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VIDEO ESSAY: American Harmony

VIDEO ESSAY: American Harmony

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When moviegoers think of quintessential American cinema, the images and ideas that spring to mind are that of a passionate John Cusack holding up a boom box serenading his love in Say Anything or of Sylvester Stallone triumphantly running up the Philadelphia Art Museum’s snowy steps in Rocky. In fact, if one looks at any “Best Of” list concerning American cinema, they are usually built around these iconic moments of heroic elevation. What else are the movies for, if not to transport us to moments of unbelievable success and joy? But most American people don’t fit the titular roles of Rocky or Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. The America of yesterday and today is still full of the occasionally inspired but mostly ordinary individual.  Perhaps that is why the recent works of Harmony Korine fall under the heading of being “uniquely American.”

After exploding onto the American indie film scene at the early age of nineteen with his screenplay for Kids, Korine quickly churned out two of the 1990s most polarizing works: Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy. Both of those films challenged the conventional narrative and presented audiences with unnerving and unwelcome notions. Then Korine spirited overseas to film his strangely touching commune drama Mister Lonely. And since 2009, the filmography of Korine–Trash Humpers, Act Da Fool, Curb Dance and Snowballs–has morphed into a visual canon of the purest form. Korine’s camera has become much more subjective and invasive. The cinematography has turned far grittier. The editing rhythm now depends on the individual pulse of an idea or image.

The subjects and characters that Korine presents exist outside the mainstream frame of heroes or villains. The silver screen heroines of Hollywood are now replaced with the rebellious, foul-mouthed street teens in Act Da Fool. The team of charming casino robbers or frontier-bound cowboys is now replaced with the outcast garbage can fornicators in Trash Humpers. By stripping away any safe scenario that would be found in a typical “movie,” Korine forces the audience to reevaluate their primal reactions to some of the most obtuse and harrowing images. Therefore, these films transcend the visual mechanics behind the “normal” American narrative. Added, the locations that Korine uses for these films–decrepit housing, low-income neighborhoods–represent an underexposed cross-section of very real America (when compared to popular Hollywood content).

It’s easy to write off Korine’s visual works as misanthropic. It’s even easier to file them under the often-misused label of “Trash Cinema.” Yet if one looks closely enough to actually discover the embedded ideas expressed in these works–work, love, tragedy, success, and failure–it’s not hard to appreciate Korine’s deconstruction of the strange symphony that is the day-to-day American life.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.” 

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