Kids: Skating the Edge

Skating the Edge

Given that the element of surprise has been preempted by six months of advance word of mouth, critical controversy, cover stories in Artforum and New York, and a surfeit of profiles and interviews, it can’t hurt to begin by describing the opening sequence of Kids, a film by Larry Clark written by Harmony Korine, coming this summer, unrated, to your local art theater.

The first image we see is of a teenage girl and boy, framed in tight close-up, sucking face. The light is limpid, the focus shallow, so shallow that it’s as if there’s nothing else in the world but these two kids going at it, tongue to tongue, without passion, but with deep dedication. It’s an image that simultaneously hits one in the face and draws one in. And it goes on for a very long time, long enough to make one aware of a few crucial things: that although this is undeniably a film image (what else could it be with all that grain dancing around on the screen), the kids seem incredibly real (in other words, not like actors); that they seem very young — she looks barely 14, he might be two years older; that the activity they are performing is not simulated (these kids might never kiss each other in actual life but for the camera that’s just what they’re doing); and that the position in which the film has placed us vis-a-vis this activity is uncomfortably close.

This first shot that seems to last forever, but might be as brief as 15 seconds, gives us time to become self-conscious about our own response as we confront the activity that adult America, as it were, wants to shove out of sight, or at least turn into an abstraction. Pubescent sex, that’s what we’re looking at.

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The close-up is followed by a slightly more distanced shot. Now we can see that the girl and boy are on the bed in the girl’s room. It’s a pretty room filled with objects (stuffed animals and Beastie Boys records) signifying a privileged upbringing (it’s money that gives her skin that golden glow) and confirming that she’s as young as we feared she might be. The narrative kicks in. The boy whose name is Telly is pressing the girl to have sex. He’s insistent, she’s ambivalent. The pace of the editing accelerates. The fourth shot, or maybe its the fifth, is notably eccentric. The hand-held camera hovers just above the heart of the matter — the crotches of the girl and the boy. They’re still wearing their underpants. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of image that makes you wonder if you’ve seen more than you’ve seen.

The girl eventually acquiesces to the boy’s single-mindedness. He climbs on top of her. There’s a jump cut that breaks the real time continuity, rushing us forward as we realize that he’s penetrated her. We see them from the waist up: he’s pounding away and she’s protesting in pain. And then the music kicks in — jammer, jammer, jammer — and above it we hear the boy’s voiceover: “Virgins, I love ’em… ”

An adrenalizing movie moment, it’s thrill is as much the result of precise timing and layering of sound and image as it is about what’s happening in the action. Stylistically, it’s the opposite of the “Aerate” images that precede it. And although the action has turned nasty, it’s somehow easier to take than that first kiss. The “movieness” of it is pleasurably reassuring. It carries us along — out of our skins and out of our minds. Not like the first shot which, by giving us time to wonder about just what was going on, put the whole scary mess of teen sex in our laps. Made us uncomfortable by forcing us to be aware of ourselves watching something that’s forbidden.

Is this art or exploitation? And who’s been caught looking?

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Don’t say it’s just Larry Clark, the notorious Larry Clark whose photographs of adolescents fetishize the fragile glamour of young bodies yearning for obliteration.

Insistently voyeuristic, Clark’s point of view forces an uncomfortable confrontation with one’s own fascination, desire, and identification. What’s most disturbing about Clark’s work is that his subjects are, by virtue of their youth, extremely vulnerable (though I doubt that Clark, who attributes enormous power to a particular type of boy beauty, would see it that way).

What makes it great is that it claims attention for teen sexuality, or at least teen boy sexuality. It doesn’t make polite conversation about it; it puts it right in your face. “I always wanted to make the great American teenage movie,” says Clark. “The kind of film that’s real immediate, like Cassavetes’s Shadows but in 1994. I didn’t want to make a documentary. I wanted to make a film that could play in malls across America.”

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I’m sitting with Clark in a crowded Tribeca restaurant. He’s fled his loft where the air conditioner’s broken and the phone keeps ringing. The loft is too small for all the stuff it holds. The walls are covered with art: a Mike Kelley, a Cady Noland, a Richard Prince, a small Sue Williams drawing of a girl with three cocks stuffed in her mouth. Amid the clutter on another wall is a drawing by his nine-year-old daughter that says “I love you Daddy.” Clark also has a son who’s nearly 12. The children live with their mother from whom he’s divorced, but on weekends they stay with him. “I’m a good father,” he says, and I believe him although he sounds as if he suspects I might not.

Clark is a thoughtful, serious 52-year-old man with a touch of the military in his demeanor (he was drafted and sent to Vietnam in the mid ’60s). His voice is pitched low, edged with a drawl and a hint of adenoidal whine. His face is thin and craggy with deepset eyes and a long nose (the diametrical opposite of the faces he loves to photograph). His beard is scruffy, his hair clubbed back and under control. He seems a surprisingly sweet man and also a person who runs on anger. In lots of ways, Clark doesn’t compute but it’s worth noting that he seems comfortable being an adult. Even when he’s carrying a skateboard, there’s nothing kid-like about him.

