in Interviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Kids in America

An interview with Harmony Korine

in Interviews | 01 JAN 98

Introduction by Bruce Hainley

Harmony Korine's movie, Gummo (1997), is a rambunctious meditation on what it means to find aesthetic inspiration in the work of Larry Clark, Jimmy Durante and Richard Prince, the films of Méliès, Godard, Warhol and Dennis Hopper, as well as heavy metal, punk, and the crooning the heart makes when breaking (as caught by Roy Orbison singing 'Crying'). It is also a tornado.

In Gummo, the tornado touches down, and, no, we are not in Kansas anymore but in Xenia, Ohio. The effect of the twister on the town inhabitants is to leave them sorting out, in writer Anne Carson's words, 'the psychic misdemeanour we call history'. Where are we? What is this? they ask themselves, never in words but in living life, or choosing perhaps not to. The same questions buzz through the viewer's mind, for the same and different reasons.

Tornadoes are not redemptive. There is none of the attenuated sense of cleansing that accompanies, say, abstract thoughts about the aftermath of floods or fires. Gummo is a movie structured by the tornado: it touches down with unexpected thoroughness, wreaking havoc or placing its characters in a moment of grace, and then lifts back up only to touch down again. The tornado is uninterested in plot: its path can only be plotted after the fact, much too late, and anyone busy plotting will miss its beauty and terror.

Sadly too many have forgotten that an aesthetic project can attempt moral consequences and challenges, for the artist as well as for the audience. Beauty - a new way of seeing and thinking - has become too often merely palatable; independent movie-making (whatever that means anymore), a kind of pabulum-feeding of supposed 'alterity', 'weirdness', or 'difference'. Korine blows away any such baby notions, caring only how they appear in the world, how they are observed as some of the many ways beauty embodies itself. He isn't afraid to make anyone, including himself, see that any alterity, weirdness, and difference - not that he gives a damn for these matters as subjects - is self-generated and should make you squirm. The idea of inhabiting your own skin, thinking the thoughts you think or don't think should, at times, freak you out, embarrass you; it should make you laugh to keep from depressing the hell out of you. With Gummo, Korine reminds us - how pathetic that we need reminding - that hate and anger are just some of many emotions and it is important to engage them all.

There are many terrific beauties in Gummo, a movie that follows two cat-killing boys, the escapades of three girls, the wandering path of a bunny boy, and the complicated motions and emotions of two mentally retarded girls, while at the same time getting high on seemingly documentary hits of the casually grimy hypnotic substance called contemporary life in suburban America. In Gummo's world - how different it is from our own is part of the responsibility of watching it - boys wear oversize Converse sneakers, ride bikes, huff stuff to check out and laugh, and determine that a dying body smells like baked ham; girls perk up their nipples with tape, are felt up by obliging motorists, deal with lumps in their 'titties', paint their nails. People are fat and hateful, bone-thin and heartbreakingly tender. They use the word 'nigger', are ignorant, violent and remarkably fragile while seeming endlessly resilient. Korine watches and listens to the rhythms and speech of the mentally retarded with profound care; their open faces, too aware that Jesus may love them more than anyone else, map this fact, allowing them to find solace and communicate more directly than almost anyone else.

Korine moves his camera with astounding invention, deploying a heady mix of film stocks and techniques that evade MTV artiness. He notices small details lovingly: a shampooed spout of hair wilting; the jerky movements of a boy ill-at-ease with his body who slips into women's clothes when he isn't busy earning money killing cats by spiking tuna with poison; the hands of a retarded prostitute consummating a matrimonial pact by gently touching the smaller thinner hands of her teenage fiancé while her pimping brother, watching the tenderness, gets off by pinching his fat nipple. Korine never shirks the unseemly or horrible, finding them often twisted together in the same moment. He directs an astonishingly beautiful cast: he should be admired just for enabling Linda Manz to return to the screen with such gun-toting, tap-dancing antics, such dignity and restraint. He is also not afraid to show that fashion, the clothes people wear and how they wear them is for many a daily aesthetic achievement. Chloe Sevigny, in many ways Korine's muse, has chosen the flick's apparel with such clarity that Gummo, in addition to many other things, is one of the most important movies about fashion since Foxes (1980).

I was unconvinced by most of Larry Clark's Kids (1995), a film stupidly read as 'realistic' instead of as part of an ongoing, wildly and rigorously aestheticised conceptual art project, and thought Korine's scriptwriting lucky not brilliant. Gummo hasn't changed my mind about Kids, but it has changed my mind about Korine. He is attempting a reckless renegotiation of the cinema; as a movie-maker, like the equally prescient Sadie Benning, he wants to stare into now and dares us to question what looking actually means anymore - if we are not too numbed, dumb, and afraid for it to mean anything. The tasks he has set for his vision are big and include, thank god, a big 'fuck you' to established ways of doing things. At one point the narrator of Gummo (a whispering, haunted punk) declares: 'Life is beautiful, really it is. Without it you'd be dead'. Too few things in the world attest to that fact.

