Perfect Nonsense: Harmony Korine and the Uncanny Valley
by Sophia Harvey
I am one of the many many fans eagerly awaiting the March release of Harmony Korine’s new film, Spring Breakers. In anticipation, and as a long time admirer, I decided to jot down some thoughts on his previous works. [beware spoilers]
In the field of 3D animation and robotics, there is something called the “uncanny valley” hypothesis. It states that as an animated figure or robot becomes more and more life-like the human response is increasingly empathetic. Until, that is, a certain point where the figure is almost but not perfectly human. Here, the response turns to revulsion. This point is called the valley, or drop off. Accidental prodigy and bad-boy visionary Harmony Korine seems to elicit the same sort of revulsion with his films.
To begin to understand Korine, you must first know the origins of his career. As a nineteen-year-old college dropout in New York City, he met fringe photographer Larry Clark while skating in Washington Square Park. Clark was already an established outcast at the time, with a reputation for teen photography that was viewed as dangerous and “exploitative” by mainstream America. Upon making friends with Clark, Korine showed him a screenplay he had written in high school and Clark asked him to write a film about his skater friends. In two weeks in his grandmother’s basement, Korine wrote the script that would become Kids, one of the most controversial movies of the 1990s.
A first film for both writer and director, Kids (1995) chronicles a sex-and-drug-filled day in the life of several Manhattan teenagers. It highlights one teen, Telly, whose idea of safe sex is deflowering virgins. What might otherwise be dismissed as foolish hormone-driven behavior takes a much darker turn when we learn that Telly is infected with HIV. The film is powerful because of its realism and documentary feel. Most of this can be attributed to Korine’s incredible ear for dialogue. The realism in Kids is exactly what skyrocketed the film to the forefront of discussion at its release. At 22, Korine was already the target of the scorn and disgust of many Americans. There he has happily stayed, evolving his ability to shock and repulse ever since.
What separates Korine and Clark from each other, is a thin line between sensitivity to and voyeuristic fascination with the vulgar and disturbing. Where Clark had been accused of manipulation before, it became clear that Korine found beauty in each of his subjects – one reason he has never been targeted as an exploiter. The Kids screenplay showed the beginnings of what were to become Korine’s trademarks. Non-story, seemingly aimless plotlines, realistic dialogue and bone-chilling subject matter have become reoccurring themes in the writer/director’s work.
From a visual standpoint, the Dogme 95 movement can be highlighted as a serious influence in the shaping of Korine’s style. As an artist with a similar ideology to the filmmakers of the Dogme movement, Korine was asked to participate in 1999.
Julien Donkey-Boy was the first American Dogme film, and the sixth internationally. Although Korine broke or bent several of the rules, his film is considered a successful representation of the Dogme movement. The alienating aesthetic and dreamlike quality of the sequencing are products of the Dogme manifesto. Because of the limiting stipulations, Korine was forced to expand upon his already established style of extreme realism told through nightmarish aesthetics. He was required to use hand-held camera the whole time, so he played with that look. He was required to film completely on location, so each chosen shot has meaning and consideration behind it. Ironically, by joining the Dogme movement, Korine successfully created a product completely original and separate from anything else produced by Dogme 95. It seems that he is an artist who is stubbornly unique, unable to fall into any category except his own.
Again, what sets Korine apart from the others is his sensitivity to the subjects. He has an innate understanding of the people whose stories he’s telling and finds beauty and sympathy in their characters, even if they’re an abusive father, a cat-killing redneck, or a teenager spreading HIV. The result is a body of work that is comprised of intimate character study.
Julien Donkey-Boy is about a schizophrenic man and his family, and it explores the idea of love despite all social taboos. Korine’s grainy and nonlinear composition brings the viewer out of normalcy into a realm of deep, visceral connection with the characters. This concept of a purely character driven film is most perfectly expressed in the first ten minutes.
The opening image is one repeated frequently throughout Donkey-Boy. It is a blurry, televised clip of a female figure skater set to operatic music. The image is powerful, and although we cannot see a face, the movement conveyed is so engrossing that we connect instantly.
Following this, we are immediately launched into a scene where a little girl and a bizarre man are in a field. We do not see the girl, although we can assume that we look through her eyes (POV). The grass is taller than we are, our vision is shaky, we cannot tell who is present except through voices. The voices are crisp and the dialogue is haunting. We know nothing about these two characters, but are instantly alienated. There is nothing to which the audience can connect. No faces. Very little that is familiar. The girl appears to have found a turtle, something that launches the man into a frenzy, violently knocking her over and beginning a tirade of garbled Bible verses. This is the first time we see a face clearly, something that is rare in Donkey-Boy; the man is leaning over the camera, leaning over us, drooling and yelling. At this point we are disoriented, confused and perhaps more than a little upset. We have met Julien.
