former girlfriend, who starred in his 1997 feature Gummo and scoured local thrift stores for its grungy costumes. There are zines, notebooks full of random thoughts, even a heap of script notecards from a project called What Makes Pistachio Nuts?, involving a pig named Trotsky. All reek of ash and cinders — the result of a house fire (the first of two) six years ago, during a period he casually describes as "back when I lost my mind."

"There's something kind of strange about having all your memories drenched in soot," Korine says. Even stranger, perhaps, is the context that now surrounds them. Leave the dark basement, and its jumble of scorched, chronologically scattered memories, and you're suddenly in the picture of domestic bliss: an airy, immaculate old house in one of Nashville's most picturesque neighborhoods. A bowl of fruit salad and a plate of cookies await guests; a copy of Vanity Fair rests on a coffee table. In another room, his wife, Rachel, a willowy, brunette Southern belle who serves as sounding board for his flights of fancy, tends to their new puppy, Lupe.

Their home is just down the street from his younger brother Avi's house, where the two siblings wrote Korine's first film in eight years: a comedy-drama called Mister Lonely. A selection last year at both Cannes and Toronto, it's a winsome, disarmingly gentle fable about a lonesome Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who joins a commune of similar misfits, told alongside the parallel story of a South American priest (legendary German director Werner Herzog) and an order of flying nuns.

Korine grew up in a house just a few blocks from where he lives today. His production company O'Salvation, founded with the French fashion designer Agnes B., just relocated its office from Paris to Nashville, and he says he plans to make "three or four" films here, including one he's already written. "It's strange," says Korine, now 35, bearded and boyish, with no sign of the drug-addled mania that almost silenced him for good in the bleak days after 9/11. "On the one hand, it's weird being back, I guess, just because I'm back — just because of all the things I'd done or places I lived between when I left and here. But on the other hand, it seems like the most natural thing in the world for me, to be here."

There are no personal posters, awards, or grip-and-grin photos to be seen. "I have director friends, and you walk into their house and it's like a shrine to them, their posters, their awards — man, what the fuck!" Korine says, helping his guests to fruit salad. "Geez, get rid of that stuff!" Only the exquisitely framed and hung artwork — a Japanese fetish study in the living room, a Boris Mikhailov image of a smudged, spectral woman staring vacantly from a swingset, a set of stark early works by punk artist Raymond Pettibon — would indicate that the person who lives here is one of the most divisive, inspiring, infuriating, hated, and revered figures in recent American movies.

Smoke has followed Harmony Korine since the early 1990s, when he moved to New York from Nashville. At age 19, just two years out of Hillsboro High School and encouraged by outlaw photographer Larry Clark, he wrote the script for Clark's 1995 directorial debut Kids. His scandalous portrait of predatory teen sexuality caused an international uproar, provoked a war between distributor Miramax and its outraged corporate parent Disney — and made a talk-show guest and tabloid fixture of its author.

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."

Leaving the basement, he claps his blackened hands together and brushes them on his pants. On the way to the front door, he pauses at the tidy kitchen sink and washes his hands. If Harmony Korine can't entirely escape his past, at least he's managing to keep it confined.

This film definitely seems more accessible.

I don't even know if it is, actually. I guess narratively it is. But it was more that there were these characters I was interested in, these things, these images that I was kind of curious about. I'd always been attracted to marginalized characters that live outside of social norms — people that create their own ... language. Dreamers. Tramps. So I just started dreaming about some of these characters, and these images, and I just felt that the story was interesting enough and unique enough and the characters were beautiful enough that it didn't need to be told in a way that was deconstructed. I just wanted to make the story simple.

I think the films reflect the mental state at the time you're making them. Making the other films, I had a very strong idea of cinema, a specific kind of cinema, and the way I wanted to watch movies, that was very much about collage — a chaos narrative, a kind of noise narrative. I didn't care about making sense. I wanted to make perfect nonsense. I wanted images coming from all directions, falling out of the sky. Gummo was like that, and to an extent Julien. But with this film, it wasn't that I'm not interested in making movies the way I had before; it was that these particular characters in some ways were quieter. I didn't feel like I needed to break anything down; I just wanted to paint pictures, kind of.

Were the nun story and the Michael Jackson story ever separate movies?

In the beginning, when I was first working with Avi, we were thinking of it as two different movies, or as something with the same story but the characters somehow inhabiting both worlds. But at a certain point I knew we were going to do away with one. I knew it was going to be controversial in that the stories never necessarily come together in a cemented way. But I felt that both narratives were speaking to the same idea: that there was an emotional connection, that there was a thematic connection — that in some ways the two stories danced with each other.

But I felt pretty sure that a certain kind of person would just think that it was gibberish — and I don't dispute that either. I don't even really care, you know what I'm saying? It felt right. It felt right that they were both part of the same story: they're both stories about people who live outside of the system, who create their own world — you could even call it transcendence, wanting to be other than who you are. And mostly this idea that if you believe strongly enough, magic is possible. You can push the limits of who you are.

And yet all the characters seem doomed by that quality — by the talent that sets them apart.

I feel like it's always interesting to see people who construct their own reality and kind of build a fortress around it, and then watch as someone breaks it down and kicks their ass (laughs). It's almost like kids who are homeschooled — life is great when you're in your living room with your parents, but there's some guy waiting down the street with a baseball bat to get to you.