Cameron Jamie: How did Gummo come about?

Harmony Korine: When I wrote Kids I had just graduated from high school. I'd always wanted to make movies, I think they're the greatest and ultimate art form. I met Larry Clark at Washington Square Park and he wanted to direct a film, so he asked me to write a script about teenagers. He had always wanted to make the ultimate teen-dysfunction film. I went to my grandma's house and wrote Kids in eight days. And I wrote all of the characters based on the kids that I knew, their exact dialogue. Kids was a success, and I realised I wanted to make films that were tricky and complex, more like a novel, maybe. When I tell this to people who work in movies, they think it's the most horrible thing, but for Gummo we worked from ideas written on cue cards like, 'BOY EATS SPAGHETTI IN BATHTUB', or 'TAP DANCING MOTHER PICKS UP GUN, PLAYS MADONNA SONG'. There are so many layers to movies and for some reason, they haven't all been explored. I'm interested in seeing images that I have never seen before.

How did you deal with the ratings board in the States? Did you have problems?

To get an NC-17 in America is like the kiss of death because 80% of the theatres won't accept the movie. 90% of the newspapers won't let you advertise in their publication, no television station will let you advertise. Gummo was given an NC-17 maybe six or seven times for nihilism, OK? (Laughs) I was allowed to appeal, so they would say, 'Trim this, this is really unbearable, if you make it a little shorter we'll give you the R-rating' . So I would do it, 'cause it was relatively insignificant. Then they would say 'Oh, you know, we re-watched it, and it's really still too hard to sit through'. What they were responding to was realism. I was holding shots, sustaining images and they were responding to that. If you look at their rulebooks, they say that NC-17 is for graphic sex, terrible violence, or extreme profanity or drug use. Gummo has no sex, the only nudity is when I show the girls' breasts, almost no 'dirty' words except for the little kids, no gore, and the only violence is when you see the two brothers fight each other, or violence against cats. And the only drug use is glue out of bags. So right there, it should have gotten a G-rating. (Laughs)

You start the first scene of Gummo with a tragic climax.

Exactly. I was thinking how I could write a tragic comedy in one three minute scene. So I thought what's more funny and horrible than a guy feeling up a girl and finding a cancerous lump or tumour. It's sexy in the beginning, and then it becomes terrible.

I loved the dynamic of mixing non-actors with professional actors in these different situations, and the performative quality you get from improvisation with a script. How do you cast?

I cast purely visually. If someone looks the part, if they're amazing looking and they could just remember the lines, or even remember the idea of what they are, then somehow it will work. In Gummo I wanted to show scenes that had no justification. Like the scene of the girl shaving her eyebrows; I could have explained that in two seconds, and had a scene before that to justify it and it would have made everyone calmer. But I didn't want to see those scenes. All I wanted to see was her shaving her eyebrows.

What was her name?

Her name is Rose Shepard. When I first met her, she and her mother had no eyebrows and they were both playing Donkey Kong and ate beef jerky. And they looked amazing, so I asked them why they had no eyebrows and they said, 'That's our fashion'. That was totally their style. They liked a clean face. So I asked if she would mind growing her eyebrows back and reshaving them. Just the image of this girl shaving her eyebrows was so striking to me. I didn't give her any direction and she could have stopped at anytime. She just kept going until it was clean. I always let things happen when I shoot, like in the kitchen scene.

Let's talk about that, the spontaneity of the two guys who start play-fighting in the kitchen. It starts out soft and playful, and then you are confronted with a real fight.

Right. They were out of breath from working out and I asked them to go over to stand in the kitchen, and the next thing I knew, they started fighting. They go at it, they're smiling, they're beating each other, they're bloody... That's the first real fight I think anyone's ever seen in a movie from beginning to end with no edits. We didn't do any sound manipulation or anything. I've seen them fight each other way worse. I've known those brothers since I was a kid. All those guys eat are frozen pizzas.

There's a scene with a tennis player - when you show him in slow motion, his haircut makes him look like Vanilla Ice or something. You seem to have a great affection for people and how they become influenced by cosmopolitan cultural influences or social codes that have trickled down to the suburbs. Have you noticed how Country and Western fashion right now is this hybrid design that looks like a cross between certain 80s New Wave break-dancing fashion and the traditional Country and Western look?

