above excerpt is taken from Harmony Korine's 1998
"novel," A Crack-Up at the Race Riots,
a collection of one-page vignettes, sketches, snatches
of dialogue, celebrity rumors, really bad jokes, suicide
notes and imaginary letters from Tupac Shakur. Occasionally
disarming in its lack of any distinct design or purpose,
Crack-Up is, by its chaotically episodic
nature, unsatisfying. But it does illuminate the inner
workings of this twenty-five-year-old artist who is
responsible for writing the brilliant, controversial
Kids (1995), directing the misunderstood,
but potentially life-changing Gummo (1997)
and directing the immediate and disturbing new movie,
Also found in Crack-Up are lists labeled
"Titles of Books I Will Write," "Rumors"
and "Her Two Favorite Cigarette Jokes."
As with all things in Korine's art, they are instantaneous
thoughts, caught on the cusp of being cultivated,
stopped short and thrown immediately into the artistic
mix. And, like most ideas before they're ruined via
committee, they are sole and streamlined and, therefore,
first film, Gummo, was a surreal, yet extremely
authentic, nonlinear nightmare mash of improvisation,
documentary footage and fictional scenes detailing
the scattered, ruptured community of children in the
tornado-ravaged town of Xenia, Ohio. The only nod
at continuity involved two recurring characters, Solomon
and Tummler, as they wandered through the town of
albinos, deaf-mutes and black dwarves, killing cats
and selling them to a Chinese restaurant. After Gummo's
1997 release, Korine became the stuff of nihilist
legend. His film was so loathed by mainstream media
(The New York Times called Gummo
"the worst movie of the year") that critics
like CNN's Paul Tatara joined the thrashing of the
uppity youngster, cracking that the film was "the
cinematic equivalent of Korine making fart noises
and eating boogers." The New Yorker’s
David Denby called it "beyond redemption."
Meanwhile, the unfazed Korine made a legendary, quietly
aggressive appearance on Late Night with David
Letterman and gave repeated interviews trashing
such current Generation X film heroes as Kevin Smith
(Clerks, Chasing Amy). If this is
the future of film, preached Korine, then I want to
Aside from the endorsement of high-status fellow provocateurs
like Bernardo Bertolucci, Abel Ferrara and Gus Van
Sant (who aptly called Korine's shiftless, watchful
characters "heavy-metal Holden Caulfields"),
no one wanted to be near the kid, lest they catch
his fatal media disease. Then, as Korine prepared
his new film julien donkey-boy, the notorious
Danish filmmaker and rule-breaker Lars von Trier (Breaking
the Waves, The Idiots) rang Korine and
asked if he would like julien to be an official
"Dogma 95" release (more on Dogma 95 later).
Korine, whose ideals of realism were already heading
in a Dogma direction (Korine was planning to shoot
most of julien with hidden, spy and surveillance
cameras), said yes.
I hung out with Korine on the eve of his U.S. premiere
at the New York Film Festival.
want to read you this quote: "To me, the great
hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders
and stuff will come out and some people who normally
wouldn't make movies will be making them and suddenly
". . . and suddenly one day, some little fat
girl in Ohio is going to be the next Mozart and make
a beautiful film with her father's little camera,
and for once the so-called professionalism of movies
will be destroyed forever and it will become an art
a good quote. It's like he's making better quotes
That's what I was thinking.
For me, just speculating, it's like [Coppola] wishes
one thing but he can't do what he really wants to
do, because he's got like one hundred wine cellars
and four thousand people to feed and has to live in
some kind of mansion and can't be the Fat Girl that
he really wants to be.
I know, and it's hard to feel sorry for him.
He used to be so good. It makes me wonder: Is film
It's a weird thing, all these sixties critics that
decided on "auteurism" [one person as sole
artistic creator of a work] in film and what cinema
is in a very narrow definition. A lot of them have
declared the death of cinema. But for me, in a historical
context, you have to look at it next to something
like the novel, where the written word has been around
for so long and come full circle so many times, with
something like James Joyce's Ulysses and
all these novels that have done so much. Film to me,
after one hundred years, is just in its infancy, it's
just now being born, it's like a foot coming out of
the birth canal. There's so much more room for it
to progress and get more complicated and more interesting.
That's not to say I have faith in a movement or group
of filmmakers that are going to push it ahead. But
there'll always be a few people who are concerned
with this stagnation and want to prevent it in film.
Would you say we're at such stagnation now?
