NYFF '99: Bad-Boy Harmony Korine Gets Dogmatic with "julien donkey-boy"
by Stan Schwartz
After making his directorial debut in 1997 with the highly idiosyncratic "Gummo," 25-year-old bad boy Harmony Korine is back at the New York Film Festival with "julien donkey-boy." His latest effort is a logical extension to its predecessor -- another free-form portrait of urban anomie -- but this time, Korine has added an extra twist: he's made the film under the auspices of Dogma '95, the already infamous Danish film collective whose strict rules against cinematic artifice go well with the style Korine has already established for himself. The hand-held digital video camera, the heavy use of improvisation, the grainy, unpolished look of the film, the lack of a strict narrative -- all these qualities will doubtless make the Dogma people happy at the very same time it plunges everyone else into a lively aesthetic debate.
Curiously enough, there was little debate or animosity of any kind at the Film Festival press conference on Monday. This may have to do with Korine's comportment, which is utterly at odds with the look and feel of his films. The young man actually seems somewhat shy. With his boyish face and smile, combined with a light scruffy beard, he bears a startling resemblance to the very young Fassbinder (whose name came up once in the proceedings). More to the point, Korine showed himself to be remarkably eloquent and articulate, a little surprising only because his films are nothing if not quasi-poetic studies of utter inarticulateness.
The inarticulate protagonist of "julien donkey-boy" is a schizophrenic young man (beautifully played by the Scottish actor Ewen Bremner) based on the director's real-life uncle. "He was a normal kid up until he turned 21-years-old," Korine explained, "when he started hearing voices in his head. On my trips to New York to visit my grandmother, when I was young, I would stay at her house. He was ultimately a severe case. And he always scared me even though he was very gentle. There was a beauty to him." The film traces the daily life of Julien and his relations with his abusive father (Werner Herzog), younger brother (Evan Neumann), and very pregnant sister (Chloe Sevigny). The idea, according to Korine, was to capture a more honest portrait of the mentally disabled, unlike the romanticized views he was used to seeing in other films.
But where did Dogma '95 come in? As it happens, the young director did not originally set out to make a Dogma film. Korine explained, "Immediately after 'Gummo,' way before I'd even heard of Dogma, it was very clear to me that in order to get to a certain pace with the actors, and in order to move at the [same] pace my mind was working, I would need to shoot it in a different way. So video was ultimately the method. Not the aesthetics of video, more the intimacy it provided and the idea that we could shoot things as quickly as the thought process."
Clearly, Dogma fit the bill, and Korine decided "to join the Brotherhood and submit to the Vow of Chastity because it fit with what I was doing beforehand. I did have to go about things differently, but it didn't prevent me from making the film I [already] wanted to make." That Korine took Dogma seriously is indisputable. "The only way to make a truly Dogma film is to accept it blindly, almost in a religious manner, and not question the rules. It's about a willful submission, a redemption in cinematic terms." But just what is that redemption? "It's a way of forcing yourself to not hide behind certain practices . . . the tricks and the illusions that most directors hide behind."
Presumably, Korine will return to a certain amount of trickery, as he does intend to continue making non-Dogma films. Still, the director is quick to add, "It's nice to know that Dogma exists for a filmmaker because it is like a church. After I do whatever [non-Dogma film] I do next, if I feel I'm impure, then I can go back and cleanse myself in cinematic terms."
The constant use of terminology taken from Catholicism is one of the more striking aspects of Dogma '95. When asked about why one would feel so seemingly guilty about, say, using a tripod, Korine responded in no uncertain terms, "Oh it has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with the ultimate, end-result of the film. If at a certain point I feel like I've done something overly-stylistic and hid what I thought was the truth, or I hid behind images, then I would feel ashamed."
One could argue that truth can be achieved through other means as well, but Korine quickly countered, "I don't think there's such a thing as truth in cinema. It's a fallacy. There's always a point of view, a manipulation. But what's greater than the truth and what takes on almost Biblical proportions is a poetic truth that hovers above the great works, and that's much more important than 'a' truth. That's something that goes beyond and lives forever."
If Korine is a bit contradictory about what truth is in film, he's very clear -- if not downright cavalier -- about the notion of purity: "We can hit a point in cinema where basically there's no need for any one to be in the room except for two actors, let's say, involved in a scene sitting at a table, each one wearing a video camera on their shoulder. The director would only have to come and tell them what the scene's about, and possibly where they should go and then the director could leave and go get something to eat. Then come back two hours later, [the actors] would still be going and there'd be these matching one-shots."
The audience laughed and maybe Korine was joking. But if so, it's a telling joke that speaks clearly of the young, iconoclastic director's passionate and highly personal take on filmmaking. "julien donkey-boy" opens commercially in New York on October 8.
[Stan Schwartz is a NY-based freelance writer who's written for The New York Times and Time Out New York, among other publications, as well as for such on-line sites as NYToday and CitySearch.]