harmony korine talks to us over skype about taking risks in the real world

Twenty years after the iconoclastic Kids was released, "Harmony Korine: In The Presence Of The Artist" opens at The Pompidou Centre this week, we took some time to Skype with the iconic moviemaker and here’s what went down.

by Tish Weinstock
09 October 2017, 3:57pm

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

"Kids today are such fucking pussies!" exclaims Harmony Korine over Skype. "They're learning things and experiencing things through the screen." It's raining in Miami where Harmony is currently based, the connection is patchy, and my screen (the irony) keeps freezing mid-sentence, bending the iconic moviemaker's face into impossible distortions. "Is that better?" He says, bringing his laptop indoors. Much.

We're discussing his upcoming retrospective at the Pompidou Centre, which opens in Paris this week. It's a pretty major moment in Harmony's career, in that it's the first time his work — his entire interdisciplinary body of work dating back to his teenage years (films, photographs, music videos, adveritisments, installations, writings, paintings, artwork) — will be housed under one roof, and quite a prestigious one at that. Is this something he ever expected to happen? "I don't really think about stuff like that," he says modestly. "I just think about it when it happens. But I'm really excited about it."

It's been over two decades since the release of Harmony's ground-breaking, trail-blazing, rulebook-ripping movie Kids; a disturbingly raw and voyeuristic portrait of a bunch of underage youths living, loving, and loathing in New York. Shocking, exhilarating, and appalling all rolled into one, it divided critics. The New York Times praised it as a "wakeup call to the modern world" while The Washington Post dubbed it "child pornography disguised as a cautionary documentary." Either way it was something nobody had ever seen before.

"It feels like a lifetime ago," Harmony reminisces, "but it also feels like an accurate description of the time. All those memories that I associate with New York in the 90s, all those characters; there was a wildness to it, this unhinged, unknowing energy that enveloped the making of that movie."

"All those memories that I associate with New York in the 90s, all those characters; there was a wildness to it, this unhinged, unknowing energy that enveloped the making of that movie."

Born in Bolinas, California, Harmony and his family moved to Nashville when he was just a kid. The son of a PBS documentary filmmaker, he spent his formative years immersed in the world of cinema, watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean Luc Godard on repeat. He was 19 years old when he first met Larry Clark, a then respected photographer with an eye for explicit extremes. Back then Harmony used to walk around the city carrying copies of movies he'd made with his grandma's phone number written on the side of them, handing them out to people he recognized. Larry was one of them. "Larry had never directed a film and I'd never written a movie. I knew I wanted it to be great. We had a specific idea of how we wanted it to look and feel. It had to be of that moment, of that generation." That was the great thing about Harmony; he was genuinely, authentically of that moment. Sex, drugs, skate parks, the depressive boredom and rag-tag rebellion of youth — that was his life.

"I had seen Harmony around Washington Square Park and Astor Place but I'd never actually talked to him," recalls actor Leo Fitzpatrick, who played the HIV-riddled virgin surgeon, Telly, in Kids. "He had bleached hair dressed like a raver and hung out with another kid named Kid America. They both wanted to be filmmakers and were nerdy beyond all belief but everyone knew they were smart."

After the release of Kids, Harmony's career blew up. He was suddenly being invited to all these Hollywood parties and red carpet events, and even appeared on the Letterman Show, where he sat fidgeting in an oversized suit, deflecting the presenter's quick quips with even quicker ones.

His next movie Gummo was even more radical, eschewing traditional narrative in favor of a disorienting, druggy sequence of events. Where once he threatened to jump out of a plane rather than talk about his 1997 directorial debut, over Skype Harmony is more forthcoming. "It's my favorite thing I've ever done," he exclaims, his pride emanating through the screen. "The experimentation, the flow, the whole idea of the movie set the groundwork for everything else. I really love that film."

