My film reviews seldom get blurbed. Whether that is a testament to turgid prose or relative unimportance, I don’t know. An exception was my review of Harmony Korine’s 2010 film, “Trash Humpers.” On the cover of one of the DVD releases is a quote from my negative assessment: “A gang of elderly morons have sex with garbage. What more can I say about ‘Trash Humpers’?”
Though I don’t have much to say about “Trash Humpers,” Korine himself might, and you can hear for yourself when he appears at the 7 p.m. screening of that film on March 3, the last film to be shown in his 10-day retrospective, “Harmony & Anarchy,” at the Harvard Film Archive. The series starts Friday.
Korine will also appear at a screening of his most recent film, “Spring Breakers” (March 2). Coincidentally, that is my favorite of his movies. The two films mark the extremes of Korine’s filmmaking: transgression that is utterly offensive, and transgression that is perversely appealing – or, as Korine puts it, “transcendent,” which was a term he repeated when interviewed last March, for “Spring Breakers.”
Some caught a glimpse of that transcendence in 1995, in Korine’s first foray into film, as the 18-year-old screenwriter of Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids” (Friday). But people really started to take note with his 1997 directorial debut, “Gummo” (Saturday).
An assaultive farrago, it consists of vignettes involving the young, stunted inhabitants of Xenia, Ohio, which had been leveled by a tornado some years before. There is an actual Xenia, Ohio, that did suffer that catastrophe, but this is shot in the filthiest dwellings in Korine’s hometown of Nashville, with a mostly amateur cast, chosen in part for their Diane Arbus freakishness.
The plot is thin. Two kids hunt stray cats and sell them to the local butcher. Mostly “Gummo” offers scenes of studied squalor and debased behavior, a highlight of sorts being the boyish-looking director himself getting drunk and trying to seduce (unsuccessfully) a gay, black, encephalitic dwarf. The circular structure involves a cat owned by a character played by Chloë Sevigny (she made her film debut in “Kids”). The cat’s fate is not pretty.
Critics hated “Gummo” (“Worst film of the year,” Janet Maslin, The New York Times). Other filmmakers, however, recognized genius.
“What I like about ‘Gummo’ are the details that one might not notice at first,” Werner Herzog said in a 1997 conversation with Korine in Interview magazine. “There’s the scene where the kid in the bathtub drops his chocolate bar into the dirty water and just behind him there’s a piece of fried bacon stuck to the wall with Scotch tape. This is the entertainment of the future.”
My hat’s off to Herzog for spotting that. When I saw the film I was too grossed out by the candy bar to notice the bacon.
So impressed was Herzog by Korine that he appeared in his next two movies. In “julien donkey-boy” (Feb. 28), from 1999, Herzog appears as the father of a degenerate clan. The donkey boy of the title (Ewen Bremner) is a schizophrenic, but it’s hard to distinguish his mania from the eccentricities of the rest of the family. They include, in addition to Herzog’s paterfamilias, a suspiciously pregnant older daughter (Sevigny), a younger son determined to become a wrestler, a figure-skating younger daughter who seems like a refugee from Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” and a grandmother suffering from dementia.
In short, it’s Xenia, relocated to Queens and reduced to one family unit. The style is much the same, too: disjointed, handheld, shot in different formats, featuring the usual array of obsessions. Is this the cinema of the future, or a repetition of the past?
Herzog, however, excels in scenes in which he listens to bluegrass music in his room, high on cough medicine, wearing a gas mask. Or when he decries a “poem” Julien recites at the dinner table. “All you’re saying is chaos, chaos, chaos!” he shouts. “It doesn’t even rhyme. I don’t like the artsy-fartsy stuff. I like the real stuff. Like the ending of ‘Dirty Harry.’ ” But even Herzog submerges in the stupidity and debasement.
An adolescent preoccupation with death, scatology, and so on, often conceals a sentimentalized romanticism. That might explain the reversal in tone and style in Korine’s next film, “Mister Lonely” (March 1), from 2008. Employing a conventional narrative, Korine tells the story of a mediocre Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who finds refuge in a commune of other, equally talentless celebrity imitators. Sounding much like Korine himself, the mock Michael laments how he has been ostracized because “I had a special kind of vision that allowed me to see things you couldn’t see.”
Once again, Herzog salvages the movie. In what seems a separate film intercut with the main narrative, he plays an alcoholic mission priest whose coterie of nuns believes that if they have enough faith they can jump out of a plane and survive. “We are like vomit in the streets outside a seedy bar,” the priest muses. “Who are we to doubt such miracles?” Good old Werner.
After the treacle of “Mister Lonely,” the nose-thumbing nihilism of “Trash Humpers” makes sense. It rejects the previous film’s bathos, and it also parodies the excesses of his prior films. It clears the palette for his best film, “Spring Breakers.”
In it, four college girls head for spring break in Florida with money stolen in a robbery. It’s all fun and games and girls gone wild until they end up in jail. A hip-hop hoodlum (a terrific James Franco), bails them out, and they join him in an outlaw life that is a cross between “Scarface,” Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” and any number of gangsta rap videos.
Most critics loved it. With it, Korine emerges from the adolescent preoccupations of an enfant terrible and aspires to genuine transcendence.
Some, though, found “Spring Breakers” morally reprehensible. “I had a friend in Europe who said that it was the most irresponsible movie he ever saw,” said John Waters, one of Korine’s early fans, when interviewed last year. “And I said, come on, it’s not that good!”Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.