CHITCHAT (unfinished): A strange meditation on gossip.
Kids Of America a series of ID spots for MTV (1998). The first films I directed. Verite portraits of music fans. Shot across the country on beautiful Super 8 by Tobin Yelland.
Praise The Beast
By Aaron Rose for ANP QUARTERLY
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
-If by Rudyard Kipling, 1895
What people don’t understand is that we choose to live like free…free people.
-Trash Humpers, 2009
To begin to understand an artist’s motivation, one must always look back to the source. Not just the source of the collected works, but also to the core of the person who created them. There are few contemporary filmmakers who have been both as celebrated and misunderstood as Harmony Korine. His oeuvre of work, not just in film, but also in painting, poetry, photography, music and literature defy all categories of classification. Like the artist, they are an entity unto themselves. A complicated collage of ideas and imagery, seemingly disparate, yet upon further examination reveal a very distinct worldview. With that in mind and upon the release of The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s sixth feature film, it seems a fitting time to look deeper not just into this particular movie, but into why this work marks an important milestone in the history of this artist.
Korine has always had a particular fascination with the forgotten people. Some would call them freaks, outcasts, or even “special” people, but to this artist, these personalities are not strange. They are not fringe characters, nor are they somehow lesser than those who choose to live mainstream lives. In the mind and heart of Harmony Korine, these people, are God’s masterpieces. In all of Harmony’s creations, he looks unflinchingly at the bizarre, the unusual, and even the grotesque things in life. Then through the use of a masterful command of unconventional visual devices, he forces the viewer understand their abject beauty. Korine is a teacher, a magician and a seer. His works are alternately painterly and documentarian, but at his core, he is dedicated to creating beautiful images of unbeautiful subjects. These themes appear more subtly and not so subtly in his earlier films, but they truly come home to roost in The Beach Bum.
I’ve known Harmony for over 25 years and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that in order to understand this particular artistic/cinematic legacy, one has to forget everything they know about art. In Korine’s work, the medium is essentially irrelevant. To some, it could be helpful to think of his film work in the context of visual art, as many talented polymaths of the past have seen this happen to their careers, but in the case of Korine, even that comparison falls short. Perhaps it’s best suited to consider his work as a whole as a singular personal movement rather than an adherent to any particular medium or school of creativity. Anyone who has followed Korine’s career seriously will probably understand this.
It can be said that every artist’s work is autobiographical, and Harmony does not escape this cliché. But, while his personal motivations are evident, there’s something deeply proletariat in his approach to his choices. Regardless of how a particular viewer might react to his style, it cannot be denied that he always strikes a nerve. The Beach Bum will undoubtedly foster the same result. Of the various works (in all mediums) that Korine has created, this film is perhaps his most honest. That is not to say that his other creations are less-than, it’s simply that The Beach Bum gives an incredibly pure look into Korine’s psyche, and a virtual roadmap to the simple thru-lines that run through all of his work.
Moondog, the protagonist of The Beach Bum, wonderfully portrayed on screen by Matthew McConaughey, is as Harmony as Harmony gets. The character, a published poet, is consistently being lionized for his past work and how it has changed peoples’ lives, yet he exists in a middle-space, a place where his past constantly informs his future. He is stuck in a conundrum, an identity crisis he is not aware of. He’s just doing his thing, following his whims as he always has, constantly in the process of writing his next masterpiece. For those of us who know Harmony, it is starkly obvious that this is straight autobiography. From his earliest foray into film at the age of 19, when we first became friends, Harmony has dealt with a similar set of circumstances.
Moondog is, without a doubt, the cinematic embodiment of Korine’s inner vision. Except that while Korine is a man, Moondog actually is a God. In this character, Korine has taken his personal life experiences as an artist and as a human being; his struggles, triumphs, successes and failures and wrapped them up into a package that manifests itself in the form of a stoned out, sunburnt hippy that cruises around South Florida in a speedboat. There has been evidence of Harmony’s personality in many of his characters throughout his filmmaking history, but never has there been one that cuts as close to the bone as Moondog. It takes enormous courage to be able to sublimate one’s own life into the form of a fictitious character. Having the skills of self-examination so deftly honed is not for the faint of heart. Additionally, to then create a character so complicated that his deepest and most troubling emotions are projected in such a way that we can all laugh along with him is an even bigger accomplishment. This is the primary function of art as a spiritual practice…that through the realization of another person’s suffering we may hope to find ourselves.