Definitely, for the past, you know, since the eighties,
and there's a lot to that, what audiences want and
what they're willing to accept and if they even want
an "art film" to exist, if they even want
to be challenged in a different way.
don't know if the "art film" does
exist anymore. We just have a lot of these Sundance
"indies" that follow a very rigid "indie"
they're just like regular movies but look worse. The
idea of independent cinema is like, to me, there's
no such thing. It's like alternative music. What is
it alternative to? I mean, I'm not an "independent"
director; I make my movies through a studio system.
It's just that I'm independent minded, maybe.
was the last movie you saw?
saw the new Woody Allen [Sweet and Lowdown].
I haven't really liked a lot of his later pictures;
his new film was just kind of minor. The thing about
Woody Allen is that even a bad Woody Allen movie is
better than ninety-nine percent of movies that come
Did you see Spike Lee's Summer of Sam?
I walked out of it. I was just bored.
movie I didn't like was Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
I didn't like it either. I mean, the whole thing was
just depressing. It wasn't a great picture.
surely there's one popular filmmaker you like who
is "independent minded"?
really. There's nothing about everyday films or filmmakers
that excites me.
Dogma 95's inception in 1995, the once-laughable declaration
of apparent pomposity has turned into the most influential
film movement of our time. The "Vow of Chastity"
set out by von Trier and fellow Dane filmmaker Thomas
Vinterberg (The Celebration), was an attempt
to shake off the falsity and distance that the mechanizations
of modern cinema impose on the art and to narrow the
chasm between actor and filmmaker. Included among
the rules: no sets, no lights, no props, no sound
effects, no musical score, no tripod, no superficial
actions (guns, murders, etc.) and no credited director.
is perhaps fortuitous that Dogma 95 surfaces just
as the so-called "Digital Revolution" is
dawning. Although predicting the rise of a revolution
before it happens is rather suspicious, the hoopla
surrounding the cheap, high-quality digital cameras
now available has some merit. It seems that we are
heading into an age in which the practical occupation
ceases to exist; we'll all be filmmakers with our
own home computer editing systems, and the already
saturated film market will reach a hurricane-status
flood. However, despite this deluge, as Steven Soderbergh
(herald of the original Sundance "revolution"
with his 1989 film sex, lies and videotape)
is credited as noting, there will still be only two
or three good movies a year. It'll just take more
work to find them.
95 embraces and gives artistic credibility to the
Digital Revolution and is very aware of the particular
aesthetic properties that video carries with it—a
"cheap" look and a sense of intimacy that
until now have been used only for very personal home
videos. Although seemingly exclusive in nature (an
accepted film gets to put a big, official-looking
certificate at its start), the supposed democratic
beauty of Dogma 95 is that anyone with a video camera
and a dream can join.
Korine's first Q&A at the New York Film Festival,
he used such lofty phrases as "the Dogma Brotherhood"
and "a redemption in cinematic terms." The
Danish filmmakers added, "Dogma 95 desires to
purge film, so that once again the inner lives of
characters justify the plot." "Purge,"
by the way, isn't a nice word. To purge is to rid
of impurities, to empty the bowels. Take this pill,
this magic vow of chastity, and rid yourself of the
shit of your art.
isn't hard to see why some regard Dogma with disdain.
were some of the problems that you ran into while
making a Dogma film?
There's no problems I had with Dogma. Dogma's
just like this set plan, that if you follow these
ten rules, you'll be forced to reckon with something,
some kind of truth or some kind of substance that
you couldn't get if you were making a film in a different
after he finished The Celebration, drew up
a list of ways he had cheated the Vows. Give me some
of your own examples.
I cheated? Or how I sinned?
that what they call it?
Yeah, a sin against the Vow of Chastity. Just really
technical things . . . I mean, Chloë [Sevigny,
star of julien and Gummo and occasional
Korine flame] wasn't really pregnant, so we had to
put a fake belly on her. [The actual "confession"
states that Korine would have to impregnate Sevigny
himself, but there wasn't enough time.]
a scene in which Julien's father relates a story in
voice-over while we watch his daughter cut his hair.
I thought a voice-over was against the rules.
Not how we did it. We used a microcassette recorder
and taped him telling the story to live music. When
we filmed that scene, we had Anthony [Dod Mantle,
the cinematographer of both julien and Celebration]
holding a one-chip camera in his hand, and we played
the song into the camera's speaker, and it was all
done naturally on the spot.
Cinema has always been predicated around a
certain artificiality, though. Dogma 95 says that
all Dogma filmmakers must declare "I am not an
artist" and even reject screen credit. Yet you
use overt narrative and editing techniques that really
draw me out of the story and make me contend with
you as a distinct artist. Isn't that at odds with
No, that's the irony of all of this; it's an anti-aesthetic
approach to filmmaking, but if you look at every one
of the Dogma films, there's a unique artistry involved.