How much of the movie is improvised? There's that great scene with Werner Herzog as the priest, where he gets this man to confess that he cheated on his wife. Was any part of that real?

That scene was really special. I was setting up for another scene in Panama, where my parents live, and there's an airport in the jungle. And out of the corner of my eye I saw Herzog talking to this guy who was holding these plastic roses, and he was crying. And I walked up to Werner and said, "What's going on?" And he said, "Please, put the camera on me quick, something special is about to happen." And what you saw, in reality, is very close to the truth.

Here's this guy who's like the village idiot. The first time I went and visited my parents a couple of years earlier, I had seen him, and he tried to attack Rachel. He was pretending to be a passport agent, right, but he had no shoes on, and he was saying, "Where's your passport, bitch?" and all this stuff. I just thought he was a kook and never really paid that much attention. What we learned was that about four years prior, his wife had left him, and left with another man. And so what he does every day, at the same time each day, he waits at the airport holding these roses for his wife to step off the airplane.

And Werner had kind of figured out his story. Werner somehow knew that [the reason his wife left] was "fornication." He denied it when it was one, he denied it when it was two — but when Werner said "five women," the guy broke. He said, "You read me! How did you read me?" And Werner said, "I read your heart." They actually became kind of like friends. And what was interesting was, two or three months ago, I went to visit my parents, and he was still there waiting. I stepped off the airplane and went up — I didn't think he would remember me, he was drunk — and I said, "Hey, how's it goin'?" And he looked at me and he goes, "WHERE'S THE PRIEST?" (rocks with laughter) I'm sure he's standing there right now.

How about the scene where Michael Jackson is performing at the old folks' home?

What happened was, I had read this article about the oldest woman in France. And they asked her what her key to life was, and she said that every day for 60 years she had done a bump of cocaine and drank a shot glass of sherry. (laughs) And I was like, "My God, this woman is incredible." So I asked the producers to try to track her down, and maybe I could do a scene with her and Michael Jackson doing a bump.

And we went there, found her, found the place, but she refused to be in the film. But I liked the location. Originally it was going to take place at a car show, with everybody dancing next to Lamborghinis and women with silicone titties. But I was like, "This is better." To get them in the mood, I'd put Triple 6 Mafia on the amps. There was something really great about being in Paris in an old folks' home listening to Triple 6 Mafia with Michael Jackson dancing.

What's the deal with you and bathtub scenes? All your movies have bathtub scenes.

It's funny — someone else asked me that the other day! Actually, it was a Q&A with Werner, and the moderator said the same thing: He'd gone through all my films, and there's always bathtub scenes. That's just one of those things that happens. I guess I just like the way people look in bathtubs. I don't take baths myself. I mean, I do take showers (laughs).

Are you a fan of vaudeville?

Vaudeville I always liked. It's like my attention span. To tell the truth, it's no secret I have an aversion to telling plots. I just hate things that are plotted. I feel like as soon as I start to even write something that's close to what's considered a traditional plot with a beginning, middle, and end, I feel like a phony — like it's just a device. I've never felt like life has plots. I always felt like things just existed, and life is more of an abstraction.

What I remember from movies — and real life — is characters. Moments. Feelings. And scenes. In some ways, when I first started making movies, I only wanted to have the good stuff. I only wanted to go with the best moments. I wanted to make a film that consisted entirely of moments. I thought you could compare it to looking at a book of your parents' photos, where you have a picture of you riding a camel right next to the first time your mother bathed you in a sink, next to your dad with a new car, next to your puppy dog. Each photo on its own is what it is, but the book itself is the narrative of a family. Without all the boring middle parts.

Does the critical hostility to your films bother you?

You want people to like your film, always. It would be a lie to say you don't want people to like your film. I understand why people don't like them. In the beginning, I cared a lot more — not about just critics, but overall. I was still really young, and I was maybe more concerned with the way you fit in and the reaction to things. I was trying to rile people. It was fun for me to do that. But at a certain point, I realized that the healthiest thing for me to do is put the work out there, and move on. As you see, I don't have anything that reminds me of myself. I don't own posters; I don't own DVDs; I don't own copies of my books ...

It's pretty funny how often you're referred to as an "enfant terrible." It's like Obama and "articulate."

Yeah, that seems to really follow me around. There's nothing wrong with that. I was just doing what I was doing, making it up as I go along, and I was enjoying it. I still feel like I need to ... have fun with this.

Have online venues opened any possibilities for you?

It doesn't scare me at all, this idea that cinema's changing, or the way people watch film is going to be different, and they're going to watch it on their telephone. In some ways, Gummo was very YouTube, because it was about these kinds of moments. Part of my intent in making that film was that you could blindfold yourself and stick your hand into the film and pull out a scene, and any given scene would give you something on its own, without your having to watch what came before it or after it. I guess it's very much part of that same [YouTube] idea — just like vaudeville. You don't have to like the whole show, but there's something in there ...

Do you ever rewatch your movies?

I don't have an aversion to it. But I figure there are so many movies I haven't watched, why the fuck am I going to watch my own? There's a book by Paul Bowles called Look and Move On. For me, that's what it's about.

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