There’s no place like New York for a good old-fashioned cry. But sometimes, it makes you work for it. Recently, a chance radio broadcast took me three trains cross-borough to meet my hero, into a night that left me sobbing in my best shoes at the center of Manhattan’s cultural mecca.
Earlier that afternoon, an interview on Leonard Lopate brought my attention to Jane Campion’s upcoming career retrospective at Lincoln Center. I emailed my editor for a ticket immediately. If you’re not familiar with Campion, she’s essentially a filmmaking rock star. More notable than her glass ceiling-shattering awards record, is Campion’s lifetime of proudly wearing the scarlet letter W, for Woman. She has lifted up other women and loved them, examined them, and told their stories — not sexy, abridged, male-appeasing facsimiles — but true, fiercely honest stories. It’s understandable, though frustrating, that many other female directors have not done the same; and rather felt forced to abandon femininity in the pursuit of assimilating to a male-dominated industry. To an aspiring “female filmmaker” like myself (because the term filmmaker alone still denotes masculinity), she is a lighthouse in a very bleak ocean... [click to read more]
In an attempt to consolidate my growing body of work, I’ve re-focused this space to be solely for writing. For exploring thoughts and ranting. For talking about things I really like. I’ve moved all the showing off to a new place called sophiaharveyfilms.com. Take a look if you’re interested in bright colors, fun, movies, art, really big pictures, and an attempt at medium sized and maybe some day really big ideas.
It’s one of the first truly miserable nights of fall. Rain washes the streets with the swamp-like odor of Manhattan’s Chinatown, pedestrians assert their umbrellas and tighten their peacoats, and the only happy people in sight are those in line for The Slipper Room. Eager CMJ concertgoers pour, wet and shivering, into the modest venue entrance on Orchard Street. Upstairs awaits a lush burlesque hall with floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains and gold-painted mahogany woodwork. We huddle together and clutch our drinks as the lights go down. A drum-beat kicks, a synthesizer swells, and a woman stands center stage wearing an animal-print muumuu of pink silk and a necklace made of bones; into the microphone she shouts, “We’re Emily Danger and it’s my goddamn birthday!”
The band dives into a raucous performance of “Going Down,” a defiant song off of their latest album, Peace Arch, that bemoans the idiocy of homophobia in the South. Front-woman Emily Nicholas’ powerful vocals roar while Cameron Orr shreds on the violin and brand-new drummer Ricky Watts beats time in a goosebump-inspiring, country-infused political rock anthem. They’ve gripped the room with energy and they won’t let go until the very end of their set. Their sound is singular and rebellious, complex and haunting. Emily Danger’s self-proclaimed “dark cabaret rock” is like nothing I’ve heard before, incorporating hints of Radiohead and Björk, to name some of many influences. As they gear up for one of their slower songs, “Easy (Remix),” Nicholas asks the audience if we’re ready “to go to sexytown.” We are. Orr raises his bow but suddenly the violin cuts out. While technical difficulties are common, they are nonetheless nerve-racking for any performer. But a word from longtime producer and bassist, Devon C. Johnson, and something magical happens. Nicholas abandons the microphone and stands alone in the spotlight. The words come from somewhere deep within her and the room shrinks to her a cappella. She lingers on each word of the wrenching opening. “I fell before I think you did, and now disaster has taken place.” An already emotional song comes into stark relief, given depth by this raw voice that can fill an entire venue on its own.
A few days later, I sit in Nicholas’ living room in South Slope, Brooklyn. Light streams in from the window and the room is small and filled with vibrance. The space we are in doubles as a studio and paintings compete for room with books and records (Pavoratti to Portishead) and all the other materials of her constantly churning life. I can’t help but notice that Nicholas’ eyes are always huge. She habitually sweeps bangs aside and looks at you expectantly, optimistically.
We are discussing the a cappella moment from earlier in the week. It’s fun, she says, to remember that she can do that. She explains the feeling as something more personal, vulnerable, and freeing. “It comes from the place where you would hold a child, so it feels very womanly.” Of course, what she’s talking about is singing from the diaphragm, something Nicholas was trained for at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, where she acquired her master’s degree in opera. But she describes this schooling as more of an obligation than a passion. In fact, she hated opera. (She looks at me intensely and enunciates “hat-ed”). And no sooner did she finish her degree, did she leave it behind forever.