We’re talking about how close Kids seems to Tulsa, Clark’s first book. Shot between 1963 and 1971 and published in ’71, it immediately established his reputation, in Vince Aletti’s phrase, “as the period’s most savage eye.” Tulsa is an insider’s look at the teenage Oklahoma drug culture (guys with needles in their arm and their dicks hanging out, guys and guns, with a couple of women thrown in for good measure). Intimate though it is, Tulsa is couched strictly in the third person. There’s no direct interaction of subject and camera, none of the I/you exchange that charges Teenage Lust — Clark’s second book, published 13 years later — and the decade of work that followed.

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“I wanted my first film to be like my first book — a straight narrative shot documentary style. When I first laid out Tulsa, I had put in pictures of people looking at the camera and then I realized that in movies, no one looks at the camera so I took all those pictures out. It was my little trick to make it look like a movie.”

In fact, Clark tried in 1970 to turn Tulsa into a movie; he found the 16mm sync rig too cumbersome to handle by himself and soon went back to his Leica. For the next 10 years, he says, he was too strung out on drugs to pick up a still camera let alone a movie camera. It was during this period that he did time for shooting a guy during a card game. Of the shooting, he says, “I was doing speed; it seemed like the right thing to do.”

In the early ’80s, he started to think seriously about making a film about the teenage experience, but none of the material he worked on panned out. By then he was married, his first child had been born. He’d somewhat cleaned up his act. Guy Trebay, who’d written a Voice cover story about Clark, remembers the photographer approaching him about writing a screenplay. Trebay says he’d go over to Clark’s loft, they’d toss around various ideas, Clark would show him tapes of Flipper.

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Clark got the idea for Kids during the summer of ’92 when he was photographing skateboarders in Washington Square Park. “It was what I called the summer of condoms. When I would go to the park, they would be giving out these condoms and all the kids had them and they were always talking about safe sex and condoms and I was convinced, they had me going so well. I was skating so I could keep up when I took pictures of them, and my son was skating a bit.

So after about six months, I’m just one of the guys, they’re just totally open and honest with me, and I find out no one is using condoms. Hence the safe sex thing is ‘Let’s have sex with a virgin.’ And when I’d say, ‘What if she gets pregnant?’ they’d just say, ‘That’s not meant to be.’ But the girls do get pregnant and they have abortions and their mothers never know. And some of them get herpes the first time they have sex. You can make a list of the things that can happen to you the first time you have sex.

“Back in ’92, when they were having the rave scene, these 14- and 15-year-old girls were coming from uptown, they were from richer families, and they’d go to these raves and take acid and mushrooms and stay out all weekend. And they’d plan these cover stories so their parents would think they were at a slumber party.

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“And so I thought, well, I’ve always wanted to make the great American teenage movie. Why not make it about what’s going on today. And when people ask me what they should take away from the film, I say that they should try to look their kids in the eye and talk to them one-on-one. I mean, I’m a parent, but parents don’t have a clue. They forget what it was like when they were kids.

“I knew skaters would be the best actors. They have a style and a presence. Everyone hates skaters so they’re forced to be tough and confrontational. They’re kicked out of every place, the police hate them. They’re kind of outlaws.”

Ten years from now, when viewers look at Kids, what I think will be most striking are the performances: the rhythms of the kids’ behavior, their contagious energy. The kids in Kids are neither the kids of sitcom nor are they much like the teen movie idols from James Dean to River Phoenix. For one thing, they’re impulsive rather than introspective. They physicalize their feelings rather than brood about them. And they’re so fast — with their bodies, with words, with emotions. They’re 17- and 18-year-olds playing 14- and 16-year-olds, which is very different from 23-year-olds playing 16-year-olds.

From the moment the film went into production, there were rumors that some of the actors were underage. According to Kids producer Cary Woods, “The casting is age appropriate. The kids in the sexual-content scenes are 17 and above. The others actors range from 13 to 72.” Woods is an experienced and savvy Hollywood professional; I doubt that he’d risk a felony charge to be in business with Clark.

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But how did Clark get such vivid performances out of non-actors? “I just know them real well and they trusted me so they were willing to relax and go with the lines. They could change a word or two if it was more comfortable, but they had to stick to the script. In a way they were like method actors, they really felt what they were doing. And because I knew them, I knew how I wanted them to be. They didn’t know, but I did. All these little bits of business, they’re things I’d seen kids do. So there was that ‘Come on, jump up and down, laugh more, keep laughing,’ whatever it takes. The tough ones were the sex scenes because it was like giggle time.”

I mention that a woman I know had been creeped out by the film because she was sure that Clark had instructed the kids in how to stick their tongues in each other’s mouths. “I think they pretty much know how to stick their tongues in each others’ mouths,” he says, laughing and blushing. “They didn’t need much coaching in the kissing department.”

I can’t tell you how odd it is to see Larry Clark blush — a guy who’s hung with teen hustlers on the Deuce, who made his camera a third party to countless sexual encounters, who can sit in a crowded restaurant and talk unselfconsciously about fucking and gang rape and incest. And it wasn’t a shameful blush, it was about openness rather than hiding. At Sundance, I’d gotten into one of those conversations about would-you-let-your-kids-see-this-film. Yes, of course I would. That is, I would if I had kids of my own, which I don’t; but, I said, I would have had qualms about letting them, these hypothetical kids, act in it. Well, there was something about seeing Clark blush that took most of the qualms away.

