Well they got some damn songs, now, hell, a man can’t even figure out what in the hell’s going on, don’t you know. But the old songs, usually they was made in telling a damn story. A lot of the old English, old Irish ballads–they’d tell you story, a tragic story, usually. But they make some songs now that don’t show you nothing.
–Hamper McBee, 1978
Harmony Korine loves artifacts and he loves translating those discoveries into cinema, particularly if it has to do with the iconography of suburban/underbelly (same thing in his book) Americana. Whatever the nostalgic tropes that evoke sometimes guttural, sometimes vicious, at times transcendent sense memories of encounters experienced at a young, impressionable age, it’s the image of the unbound, un-tethered human being that captivates Korine most of all. When asked in an interview for Hammer to Nail, a New York-based website that celebrates off-road film, where the idea for Trash Humpers had originated, he explained:
The idea came from when I would walk my dog through these back alleys by my house. It’s pretty close to where I grew up. Sometimes late at night, I guess there’s a law in Nashville, that trash bins have to be laid out a certain way. But sometimes I would notice that they would have fallen over, or they would be positioned in certain ways that resembled humans to me. And there are these overhead lamps, these light posts, beaming Broadway style lights down onto these fallen trashcans. There was something very dramatic about it, very human. When I was a teenager growing up there, there was a group of elderly peeping toms that used to walk around in these back alleys, and sometimes I would see them peeping into windows. We had a pretty next-door neighbor so it was really common. And, I don’t know, I just put the two ideas together. (1)
For Korine, it’s always about the image – not what it represents, but what it simply is, in its purest form. Watching the film selections he chose for this year’s CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen, I kept thinking of something he said about his characters in Mr. Lonely, his feature narrative from 2007: “Often the biggest dreamers get hurt the most. They are pure in their insanity and in their isolation.” (2)
Trash Humpers was the winner of the 2009 DOX:AWARD, CPH:DOX’s main competition prize. This film festival is fast distinguishing itself as a vibrant laboratory and showcase for filmmakers who work in genre-free zones, as well as a destination for adventurous audiences. It is, it must be said, a documentary festival in name only. The eight year old event prides itself on curating and exhibiting “films in the margins of the undefined” (a phrase coined by Korine), so the raging debate that ensued after Trash Humpers received the jury prize last year (“How is that film a documentary?!”) pleased the festival directors no end. The 37 year-old writer-director could be said to be the poster child / patron saint / spiritual familiar of CPH:DOX since the programmers admit that his work has been a constant reference since the festival’s inception in 2003.
Last year’s jury made an interesting statement by awarding the best documentary prize to Korine’s grotesque, “proudly deformalist” found-object film, raising the bar on breaking tradition. And any tradition will do. Not that this decision wasn’t a thoughtful, engaged one; but the experiment’s main directive seems to be to zig when everyone else is zagging. This past November, festival director Tine Fischer invited Harmony Korine to pick a selection of films “which as his own works [do], redefine ‘the real’ in a cinematic context.” (3) In Korine’s world, and in his work, something “real” does not necessarily connote something true. His program did consist mostly of documentary work, it turns out, but there was also fiction (always neorealist in timbre and tone), experimental and performance pieces. No matter the genre, each is an example of a fiercely singular vision, and Korine set out to pay homage to some of his greatest artistic influences.
Among the makers in this group of 16 films were photographer, William Eggleston; director, actor and photographer, Dennis Hopper; Argentine film director, Hector Babenco; media and performance artist Cameron Jamie; and, a couple of ethnographic portraits from the 1970s made for American public television by Korine’s father, Sol, and his partner, Blaine Dunlap. There were also two new short films by H. Korine, the 28-minute Mac and Plac, and the 3-minute The Blood of Havana shot on Super 8, his own versions of archival research in preparation for making Trash Humpers. All the films were exhibited in a variety of formats at the Cinemateket, housed inside the state-of-the-art Danish Film Institute, all preceded by short video introductions presented by Korine himself since he wasn’t able to be there in person. I felt like I spent hours in his company, anyway.
The festival had acquired most of the films directly from the artists, or their estates, in their original formats, thus, there was no sitting in the video library for hours consuming this stuff off of a nice, clean digital feed. I was in the cinema taking it on the chin like the macho movie-goer you have to be to engage with a lot of this disorienting, hallucinatory, down-and-dirty work, full of the “obsessive characters, dreamers, outcasts, [and] tramps on the fringe” of which Korine is so fond. There was nary a female director in the bunch, which was interesting (although I’m not going to take the time here to try and analyse why that’s the case).
