Exactly twenty years ago, Larry Clark, then best known for documenting his fellow Oklahomans, while they (both he and his subjects) did drugs, had sex, and played with firearms, in his book Tulsa (1971), found a new set of muses in New York’s Washington Square Park. Among this new group of skaters, wastrels, and club kids, including Chloë Sevigny and Leo Fitzpatrick, was an ambitious 18-year-old named Harmony Korine who, as legend has it, had written a fragment of a screenplay congruent with Clark’s desire to make the Great American Teenage Movie. The two began collaborating and, over the next three weeks, that snippet became a script, and those kids became Kids.
Released in 1995, at the height of the indie explosion led by Sex, Lies and Videotape and Pulp Fiction, the film’s topicality (AIDS), rugged feel, and abundance of underage actors in varying states of undress, simulating date rape and (maybe not just simulating) drug use, caused a sensation. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Clark and Korine were both nominated for Independent Spirit Awards. But all these years later—after reality television and gritty handheld cinema became entertainment hallmarks—that documentary-feel that so affected viewers and scandalized critics in ’95 is no longer apparent. Now the movie feels more like a “message” episode of Girls than the inflammatory indie it once did. Korine, however, has matured more gracefully, growing into a singularly baffling and dazzling filmmaker—forging a path and a canon unlike anything we’ve ever seen, leading directly to this week’s Spring Breakers.
Beginning with his discursive and often impenetrable directing debut, Gummo (1997), Korine stood apart from mumblecore contemporaries and their focus on relationships or the individual. His bored-to-the-point-of-dangerous characters in a town destroyed by a tornado exist in a plane seemingly outside of this world, off any discernable map, in the realm of allegory. These are the kids and the town Dorothy left behind. And their numb rage, lolling groggily into insulated violence (popping off cap guns, drowning a cat), is less existential character-study than it is mythic malaise—a picture of abandonment and neglect that would hauntingly prefigure the sites of natural disaster with which we have become overly familiar since Katrina and up to Sandy. Animated by Korine’s messy, even amateurish symbolism (the gay dwarf, the famous bacon in the bathtub), and cast with a garish, Felliniesque eye for oddity, the movie approaches a modern Grimm feel. This is Beasts of the Southern Wild sixteen years ago, but ruder, cruder, and, thanks to the glittering emerald-hued photography by the late, great Jean-Yves Escoffier, more beautiful.
Equally as impressive as this freshman effort was Korine’s ability to solicit support—creative and otherwise—for his work. Starting with Gummo, clothing designer and film benefactor agnès b. began a series of investments in Korine, culminating in their 2004 creation of the production company O’Salvation, and the funding of his 2006 movie Mister Lonely. Werner Herzog, too, was an early fan of Gummo (knocked off his chair, he said, by the bacon) and Korine quickly cast the great director and one of his personal heroes in his next, and best to-date, film, Julien Donkey Boy.
By turns maddening and terrifying, Julien has at its emotional core an incredible performance by Ewan Bremner (maybe his best, and at least on par with his related work in Mike Leigh’s Naked) as the most diagnosably ill member of an utterly mad family. Necessarily anemic in budget, as it identifies as a Dogme film, subscribing to the aesthetic ascetics laid down in Lars von Trier’s Dogme Manifesto of 1995, Julien is still impressive just for getting made. Its rough-hewn shape, with undertones of incest, and loose narrative cohesiveness, was never expecteded to court anything more than a cult success, and. Yet Korine, thanks in part to his patrons, pulled it off despite, to use one of von Trier’s formulations, his own self-imposed obstructions of inscrutability, plot eccentricity, and post-punky emotional gore.
So maybe this was not necessarily getting away with something as much as inability to transcend an adolescent puckishness. Or, to pose it another way, is Harmony Korine capable of making a tight, polished Hollywood movie? As of this writing, we need more information to answer the question properly. He has still yet to attempt one, instead seemingly content to construct cinematic middle fingers and art projects—this, about a man who made a movie called Trash Humpers—until now.
With a budget reportedly near $40 million, Spring Breakers, which Korine calls his “pop poem,” is certainly his most ambitious and accessible work yet. Funded in part by Oracle-heir (and Indie savior) Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, the film comes with both the critical buzz of an award-favorite and the wide release of a blockbuster. It is both the perfect cover and the best stage for the continuation of Korine’s great project: ironizing the American experience, turning over its icons, and killing its sacred cows. And, without question the movie (and its seemingly requisite threesome scene) will (and already has) elicit a hurricane of controversy, suggesting yet again that Korine is perhaps our country’s greatest cinematic troll.