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Of course, it’s easy to talk about hypothetical kids. Hypothetical and invisible is how America wants its kids to be. If you want evidence of that, just look at the backlash against Kids. The film caused a stir when it was sneak-previewed at Sundance last January. Several critics, including yours truly, claimed it was extraordinary; there were also some in the audience who loathed the film. A few months later director Paul Schrader did a smart, supportive interview with Clark for Artforum. And then the dismissals started pouring in.

I admit that no one will be able to see Kids as 350 people did at Sundance — the film just coming at them with no expectations to get in the way. When I saw Kids a second time, the shock was gone and I wasn’t sure it was quite as amazing as I’d first thought. The third viewing confirmed my original take — that this film is a measure of its genre. That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film or that it says everything that can be said about adolescence — it certainly doesn’t say much about girlhood. I hope it’s not the last film about teenage sex; it’s more like the first.

It is not, however, the only teen film to cause a ruckus. Every few years, there’s a film that makes people crazy by zeroing in on what the next generation is doing: Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, A Clockwork Orange, Over the Edge, Menace II Society. Most deal with violence. Only Splendor in the Grass, which seems quaint and even silly today, risks showing the disruptive aspects of sexuality and repression.

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Kids is a cautionary tale about teenage sex in the age of AIDS. Twenty years ago, one might have labeled the connection it makes between sex and death as romantic or puritanical. Today, the connection is a fact of life. And maybe that’s why it’s taken Clark till now to make a film.

What’s important is that it comes down on the side of kids as sexual beings (although not as predatory beings — Telly is no role model) in a culture that’s desperate to deny them their sexuality. Kids doesn’t shy away from that feeling of being possessed by your own body all the time.

So to complain, as Caryn James did in a recent New York Times piece, that Kids has been “hyped to death” (compared to what? Apollo 13?) is ridiculous. Her dismissal of Kids is surprisingly obtuse. After pointlessly comparing the film to Dead End (whose lyrically photographed urban bad boys are safely asexual), James claims that Kids offers an “exaggerated depiction of a genuine problem that it doesn’t try to analyze” and that in its “least realistic choice, the characters live in a world without visible parents.”

I don’t know what kind of analysis James expects. It seemed obvious to me that the kids’ problem is precisely that their parents have made themselves invisible, have disappeared on them.

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Kids and Safe, Todd Haynes’s film about a woman with environmental illness, are both AIDS films. Perhaps the most radical American independent films of the decade, they show that American culture is lethal: it kills through isolation and alienation. It’s astonishing then that both are faulted by presumably intelligent critics for being unclear, or insufficiently analytic. How could they be any clearer, given that they’re dealing with complicated issues? And how can you demand a voice of authority in a film that’s saying authority is what sucks?

For the MPAA ratings board to slap Kids with NC-17 is to withhold agency from teenagers who are perfectly equipped to decide whether this film represents them or not. (The MPAA’s idea of a PG-13 film is Mad Love, in which teen idols Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell are runaway lovers who share a bedroom in which there are no condoms in sight. The logic here seems to be that being explicit about fucking would be more damaging to teenage viewers than implicitly promoting unsafe sex.)

To dismiss Kids on the grounds that it reflects only the voyeurism and perversity of Larry Clark (the line of some sophisticates) is to read the movie solely through Clark’s autobiographical Teenage Lust and the photographic work he’s exhibited since then. Yes, there’s a parallel between Telly’s fixation on scoring virgins and boasting about it to his friends and Clark’s obsession with taking and exhibiting photos of teenage dick. But Telly is at an age when he believes that sexuality is determined by where he puts his dick. Clark’s photographic work suggests that sexuality is a more layered, precarious affair.

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What I don’t admire in those photographs is that they intentionally provoke a question about where the photographer puts his dick, and then, by evading the answer, leaves us feeling uncool or overly moralistic for being troubled about the possible slippage of art into life. What I love about them is their expression of impossible desire — the desire not merely to possess an object but to crawl inside it and become it.

But Kids is not Teenage Lust. Kids is no more voyeuristic than your average Truffaut film. Clark just takes a closer look at more explicit behavior than Truffaut ever dared. If Clark’s photographs are more about Clark than the objects of his camera, then Kids is more about the kids on the screen — if for no other reason than these non-actors haven’t the skill to sustain in front of the camera anyone’s fantasy but their own. Which is why Clark chose them in the first place.

The other answer to the charge that Kids is about middle-aged men (Clark, executive producer Gus Van Sant, distributors Harvey and Bob Weinstein) projecting their fantasies on young boys is that Kids is as much Harmony Korine’s film as it is Larry Clark’s. Clark couldn’t have made Kids if he hadn’t found Harmony.

Harmony met Clark about three years ago when, says Harmony, “I was still a kid.” Harmony still seems like a kid — closer to a 16-year-old than to the 22-year-old that he actually is. He’s so much like a kid — some genius kid — that it seems ridiculous to refer to him by his last name. Hence, Harmony.

