I STILL LIKE TO MOW IT ALL DOWN: Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine assembles the fluorescent flora and fauna that wash through modern American life, constructing a mischievous realism in his films, using a cast of sly anti-heroes with backstories that extend beyond the screen. He has described himself, along with Clint Eastwood, as “probably the most uniquely American director in the world.” Born in Bolinas, California, Korine spent the first part of his childhood in Nashville, Tennessee with his “Trotskyite, commune-living Jewish hippie” parents.
His father produced documentaries for PBS in the 1970s and was once a tap dancer who hung out with the Nicholas Brothers, the “flash dancing” duo who performed with Bill “Bolangles” Robinson in Stormy Weather (1943). Aged 13, Korine legally changed his name to Harmful, thinking it would make him sound tougher. For some reason it did not. In Fight Harm, an unreleased project filmed in 1999, Korine spent a year roaming around New York City getting himself punched in the face by strangers, the only rule being that he wasn’t allowed to throw the first punch.
The project deteriorated. A bouncer from London, working the door at Stringfellows, broke Korine’s ankle in two, gave him a concussion, and got him arrested. The project had been intended as a comic homage to Korine’s hero, Buster Keaton, and was mostly shot by the magician David Blaine and his crew. Leonardo DiCaprio showed up now and then to witness a beating. “Honestly, I was just trying to make people laugh,” Korine told the Guardian in 2016. “I was misguided, but in my heart, I felt like Fight Harm would have been one of the greatest movies ever made.”
Korine’s cinematic oeuvre includes Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), and Mister Lonely (2007), works which were also published as screenplays that diverge dramatically from the movies eventually produced. As a writer, he also co-authored the lyrics to Björk’s “Harm of Will” from the singer’s 2001 album Vespertine, and co-wrote the song “Florida Kilos” with Lana Del Rey and Dan Auerbach, featured on the deluxe edition of Del Rey’s Ultraviolence (2014). His most recent full-length film was Spring Breakers (2012), starring Selena Gomez, Korine’s wife Rachel, and James Franco as the entrepreneurial white trash dealer Alien, whose childhood friend Archie, played by Gucci Mane, has become his nemesis. Korine’s new film, The Beach Bum, stars Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence, Jonah Hill, and Isla Fisher, and premiers globally this Friday, March 29. McConaughey takes the lead as a Floridian stoner named Moondog – a character who resembles Korine’s real-life neighbor, Albert. The director has described the new movie as a “Jimmy Buffet song that’s gone bad. Like a tropical Cheech and Chong.”
Primarily known as a filmmaker and writer, today Korine finds the greatest freedom and happiness in painting. His latest show, “Young Twitchy,” is currently on view at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and is a reflection of Korine’s “calm” nights in Miami where he took photographs of the sky at night with the flash turned on, producing skyscapes with accidental light flares. “The works were re-created in oil paint on canvas from images I constructed on my iPhone,” he explains. “I usually took these photographs around my home in Florida and then painted over them with different characters. These light creatures hang out with the dogs, or dance on the abandoned boat dock. I would sit outside alone by the water and create alien-like friends on a low-key cosmic tropical playground.”
When I spoke to Korine last week, I began by asking if an opening in a gallery was comparable to the premiere of a movie.
No, it feels different. I like it. It feels like the ocean.
When did you first exhibit your art?
In the mid-1990s. My first show was at the Patrick Painter Gallery. [It was called The Diary of Anne Frank.]
Who do you make art for?
These days you like to go fishing, and you like to paint. Do you ever paint while fishing?
I do! I’ve even painted with a fish.
Who is “Young Twitchy”? He sounds like a Floridian rapper about to drop a new single.
He might drop a single. He’s setting up his SoundCloud as we speak. He’s just so damn twitchy, I love him. He turned 20 bars of soap into a skateboard. He loves [Miami rapper] Trick Daddy. I’ve been drawing him since I was a kid.
How long did this exhibition take to prepare?
This show took me a few years to make.
Do you ever look back at your work and ask yourself, “What was I thinking?”
No. I try to stay low to the ground. I stopped drinking. I also stopped drinking water. Now I drink Mountain Dew. I also like Starburst fruit chews. I feel like these things help me remember.
In the past, you have collaborated with Dan Colen, Raymond Pettibon, and Rita Ackermann. How do you decide who to collaborate with?
[I collaborate] if I feel like I can contribute something good.
The Beach Bum premiere is happening in a few days, and it’s already getting a lot of attention. Are you surprised when one of your films gets more exposure than the others?
No. I never know and I’m always surprised. I just like to make things.
Is Moondog from The Beach Bum inspired by your neighbor Albert? Does Albert appear in the movie?
I love Albert. He’s, like, the mayor in my neighborhood. He surfs a lot. His dog disappeared last week. He’s a religious man and has a lot of Bible quotes on his car. He’s not in this movie, but he should’ve been. Moondog is very different to Albert, but I’m sure they would’ve been good friends.
There is an element of autobiography in everything you do. Does a filmmaker have to live their films in order for the film to be good?
I guess it depends what kind of movie they’re making. It would be hard for the director of a Godzilla movie to live that life. I live some of the life some of the time, but not all the time. Now mostly never.
After seeing Gummo, Werner Herzog called you “the future of American cinema.” Do you ever feel people expect too much from you?
No, I don’t. I mostly just like to hang out and eat Taco Bell on the houseboat I have in Key Largo [on the Florida Keys]. I also started lifting 2lb dumbbells. I can do it for hours at a burst. Most people don’t think 2lb dumbbells are difficult – but if you go for a marathon pump session, then it gets really tough. My point being – I don’t think anyone expects too much.
You often cast non-actors in your films, but everyone feels right for the part, including Herzog, who you cast in Julien Donkey-Boy. How do you know who fits and who doesn’t?
It’s mostly just a feeling. Sometimes a haircut. I keep my eyes peeled.
How do you decide which ideas to pursue?
I don’t know. I’m not that prolific. Usually, my wife kicks me out of the house, and I have to come up with something quick in order to get back in.
Considering your work across different art forms, what do you say when someone asks “What do you do?”
I used to mow yards when I was younger and I loved it. I still like to mow it all down.