Nicholas describes a night in school, waiting backstage, where she was paralyzed with stage fright. “People were like, ‘it’s your time now, you have to go on. Other people are waiting for you to sing your line.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think today I’m gonna do it.’” She laughs so easily at the story that it’s hard to imagine this woman ever being afraid of anything. Soon after that night came her graduation recital where, after a full lineup of classical pieces, Nicholas closed the performance with James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.”
“Everybody was on their feet and afterwards they said it was the best part…and even though it was still somebody else’s song, I had more fun doing it and I feel like I revealed more artistry because it’s the style of music that I love. So to hear that [support] from my peers, and people I respect, and then to feel so emotionally attached, that’s when I was like, enough’s enough. So I just stopped.” Stopped opera, that is. That was three years ago and Nicholas has been writing and performing her own rock music ever since. And it’s moments like those, when the violin cuts out, that make room for the artistic spontaneity that Nicholas loves. There is no perfection in rock and roll, she reflects to me, you are allowed to mess up. It seems as if that realization, that diffusion of pressure, is what started Nicholas down the path to her present, arm-waving, muumuu-wearing self.
She is instantly warm. As soon as I walked in the door to her apartment, Nicholas met me with a large hug and a cup of coffee, wearing yet another memorable get-up; this time a hand-painted, neon yellow and white XXXXL t-shirt with black and white striped leggings. She introduced me to her husband and collaborator, John Patrick Wells, and joked about how she has to write herself reminders to Instagram and finish her coffee.
And there are indeed notes everywhere. Wells sits by their shared desk; it is littered with paints and notebooks and half-finished mugs of coffee. Above the desk is a bookcase with more notes tacked on. (Nicholas’ to-do list has no coffee reminder, but it is indeed extremely detailed.)
It’s difficult to reconcile these stories of the stage-frightened opera student with the larger-than-life, wild rocker on stage or the easy-going person in front of me. But it’s exactly that discrepancy that’s so interesting. Emily Nicholas the singer/songwriter and Emily Danger the band (formally together for less than two years), have matured at a rapid pace, as if Nicholas had spent her whole life preparing for the moment that she would excite an audience of stiff-collared professors with a little soul.
The show at The Slipper Room marked Nicholas’ 30th birthday and she brought down the house in just the same way. They closed the show with two songs: their new single, “War Torn,” and a blood-pumping cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” that ended with Nicholas giving a riled-up audience the finger while belting, “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” into the microphone. No stage-fright remained.
“Is this you?” I ask. “Absolutely,” she nods vigorously, setting her coffee down on a Ziggy Stardust coaster. “It used to feel like a persona because of the fear I had when I first started out.” She speaks freely of the pressures of living up to the likes of classical singers, and the expectations of professors and peers, and the immense anxiety that that can bring to a performance. “This new album has grown me up, and working with a band and collaborating and feeling like my voice is heard in the room– that show in particular, being on my birthday, was just like a big ol’ “F— it,” let’s go. It’s me, it’s totally me. I can’t really be as large in my daily life but that’s how I feel inside.”
Nicholas grew up in Bakersfield, California, a town to which she attributes the band’s occasional honky-tonk twang. She and her parents differ on religion and politics, she explains; “My mom directs the church choir, that kind of thing.” But contrary to what one might imagine, Nicholas was always encouraged to continue banging on pots and pans. And that encouragement carried through to grad school. Nicholas is mid-sip when I open my line of familial questioning with, “Are they mad—” she nearly spits her coffee all over the couch and Wells laughs from across the room. “Don’t continue, stop there, that’s perfect,” he says.
“I think they saw it coming when I started picking up instruments…and staying out late…” she answers, gathering herself after the near-Marx Brothers incident. Nicholas paints an amusing picture of the time her father came to a show at Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick, which she describes as “not really a dad-in-his-sixties type of venue.”
“There was stuff hanging from the ceilings, there were people smoking outside, there was a guy doing coke outside.” Nicholas has a well of pride in her eyes when she tells me that he loved it. “All he said to me about it was, ‘this is what you should be doing.’”
It’s a rare experience talking to someone who has, essentially, stumbled upon her bliss—especially in New York City, a place where dreams often come to work tirelessly and shape shift or disintegrate. Nicholas describes the progression from the band’s first EP, Paintings, to Peace Arch, to the currently in-production War Torn, as all uphill, particularly given how how quickly it happened.
