In the years since Harmony Korine, then 18, wrote the script for Larry Clark's controversial 1995 "Kids," he has directed two films himself, "Gummo" (1997) and "julien donkey-boy," which opened Friday at the Sunset 5. In that time he's been the subject of considerable ink, both as a chronicler of life on the brutal edges of American society and as a put-on artist with the press.
A slight, dark-haired, bearded young man of 25, Korine, in town for "julien's" opening, proved easy to talk with and happy to discuss his films seriously. He certainly has a sense of humor, and you can well imagine he would have fun selling a bill of goods to anyone he felt deserved it.
For "Kids," Korine, a skateboard whiz Clark met in Greenwich Village's Washington Square, came up with a group portrait of aimless urban youth in which a boy, barely into his teens, is bent on seducing as many girls as he can--never mind that he's HIV-positive and not about to disclose his status to any of his unprotected partners. As Korine is quick to point out, it is very much Clark's film, made by a man in his 50s who is famous--or infamous--for his striking photographs of teenagers, sometimes engaged in sexual activity and drug use.
With "Gummo," Korine created a roughly semirural equivalent of "Kids," which he filmed in a community outside Nashville where he grew up. In "Gummo" verdant scenery conflicts with ramshackle houses in which adults as well as young people live with little hope. This group portrait is strung together with a slender tale of two boys who kill cats to pay for glue to sniff and for sex with a girl with Down syndrome.
What is striking about "Gummo" and now "julien," about a young schizophrenic and his exceedingly dysfunctional family, is the intensity of Korine's compassion for individuals who have so little going for them and so much going against them, yet at times are capable of experiencing an exhilarating freedom of spirit.
"Gummo" so impressed Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that they invited "julien" to become the first Dogma '95 American film. (Guidelines of this creative "manifesto" call for a stripped-down, minimalist approach to filmmaking.) Korine agreed to the Dogma rules and landed the cinematographer of Vinterberg's "The Celebration," Anthony Dod Mantle, and also that film's editor, Valdis Oskarsdottir. All three features Korine has worked on have been produced by Independent Pictures' Cary Woods and all have featured lovely and vivacious Chloe Sevigny. (Korine refers to her as "my partner," and she has accompanied him to California. She co-stars in the upcoming "Boys Don't Cry," and yes, she is a descendant of 17th century French writer the Marquise de Sevigne.)
"I shot 100 hours for 'julien' and I never saw any of it until I was done and neither did the editor," said Korine, sitting in the living room of a West Hollywood hotel suite. So intent was Korine in maintaining spontaneity that Oskarsdottir was not permitted to see any footage in advance either.
"I wanted to make a film about my Uncle Eddie, a schizophrenic who's now about 47 and has been at a mental institution since he was 35. I had left Nashville and had gone to live with my grandmother in Queens--I even took Eddie's room. I wanted to bring Eddie home and make a movie about him and my grandmother, but it was too much for her. That's why she had to put him in Creedmoor in the first place: She couldn't handle him anymore.
"Eddie was the first person I had ever met who was severely mentally ill," Korine said. "Apparently, he was a regular kid until he was 20-21, and then he started hearing voices in his head. Multiple voices, all of them threatening, making him paranoid. It's like having a radio stuck in your ear that's on all the time. I hate most movies about mental illness--they're romantic and sappy."
Characters Inspired by Korine's Family, Friends
When Korine found it impossible to film his uncle, he came up with the idea of creating a character inspired by him--Julien, who's about 20 and is able to hold down a job working with the blind. "I was thinking about how to tell his story and came up with this family unit and wanted to discover how each person reacted to him."
The film's key setting is the actual home of Korine's grandmother, Joyce, who appears in the film as Julien's grandmother, a woman who is always there yet says virtually nothing and lives in her own world. Julien's father (Werner Herzog), a mean-spirited, tyrannical widower, treats his son ("Trainspotting's" Ewen Bremner) with disdain and outright cruelty. He's a source of embarrassment for his younger brother, Chris (Evan Neumann), a high school athlete, who, as his father's only hope, is the main target of his abusive discipline.