They met when Clark was photographing skateboarders in Washington Square. Harmony was a serious skater for five or six years, which, because he appears so fragile, is hard to imagine. Harmony started riffing to Clark about movies and photography. He told him about a 35-page script he’d written about a kid whose father took him to a prostitute on his 13th birthday. “The kid’s father was rubbing his ass and stuff,” says Harmony, eager to fill me in on all the gory details. Harmony sent Clark the script.

Months later, Clark asked him if he wanted to write a movie about skaters. He told Harmony that he wanted the movie to be about a kid whose way of having safe sex is to only fuck virgins and for there to be something about HIV. Harmony wrote it in three weeks to prove to himself that he could do it. He showed Clark pages along the way. Once it was finished, he says, Clark never asked him to change anything. The script that went into preproduction is exactly the script that’s on the screen minus a few lines here and there — an anomaly in the world of feature filmmaking.

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Even critics of the film admit that Harmony has an ear for kidspeak. But what’s radical about Kids is its bare-bones minimalist structure, which, being the modernist artist — as opposed to the Hollywood hack — he is, Harmony leaves out in the open for all to see. Kids follows a loose-knit group of New York teens through a single hot summer day. There are three main characters: Telly, who dubs himself “the virgin surgeon” ; Jennie, who lost her virginity to Telly and has just discovered that she’s gotten HIV from him; and Casper, Telly’s best friend, a skateboard ace who just wants to be as stoned as one can get without putting a needle in his arm. Telly’s desire for fresh flesh twined with Jennie’s need to find Telly before he strikes again make up the through-line of the film. But it’s Casper who commits the final unconscionable act and in so doing is bound to Telly and Jennie in a ghostly triangle.

After he finished Kids, Harmony wrote two more scripts: Ken Park, which Clark will direct, and Gummo, which he’s going to direct himself. Ken Park, says Clark, is about the interaction between kids and their parents. And Gummo, well, Harmony would rather not talk about Gummo until its done. Cary Woods plans to put Gummo into production this fall, budgeted at about $1 million, with Ken Park to follow. Harmony will shoot in the Midwest with an entirely different crew from the Kids crew. He needs to separate to insure that Gummo is his alone.

If truth be told, Kids is a little too linear for Harmony’s taste. He wrote it that way because it was for Larry; Ken Park‘s a little looser but it still has a story, he explains. But Gummo, he says, is going to be like nothing ever made before: “I think you should put everything you love in a film. Why do you have to connect one thing to another?”

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Among the things that Harmony loves: the Marx Brothers, the Shaggs, Linda Manz, Tristam Shandy, Godard’s Germany Nine Zero 90, a recording of Daniel Johnston where he sounds like he’s having a nervous breakdown, things that have mistakes in them. The best performance he ever saw was given by his high school acting teacher who had cerebral palsy and got up in class and played King Lear.

Radically different personalities, Korine and Clark have a few things in common. They were both runty kids. Neither are native New Yorkers, but the city is embedded in their work. Both grew up in households where the camera was a professional tool. Clark’s mother was a baby photographer; he used to assist her, going door to door, trying to get parents to pay $10.95 to make their child immortal. “It’s called kidnapping,” he says dryly. Korine’s father was a documentary filmmaker. In the ’70s, he was involved in a respected independent TV series called South Bound.

Harmony is very evasive about his family background. When I first met him, he told me he traveled with his father in a carnival, which is in a way true. His father was making a film about carnivals at the time. On a second meeting, when I tell him I found out who his parents are, he says simply that he didn’t want anyone to think he got where he is because his parents had film connections. Not to worry, Harmony, regional documentarians don’t have connections.

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Once the truth is out, he talks about his father with affection. He says he respects his parents for understanding that he needed to be on his own. When he was in his early teens, he came to New York to live with his grandmother. He wrote Kids in her apartment. Now he has an apartment on the edge of Soho (near Supreme, the shop for true skateboarders) that he shares with his girlfriend, Chloe Sevigny, who plays Jennie in Kids. They seem like best friends who can’t keep their hands off each other. “This is the first time,” he says, “I’ve been self-sufficient.”

A Ritalin kid, Harmony says he’s never slept more than an hour at a time. His parents used to rent enough videotapes for him to watch all night. I’d think this was a huge lie except that it’s the only way he could have seen as many films as he has. He prefers, however, to view films in theaters. He figured out how to write scripts from watching films. But he’s not interested in making films about films, or using them as a screen. He’s open about what moves him in the real world. Forget Quentin Tarantino. Welcome to post-postmodernism. Authenticity is back in the mix.

Cary Woods informs me that Harmony and Larry have each made a music video for the Kids soundtrack. “I didn’t want to tell you,” says Harmony, “because I hate music videos. They’re just commercials. But this is more of a documentary. It’s about a kid with epilepsy and his mother.” The song is by Daniel Johnston, a Texas singer-songwriter, who, Harmony says, is obsessed with Casper the Friendly Ghost. “He’s written 40 songs about Casper.” The character Casper in Kids is named in honor of Johnston.

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Harmony’s video has no fast editing, no clips from the movie, no shots of the band. He doesn’t think MTV will play it. It seems, like Harmony, ahead of its time, which means it’s exactly on the mark. It’s also extremely moving. The epileptic kid is a metaphor for teenage turmoil, for the feeling that you’re jumping out of your skin.