In between the two published albums, Emily Danger introduced synthesizers, much more drum, and many other sometimes-instruments, which allowed them to explore a soundscape that is as far-reaching as Nicholas’ four-octave vocal range and Orr’s violin virtuosity. In current shows they load as many instruments, keyboards and pedals on the stage as possible. And just as Nicholas always wears JoJo Americo clothing, Orr never wears shoes. “He adjusts knobs with his toes,” Emily whispers like he’s in the room.
Lyrics-wise, the band has grown up as well. As is the case with most new writers, Nicholas’ words on Paintings come mostly from a personal place. And although that still exists in the band’s current work, she describes Peace Arch as more progressive. It wrestles with personal issues, this time, through an esoteric, world-conscious lens, oftentimes tackling the political as well.
But as Emily Danger has come into focus, the band has triggered some upset, something Emily considers to be, in part, a result of her sex. “I’m going to be pretty frank,” she leans in, as if to tell me a dirty secret, “I think it pisses people off that a woman is saying these things. A lot.” I think back to her on stage at The Slipper Room, channeling all the strong, angry women who came before her as she stood, holding up the middle finger in firm alliance with her politics. Nicholas has a history of choosing unexpected covers. In fact, that’s how she got the nickname “Danger” in grad school. But apparently, “Killing in the Name” is not a hit with everyone. She says that when they unveiled their version of the song earlier this year, even her closest friends questioned it. “I think specifically because I’m a female, saying those words, being that pissed on stage, making such an obvious political solidarity statement—that scares people and when people are scared their initial reaction is ‘no.’ They just shut it off.”
It’s astonishing that in this day and age, with a history of performers including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday before them, that this should still be an issue. How many angry women will have to flip the bird, literally or metaphorically, on stage before people start listening? Emily Danger uses their collective experience, and sometimes their collective anger, to add another voice to the protest. In some ways, however, the shock value attached to a woman donning some stereotypically masculine protest-pants may work in the band’s favor. They’re definitely booking gigs. And maybe that’s all that matters, as long as people keep hearing what they have to say.
And Nicholas has a lot to say, none of which she’s going to change to please an audience. “I would rather not cater to everybody than be fluffy, cotton-candy-likable. I would rather be a little aloof, a little left of center. And there’s a lot of sacrifice in that. I’m never going to be rich, I’m never gonna have my own plane, I’m never gonna be Beyoncé (and I love Beyoncé). But that’s just not who I am, I don’t think I could put on that kind of show anymore. I spent the majority of my life stifling who I am and I had a birthday last week and I’m ready to not do that anymore.”
Peace Arch is definitely far from cotton candy. It is raw in its approach to topics personal as well as political. Nicholas’ husband has been sitting with us while we talk, and at some point we get to the topic of their relationship. She admits, “we fight all the time, and I write about it.” Wells nods from his desk. “I have a no-holds-barred thing with my lyrics. If it’s obviously about him it’s going on record, sorry, that’s just what it’s gonna be. And the same thing with his visual art, he can use me and has used me.” She gestures to several large paintings that adorn the apartment walls, one of which is a canvas dripping with the same pink wax used in Emily Danger’s “Shed My Skin” music video. She sees their interactions, positive or difficult, as “fuel for our artistic fire.”
They are each other’s muses and collaborators and, like most artists in New York City, they live and work together in tight quarters, all the time. Fighting is inevitable. But it is clear that Wells is a constant support to Nicholas and her work (he has also directed all of the band’s excellent music videos). Next to her to-do list on their bookshelf is his list, which is made up of penciled-in social media figures: “Shed” 1204 1132 1507, “Peace” 1567 1344, and so on. These are daily hits for the band’s music videos. He explains to me how important it is to have as much knowledge as possible about whatever you’re doing in order to have creative autonomy. So together they work and together they play.
Part of the ingenuity of Emily Danger is that they see the intrinsic relationships between the personal and the universal. This understanding is something that has lifted many great artists from the fray. When I ask Nicholas about her dream-line up, her headliner does not come as a surprise. David Bowie is an artist known for, among other things, reinventing himself almost as frequently as Madonna. It’s never clear whether this kind of persona-hopping is due to malcontent or a keen business sense, or both. But what is clear is that the self-awareness and openness to keep pushing, keep exploring, is what made Bowie a superstar. And throughout each stage of his career, he had the emotional intelligence to write songs that transcended the gap between his intimacies and our desires. This kind of forging-ahead is evident in Emily Danger’s path so far, and although they may not be glam-rocking any time soon, I am sure we can expect the many incarnations of Emily to remain on the scene for quite a while.
