Você está na página 1de 7
12. WHAT WAS THE NEO- UNDERGROUND AND WHAT WASN” A FIRST RECONSIDERATION OF HARMONY KORINE Benjamin Halligan A consolidation of the predominant characteristics of recent Hollywood making occurred in the success of two late-1990s’ box-office hits: Ti (1997), the zenith of the film-as-experience strain of ‘High Concept’ American cinema, and American Beauty (1999), acclaimed for the origins Of its approach to its material. The films came across as experiences for taking, labelled as such for the multiplexes, ‘must-see’ ‘water cooler" tal points. In this respect, the latter was ‘art as entertainment’, the fe ‘entertainment as entertainment’, a difference of degree between the but the denominator is common and they both trailed Academy Awards their wake. 4 Walter Benjamin once observed a phenomenon that seems, from this cl distance at least, especially applicable to the ‘art as entertainment’ sensibilit The application is necessary because American Beauty seems to exemplif and perhaps anticipates, a contemporary trend in North American making: =. we are confronted with the fact . . . that the bourgeois appara of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed Propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes wit First RECONSIDERATION OF HARMONY KORINE ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it. In any case this remains true so long as it is supplied by hacks, albeit revolutionary hacks ... 1 further maintain that an appreciable part of so-called left-wing literature had no other social function than that of continually extracting new effects or sensations from this situation for the public's entertain- ment. (Benjamin 1973: 94-5) “The assimilating nature of American Beauty occurs in the successful transla- tion of the style and preoccupations of an ‘underground’ into box-office material. The originality of American Beauty was nothing so much as a repackaging of aspects of 1990s’ ‘independent’ American film-making (of the commercial fringe), as exemplified in, say, the films of David Lynch and Abel Ferrara. In this case, the bourgeois apparatus of production was the burgeon- ing Disney-to-be, DreamWorks SKG. The assimilation was in the nature of the ‘Bodysnatchers’: the film became an acceptable version of the same thing. In terms of the matter of degree (art as entertainment and entertainment as entertainment), the ‘art’ sensibility manifested itself in American Beauty through incidentals and inessentials, elevated to the level of the all important. This is true of both individual moments ~ the bag blowing in the wind, for example, itself extracted from Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) (1964) — and underlies the nature of the narrative as a whole (the generically dysfunctional family unit within the milieu of 1950s-like American suburbia, @ Ia Lynch). The experiential aspects ofthe narrative, that function to immerse the viewer in the pervasive superficiality of the generic suburb, give way toa sense of a critical distance from the filma distance filled with irony, reflexive pastiche, “knowingness’. This creates an environment in which the expected can itself expect to be usurped, and the audience warned notto fee! alienated should this ‘occur. Thus the film offersa sense of ‘difference’ within the familiar. Thiscritical distance, inrelation toartas entertainment, recalls Brecht’sreading offilmin the 1930s: the smoke-screen of ‘art’ obscures that which, in this case, posits a very tight spectrum of entirely passive expressions of ‘rebellion’. The nature of the assimilation, which received its final blessing in the success of the film, indicates the weaknesses and uncertainties of Hollywood film-making in the 1990s (an inability to understand or control audiences, or the ‘digital revolution’). This translated, seemingly, into a knee-jerk plunder- ing of left-of-field film-making in order to appeal to the more wayward audiences that the Hollywood industry felt were endangered. Such a move is a shoring up of market futures. This sense of endangerment had coloured Hollywood strategies since the near breakdown of the 1992 GATT trade talks with the European Union and the shift, in the late 1990s, to the majority of box-office returns for Hollywood films being reaped from outside North New PUNK CINEMA, Finst RECONSIDERATION OF HARMONY KORINE ‘America. To be crude about the perceived marketing strategy: since the non- Americans were noted sometimes to prefer art-as-entertainment over enter- tainment-as-entertainment ~ desired the ‘difference’ ~ then that element must also be addressed, repackaged and assimilated, and so find its position within the products of Hollywood. It becomes a matter of articulating a foreign language with a familiar ‘filmic language’, of placing the foreign language within a ‘vernacular’ system so that the foreignness becomes ultimately litle ‘more than a nuance, a quirk. When even ‘difference’ becomes a commodity, then a certain equilibrium has been achieved. As in the Czech film industry under Soviet reorganisation in the early 1970s, all dissidence is annihilated: those responsible for it are either silenced or exiled, and the films and their nature either banned, appropriated or regurgitated. The North American film of the late 1990s fell into two camps: the monumental block-buster, of which Titanic was the most visible, the heart of a nexus of global products, or the film of ‘dfference” that then seemed to have been called into existence in order to mop up all