I think Harmony Korine stands alone in the creative world. He's a director comfortable with following deviants in rubber masks then creating neon-lit sleaze starring pop singers; he attracts critics to dissect or dismiss his work with the same relish he tests his audience's limits or gets David Blaine to freak out skaters.
Recently the London Short Film Festival hosted a Korine weekender, using the director’s work as inspiration for emerging filmmakers. The roster featured Korine’s finest work Gummo, a panel talk about the mystery of the film, an adaptation of his perplexing novel A Crack Up at the Race Riots and a collection of his short film and music video work. If it didn't exactly make sense of, it certainly well illustrated his progression from writing Kids all the way to Spring Breakers.
Starting with Gummo was a no-brainer; the film marked Korine’s independence as a filmmaker, his debut full-length feature after writing the taboo busting, hedonistic skater flick Kids. Korine harvested the film's acclaim and his new found confidence to create a vision of desolate surroundings and amoral situations. The film eschews a traditional storyline in favour of following a collection of characters in various unrelated moments, these snapshots tell us more about their lives than any character building arc could manage.
The film was screened through a VHS copy due to cinema prints only being available at extortionate prices and the current lack of a DVD/Blu Ray release. This actually added to the documentary style footage with its decay; however, the format does detract from the some of the more spectacular cinematography. Take the melancholy ending: a rain soaked panoramic of a town ruled by events beyond any control. Laughs at the dark hurmour were sparse throughout the screening, but there were still audible gasps at the now nineteen year old film. It's interesting to see that Korine still has the capacity to warrant such reactions.
The screening was accompanied by a panel talk titled The Gummosium, which looked at the impact and importance of Gummo and its relation to his later works. Insight came from Jason Wood of HOME Manchester, who was working for Gummo’s distributor at the time of its release and relayed the struggle in getting critics and cinemas to pick up the uncompromising film. He stated this divisiveness often gets forgotten in modern praise for the film. Beyond Clueless director Charlie Lyne noted how meticulous Korine was in the details of the film, overlaying pages of the script with scenes to demonstrate how to the letter the film could be in conveying his personal vision. Lyne believes this is one of the many things that marks the director out as unique.
A Crack Up at the Race Riots was Leo Gabin’s adaptation of Korine’s book of the same name. Filtered through the snapshot monologues of the book were found-footage of beauty Vloggers and hood shenanigans overlaid with gurgling trap beats. This made for a very laborious ninety minute running time, proving that only Korine (and sometimes Clark) can capture Korine’s words on film. The vitality of his snappy dialogue was lost to lethargic, hackneyed visuals and repetitions of obvious points Gabin was trying to make.
The event included a selection of Korine’s short films and music video work. The most memorable of these being his Sonic Youth’s Dirty Boots video and Snowballs, a surreal, immediate short. There were a few stinkers, these included Blood Havana, which is basically just Korine dicking about on a Cuban holiday in a latex mask (though if you’re into that, do check out Trash Humpers, someone has to).
Ending the weekender was Collected Harmony, a Nowness doc about the director. Eschewing prodding around his use of shock and awe, the film focussed on his need for a visceral response because so much of life makes you feel numb, why can’t something jolt you back to action?
Looking at Korine’s work with ultra self-aware 2016 eye’s I still find every frame overlaid with his meanderingly sparse dialogue compelling. Spring Breakers revels in excess but it’s always good to see a filmmaker's early works of reflection.
For those now wanting more of Korine in real life form, book tickets now for his In Conversation talk at the BFI in February.
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