Emily Nicholas’ Dream Line-Up (in order of appearance):
Antony and the Johnstons
Headliner: David Bowie
Have you ever wondered what it’s like inside the mind of a genius? Filmmaker Julian Jones certainly has. His latest work, Inside the Mind of Leonardo attempts to answer that question. The film is a dramatized documentary, starring and narrated by Oscar-winner Peter Capaldi, with words directly transposed from the journals of Da Vinci himself.
As you might imagine, the inside of Leonardo Da Vinci’s mind (or rather, Jones’ interpretation of it) is frenetic, fascinating, and visually stunning. Capaldi, who plays an otherworldly Da Vinci, paces about in the apparent chambers of his own mind, questioning, ranting, sketching, calculating, solving, agonizing, upping and downing. Capaldi’s shattering, Shakespearean performance of Da Vinci’s private musings, set against various dark and theatrical backdrops, only begins to make the framework for the film’s incredible visceral experience.
And it is first and foremost an experience. The film’s thesis comes up again and again in Da Vinci’s jottings, “begin with the experience, and by means of it, investigate the cause.” Following this rule alone does Jones begin to investigate the core of the man and his brilliance. “Leonardo” is a riddle wrapped in an enigma of style. It uses dramatization, gorgeous modern footage of nature and cities, hand drawn and CGI animation, extremely theatrical score, and, most jarring but thrilling of all, it is entirely in 3D. While 3D is abnormal in documentary, the visual choice serves to emotionally locate you at the helm of Da Vinci’s consciousness. The 3D glasses also have an isolating effect; they make the experience feel as if it were yours and yours alone, as if Da Vinci were attempting to impart his wisdom, one Vitruvian sketch at a time, to only you.
But despite the breath-taking visuals, it is truly the thoughts, straight from the pages of Da Vinci’s journals, that astound. While there is a loose chronology and context given, the main focus is on those concepts which most fascinated Da Vinci and occupied his every waking thought. He is obsessed with birds and knows that if only man can build the right machine, he too can fly. He is enthralled by nature, “nothing is superfluous, nothing is lacking, nature is perfect.” He spends years devising new ways to make art that has never been made before. But he is also human. Some of the film’s most delightful moments are when Capaldi practices speeches nervously in front of the mirror, or recites shopping lists or Da Vinci’s own recipe for brown hair dye made with “boiled nuts.”
At times, one wants more of these personal moments, moments when Da Vinci is seen as the man he was, not the man he is now fabled to be. It is hard to believe that a person can be so academically minded all the time, especially given the context of his myriad failures and defeats. If we are to be inside his mind, we want to see a glimpse of his soul. But that is a minor quibble in the face of such a thrilling multimedia accomplishment. Inside the Mind of Leonardo is as visually vast as it is intellectually in-depth, and it is a truly gripping experience, a must see for the historically, mentally, and visually curious.
The opening montage to the show COPS is a series of obscured shots depicting heroic law enforcement officials, rowdy crack heads, an abandoned baby crying, even a fire. The montage then fades into the now iconic “COPS” title, pulsating to the beat of their theme song which poses the question, “Bad boys, bad boys, whachya gonna do? Whachya gonna do when they come for you?” Up next comes an omniscient voice with the ever reassuring, “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Reality television at its best.
Now in its twenty-fifth season, COPS is a show based around the pursuit and arrest of “criminals.” The most recent episode was composed of three vignettes featuring an alleged African American prostitute, a car full of Hispanic parolees, and a Latino kid on the run from a stolen vehicle. Anyone can see that these shows are contrived, but a more critical eye will discover a meticulously constructed endorsement of racial profiling. COPS, and shows like it, plays off of a societally perpetuated dynamic of the “All American” hero type protecting the community from “dangerous” black and Hispanic criminals. In order to make these shows compelling, teams of producers work together to create the most sensationalized versions of the “reality” they are portraying, thus catering to the audience’s imagination far more than their sense of true justice.