Exactly. In the South you'll see kids with rat-tail haircuts and Bone Thugs & Harmony T-shirts, but at the same time, they go home and their parents talk about how they hate blacks. The kids will be racists, but they will totally love Eazy-E or Too Short. That's the space Gummo exists in. For a lot of people it's hard to understand; they either that I'm making fun of someone and trying to be ironic, or they think there's some kind of inside joke. The truth is I admire that kind of thing. It's what I love. I spent all my life in the South, and what I love about middle America is this Pop schizophrenia. Middle America is what's exciting, not the cities.

It's rare in movies that you feel alone with the characters, but this really comes across in your work. You become a part of the film. It's more than being voyeuristic. Like the albino girl with the low-rider car, just talking very honestly - you have to assimilate it.

Why would I want to waste my time putting things I hate or wanting to make fun of in my work? When you saw that albino girl talking, what you realise is she's giving so much more than any actor or performer could ever give. She's giving you herself. And things she says are funny, but it is a good laugh. When she said she loved Patrick Swayze and her favourite actress was Pamela Anderson...

...It was completely sincere.

Then she said, 'I have no toes on my feet and I have to pick things up with the balls of my feet', but I asked her to say that. It wasn't true, that was the one thing I asked her to do. It's a movie. Those are people and things that I love, that I grew up around. Why would I want to make a film to make fun of people? I have compassion for those kind of people.

What about the old man who played the pervert who was telling the girls all of these nonsensical rumours like how Freddy Prinz was his brother, and they have no idea what this guy's talking about.

After he makes up rumours that Warren Oats swallows chewing tobacco spit, or Oppenheimer drank rubbing alcohol, or Henry Fonda's allergic to papaya. He was this yacht salesman that I met in Los Angeles and he smelt so amazing, he had the most incredible odour of Aqua Velva with Gucci loafers, and that voice... He made up that whole song in the end, 'Nothing new for trash like you, nothing new for trash like you'.

Does urban mythology interest you? When teenagers just lie and make up rumours and tell stories?

I do it now. I actually do these 'zines and all that's all they are - fake letters, fake rumours, fake quotes.

The party scene in the kitchen is really fantastic, where you feel you're with these people experiencing and watching this strange domestic behaviour.

It was the very last day of shooting and it was so an emotional. The whole movie was shot in 19 days. I had gotten my friend Mark Gonzales to fly in. He fights chairs and sometimes the chair will win, and sometimes he'll win. And it's a full-on fight. I have tapes of him fighting, where the chair will attack him. He does it in the most incredible way.

Have you seen the documentary film Dream Deceivers about the two teenagers who became obsessed with Judas Priest and tried to commit suicide, and the one who survived the suicide pact is telling these stories about him and his friend?

I used to sneak into the NYU library and they had a copy of it and I would watch it. It gave me the strangest feeling. Just the images of those two kids listening to Stormtroopers of Death, driving around Reno deserts drinking Miller-Lite. Fucking blowing their brains out, listening to Judas Priest backwards. And that guy being interviewed with this face that's completely blown off ... It was so eerie.

What about the use of Death Metal music for the soundtrack alongside Madonna, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly. The Death and Black Metal scene is still very underground.

You're right, I think the true underground is Black Metal. I wanted to have Death Metal in the soundtrack because I felt like it emotionally made sense. I didn't want to go back and use retro cheese metal. I'm not interested in ever making period pieces, they don't interest me. The new metal is so different and progressed in such a weird way that it's almost more like Bach or Nordic opera than Black Sabbath.

Gummo feels like a kind of cultural anthropology. When that kid is making dumbbell weights out of silverware and masking tape you really get to see how these people live, or how the kids have to kill cats to make money to be able to buy milkshakes or glue. You also show another kid doing the same thing, but for another reason.

Right. The people that didn't understand the film may say that these people have no morals, or there's no humanity in the movie, but that's all there is, humanity. What can be more human than getting non-actors, real people doing things that they normally do. I'm just trying to push the form forward and at the same time be entertaining, and show some kind of life the way I see it. People either say Gummo is not real or too real. Herzog gets accused of it too, basing everything on the truth, making everything seem as if it's really happening, unscripted - as if it's a documentary. But I am manipulating it, I'm making it into a movie. I'm adding things, telling people to do certain things to act out and perform. For me the best work is when you can't explain why you are enjoying it.

Once in a while a big budget Hollywood film is released which can be just as strange and surreal by default.

Like Clint Eastwood. The most subversive movie of the decade, hands down, is A Perfect World by Clint Eastwood. That's like NAMBLA propaganda. Oh my god, I could write a thesis on that movie. It was made three years ago. Kevin Costner's in it and it's a man/boy love story. But Clint Eastwood, he's the only person that can get away with it. I'm telling you, we can sit and watch it, and it will blow your mind. The whole movie's about this little boy in dirty white underwear who's the star of the film, and three times in the movie, Kevin Costner checks the size of the boy's cock and comments on it. I'm totally serious. It was beautiful classic American subversion.