I think it's one of the things that attracts certain
directors to Dogma. Even though it's like an anti-auteurist,
anti-bourgeois rescue action, you still end up with
a very artful group of films.
seem to abhor plot.
I like stories, and I don't mind the narrative. I
think there's a narrative to julien. I just
think that plots are so easy, and it’s always
one of the things in movies that in general kills
it for me, because it's like this simple device that's
thrown in arbitrarily to keep audiences happy. In
life I never feel or see plot, I just see things as
existing, and I just want my films to mimic that.
achieve that, you use "real" footage mixed
in with your fictional stuff, like the little kids
swearing and the handicapped girl who shaves her eyebrows
off for the camera in Gummo. Those two scenes
piss a lot of people off.
had heard those kids cursing around, "suck my
cock," at the craft service table, and I was
like "holy shit." I had never heard kids
talk like that, you know, little babies, so I asked
their parents if I could put them in the movie and
they were like, "I don't give a fuck what they
do." So, yeah, it's real as far as she was actually
shaving her eyebrows, it's really happening, but it
is doubly compounded by the fact that there's no history
of realism in America, except for maybe John Cassavetes.
It's like the history of American cinema is escapist
cinema and in England all they have is realism.
in Gummo, you're essentially saying that
cats are tortured, kids piss off overpasses and handicapped
people have sex every damn day.
Yeah, right, but as soon as you show it, these are
things certain people don't want to see.
I think it's because you're removing them
from their context, their own hypothetical documentaries.
For example, who is the eyebrow woman? What is her
official medical condition? You just leave us with
the condition itself.
But I think documentary is fake as well. I'm manipulating
all my characters, so in one way, my movies aren't
that much different than Star Wars.
And, along those lines, you'd say Star
Wars is not that different from a...
A documentary, right, surely, in the way that people
go about getting what they want in order to make a
dramatic feature. The whole thing for me is: What
I remember from films are specific scenes and images,
so in my movies I don't want to have to hear the story
to justify the images, I just want to make a movie
to see [those images], only.
Every adult I encountered hated Gummo,
but most kids love it.
yeah, yeah, yeah, it's weird, I just started to notice
that, it's like an ageism, an ageist sort of thing.
It's like my first memory growing up in Tennessee
was Ozzy [Osborne]. When I was ten years old, I had
never heard of Ozzy, but all the parents in the churches
were getting upset because Ozzy was coming to town,
and it was the first time I heard people with a passion
saying something was horrible for kids, so I had to
see it, I had to see Ozzy, because all the parents
were against him.
Manson said about you, "I'm relieved that America
has someone new to hate other than me."
don't know about that.
donkey-boy, which has already garnered a surprise
rave from Entertainment Weekly ("an
astonishing leap forward . . . out of the [Dogma]
limitations has come aesthetic brilliance") as
well as a rather hesitant recommendation from old
Korine nemesis The New York Times ("visually
arresting"), seems poised to grant Korine what,
to a certain extent, he deserves: credit as a harbinger
of change and a potentially major influence in cinema.
In fact, it's hard to imagine seeing his two films
and not being influenced by them; their vivid images
burn into your eyes.
mainstream media seem to be waiting for Korine to
"grow up" and step into the shoes of an
adult, narrative filmmaker. But what these critiques
seem to miss is that Korine never looks down on his
misfits—he's always hunkered right down among
them, watching them to such a thorough extent that
it begins to be a free-for-all of unprecedented honesty.
What's so shocking to the younger generation of Korine
viewers is not that elementary school kids smoke pot
and kill cats, or that middle schoolers sniff glue
and have sex, or that high schoolers dress up like
girls for kiddie-porn Polaroids; it's that someone
has put it accurately on film. This is the Truth,
shows Korine to the older generations, and it is uglier
it is a Hell handled with startling tenderness and
empathy. Having grown up in the carnival and educated
himself, Korine finds pieces of humanity, if not of
himself, in each of his miscreant characters. Among
those miscreants are Julien, a wild-haired, gold-toothed
schizophrenic, his pregnant ballerina sister, his
athletically driven brother, his blind ice-skating
girlfriend, and his calmly domineering father, played
with an eerie tranquillity by famed director Werner
Herzog, who originally championed Gummo to
the International Critics’ Prize at the 1997
Venice Film Festival. Interestingly, Herzog's own
films (most notably the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo
where, to shoot the hauling of a boat over a mountain,
Herzog actually hauled a boat over a mountain)
epitomize the extreme ends of the kind of firsthand
filmmaking that Dogma and Korine strive for.