audiences who did not buy tickets for the doomed ocean liner. All films caught in between are pushed towards one of the two poles, so that there can be no ‘in between’, merely binary oppositionism: a film was the same (entertainment- as-entertainment) or not the same (art-as-entertainment), and not to be the same was to come to be still the same; not being the same had been co-opted. ‘And this co-opting occurs in the way in which those ‘not the same’ are products that aspire to must-have status: bought up by subsidiaries of major studios, forcefully pushed at festivals. So it was noted at the time that the suceess of Titanic heralded bad news for all smaller films ~ those that were formally ‘in between’. This constitutes the eradication of ‘real’ difference through the imposition of a vernacular system; a reorganisation by stealth (artistically, the Czechs had it relatively easy). In Miramax’s famed post- production re-edits and rewrites, this imposition can be seen in action. ‘The wider impulse for (and, alas, a desire for) assimilation can also be seen in the general trends of film-making of the formerly ‘underground’ or semi- underground American auteurs in the 1990s. At worst, they recast themselves as ‘hacks, albeit revolutionary hacks’ (particularly in the light of the challen~ ging and newly re-emergent Russian, European and New Asian film scenes of the 1990s). But this shift to the mainstream by the Coens, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, Van Sant, Larry Clark, Lynch and others was tempered by one ‘slight return’: Harmony Korine, in his films Gummo and julien donkey-boy, went defiantly in the other direction. Guonmmo met with widespread criticism and condemnation upon its release; many felt Korine exploited the dispos- sessed that he filmed ~ offering a questionably voyeuristic experience mas ‘querading as an exposé. This sentiment was shared by the right and the lefts David Walsh termed it ‘a libel against mankind’ (Walsh 1997b). In this context of a looming, bloated Hollywood omniculture, ‘low concept’ would be an applicable term for Korine. Gummo itself inverts the norm of the nexus of global products: rather than the television spin-off from the film, it ‘comes across as a film spin-off from television (specifically, The Jerry Springer ‘Show {1991-current]; indeed, one of the principal characters of Gummo was taken from the paint-sniffing segment of a drug prevention episode of The Sally Jessy Raphael Show [1985-2002}). The film has a self-contained still- born marketing campaign: a promise of pandering to the racist stereotype of the white-trash freak show, a Heavy Metal sound-track, outrage upon out- rage piled up. Barely have the words New Line and Time-Warner first appeared on the screen than a torrent of juvenile obscenities fades in on the sound-track. On the face of it, the film seems tailor-made for the bored browser in the video shop: a spectacle that will offend; packaged outrage as entertainment. This difference from the shift to the mainstream, in Gummo, can be understood in terms of the apparent aspirations. While the semi-underground auteurs of the 1990s looked to models of (troubled liberal) film-making, such as neo-noir and the ‘issue’ film, Korine looked to one of the idiosyncratic auteurs of the New German Cinema: Werner Herzog. Korine claimed to have fallen under the influence of Herzog as a Californian teenager of the 1980s and that Herzog, whose work represented an absolute foreignness to him — specifically in Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen (Even Dwarfs Started ‘Small {1970)), a kind of cinematic ‘abduction by UFO’ experience, wrecked any evolving sense of what a film should or should not be. Herzog’s influence informed Gummo, and Herzog himself was present in julien donkey-boy. ‘There was no Scorsese, Coppola or Penn lineage for Korine. Rather, he looked to the monumental statements of Herzog and the New German Cinema: unwieldy metaphors, ambiguous relevance, insane propositions. Korine’s model was the lack of a model particular to Herzog’s unique vision and methodology. Herzog’s 1970s’ work had been characterised by allegories that refused to reveal the actualité of which they spoke: the vague sense of humanity against nature, or God, as parables of civilisation and capitalism (Fitzcarraldo (1982}), of revolution as a pointless and doomed activity (Even Dwarfs Started Small), of characters newly adrift in an alien landscape (the Bruno S films: Jeder Fitr Sich Und Gott Gegen Alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All} (1974) and Stroszek (1977). For the auteurs of the New German Cinema, because any human truth or ‘meaning’ fell short of historical fact, meaning itself was to be resisted in the art that invariably reflected recent ‘West German history. Itis Herzog’s ‘unstuck’ metaphor ~ the grand gesture as a grand gesture, insanity as the only proof of life — that informs Korine’s methodology. Herzog returned the compliment too, in a suitably idiosyncratic manner. In discussing Gummo with Korine, he commented: New PUNK CINewa Finst RECONSIDERATION OF HARMONY KORINE What I like about Gummo are the details that one might not notice at first. There’s the scene where the kid in the bathtub drops his chocolate bar into the dirty water and just behind him there’s a piece of fried bacon stuck to the wall with Scotch tape. This is the entertainment of the future. (Herzog 1997) ‘To which Korine replied, reveling in his difference (now authenticated by the master of difference): ‘It’s the greatest entertainment. Seriously, all I want to see is pieces of fried bacon taped on walls, because most films just don't do that.’ (Herzog 1997) The authentification of ‘difference’ for julien donkey-boy ‘came via a Dogma 95 certificate: Korine as a member of the brotherhood of Danish film punks. And for Above the Below (2003), from the discomfort of the onlookers at a man in a perspex box, suspended above them, starving. Structurally and aesthetically, Korine’s films exist beyond any familiar ‘art- house’ or underground category. They talk in a foreign language in these respects. In terms of the expected political critique, Korine invites and then rejects a liberal agenda with his no-hope sketches of the wretched underbelly of American life. On one level he articulates the neo-realist’s question in terms ‘of the type of imagery he presentts - Why and how has this come to pass?” But the crux of his vision lionises the marginal along with the disregarded icons of late twentieth-century culture, reinventing them into an ironic form of poetic realism (finding meaning in the meaningless), vastly at odds with his neo- realist elements. His frame of reference recalls the blunt ironies of Jeff Koons’s ‘instant art’ approach to the refuse of consumer culture (thats, that there is no refuse but rather an endless cycle of a consumption of the defecation). Indeed, Korine was first encountered in the Koons milieu, art and fashion magazines, rather than brought out as a precocious festival cinéphile. Korine constantly hones in on the most superficial aspects of existence ~ a kind of anti-existentialism. He summons up the ambience of the American mid-west Heavy Metal life-styles in Gummo: the ridiculous posturing of the ‘music overlapping the juvenile chants of the opening credits (‘Peanut-butter~ ‘mother-fucker’), reflected in the style of the on-screen credits (1970s’ album- cover Gothic). Korine bleeds the sense of authenticity from expressions of difference in these, his self-effacing debut moments. His characters are defined by the commercial categories of difference that are on offer —they are products of the cultural assimilation of the supposed left-of-ield. In this instance, the whole recalls the ‘Judas Priest suicide’ of the late 1980s ~ commodity: fetishised nihilism authenticated by an actual desire for annihilation: Sparks, Nevada ~ After James Vance demolished his face with a sawed- off shotgun at a church playground, he rode his bicycle around town shocking people with his grotesque disfigurement. Plastic surgeons had been able to restore his ability to eat and breathe, but were not able to restore his smooth, youthful face. James’ physical deformity stunned the town, but not as much as the message he later delivered: Heavy metal music drove him and his closest friend to strike a suicide pact, one that only James survived. “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music, such as Judas Priest, led us or even ‘mesmerized’ us into believing that the answer to ‘life was death,” James wrote to his best friend’s mother in 1986, quoting some of the album’s lyrics. James, depressed and addicted to pain medications after the shooting, died last year in the psychiatric unit of the Washoe Medical Center from drugs and complications from his numerous surgeries. (Cooper 1989) In the horizon of the inauthentic, actual difference is not so easily assimilated since its authenticity becomes all the more apparent. Korine does not speak of the locale (the vantage point of the liberal agenda) but speaks the locale. He allows the nihilistic vision of the mid-west to mesmerise him ~ he ‘opens himself up’ to the influences, enters into the milieu, fashions an expression of it, not from it. He even engages in some ‘grotesque disfigurement himself. In placing the film in a submissive position to the world around it, Korine finds a place in the freak-show parade of white trash, This cameo has neither the flourish of the Hitchcock ‘signature’ nor the cffect of Welles’s presence (which often reassembled the film around a sense of the auteur as present). Korine, as ‘Boy on Couch, is utterly superfluous. He resents himself as a drooling, drunken supergeck, trying to seduce a street- wise gay Jewish African-American person of restricted growth, Midget. His voice is whispery and cracked, he slurs his way through stories of debasement, of being sexually abused as a child, and immerses himself in cheap beer. The sequence jump-cuts into, seemingly, alternative takes, creating the impression of an improvised scene with interchangeable anecdotes and voiding a suspen- sion of disbelief. It is not as if Korine is presenting a fictional character that functions in any discernible way. Itis not as if Korine is not himself noted in the process. (Indeed, critics of the film - such as David Prothero ~ tended to ‘cast this scene as the ‘final straw’ in terms of evidence of exploitation.) Rather, the moment communicated a sense of Korine entering into the situation of the film, that his role is equally behind, and in front of, the camera (the final affirmation of the loss of the liberal vantage point). Both positions are ‘engulfed by the world of the film and both are exercises in self-debasement. This is undoubtedly the lesson of Herzog. And, in the same exploratory ‘manner, in interview, Korine noted the problems of such a methodology: As far as production design went, it was about taking things away to make it cleaner. At times the crew would refuse to film in those