Unlike any other modern filmmaker in recent history, Korine’s films have reached a cult-like status that most directors could only dream of. His fans have been described as “devotees.” Religiously following each and every project with a rabid fervor usually reserved for spiritual leaders. This is not to suggest that Harmony Korine is some sort of divine incarnation. However there is a resonance in his works that undoubtedly strikes an incredibly strong emotional and psychological nerve with this devoted audience. Perhaps the primary reason for this allegiance can be found in the essential subject matter of Korine’s films. While other filmmakers have walked those paths before, few, and I mean a handful in the course of film history, have approached it with such brutal honesty. Throughout in his career, and perhaps only subconsciously at the beginning, Harmony had begun a process of shining a light where most people didn’t dare to look. Even though he has denied this repeatedly, choosing instead to hide behind a persona of nonchalant, nonsensical, non-sequiturs, in Korine’s heart there is a creative being who truly understands the struggles of humanity. I often feel that his comedic public persona actually serves as a type of psychological armor. Protecting that sacred personal space behind smoke and mirrors, so that only those closest to him ever see the real man.
Like Moondog, Korine looks at the world differently than most people. Drifting through the human experience with an almost blind faith in the process. The characters he writes are almost always deeply flawed yet possess an almost child-like innocence. Never before in film history had we seen such eccentric roles with such a blatant disregard for what were considered societal norms. He is not afraid to address the darker truths of life, but for those of us who are willing to look, there are valuable treasures to be found. However, in order to discover these riches one has to understand that within these hyper-real narratives featuring sometimes-unbelievable personalities, there lie inherent truths. Though perhaps only tethered to reality by a small but solid root, the message of Korine’s films go far beyond simple pedestrian perceptions. Korine shows us this world in such an extreme fashion not only to shock us (though that can be one of his lesser tactics), but more so to allow us to feel sympathy towards the plight of his characters.
As the result of this Korine shows us what freedom looks like. As an artist, he has afforded himself the autonomy to adhere to an unfiltered exploration of some of his own thematic whims and obsessions via a series of films, publications, exhibitions and anything else he might dream up. As an audience we should take careful note of what he’s doing. Not just as fans or devotees, but as fellow searchers. We have a duty as artists and citizens of this Earth to be the best we can be. Like Harmony, and the characters he writes and directs into his films, we all fail sometimes. But let the man be the man. We live in an environment where too much focus is put on whether or not we’re doing the right thing…with the word “right” being interpreted in ways that we try to present our work in the most innocuous fashion as possible. We have a higher value than that and Harmony understands these conflicts.
While The Beach Bum is tinted in flickering neons and beer-soaked Florida hues, it also shows us that everything in life exists in the grey area. In the film, people drink and smoke their way to oblivion, cheat on their partners, have problems with the law and live lives essentially on the most extreme edges of society. There is no political correctness here, only raw emotion and pernicious desire. They are prime examples of the id run amok, yet if we dare to scratch the surface we can all see ourselves in these personalities. In our current 21st Century age we all strive to be “good” people, and some of us come close to achieving it. Yet, to push aside or pretend to bury our deeper flaws prevents us from ever seeing the full picture of our lives. Harmony Korine’s body of work serves as a stark reminder of this.
We all start with a blank slate in life. A hand is dealt and we must play it to our best ability. Harmony has done the same. Kids, Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy, Mister Lonely, Trash Humpers, Spring Breakers and a host of smaller projects that only the truly dedicated have sought out now culminate in The Beach Bum. But they are just a roadmap. Sure, each of these creations build on each other to create a cohesive narrative, but in true Harmony Korine style, just when you think you have it figured out, life throws in a twist. In this writer’s opinion, art is a religion. Harmony might not be a savior but he’s doing his best to sail right up next to it. We should all be on a daily quest to do the same.
Praise The Beast.