In a time when almost every image we encounter is a commodified, or highly sanitised, reference to something otherwise humanly squalid and messy, Korine seems to be more interested in staying loyal to what is most moving and meaningful for him. The squalid and messy seem to be most meaningful. At the best of times, an extemporaneous Korine is, verbally, not at his most articulate; but through this curation, he was able to be quite eloquent in what he finds so compelling and fascinating about the human condition, and how that has been interpreted in cinema. I have been very mixed in my regard for his films, tending to appreciate them on more of a literary level, than a strictly cinematic one. As well, it’s difficult not to feel put off a bit by the cult of personality that surrounds the guy. But since watching his selections (or, in some cases, re-watching after a long time), I have to say that my relationship to his work became contextualised in a whole new way. I suppose it was akin to gaining a good amount of insight about a friend from the mix tape he makes for you from his personal music collection.
Korine’s unabashed adoration of films like Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981), a piece that he claims “might be my favorite film of all time”, is apparent in his own films about the rawness of ravaged lives, “the sense of poetry in tragedy” that pulsates in every frame of this film shot in the slums of Brazil with non-actors. Critic Pauline Kael wrote of Babenco’s film: “[His] imagery is realistic, but his point of view is shockingly lyrical… South American artists [seem to have to be in perfect, poetic control of madness] in order to express the texture of everyday insanity.” (4)
The success (or failure) of providing any kind of disambiguation for an audience solely relies upon a maker’s distinctive mode of storytelling, which can only be meaningfully associative when accompanied by a deeply personal interpretation – or, if you will, poetics. In other Korine selections such as Stranded in Canton (1973) by William Eggleston, the documentary, Streetwise (1984) by Martin Bell, and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (a woefully under-regarded piece of cinematic brutality from 1982), we see films that enable us to witness the absolute freedoms inherent in unmitigated human transgression in very specific ways – the freedom to live like an animal on the streets: the freedom to be lyrical in your madness; the freedom to utterly and completely wreck not only your life, but those of your loved ones, and anyone else that happens to experience an ill-timed convergence onto your cursed path.
A steady onslaught of this kind of filmmaking is nauseating, exhilarating, depressing, oddly comforting, and satisfies a seemingly insatiable need for prurience. These films, disparate in style and genre, are similar to one another in the ways in which we encounter the protagonists in head-on collisions of image and sound. Raw realism and fantasy reside side by side, a complicit collaboration between maker and subject. I better understand how these films might fire Korine’s own impulse to value the human focus above everything else in his films – all careening motion, visceral revulsion and emotional degradation. Who doesn’t want that when they go to the movies? Personally, I was most deeply engaged and appreciative of the re-discovered works of creative ethnography, the ones that possessed a bespoke and atavistic style of capturing a subject in medias res. It’s somewhat of a lost art form and it is, unfortunately, quite rare to see films made like these anymore.
That “texture of everyday insanity,” that up-close-and-personal encounter of, what I like to call, the Southern Gothic gaze, is celebrated wholeheartedly in William J. Eggleston’s beautifully photographed Stranded in Canton, shot in Memphis and New Orleans in the early ‘70s. This feature documentary is, according to Korine, “perhaps the greatest home movie ever made.” Originally shot on video with a Sony Porta-Pak, the film has been restored and re-edited by filmmaker Robert Gordon in a new version that was released in 2008. Eggleston spent several nights with the underground denizens of Tennessee, and his subjects adore the camera – and it adores them back. Most of them practically make love to it, as they rant and rave and perform for all their wrecked selves are worth. “We’re having the grandest time of our lives,” says one fucked-up reveler in a soft drawl, pinching his nose (like a clown? like an addict?), and laughing maniacally. He then shouts “BILL!” right into Eggleston’s lens, gleefully congratulating the filmmaker for capturing such a joyously debauched moment with his camera. (5)
What was engaging in watching these selections, especially the ones from the 1960s and ‘70s, was the particular performative aspects of what transpires in front of the camera. One finds very early precursors (or maybe portents might be the better word) of modern-day reality shows in all their consumer-mongering glory, where the most profound taboos of society have become attractive entertainment to masses of viewers between commercial breaks. These pieces harken back to a less self-conscious time, less self-consciousness both on the part of the filmmaker and his subjects. No matter how brutal or raw the material, there is a sense of celebration and admiration for the subject, lensed so forensically for our viewing pleasure. These days, quite obviously, our capacity to watch the most abominable things has grown to epic proportions while, perhaps, our finer sensibilities have continued to shrink. The subjects in these older films, some just as charmingly repugnant as today’s Big Brother stars, are camera-ready in a whole different way, minus the prepossession. The state of the subjects, as these filmmakers find them in the documentaries Korine chose is, in comparison, quite innocent and pure, even though they, too, are meant to tap into our deeply buried transgressive selves.