This is not a new tactic. In his work, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes a history of public torture in 18th century France that employs a similar “shock factor” to today’s media. Foucault claims “the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle,” exactly the kind of gruesome ritual he first describes, and explains that punishment becomes “hidden” in the 19th century, allowing the concept of punishment to enter the “domain of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity” (7-9).
It is interesting then, that COPS focuses on the very moment a suspect is caught. There is no investigation and no follow-up, just vignette after vignette of pulse-amping criminal catching. This creates an air of suspense in regards to the “justice” that will follow, i.e. the hidden penal system. But it does not do away with “spectacle” by any means. By focusing on this moment of arrest, by televising and sensationalizing this moment, a moment before any conviction has been made, the suspect is publicly criminalized. No matter what that person has done or not done, they are branded as a criminal through the construction of the show.
In Michel Meranze’s Laboratories of Virtue, he also discusses the move from public to private punishment. Hitting the nail on the head, he says, “distancing punishment from its display would displace the medium of terror from public visibility to private imagination” (132). The makers of COPS love our imagination; in fact, the popularity of their show depends on it. What will happen to these criminals? All we know is we’re glad they’re off the streets!
The concept of “focusing on crime” and the “hero dynamic” has been a platform from which to subtly promote racism for a long time. Michelle Alexander discusses the role of media in this promotion in her book, The New Jim Crow. Specifically, Alexander talks about The War on Drugs, citing George Bush Sr.’s infamous Willie Horton ad in which “a dark-skinned black man, a convicted murderer who escaped while on a work furlough and then raped and murdered a white woman in her home.” The ad was used to undermine Bush’s opponent for approving of the furlough program and it was highly effective. Why? Because it was sensationalized. Instead of focusing on the horrors of what happens in prison to keep people scared, the media magnified the horrors of the crime committed to get people to rally for more imprisonment. It’s really about brilliant advertising.
Through storytelling in the guise of reality, COPS has managed to perpetuate this idea. The show focuses on penalizing minority groups in poor areas because of a stereotype that exists and will continue to exist as long as these shows are around. Using tactics such as fast cutting, hand held camera, and base-y music (filmmaking tactics generally reserved for horror flicks), the creators fabricate an exhilarating plotline – will the heroes catch the bad guys (or should I say bad boys)? It sells because of a predominantly white male audience that is scared of the unknown prison system, can identify with the buddy-buddy cops, is horrified by the alleged crimes, and more than anything, is glad it’s not them being targeted.
Instead of regaling you all (are there any of you left?) with words of why I’ve been away and apologies for internet-neglect, I’m just going to jump back into this lovely blog world. I’ve been writing away, in between lots and lots of sound design (most notably for the fabulous short film The Perfect Man), and these are just a few poems that I wrote for my current feature screenplay project.
They are meant to be spoken word and will ideally exist in that way someday, but for now they are on paper, and now, they are here.
The character who “writes” these poems is a 24 year old living in Brooklyn, with an overly romanticized view of her own hedonism. She believes that you must be tortured to be an artist. Enjoy.
If she could consider, she would
but when she stumbles she falls
and lips don’t part when they should.
She’ll quiver for you but not for herself
but that quiver’s a shiver for someone else.
She trusts no one but you, whoever you are tonight.
Take shelter in her heart, whoever you are tonight.
Reckless and feckless with bruised lips she trips
into a joy of her own.
But it’s a fleeting fog that rolls to the beat
of your morning exit.
And caves that drip Rock n Roll and leather scented illusions
harbor the merchants of her sanctioned delusions
and beckon to you, whoever you are tonight.
Your ink bleeds and your hard sleeves show soft skin below.
But she don’t play with lambs or tears, no, she don’t want to know.
So get your guns and leave your keys, whoever you are tonight.
I see your swag, yeah, you wear it good
and I see those chicks you’re foolin’
and people been sayin you got a real mean streak
but you’re just my little boy flexin.
Behind those snears I see tears that are forgotten
and your palms hold love and pain but ain’t that the game
yeah, you’re just my little boy flexin’.
Ain’t nobody knows your glint is passion
and those shades hide more than scars skin deep
and ain’t nobody knows the fashion in which you hold me when we sleep.
We got the concerned and caring staring with hollow knowledge.
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.
Kids (1995) – Harmony Korine and Larry Clark at the Cannes Film Festival
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.