The artfully telling sequence continues. We are confronted with a series of seemingly random clips portraying strange figures. A young pregnant woman in a leotard and tutu spins gracefully in a room, alone. She possesses the same beauty as the figure skater. We then see a man dancing in boxers to the radio in a separate room, alone. His clumsy movements are harsh in contrast to the woman’s. Next we see an old woman lying on a couch alone with her dog. We cannot understand her words, and neither can the dog, who struggles to leave her grasp. Then the scene cuts to a boy climbing a staircase with his hands, alone. We have met Julien’s family.
Through only this opening sequence, Korine has told his story and developed his aesthetic. We have met all of the principal characters and we know their lives and struggles. Korine’s goal is to tell their story through non-linear experiences. Through moments. His goal is to illustrate the characters to his audience. He does not make any claims to the relationship between them, rather, that is something for the audience to feel. To navigate. To discover. And by the end of the film, to know on a deep level that surpasses anything a conventional or intellectual narration might convey. We are to come away from Julien Donkey-Boy with an understanding of love and beauty that we construct for ourselves through an intimate encounter with a family.
This process is successful immediately. Though the audience may be confused by the form, we already know everything that we need. The sequence conveys with the opening shot of the skater that this film is about beauty. It commands that we surrender our intellectual endeavors and connect with the film on an emotional level. It is overpowering. Once we are overpowered, there is a cold and disturbing switch to the scene in the field – the only part in the opening sequence with remotely comprehensive dialogue.
We know our main character. We know the illness from which he suffers, yet similarly, we know that he’s free. This is conveyed to us through the contrast of his unconstrained roaming in the grass and strange companionship with the isolated and sheltered way in which his family members are presented. They are each alone. We understand the pregnant woman’s connection to the skater, and we connect to her, although we do not yet know why. She represents to us a similar overpowering beauty. She and Julien are instantly portrayed as the only two aware of such beauty in the world. In comparison to the family, Korine suggests the idea that perhaps Julien’s schitzophrenic state, in the field of grass, is a better option than the bleak world which surrounds him.
Harmony Korine’s strict devotion to the power of image and the stories it can tell pays off in this opening sequence. It establishes a feel that follows throughout the film and leaves us profoundly affected at its close.
Korine was a natural for an experiment in Dogme, he had already developed a hand-held, detached and slightly disturbing style with 1997’s Gummo, and has continued to explore the themes of alienation, isolation and dreamlike sequencing through his other main works, Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2009). Gummo, perhaps Korine’s most seminal and praised work, focuses on several characters in Xenia, Ohio after their town has been devastated by a tornado. Here again we are let in through character and not through narrative. Looking at Gummo, it is clear that Korine is unwaveringly original. What could be attributed to Dogme’s influence in Donkey-Boy, are stylistic choices clearly developed earlier. One could say that by participating in the Movement, Korine was merely exploring and deepening his own technique. At the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival Trash Humpers premier, Korine spoke on this. “I never cared so much about making perfect sense.” He said, “I wanted to make perfect nonsense. I wanted to tell jokes, but I didn’t give a fuck about the punch line.”
Korine must view life in this way – a joke without a punchline. In a way, it describes his work well. Often, Korine’s films leave us to draw our own conclusions. They are abstract “slice-of-life” vignettes, that do not come to any sort of contrived resolution. Frequently a character dies, but that does nothing to tie together story. Instead, it creates new avenues and realizations for other characters, just as in life.
This “perfect nonsense” appeals to some. Korine has often been lauded as a poet and an avant-garde genius. But as critic Roger Ebert points out, his nonsense is not for everyone. About Donkey-Boy, he said in the Chicago Sun Times that “the odds are good that most people will dislike this film and be offended by it. For others, it will provoke sympathy rather than scorn. You know who you are”. This statement is an excellent encapsulation of Korine’s work. It is by no means perfect, nor does Korine intend it to be. His films have been called “aesthetically lazy,” disturbing and slow paced. For some, these qualities are deal-breakers. For others, it is understood that they are intentional and crucial to Korine’s ultimate impact.
In all of his films, the writer/director focuses on subcultures of society and brings their specific ideals and idiosyncrasies to light. What draws him to these particular groups is hard to tell, but in them he creates beauty from the debased. Korine’s in-depth character studies and personal vignettes create a visceral experience beyond intellectual language. They kidnap you. There is a certain irony in this method. One might think that forcing an audience to engage with a film at an instinctual level would widen the scope of those with whom it connects. On the contrary however, this method seems to alienate and on the whole Korine’s work is left with a very limited following (although a devoted one).
If we have determined that Korine’s work is not alienating in the sense that it is closed off, why then, does it repulse audiences so unfailingly? Perhaps it is because once people are engaged, they do not like what they find. It seems that Korine manages to touch on that delicate “too real” area which causes the revulsion of the “uncanny valley” hypothesis. It is too close to life, with something disturbingly off. The films have the ability to pull you into a wretched, debased world and reveal it with brutal honesty and no consideration for social norms. It is not something most people handle well, and definitely not something most people would consider poetry. And it is because of this often horrific imagery that Korine loses his audience. They fail to see the honesty or brilliance that occurs with the impact of it. This sort of cult standing seems to be the only viable avenue for Korine. It is a fact that he does not write for mass consumption. But when his ideas do hit you, they hit hard.