The Buzz

The return of Harmony Korine

Categories: Movies

Spring BreakersControversial filmmaker Harmony Korine has found new acceptance for his distinctive storytelling with Spring Breakers. (Getty Images)

As the final credits rolled on Harmony Korine's provocative Spring Breakers, I stayed in the theatre to gauge the crowd's reaction. Droves of suburban teen girls rose from their seats in a trance. Few cellphone screens lit up, but I could hear a low murmur building: What the hell? Are you serious? What was that?

The girls' first reaction was one of confusion, followed by dislike: of Korine's short bursts of imagery, fragmented narrative, repetition of images. But despite the immediate aversion, Korine counts on them to come around, and after two decades of "making perfect nonsense," it seems he's right.

As they file into Land Rovers and chromed-out SUVs, the teens finally take to their phones to meditate on what they'd just seen via social media. In a blink of an eye, they've begun to tolerate Korine's perspective and are hooked.

Joanna Ambros and Samantha Stewart are two Niagara Falls, Ont. high school seniors who tweet about Spring Breakers on a regular basis. Korine's flashes of cinematic eye candy spoke to them and now they return the favour.

Much like Korine's schizophrenic style of cinema, tweets today say everything and nothing all at once and can be completely detached from any tangible reality. They are fleeting, flippant and forgettable, but always there.

A cult following

Ambros and Stewart say they immediately fell in love with Korine's vision and visual style, but this hasn't always been the case with his work. When he burst onto the scene in the mid-90s, his out-there creations drew the smallest crowds of cinephiles to obscure art theatres in New York, far from the suburban multiplexes he's playing now.

Korine's screenplay for Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film, Kids, immediately sparked an uproar. It was written when Korine was just 19 years old, having just dropped out of NYU's film school to skateboard. Blasted by some as child pornography and blatant exploitation, Kids followed the New York escapades of wild, underage teens who flirted with drugs, sex and, ultimately, AIDS.

Gummo, Korine's debut feature, arrived next in 1997 and glimpsed into white-trash culture in small-town Ohio. As the story goes, on-set conditions were so poor and decrepit in some locations the crew insisted on wearing Hazmat suits. Meanwhile, Korine and his cinematographer, Jean-Yves Escoffier, sported bikinis.

"His thing is dark humour. He's going into a place where not everybody's going to go to get their laughs out of," Rian Murphy tells me from his Drag City Records office in Chicago.

Spring BreakersSpring Breakers stars young actresses, from left, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Vanessa Hudgens. (Michael Muller/A24 Films)

Murphy worked with Korine on the soundtrack for his film Mister Lonely and the distribution of another work, Trash Humpers. Now, Drag City has reissued Korine's first -- and only -- novel, A Crackup at the Race Riots. First published in 1988 by Doubleday, the book is nothing if not a testament to the artist's erratic style, which many mainstream voices -- including David Letterman -- laughed off.

Besides explicit language, Crackup includes an entire page dedicated to a single word (Hepburn), a yearbook photo of a young MC Hammer and seemingly nonsensical handwritten entries, such as this one:

"Cleaning his apartment on PCP was always fun for him. Once he found an old copy of Time magazine under his couch. The cover read, 'the secret world of Howard Hughes.' After he was finished reading the article he called up his sister in Wyoming. She told him she was contemplating being artificially inseminated."

"It's written from the point-of-view of this person who's looking towards a career as a filmmaker," says Murphy, who called the rapidly selling reissue "a barrel of laughs, really."

"There's a lot about Hollywood in there, a lot about the dark side of fame. That's something he was meditating on at that time. He probably is again, because he's just made the most successful movie of his career. "

Celebration or satire?

Which brings us back to Spring Breakers, the story of four female college students who rob a store with water guns to pay for a spring getaway to Florida. There, they ride scooters, drink, party, get naked and do drugs, which sets them on a collision course with Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and drug dealer who becomes a gateway into darkness.

Using his flair for visuals -- and lots of neon -- Korine turns what might seem a run-of-the-mill story on paper into an elliptical, full-length portrait scored by the likes of Britney Spears and Skrillex. At its worst, it's glorifies our paper-thin, Twitter-fueled pop culture, led by former reality stars-turned-rappers like Riff Raff. At its best, the film offers a hyper-exaggerated satire of that very same culture.

"I think an understanding and acceptance of that white trash quality of America is a lot more within the realm of general acceptance," Murphy says of Korine's new mass appeal.

"I think his observations about the seedy underbelly of American life, the things that were there to be said in the '90s were a bit more left of center [then]... A lot of what's gotten [us] to that place now is the efforts he made when he was younger."

Korine's language -- fragmented, bursting with imagery and information -- is something that we now understand, teens especially. Celebration or satire? It's a combination of the two that surely perplexed the teen girls at the cinema. For 90 minutes, watching Spring Breakers is like staring into a mirror at all the glitzy, glamorous and indulgent makeup that, without any underlying substance, falls flat.

But they came around.

-- by Peter Marrack

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