An inveterate maker of inventories, Harmony has compiled a list of over a thousand coming-of-age movies. Some of his favorites: O.C. & Stiggs, Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl…, Alan Clarke’s Christine, Pixote, Los Olvidados. None of them, however, are the great teenage movie. “I don’t think it’s been made yet.” “Not Kids?” I ask. “No,” he says matter-of-factly. “It might take a trilogy.”


Harmony Korine On James Franco’s Artistic Fearlessness And Oral Skills

Unflappable provocateur Harmony Korine penned the explosive teens-without-borders epic Kids in 1995 and later wrote equally scandalous cult items like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. But they’re Toy Story 3 next to Spring Breakers, his racy romp with girls spring breaking into criminal madness with the help of a silver-plated dealer/rapper/weirdo named Alien, brilliantly played by James Franco. It’s a long way from Oz, but writer/director Korine, who’s now 40, was very accessible for an illuminating convo.

Hi, Harmony. I loved the movie. But do you want your films to be love/hate or love/love? That’s an interesting question. I’ve never had love/love. I never made a film to be taken one way. I understand all reactions.

Someone complained to me about the film’s repetitions of images and dialogue, but I felt those were obviously there to create a hypnotic state. Yes, it was meant to be a hallucinatory or drug experience, with a physical element to it and a transcendence. I was trying to chase a certain kind of energy to get something more inexplicable.

Are you afraid you might seem to be aligned with conservatives who moan that kids are out of control? I don’t worry about anything, to be honest with you. I know what I’m trying to do and where I’m trying to go. The interpretations or the alignments, that’s not my deal.

Conversely, does part of you get off on showing kids being sexy? Not really. It’s more that I was interested in this specific cultural event. I wanted to use it as a starting off point. Spring break is only in the film for a short period of time. It becomes more about our gangster culture. In Florida, I found a violence in the pathology of the shadows.

Is that specific to Florida? No, it’s America. But in Florida, the ambiance of the place seemed really strong and toxic. In St. Petersburg, everyone felt like they were in the witness protection program. Like they’d been lured by the sun.

I go three times a year. Why did you cast teen idol Selena Gomez as the conscience of the piece? That’s the part she wanted to play. I thought it made sense. She’s representative of pop mythology. She’s connected to that culture. At the same time, she was perfect for the character. She was bold and wanted to try something more extreme, a different kind of acting.

Was the scene where Franco menacingly strokes her face a homage to Cape Fear? I wasn’t thinking of that, though I did always love that scene. But I felt we needed an extra moment where Franco messes with Selena’s head. When I saw that room with the pit bulls, gangsters, and weed smoke, it came to me. I told Franco what I wanted, he prepared, and then I brought Selena in and told her to react to what happens.

I don’t think Justin Bieber ever touched her that way. [laughs] Would you say Franco is artistically fearless? Yes. He’s fearless. He’s a maniac. He’s attacking everything and just going for it.

Wait, I mean the actor, not the character. Yeah, I’m talking about the actor. He’s process-oriented—making it up as he goes along. It’s something you don’t really see with actors. They become so corporatized. They’ve been drained of any personality. They’re zombies. Franco’s doing his thing, and even if you don’t like it, you have to admire that he’s doing it.

I do. When he went down on the gun, I was very impressed with his oral skills. Me too. He looked really comfortable with that.

How about the scene where he catalogues all his belongings? (“I got Scarface on repeat, y’all. I got Calvin Klein Escape…”) We were riffing in rehearsals and we started to expand it. I like to put chemicals in a bottle and shake it up and document the explosion. At heart, he’s a character actor. For sure, the Alien is the best thing he’s ever done, acting wise. It’s going to be hard for him to outdo this one.

How did you help him with his characterization? I wanted the character to be a violent, cosmic sociopath, not rooted in any one thing—a cultural shapeshifter who has a strange poetic side and a hyperviolent side. I’d send him everything from rap songs to videotapes of girls in 7-Eleven parking lots getting in fistfights. We’d drive through the ‘hood and I’d point and say, “That’s the house you grew up in” or ‘That’s where you cook it up.’ He’d sit there, not saying anything. Then I’d see him put his teeth in and his hair on, and I was like “Holy shit, man, he’s got it.”

Do you find him sexy? Did you want to pounce? I find his character charismatic. Sexy is something else. I was never trying to pounce on him. He does it with a gun! [laughs]

Your wife, Rachel, plays a spring breaker. She’s 26. Does she ever say anything that reminds you how much younger she is? It happened more when I first met her. Now, in a way, she seems older than me.

What are you on? You seem so calm. I don’t do any narcotics anymore. I just kind of do my thing and dream it all up.

Do you practice any spirituality? Just through my movies.

Read more Michael Musto at La Dolce Musto


Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers Are Girls Gone Godard

All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” goes Jean-Luc Godard’s quip. Add to that a few more girls and their bikinis and you have the rough formula for Harmony
Korine’s Spring Breakers, which looks like the most expensive Girls Gone Wild video ever made and feels like a grindhouse
version of a 1950s beach-party movie: Where the Boys Are Pimps and Gangstas. Or Gidget Goes to Hell. As in the best work by Korine—the agile agent provocateur whose credits include the screenplay for Kids and, most recently, the shot-on-VHS vagabond vaudeville Trash Humpers—it is impossible to say where exploitation ends and deconstruction begins.

