NYFF REVIEW: "julien donkey boy": the future of cinema
by Ray Pride
People tend to look at you funny when you dare say that movies are better than ever, or that the possibility of cinema as an art with its own dreamy poetic potential, apart from literature and drama, has only just begun to be explored.
I’m a big defender of Harmony Korine‘s “Gummo,” the punkish exhibitionism of which alienated more than a couple of ordinarily sober-voiced critics. (See under: Janet Maslin). Korine esteems something he calls “mistake-ism”: try every damned thing as if you’ll never have a chance to again.
Yet I would hope that critics won’t be elder punks when they see Korine’s second, the unregenerately experimental, shot-on-video, transferred-to-film “julien donkey-boy: Dogme 6.” No stink bombs in the theaters, please: even champions of “Gummo” have been pleasantly shocked at what his work methods have wrought this time up.
“julien” is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year, steeped in the subjectivity of the lead character’s confusion and a closing half hour that strains for the transcendent and may even have attained it. The slim thread of plot in the second Harmonic vaudeville follows Julien (Ewen Bremner), a troubled schizophrenic in a family of misfits, led by abusive father Werner Herzog (the film director, magnificent and mad). While Korine tosses off longeurs along the way, you will not be able to reconcile the depth of emotions it churns up by the final reels.
“julien donkey-boy” is an eyes-wide-open movie. Those subscribing to conventional wisdom (or David Denby’s reviews in the New Yorker) will expect only jagged sarcasm and sub-“Even Dwarves Started Small” obscurantism from Korine. But “julien donkey-boy” is a nagging artifact, all the obnoxious plot elements promoted in on-set diaries diminished or vanquished. We are lost to Julien’s earnest, schizophrenic soul – which Korine has said is based on observing the lifelong affliction of an uncle of his. Korine also seems deeply influenced by the South, his formative years spent in and around Nashville. Both of his features as director are easily pegged as explorations of Southern gothic, with the strangest events taken as the most elemental commonplace. (Julien finds an epiphany at a Pentecostal church service late in the film, the voices raised to heaven like his own gibbering incantations.)
There are other strains of spirituality in Korine’s vision: the images, strikingly transferred from video, at times resemble the aged, candle-smoked enamel layers of religious icons, suiting the pitch in the film’s final twenty minutes or so, toward a muted religiosity, a muzzy, heart-breaking transcendence.
The events in those reels remind me of the closing of Don DeLillo‘s exquisite meditation on language and meaning, “The Names,” which is partly told from the point of view of an autistic child, who closes the novel with the words, “This was worse than a retched [sic] nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.”
So, too, is Harmony Korine’s masterful little gem of “mistake-ism”; a major leap as a filmmaker and undoubtedly the best Dogme-certified film to date. Transferring video to film as a cost-saving practice may be the right move for the pocketbook, but the future of the medium lies with those who seek ways of exploiting the limitations and exceeding the expectations of such films.
We can only hope that the Independent Pictures–Fine Line release of the film in the next couple of months isn’t rushed and ragged: it would be a sorrow if no one were to see what may be the first brilliant, incandescent burst of the next decade of films to come. I have seen the future of digital-based cinema: hello, Harmony!
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago’s Newcity. He writes about movies and the business for many other publications, online and off. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]