How did you feel that this first screening
of julien went?
I wasn't sure everyone was into it. Does that
I don't really make movies for a massive audience
or for a general audience, but an audience that's
willing to take on a certain kind of film.
So, I guess twenty percent of a grab-bag festival
audience is sort of on track for you.
Uh yeah, I guess. (laughs)
the first twenty minutes of the movie, Julien, our
protagonist, is really scary. Was this intentional?
The thing is, the disease of mental illness, it is
very scary. And at least with what I've witnessed
with my uncle [the basis of the Julien character],
it's extremely scary on the outside and it's so hard
to get past that appearance. I wanted to show a dimension
to Julien that you think he's going to be one way
and he's not in fact at all that way.
like that, how he changes.
really he doesn't change appearance, physically. You
just become more at ease with him as the movie goes.
it's a change on our part—
are many issues of family in julien, whereas
in Kids and Gummo there was a distinct lack of family.
Yeah, but in Gummo and even in Kids,
it's like there is a sense of family, it's just more
scattered, or it's just like these two sisters [in
Gummo] are the only family they have. With julien
I wanted to show a more complex unit and how they
all deal with Julien's illness in a different way,
like his father feels only shame and hatred and resentment
and the brother is embarrassed and the grandmother
is just oblivious and the sister is very affectionate.
a scene where the brother, who is training to be a
wrestler, beats up a garbage can. It's a lot like
the chair beating in Gummo.
(pause) I guess it's a motif. I like people wrestling
with these kinds of objects. (laughs)
I love that you found Nick Sutton [one of
the stars of Gummo] on an episode of Sally
Jesse Raphael entitled "My Child Died from
Sniffing Paint." Any similar discoveries in julien?
I always keep a pen and pad on my bed and whenever
I'm watching television late at night and there's
something unique on, I jot it down. A few years ago
I had seen this documentary made like twenty years
ago on the Learning Channel at two in the morning,
and there was this guy playing the drums with his
toes and it was an amazing image. I'd written him
into this movie, not knowing if he was still alive
or if we'd ever find him. We had people track him
down in Canada and it took three months or something.
Julien hears lots of voices. I got the impression
that one of them was God.
Hmm. I mean, yeah, that could be right, that sounds
as good as anything else I've heard.
another of the voices is obviously Hitler.
A lot of it's just stuff I've seen my uncle do and
it's just me basically regurgitating it. As far as
how I see it or what my intent was, it really doesn't
matter, ’cause it's just another opinion ultimately.
Did your uncle hear Hitler?
It was always, "Christ, trying to kill me, Christ,
Christ," this, that and the other, and there
were always religious figures and Hitler and, well,
there'd be Frank Sinatra and Jesus Christ.
I see a lot of similarities between your work
and the films of John Waters. Waters uses so-called
"freaks" as actors. You use so-called "freaks,"
Yeah, but he's using his characters to make fun of
them, and that's something I try never to do. If I
use a character that somebody considers grotesque,
I'll try to go the opposite way with them.
this is why people are so vehement in their dislike
and mistrust of you. It's almost impossible to separate
film and filmmaker, especially in "exploitation"
film. Even Dogma 95 stated that they were willing
to proceed "at the cost of any good taste."
Since both you and Waters are obviously using real
"freaks," then that must mean that you consort
with these freaks and therefore that you are not to
be trusted and it is not beyond you to pull some dangerous
and illegal shit.
Of course, yeah, sure. Definitely.
seems to me that Harmony Korine has been mislabeled.
He is not a bad-boy shockmeister or petulant demon-child;
instead, he goes to great pains to explain that it
is not and was never his intention to shock anyone.
And though that seems slightly naive, I understand
the intention behind these words—he wants to
give screen time to those who've never been given
it. "The media are in New York and L.A.,"
explained Korine. "And anything that happens
in the middle they either don't want to see, or they're
going to fabricate. So when they do see [an accurate
portrayal] they're going to get angry, or deny it,
or not want to like it."
is not disrespectful, angry or even, for that matter,
possessed of genius—he himself has trouble explaining
why he makes certain artistic choices. What Korine
does possess, however, is an extraordinary ability
to watch life move around him and to pluck out the
moments which cry out the loudest. It is his luck—and
our good fortune—that there are people who will
take a chance on an instinct without convention, fear
or even a script (julien was entirely improvised).
Though his influences seem overtly European, he stoutly
maintains that he is "an American boy,"
and his appetite for American pop-culture is, refreshingly,
subordinate to his affection for an American subculture.