The setting of Spring Breakers is the Florida coast, where several centuries of explorers—from Ponce de Léon to 2 Live Crew—have come seeking the fount of eternal youth, and where huddled masses of frostbitten coeds migrate at the end of each winter in pursuit of sun, sex, and their own quasi-immortality. Korine shows from the start that he’s fully plugged into spring break’s mythic
dimension, opening the film with a long, slo-mo montage of crotch grabbing, ass shaking, beer-soaked boob jiggling, and lips doing the most indecent things to Popsicles, all framed against the glittering Gulf of Mexico. It’s shot in anamorphic widescreen and retina-burning fluorescent colors, courtesy of the French cinematographer Benoît Debie, a veteran collaborator of Gaspar Noé. Korine turns the sequence into a Boschian invitation to decadence, a sun-soaked postcard from Caligula’s Rome.

What we’re seeing may be the fantasy of four undergraduate friends—Brit, Faith, Candy, and Cotty—jonesing for a primal escape. In a casting coup, the girls are played by Disney and Teen People princesses—erstwhile Zac Efron and
Justin Bieber paramours Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, along with Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson—who don’t so much toy with their good-girl images as set them ablaze. (They’re joined by Korine’s real-life wife, Rachel, who has no such reputation to implode.) Never mind who plays whom, loss of identity among the gyrating spring-break mass being one of the movie’s dominant themes. These Cinderellas all dream of the Florida ball (or, given the lewd drawings we see two of them making in their history-class notebooks, balls), but a cash-flow problem threatens to leave them stranded on campus. So, with little compunction, they decide to hold up
a local diner, with squirt guns and ski masks and a Godardian resolve to transform life into cinema: “Just fuckin’ pretend it’s a video game. Act like you’re in
a movie or something.” What follows is nothing if not bravura moviemaking—a robbery filmed in one continuous take from the p.o.v. of the getaway car as it
circles the outside of the building.

The newly flush quartet then hightail it to St. Petersburg Beach, where they meet-cute the aptly named Alien, a corn-rowed, elaborately tattooed hip-hop star with a sideline in drug and arms dealing, and a mouth full of silver teeth that glisten like a werewolf’s. Alien is played by James Franco, who is at first unrecognizable. Franco is said to have modeled his portrayal on the real underground Florida rapper Dangeruss (a/k/a Russ Curry), and while one doubts Spring Breakers will provoke any Argo-like debates over how accurately art imitates life, there’s no question that Alien represents the apotheosis of Franco’s hydra-headed
career as matinee idol, doctoral candidate, soap star, and gallery artist. It’s a full-blown Method performance (with an emphasis on “meth”) that can also be seen as a knowing lampoon of Method acting. In any case, it’s a consistent astonishment. Franco and Korine are so suited to collaboration, it’s amazing it didn’t happen sooner—two prankster artists whose straight-faced self-parody can skirt the sublime. You leave the theater with Alien’s growling mantra, “spring break forevah,” echoing in your head
like a cantata.

Heralded as Korine’s most conventional, accessible film (mainly because
of its cast), Spring Breakers may in fact
be his most experimental. Particularly in the final third, working with the editor Douglas Crise (Babel), he achieves something close to a sustained psychotropic state. Time splinters into a subjective chronology of flashbacks and foreshadowing, all set to a driving electronic-dance-music soundtrack by composer Cliff Martinez (who previously created the retro-electronica score for Drive) and EDM guru Skrillex. Punctuating the trance are vignettes that could have sprung from no other artistic consciousness: a pool-hall of perdition where
Korine mingles his cast with some of St. Pete’s real, Bukowskian locals; the girls’ falling-down-drunk, parking-lot rendition of Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time”; and the pièce de résistance, Franco’s piano-ballad cover of Spears’s “Everytime,” delivered with startling sincerity. At such moments, Spring Breakers seems to be holding a funhouse mirror up to the face of youth-driven pop culture, leaving us uncertain whether to laugh, recoil in horror, or marvel at its strange beauty. All I knew is I couldn’t wait to see it a second time.

Slideshow: 18 Spring Break Movies to Watch If You’re Not Going on Spring Break


Harmony Korine Explains the “Beauty in Horror” of Spring Break

To most of the world, spring break seems like a lot of fun, but people who live in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or South Padre Island understand the dark side. Damn college kids pass through for a week to drink liquor, trash the streets, and wear T-shirts announcing, “I survived spring break,” gleefully blind to the fact that they are the very thing that makes South Beach difficult to survive.

But Harmony Korine, writer and director of Kids, Gummo, and Trash Humpers, sees an even darker side. There’s a lot of evil out there in the streets, and evil can be one seductive mofo.

His new movie, Spring Breakers, starring James Franco and Selena Gomez, might look like a flashy, skin-oriented good time, but below the surface, it’s much more sinister.

“For years, I have been collecting spring break imagery. I wasn’t sure what I was using it for,” he said. “Just pictures of kids on the beach going crazy, tearing it up. And then I started to see there was this connection in the details, almost like a hidden language or something. It served as almost like a weird poetry in it, and so I kind of liked that. Then I had this image of girls in bikinis on the beach robbing tourists, and that’s how it started.”