Set in a small tornado-stricken town in Ohio, Gummo follows a bunch of bored teens as they go about killing cats and sniffing glue, desperately trying to fulfil their nihilistic lives. Once again, Harmony cast the people around him, including his then-girlfriend Chloë Sevigny and actually filmed the entire thing in Nashville, where he grew up, lending a special kind of authenticity to his already gritty realism.

By the late 90s/early noughties Harmony was at the pinnacle of his fame. Gummo had been honored at the Venice Film Festival, earning him the respect of Hollywood heavyweights like Werner Herzog and Gus Van Sant, while outside the industry Harmony and his circle were defining the era with their avant-garde aesthetic and inherent cult cool.

After Gummo, came the near indecipherable Julien Donkey-Boy, a jolting film about a boy with schizophrenia, followed by Fight Harm, which was basically just footage of Harmony going around getting beat up whilst high on Quaaludes. The film was eventually abandoned, but Harmony had built a reputation for himself as a true visionary, the enfant terrible of the filmmaking industry.

The 90s raged on, and so did Harmony's drug taking — along with that of Justin Pierce who played Casper in Kids, and Harold Hunter who played Harold, who both succumbed to addiction. After various stints in rehab, Harmony got sober, moved back to Nashville, got married, and had a kid — but that hasn't quelled his talent for capturing the finest moments of youth culture.

Spring Breakers is his 2012 film about four college girls whose free-spirited pursuit of adventure takes them to nihilistic and murderous extremes. It's a contemporary film noir shot in lurid color, merging handheld camerawork with kaleidoscopic montage. Starring two ex-Disney stars — Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — alongside Ashley Benson, James Franco ,and Harmony's wife Rachel, the film is once again an accurate description of a moment: designer drugs, spring break, iPhones, hot ass girls, Disney stars gone bad, EDM, house parties organized at the swipe of a button, the explosion of social media. It also featured Gucci Mane, The ATL twins, and a soundtrack by Skrillex.

Made nearly 20 years apart Kids and Spring Breakers offer wildly different depictions of youth. Where Kids is a low-fi gritty portrait of stoned skaters, naïve girls, and the impromptu highs of hanging out on the street, Spring Breakers is a glossy snapshot of girls gone wild and lives being led through a screen. So, what's changed? "Youth culture and culture in general has exploded," says Harmony, sounding somewhat disappointed. "Everything is starting to feel like a content vortex; it's become more about the speed of dissemination, rather than what that content is. The good thing is that it's immediate and everyone's connected to each other, but that's also a bad thing. There's very little mystery, digest, or resonance. It's much harder to put your faith in something that's become so disposable and so quick."

"Youth culture and culture in general has exploded. Everything is starting to feel like a content vortex; it's become more about the speed of dissemination, rather than what that actually content is."

Indeed, thanks to the internet and its "I want everything and I want it now" culture, the very few subcultural scenes, styles, and trends that do surface are assimilated to mainstream culture at the click of a button. And how can something be underground if it's already gone viral? How can it be subversive if it's already been commoditized by big brands and sold back to youths with some fat markup?

"That's what I mean when I say kids today are such fucking pussies," he rages. "Even the ones that are disrupting the norm — it's just a pose, an affect as opposed to real rebellion or anything based in lived in experience. There's no perspective or point of view, no aesthetics attached to it. People are just documenting their food or all the parties they weren't invited to. That said, I'll still see something or hear something that breaks through. Everything is bullshit and then once in a while something stands out."

And what of the great Harmony Korine? After two decades of fucking shit up, of turning culture upside down and inside out, and coming out the other side with a giant retrospective at one of Paris's most prestigious institutions to boot, where does he go from here? "I want to make stuff that moves you through you," he says, his eyes gleaming. "Things that have a physical component, that smash you and then dissolve you. I want to make things that are everything and nothing, that are violent and then put you to sleep. I just want to entertain myself, which I've done ever since I was a little kid." Yup, he hasn't even scratched the surface.

Harmony Korine
Spring Breakers
Centre Pompidou