Spring Break Forever: Harmony Korine’s Unlikely Wave of Success

Harmony Korine has always been that outlier of a filmmaker – one doesn’t seem to figure out where the artist ends and the man begins. And during his nearly 30 year career, he’s always played that card like a magician: you don’t call upon him to show you a trick. Rather, he calls upon you.

And that shows fairly in his filmography as well. When he’s not directing Gucci commercials or music videos for The Black Keys or Rihanna, he pops up every several years to release a bombshell movie just to remind us that he still exists in this world, and that he still has something to say.

It all goes back to the already much heard story in the early 90s, when Nashville-transplant Korine studied dramatic writing at NYU. While hanging around with some skater kids one day in between classes in Washington Square Park, he caught the attention of photographer Larry Clark, who gave him a joke homework assignment to write a movie script for him, which Korine, in turn, submitted Kids.

Considered a teen-sex crime film, Kids follows a young girl (Chloe Sevigny) who tries to track down the boy who gave her AIDS before he strikes his next victim. Based on the premise alone, it sounds like the film would be a hard sell today. However, back in the early 90s, it was a different story. It was a time when resources to filmmakers just started becoming more accessible, and with the success of Pulp Fiction, suddenly, everybody wanted to be a part of an independent film, based on the thought that a little project could go places and have moderate success.

Needless to say, Kids was one of those movies. But it wasn’t just successful, it painted Korine as the next provocateur punk rock artist. After denying deals with agents and opportunities to direct other projects, he was able to secure funding for what would be his feature directorial debut, Gummo. Set in an Ohio town that never seemed to recover from a tornado, Gummo somewhat follows the structure of Slacker, as we see an ensemble of characters in their everyday lives, much more like a documentary than anything else. Not only did it take top prize at the Venice Film Festival that year, but it exposed him as the newcomer in the arthouse world, receiving praise from filmmaking juggernauts like Werner Herzog and Gus Van Sant, heralding him as the next protector of the avant-garde.

It was with all this success, however, that he eventually began to fall into the seedy underground of a pre-Giuliani New York. Along with falling heavily into substance abuse, it was around this time where he began a new project involving him provoking fights with random strangers, titled Fight Harm.

Along with his friends David Blaine and Leonardo Dicaprio, he would have his acquaintances follow him around New York as he attempted to get in fights, all shot on a video camcorder. While Korine would taunt his subjects, his friends would be across the street filming him.

Needless to say, he suffered from a great deal of pain from this project, finally calling it quits after a club bouncer knocked Korine unconscious and put him in the hospital. The footage from these stunts, however, has yet to become available to the public, as Korine claims it was destroyed in a house fire.

Then, he fell off the grid. No one had heard from him for years, unsure if this was another one of his “stunts” or if he was in actual danger. All rumors came to a close when he checked himself into a methadone clinic in Europe.

Soon after, he remained low, falling into several side tracks in his life that prompted him to think about giving up filmmaking altogether. One such urban legend about Korine is that during this time he fell into a group of fishermen known as the Malingerers whom he met in Panama. They claimed that they were in search of a fish of the same name – a carp that had three dots on the inside that “hadn’t been photographed in nearly a century.” After spending months with this group fishing, he soon had a falling out with them, after hearing a rumor that a businessman was willing to offer the group money for the fish, which had been their goal all along.

After returning to his home in Nashville, he soon felt disenchanted with what was going on around him, and started making films again in order to believe in something, that movie being Mister Lonely.

Mister Lonely follows a Michael Jackson impersonator who runs away to a commune of other fellow celebrity impersonators. The film very much reflected where Harmony was in his life at that time, trying to come to terms with the world around him that, more often than not, didn’t agree with him.

After bowing at Cannes with its official premiere, Korine hopped directly into his next project: Trash Humpers. Unlike the more elaborate production of Mister Lonely, Trash Humpers was more of a found-footage type project with different kinds of analog formats spliced together. Think of it as finding an old home video tape only to discover something deeply unsettling was taped over it, with the subject matter being, you guessed it, people fornicating trash cans. Not just that, elderly people fornicating trashcans. Despite the film’s “topic,” it raised questions of what could be considered a feature film, displaying images and stunts the likes of which are usually found on YouTube. If a YouTube video of a bunch of random acts spliced together was stretched beyond 60 minutes, is that considered a movie?

That’s what Korine’s always been best at: taking something that’s crude, but still bears the emotion that seeps through its surface, and turning it into an example on a canvas that raises questions. He can make a project with the cheapest accessibilities and the most un-trained cast, and the love and sincerity he treats his characters with still becomes apparent.

He turned that all on a dime though, when it was discovered he was casting Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson in a mysterious new project. Details were kept under wraps, but people could already tell this was going to be the weirdest project he’s ever done just because of how conventional it was becoming. And yet, we still didn’t really know what Spring Breakers was until halfway through watching it. But it proved to be his most successful movie since Kids, grossing over three times its budget. It helped re-solidify his career as a bankable auteur, but also opened up his appeal and work to a much larger audience (me included.)

It felt like it was full steam ahead for his next project, titled The Trap, which was to feature a cast led by Jamie Foxx and Benecio Del Toro. However, with Del Toro being casted in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, scheduling conflicts began to arise and he couldn’t line up the actors he wanted. And because it was Korine, if he couldn’t make the film his way, it wouldn’t be made at all, and eventually abandoned the project altogether.

It was also around this time he relocated his family to Miami from Nashville, claiming that it was a place that only had a hundred-year history, and still had history in the making. He began to hang around a group of Korine-like characters in Key West, soon adapting their same don’t-give-a-fuck style, the likes of which could only have been made in that part of the world, giving him the inspiration to write his latest feature, The Beach Bum.  

If Spring Breakers was the gateway drug, then The Beach Bum is the full-on trip. Centered around a “poet” named Moondog played by Matthew Mcconaughey, The Beach Bum follows Moondog hanging around all the Korine-esque characters you’d typically find in his other films – Snoop-Dogg as an ordained minister, the pilot who can’t see due to glaucoma, and all the other contradictory personalities that brings his films vividly to life.

It also continues his style of half documentary/half-narrative approach to films, with The Beach Bum comprised of more situations and moments and other-worldly scenarios. He actually shot every scene at least three different ways, whether it be in different locations, changes in dialogue, or even changes in costume. This way, he was able to improvise just as quick as he could think in the editing room, finding a pace to keep up with in the chance the film started to drag.

Yet, the fact that he’s able to make the films that he wants is a miracle in itself. Through all the bureaucracy, bad press, and uncompromising vision, he’s championed his career into what most filmmakers could only dream of doing. This is also aided by the fact that he works outside of the traditional Hollywood system. By relying on private investors and production companies, he’s given final cut and full control over his projects without being at the mercy of studio heads. Regardless of the outcome, reviews, or box-office gross, that’s all secondary to Korine. The victory is in the achievement itself.

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