Growing up, Korine always saw spring break as a time when young people could get away with anything and be someone they weren’t in a glorious haze of sweet, sticky alcohol and anonymity.

“I grew up in Tennessee around the kind of spring break culture that was something everyone looked forward to. Going to Florida and destroying things, having sex, and pretending like it never happened. It was just part of the tapestry at the time,” he said. “I just kind of liked the idea of it as a backdrop or even in some ways more as metaphor.”

It’s a metaphor one could also apply to modern pop and hip-hop music, which influenced Korine while he was writing. These things may be shiny, vibrant, and colorful on the outside, but dig a little deeper, and the content can be murderous and twisted.

“[Spring Breakers] is not really a spring break film per se,” he said. “It uses it as a backdrop, but it’s more about this kind of mythology and the sinister nature of things. Once these girls meet the Alien character and are introduced to this whole other crime world — the world of the trap, and the gangs and the drugs and the money and the sex — it’s about how all the things coalesce and become in some ways like a spiritual experience for them.”

Once the spring breakers, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, let themselves be seduced by Alien, James Franco’s thuggish, drug-slinging lead, they lose themselves in the madness. It stops being about sunshine and beaches, and audiences are along for the ride.

“It’s more about what happens when you’re on the back roads, past the tourist spots,” he said, “the dilapidated beach houses, the drug runners, the kind of beach noir, the kind of ambiance and undertow. That was more what I was interested in, that feeling.”

Korine has always been attracted to this double nature of reality. His earlier films, while highly entertaining and honest, are at times uncomfortable to watch. For sure, Spring Breakers continues in that tradition.

“I just always thought that’s the most interesting thing, the most intriguing characters and story line,” he said, “to have a kind of moral ambiguity or even a kind of visual ambiguity, things that you’re both attracted to and repulsed by. I never felt like life was one way, that people are either all bad or all good. There’s also beauty in horror. It’s more confusing, but it’s also more interesting.”



“There is more life in a skateboarder skating down the street than in a hundred Hollywood actors,” Larry Clark once said. So, it’s not hard to imagine that the director of gritty skate-punk films, such as Kids (1995) and Wassup Rockers (2005), would have a killer skateboard collection. The good people at Boo-Hooray recently got their hands on his decks, posters, stickers, and T-shirts (labels include Fuct, Real, and Supreme), from the late 1980s to the present, as well as outfits and boards from Wassup Rockers and Marfa Girl (2012). After showing them at the L.A. Book Fair at MOCA, they now bring an expanded version of the exhibit Larry Clark Stuff to Milk Studios for a short run ending today. Limited quantities of his books, boards, posters, and ephemera will be on sale. And speaking of Clark, mark your calendars for March 12 when his regular collaborator Harmony Korine will be at the Museum of the Moving Image ( for a preview screening and discussion of his new film, Spring Breakers.

Wed., March 6, 6 p.m.; Thursdays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: March 6. Continues through March 10, 2013


Once Every Day Catches the Director’s Cues

At long last, a film for people who enjoyed Godard’s Film Socialisme but wished it wasn’t so conventional! All kidding aside, the influence of Uncle Jean can be felt in Richard Foreman’s jarring sound design (some of which should be familiar to spectators who have experienced his avant-garde theater work) and—even more so—in his use of on-screen text. Eschewing narrative, Once Every Day gathers a group of performers in a Buffalo warehouse and has them execute a series of exercises and tasks. Where almost all films hide the signs of blocking, Foreman calls attention to his instructions to the actors, leaving them on-screen, although the directions themselves are sometimes borderline inaudible. Once Every Day constantly makes us aware that we’re watching a film; you could call it Brechtian were there any drama to distract us from. Instead, Foreman offers up a series of cool video textures. He seems nostalgic for the snow and grain of low-grade DV, simulating the fuzz-o-rama of a third-generation VHS dupe without going as far as Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. The only clue regarding an overriding concept comes from an intertitle about a Chinese herb called “O-X,” which, if taken daily for a year, creates unbreakable bonds between people. Are the actors of Once Every Day on O-X? Even if its ultimate meaning remains elusive, the film is enthralling.



One would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who has done more to champion underground film than the self-proclaimed “raving maniac of cinema” Jonas Mekas. His long list of achievements include pioneering the ”film diary” form, his Movie Journal column for the Voice, and co-founding several institutions dedicated to avant-garde filmmaking. One of those institutions is, of course, Anthology Film Archives, which is celebrating his birthday this month with Jonas Mekas Turns 90!, a look at his lesser-known works with introductions from scholars, critics, and filmmakers. It starts tonight with his most recent feature My Paris Movie, his tribute to the City of Light. Upcoming highlights include his short Web video of director Harmony Korine, a video record of Allen Ginsberg’s wake in 1997, and the NY premiere of his 2005 documentary on Martin Scorsese.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Dec. 17. Continues through Dec. 23, 2012


