Often the biggest dreamers get hurt the most

Harmony Korine; poet of the useless and Werner Herzog’s alter ego

“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

                                                                                                             Werner Herzog 

To most of you the name Harmony Korine will probably not sound very familiar as it didn’t to me about two weeks ago, when a dear friend of mine sent me a series of short videos of the man. Mostly with him being interviewed by the iconic talk show host David Letterman.

Turns out I knew Harmony after all, but had repressed this memory.

And for good reason. 

What struck me most watching these interviews, was how different, awkward yet supremely confident and nonplussed Harmony comes across as. As my friend put it:

“most probably on the spectrum, Asperger potential with definite signs of attention deficit disorder but clearly somewhat of a genius”

He couldn’t stay on topic for long. And Letterman gets completely rattled in all of the interviews with the then 19 year old beatnik writer and director. In one interview Letterman even makes an under the belt remark about Harmony’s mental health, which if done today, would’ve seen Mr Letterman cancelled a thousand fold, let alone sued up the wazoo. According to Hollywood legend, Letterman also infamously kicked Korine off the show when he was due to appear together with Meryl Streep. Whether or not the reasoning which he confessed to James Franco years later was accurate, I don’t know, you be the judge

To many Hollywood insiders, Harmony Korine is one of the most iconic and groundbreaking filmmakers of all time whilst simultaneously being one of the least known outside of the inner sanctum. You can kind of see this by how vehemently Franco tries to protect him in the above clip. Since directing his first feature length film, a movie you’ve probably never heard of called Gummo (equally voted among the “most boring” and “worst” films of the year when it came out,) Harmony has gone on to make pretty big films starring some real Hollywood heavyweights including Spring Breakers with Selena Gomez and James Franco and The Beach Bum, with Isla Fisher, Matthew McConnaughey, Jonah Hill, Martin Lawrence, Zac Effron and Snoop Dogg (yeah that Hollywood heavyweight!) Rumour has it he had to turn away some pretty big names begging to be in his latest film. But yeah, this is just rumours which Hollywood is rife with. That place is a rumour itself, an insane one at that, as Ray Bradbury beautifully captured in his book A Graveyard for Lunatics:

“I wish I had known him, but he was just another shadow outside my screen door and I already had a sufficiency of shadows in.” “So, yeah, insane people give me hope. Courage to go on being sane and alive, always with the cure at hand, should I ever tire and need it: madness.” “Insane people give me hope."

When he was 13, Harmony legally changed his name to “Harmful” thinking that it would make him sound tougher in his neighbourhood where street fights broke out like popcorn popping at a cinema’s soda stand. It did not, in fact Harmony got beaten up more after the change in name. But all these beat-downs are what made him the film director he turned into. 

He wrote the script to the movie Kids, which was definitely one of the most formative, and at the same time traumatising, films I have ever watched. In fact it was so traumatic, that I can still now vividly recall certain scenes in that movie as if I had watched the film yesterday (I watched it over a quarter of a century ago.) I was 19 when the film came out, and having been raised during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and early 90s, I remember one mantra we were taught by one particularly enthusiastic sex ed teacher when I was about 13 - after practicing putting a condom on a banana, she just stopped and  looked at us and said:

“Masturbate, don’t fornicate” 

As with the movie Kids, that mantra stayed firmly embedded in my consciousness my whole life. The movie is about these street kids in New York City, who go around skating, robbing bodegas and partying. The main character has HIV and knowingly goes around trying to infect teenage girls at any opportunity he can get. The younger the better, and virgins “are the best” in his mind. He openly brags to his friends about this and the movie culminates at one party where his best friend essentially rapes a sleeping girl whom he had had sex with previously, hereby giving his friend HIV.

I know, it sounds messed up if you haven’t seen it and even doubly so if you have. Well it was. Especially to a sensitive and impressionable teenager as I was back then, still am, in many ways. The movie combined all the things that were “cool” and taboo back then: New York City, skating, rebellion, stealing, sex, promiscuity, deceipt, HIV - all of the stuff that made my young brain blow up with curiosity. 