Peter Adair’s captivating portrait of the fervor of religious ecstasy in a small church in West Virginia in Holy Ghost People (1967) is one of the kindest and least judgmental portraits of religious fundamentalism I’ve seen. As an openly gay man, Adair, who passed away in the late nineties, was an outsider’s outsider and, in essence, this makes him the perfect documentarian for this outsider community of people who worship their Lord and commune with the Holy Spirit by snake-handling and drinking poison. Adair’s subjects are erudite in their descriptions of the kind of transcendence they experience in their raptures, even though many are unschooled, ex-cons, and other types of societal outcast. They are, to a person, fluent both when speaking in tongues, and in the everyday backwoods vernacular that has been lampooned since time immemorial. Their ecstasies are a sight to behold in services that run for hours, never led by a minister or any kind of religious leader, but by anyone in the congregation who feels the spirit move them enough to get up and shout to the heavens. (6)
In Raymond Depardon’s Urgences, we see the same qualities in the mad men filmed inside a psychiatric ward in Paris. The 68 year-old Magnum photographer, artist, journalist and filmmaker (Korine calls him “an unsung hero”) has been an insatiable documentarian for decades, and as it is the case for Adair, it is the people who bring a story to life for Depardon. In an interview for Foam Magazine with Michel Guerrin, the editor of Le Monde’s cultural section, in the summer of 2010, Depardon says, “The failing of the French school [of photography] is that it reduces the human to an anecdote: showing a pretty gesture, a movement; it’s a direction that produces sterile forms. . . . When I started my career in 1960, it was unthinkable that the scenery could be the subject.” Influenced by American filmmakers and photographers like DA Pennebaker and Garry Winogrand, Depardon learned to “advance, never retreat, [to] capture people like in a performance.” (7) Depardon’s camera waits for discoveries, for the convergence of the sound of a man obsessively rubbing his forearm, bathed in the cold ghostly light from an opaque window and babbling helplessly to a nurse about the pain in his heart. In the ‘80s in France, the time Depardon shot Urgences, for the first time, there were shows on French television that were exposing people’s inner psyches in front of a live studio audience. Even though people were becoming habituated to the unrelenting voyeurism of a television camera, there is something in Depardon’s footage that still has logic and a sensibility that obviously escaped the directors and producers of these shows which displayed people’s compulsions and acts of indecency.
The short documentary portraits of Sol Korine and Blaine Dunlap were made specifically for American television, the public television station that was “supported by viewers like you” university-educated, paying voyeurs. Hamper McBee: Raw Mash is a wonderfully simple celluloid portrait from the ‘70s of the now-legendary singer. McBee is no dormant artifact, however. In a blog post on “Root Hog or Die” where he celebrates the release of a brand-new album of music by Mr McBee, Nathan Salsburg, who works for the Alan Lomax archive, explains how he first came to know about this American legend:
I had only heard of the moonshiner, carnival barker, singer and raconteur Hamper McBee. . . in passing – just as a subject of one of Korine’s films I had never seen – until I met Sol himself through his filmmaking son Harmony. Knowing my interest in those folkloric films of his dad’s, made with Blaine Dunlap in the ’70s, Harmony had a screening of Sol and Blaine’s “Raw Mash” profile of Hamper in his Nashville home, and it rendered me speechless. There’s no other way to say it: Hamper was an absolute original. His clothes; his mustache and pompadour; his lusty dedication to booze, cigarettes, and light cussing (“goddamn” and “hell” being foremost in his lexicon); his keen intelligence and creative grace (sincerely) sharing space in his conversation and repertoire with hysterically bizarre, irreverent, and filthy songs and tales from a life spent on the carnival circuit, at the moonshine still, in the Wauhatchie railroad yards, in the back of Sheriff Bill Malone’s patrol car, and as Hamper McBee. (8)
Thank you, Mr Korine, for the absolutely original and fine curation in Denmark.
Harmony Korine program at CPH:DOX
Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival
04 – 14 November 2010
Festival website: http://www.cphdox.dk/d/a1.lasso
- “A Conversation with Harmony Korine” by Michael Tully, Hammer to Nail.
- “Harmony Korine” by Richard Bishop, BOMB 103/Spring 2008, FILM. http://bombsite.com/issues/103/articles/3097
- Curated by Harmony Korine, Artist in Focus, CPH:DOX 2010 Film Programme, http://www.cphdox.dk/d/a5.lasso?s=2010119&e=1
- Kael, Pauline. Pixote, Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, editor: Kathy Schulz Huffhines, Mercury House: San Francisco, 1991, page 498.
- “The Grandest Time” film clip, William Eggleston, Eggleston Trust – Stranded in Canton, http://www.egglestontrust.com/stranded_in_canton.html
- Bright Lights Film Journal, “Little Stabs of Happiness (and Horror), Random Short Reviews of the Worthy and the Worthless in Recent and Old-School Cinema,” August 2004, Issue 45, http://www.brightlightsfilmcom/45/stabs.htm
- Raymond Depardon Interview | La Lettre de la Photographie, Foam Magazine, “Under the Spell of the City,” Summer 2010, number 23, http://lalettredelaphotographie.com/entries/raymond-depardon-interview
- Goddamn, Hell, It’s Hamper McBee, Root Hog Or Die, May 27, 2010, Nathan Salsburg, http://roothogordie.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/goddamn-hell-its-hamper-mcbee/