Only the Young

Faced with adolescent skateboarders in an atrophied suburban desert town, how do moviegoers not brace for the worst? With the entire filmography of Harmony Korine, the Jackass legacy, and Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys all extolling the sorrowful but ass-kicking doom of youth adrift, which nightmare
algorithm of drug use, violence, and sexual peril are the kids (and viewers) in for?
Fortunately, Only the Young is a lush beauty of a documentary whose youth face the danger of un-coolness: They skateboard for Jesus and dress up as twin Gandalfs. The leads are appealing and funny. Garrison is a smiley charmer with adorable dork edge; Kevin is soulful and intense, a boy who wears his heart right on his face; Skye is an assertive young woman whose dry
observations about the guys make her a keen audience surrogate. All have lousy poker faces, so we feel the threats tugging at their equilibrium, the social stigmas, and the difficulties in building any relationships, platonic or not. The doc trades some of its prelapsarian magic for social realism when it examines Skye’s difficult family situation. Skye deserves her own movie: She’s resourceful, sagacious, and understandably frustrated with the kid preoccupations of her two compatriots. Only the Young captures the lyricism of late childhood and the bewilderment of the road ahead. As for the skate footage, it’s shot for pure glory and for all the world, like Wild China or Blue Planet, beautiful beings struggling in exotic habitats: abandoned houses, red-gold bluffs, and run-down mini-golf courses.



That pummeling throb and androgynous vocal shudder coming out of your downstairs neighbor’s dorm room might well belong to Brian Aubert, the guitarist-singer-songwriter-bandleader of LA’s Silversun Pickups. The best parts of the quartet’s new Neck of the Woods is when Aubert backs off from his darkly inscrutable lyrics, which explore emotional states somewhere between Italian giallo movies and Harmony Korine films, to let one of his countless shoegaze-via-Kraut-rock riffs linger in the air for just a little less time than you’d hoped it would. A tight quartet with a big arena sound, thanks largely to monster drummer Christopher Guanlao, the Pickups strike a nice balance of self-effacement and post-Pumpkins pomposity. This is their first of two nights accompanied by indie-alterna colleagues Cloud Nothings and Atlas Genius.

Sun., Oct. 14, 8 p.m.; Mon., Oct. 15, 8 p.m., 2012


Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers Captures Nashville’s Roving Gang of Wilding Seniors

Harmony Korine, aging enfant terrible and self-proclaimed “most American” of American indies, finds his level and brings it home to Nashville with the gloriously desultory slap in the face of public taste, Trash Humpers.

Korine has proposed the film as a VHS tape found in a ditch. Most simply described, this quasi-underground, midnight-friendly, faux-primitive “artifact” documents a trio of fake geriatric bohos, outfitted in thrift-store finery with faces frozen by transparent wrinkle masks, engaging in all manner of antisocial behavior—smashing TV sets, torturing dolls, pouring dish soap on a stack of pancakes, and, most frequently, lasciviously grinding their groins against back-alley garbage bins. Often performed in wheelchairs, these activities are interspersed with the trio’s idiot cackles, singsong slogans (“Make it, make it—don’t fake it”), and doggerel chants about “three little devils [who] jumped over the wall, chopped off their heads, and murdered them all.”

Acting badly merges with bad acting, especially after Trash Humpers turns into a succession of vaudeville acts: Guest performers, including the filmmaker, entertain the three desiccated devils by using sock puppets to stage the story of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, or holding forth on the advantages to life without a head. The opposite of Korine’s relatively posh, celeb-impersonator snooze, Mr. Lonely, Trash Humpers suggests a cretinous remake of John Water’s Pink Flamingos or perhaps a musical created by the brain-eaters from the original Night of the Living Dead—and, like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, compounds its sins by pulverizing the rules of “normal” filmmaking. The cruddy video image, already oscillating between smudgy black-and-white and unstable color, is further degraded by bar rolls, drop out, skewed tracking, and stray “play” commands—and then perversely exalted by being transferred to 35mm.

A spectacle to be watched in a wino stupor (even if it did have its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival), Trash Humpers is funny from the get-go; the joke expires after 20 minutes, around the time that three hookers, having already been rhythmically spanked, serenade the three devils with a toneless version of “Silent Night.” The movie, however, continues for another hour of inane nursery rhymes, mock splatter interludes, documentary dog-teasing, and, signaling Trash Humpers‘ direction, a succession of unfunny “hate” jokes programmatically sans punch line. It lasts too long, if not long enough to send the viewer muttering into the street.

Sign of the times: Trash Humpers is all about free expression, but Korine’s transgressions seem a lot less expansive and liberating than Waters or Smith’s did back during the invention of identity politics. Flaming Creatures and Pink Flamingos bracketed the existence of a counterculture; Trash Humpers appears long after that counterculture’s demise, in a context where the exercise of freedom itself has become a crabbed and paltry act. (Would that the Tea Party scolds really were flaming tea-baggers!) Rather than self-actualizing, libidinal ecstasy, Trash Humpers projects a cranky resignation to the world as it is; still, it’s picturesque.

The outskirts of Nashville might as well be the ruins of a vast mental hospital, with former inmates wandering through its deserted dumps and dead-end streets. As bucolic as the image of a discarded toilet reposing in a field of weeds, Trash Humpers revels in the melancholy beauty of random photographic reproduction—a pair of pink stretch pants illuminating the debris in an overgrown shed or, lit from within, the blue awning that adorns a featureless concrete slab. It’s ultimately less a celebration of impulse behavior than a celebration of the parodic impulse to record.