That was my first encounter with the genius that is Harmony Korine - one that I both forgot and vividly remembered at the same time. A strange dichotomy of consciousness. Burying the trauma as well as remembering it. The movie went on to win many awards, including Cannes best newcomer. Allegedly Harmony wrote the movie in three days after a chance encounter with the would be director Larry Clarke, whilst skating at Washington Square park in lower Manhattan. It was the first film Clarke had ever directed and it was the first script Korine had ever written. Fittingly it was also the first film that Rosario Dawson had ever acted in, putting her on the map overnight. It made $20 million worldwide with a budget of just above $1 million, so not only did it hit home culturally, it was also a major success financially, especially for a first time screenwriter and director. 

At the time of its release, Newsweek wrote “the movie is called ‘Kids,’ but you'd better leave yours at home,” the New Yorker called the film “nihilistic pornography,” The New York Times called the film a “wake-up call to the modern world” and "Lord of the Flies with skateboards, nitrous oxide and hip-hop... There is no thunderous moral reckoning, only observational detachment.”

There is no reckoning, only observational detachment. I guess this is what struck me most when I saw the film and it was refreshing. It didn’t seem as much like your run of the mill Hollywood movie whose heavily superficial plotlines and thinly veiled Judeo-Christian thematics guide you along the path of morality like virtual Hansel and Gretels following their breadcrumbs, this movie was different, it let you make up your own mind in terms of right and wrong. It was more like real life. It felt like part documentary and part chaos caught on film. And I guess this is what his genius is, as is Werner Herzog’s. To present reality as it is, no filter, no make up. Just a crass real world portrayal; a crudely bleak, no holds barred, no punches spared cinematic reflection of nature and our alien place in this hostile environment geared toward devouring us wholesale as a species. Hello Covid! 

Poets of the useless

What some film critics often lament about Harmony’s movies, is that they are too close to what Werner Herzog attempts to achieve on screen. To capture the banal and hopelessness of the world - yet to find and portray beauty also. Not an easy feat by any means. And this clearly never bothered Werner either. On the contrary, in all interviews about Korine, you can see that Werner was secretly proud to have influenced this contemporary genius of his in his movies.

It’s like Harmony provided him with a real life doppelganger, someone to mentor and guide. The prodigal son he never had. So deep was their affection, that Herzog, notoriously staunch in not appearing in films, also chose to be featured in one of Korine’s more obscure cinematic excursions, the super bizarre 2007 film Mr. Lonely.

The film’s plot is a great summation of Harmony’s worship of Werner Herzog. It loosely follows the character of a Michael Jackson impersonator who lives in Paris in relative squalor until he meets another impersonator, Marilyn Monroe. Enamoured by her  beauty and mystery, he follows her back to a commune situated in the Scottish highlands. This commune is replete with other impersonators including the pope, James Dean, Charlie Chaplin, Abraham Lincoln, Shirley Temple, Queen Elizabeth II, Madonna to name but a few. 

Werner Herzog plays a depressed and cynical priest by the name of Father Umbrillo who observes as the rest of the characters build a large stage in the anticipation that the whole world will eventually come and watch them perform. If this sounds weird, wait until you hear about the bizarre subplot that runs throughout the movie. It deals with a convent of nuns in a poorer country that never really gets identified in the film. One of the nuns goes on a mission to feed poorer areas of the country when she falls out of the plane. She miraculously survives and all the other nuns realise that God saved her because she was a good soul. The result of this is that ALL of the nuns then try to jump out of airplanes to measure the worth of their souls and prove that they are protected by god.

Just like Werner Herzog once got native Amazonians to schlepp a large steam boat over a mountain in Fitzgeraldo, Harmony actually worked with real life skydiving nuns from Spain, whom he transported to Panama to film the airplane salvation scenes.

Yes, it sounds made up, but it isn’t. Just like most of Harmony Korine and Werner Herzog’s movies. If you want to see how similar these two brains work, read this very insightful (and rare) interview Herzog does with Harmony.  

Letterman himself said “You make films with content I have never seen anywhere” - he meant this sarcastically but it’s true. Both Harmony Korine and Werner Herzog have mastered the art of classic and very original films. This can be summed up in one of the scenes from Harmony’s directorial debut Gummo in which the camera pans around this super untidy and disgusting bathroom, where in the background you notice a piece of cooked bacon sellotaped to the wall like a work of art, it is this image not the dirty state of the bathroom that lingers in your mind. Like how something disgusting could also be revered as beautiful and savoured by someone hanging it up on a wall. Beauty in disgust. A poet of the useless and banal. 

Essentially with this little scene, Harmony also predicted Maurizio Cattelan’s insane $120 000 sellotaped banana art stunt that sold at Art Basel a couple of years back, I wonder if he ever got any credit for that?

I am going to dedicate an entire article on my appreciation for Werner Herzog too, after all he made one of my top 3 movies of all time - the sublime Antarctica documentary film Encounters at the End of the World -  so don’t lament that I have taken so much air time for Korine here, there is method to the madness. 

When once asked to comment on Werner Herzog in one sentence, Harmony said:

“He is a pure artist and a maniac.”

And I fully agree here, the perfect descriptor, as if he were looking in a mirror. Werner is a real “mensch”  as the Yiddish would put it, a real human - who is so sincere in his work and vocational pursuits, that he often forgoes other human platitudes such as humour or irony. Harmony tells a story here of how Werner’s complete lack of understanding of irony led to him being duped by fake calls from Harmony, posing as a carpet salesman. It is this little gem which quite magically frames the genius that is Werner Herzog’s brain, in one innocent little prank.  

Last element of the periodic table discovered naturally was Francium 

Marguerite Perey, a student of Marie Curie’s, discovered Francium in 1939 in her lab as a naturally decayed product, from another element called Actinium. Francium was the last element to be discovered in nature, all other elements that have been discovered since have been synthesised or artificially created by bombarding certain elements with other elements - like for instance Rutherfordium was discovered by bombarding Plutonium with atoms of Neon in 1966. It is quite amazing that more people don’t know about this: 

The last known element on planet Earth was discovered by Marguerite Perey. Now you’ll hopefully never forget - incidentally Marguerite died the year I was born, in 1975, of cancer - like so many other physicists of the time, she put her life on the line for the betterment of humanity.  

What does all this have to do with Harmony Korine you ask?

Well, just like with all of the elements known to humankind, the oxygens, the nitrogens, the sulphurs, the phosphorus and magnesium, if you would create a Periodic Table of Film Directors you would probably find that the last original elements of film ever discovered were Werner and Harmony. Marguerite had Marie Curie as a mentor and likewise Harmony Korine had Werner Herzog.  

This brings me back to my friend who initially re-introduced me to Harmony Korine. I was on the phone with them the other day and we spoke about nuclear decay and the fact that the last known elements in the periodic table were artificially created by bombarding atoms into each other and looking at the decay that followed. This got me thinking about a particularly neat Gedankenexperiment or thought experiment - what would happen if you bombarded Werner Herzog with Harmony Korine, what type of director would appear out of the decaying radiation.

We started naming some, mostly in jest, going from greatness to catastrophe and back again, like the two iconic filmmakers themselves;

Darren Aronovsky?

Michel Gondry?

Christopher Guest?

Tommy Wiseau?

Uwe Boll?

Wim Wenders?   

And then my friend just blurted out:

“Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It has to be him!”

A truly iconic German filmmaker who made such classics as The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and more recently The World on Wire

And I’d have to agree here, Fassbinder deserves an article all of his own as well, so I challenge my friend on this task, as they are way more equipped than me to be tackling this genius of film.

In closing, I hope you enjoyed this little insight into Harmony Korine, even if at times it was a little uncomfortable, but I guess that is what we’re here for as Banksy says:

“Art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

And lastly, whilst were making imaginary thought experiments; if Werner Herzog and Harmony Korine had a baby that was an actor, it would have to be Nicholas Cage.

I know, I didn’t get it either at first, he seemed to mainstream - but then my friend told me to look up how many Oscars Cage had won in his life.

The right answer:


Would you believe it?


Creativity takes courage

Thanks so much for reading and sharing, please also visit this virtual donation hat of mine and consider giving a pledge. I am going to keep this Substack completely free for the foreseeable future. So if you have been enjoying these scribbles, have a think about supporting the artist at work. The lowest pledge works out to be one twentieth of a cup of coffee a day but for me it would really help. I need to get recording equipment so I can get my podcasts properly recorded.

My next guests on The Word are the phenomenal co-stars of an extraordinary story about New Zealand’s first gay couple who had a child through IVF and singlehandedly forced the government to include two options as “Mother” on NZ birth certificates - and then I also have a talk with the genius engineer and MIT Lab voice specialist Rébecca Kleinberger on how we can us artificial intelligence to gauge the mental health of a human through listening to their voice. You can also find her inspiring TED talk here. So keep a look out for those episodes streaming shortly. 

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