In a style that suits the brashness of its auteur subject, I would like to get straight to the point: Harmony Korine is a filmmaker obsessed with the institution of celebrity, specifically the manner in which celebrities’ public images are disseminated to us and how we respond to and in turn mould these media(ted) personas. For those familiar with Korine’s directorial work, particularly his earlier films – Gummo (1997) and julien donkey-boy (1999) – this might seem a minor claim that fails to take into account more seemingly central preoccupations. Whether loved or despised, Korine has often been received as an outré filmmaker given over to images of marginalisation and ‘otherness’, whether it be the (usually small town) poor, the mentally or physically handicapped, or a disconcertingly tactile engagement with ‘improper’ bodily functions – all categories that Gummo and julien donkey-boy both comfortably tick. While these concerns have been well documented in what writing there is on Korine, very little sustained attention has been paid to the director’s preoccupation with celebrity. And yet in Spring Breakers (2012), Korine’s most recent film and first certified critical and popular success (1), one finds the clearest symptom yet of the director’s playful, often impishly subversive engagement with celebrities and their public images. What makes Spring Breakers so obvious a case in this regard is that for the first time Korine has stacked his principle cast with bona fide U.S. celebrity actors, as opposed to the decidedly non-normative, non-professional actors (2) that populate almost all of his other films. (3) Three of the four main female roles are played by Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashleigh Benson, all former child stars who got their start in (mostly) edifying, family-friendly box office successes and popular TV shows. However, this is more than just a case of Korine breaking with past habits and employing a cast of highly bankable stars. More notable is the way in which he employs these celebrities’ ‘cute’, ‘wholesome’, ‘innocent’ public images, only to undermine and subvert such preconceptions by placing his actors in a very contrary milieu defined by deliberately excessive helpings of sex, drugs and violence.
Such a radical juxtaposition and sending up of audience expectation is in fact nothing new in Korine’s films, particularly when it comes to incorporating celebrity signifiers in his work, whatever forms these might take. To further demonstrate this, I want to draw attention to what would appear to be a relatively minor work, but one that best encapsulates the complex, subversive and downright disconcerting ways in which Korine cites and subverts some of the popular preconceptions that circulate and are projected onto celebrities (in this case the ‘child star’) by the general public. This is the music video he directed for Sonic Youth’s song, Sunday (1998), for which he was able to cast Macaulay Culkin. (4) At the time of Sunday’s making, the former child star had become an absent presence within the popular movie-going conscience, having completely withdrawn from an industry and a global limelight that he had dominated only a few years earlier. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Geffen Records – Sonic Youth’s record label at the time – was jubilant at the prospect of having Culkin star in a video that would be his first acting appearance since 1994. (5) What the label (and public) got, however, was not a comforting return to the recognisable star of yesteryear – not a reprise of Culkin’s well-worn ‘cute kid’ persona – but a disconcerting and sexualised portrait of awkward adolescence, a Culkin at once removed from his popular image, yet inevitably and uncannily evoking, for a late 90s audience, the child star associations that still clung to him. With Sunday, Korine gave the viewing public a Culkin “in the grip of a mutation” (6), an image of the celebrity that disconcerts precisely because it is a figure in interstitial flux and change, confounded by an adolescence that awkwardly renders him simultaneously adult and child, whilst simultaneously failing to fit comfortably in either category. For the remainder of this essay I want to chart how exactly this representation is constructed, how it disconcerts and displaces viewer preconceptions and how we might understand this representation in relation to Korine’s broader appropriations of celebrity figures.
Indeed, to place this last question first, it should be noted that celebrity figures have always permeated Korine’s work in one form or another, a fact most obviously demonstrable not only in the casting of Spring Breakers but in the subject matter of another relatively recent film, Mister Lonely (2007), whose story centres on a cast of celebrity impersonators that range from entertainment industry figures such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple to the Queen of England and the Pope. But this fascination with pop culture’s contemporary and historical figures also runs through Korine’s directorial debut, Gummo, from the repeated name-dropping of actors like Pamela Anderson, Patrick Swayze, Marlene Dietrich and Freddie Prinze to the pointed, diegetic use of music by Madonna, Roy Orbison (who also comes up in a conversation between two of the film’s main characters), Buddy Holly and the titular allusion to the fourth Marx brother, who left the troupe before they became famous.
If this cursory glance through Korine’s films reveals an obsession with celebrity figures past and present, one also notes it at work in other mediums. Apposite in this regard are his collaborations with Mark Gonzales on the zines “Foster Homes and Gardens” (1996) and “Humor”(1997), which consist of little more than facetious and sparse handwritten descriptions of celebrities engaged in bizarre and made up behaviour (“Rock Hudson swallowed a large cup”), expressing fictionalised opinions (“Sean Connery hates all blacks and from what ive heard alot of blacks don’t seem to mind”) as well as relating (fake) personal histories – “Woodie Harlsons dad excaped from a federal penn” or “Harrison Fords wife is nasty but kind of nice you wouldn’t expect him to be with a model”. (7)
These zines provide concentrated encapsulations of Korine’s fascination and irreverent play with celebrity image – outrageously parodic re-significations of celebrity personalities that chafe against their commonly held public images. In works such as these, Korine creates scenarios that allow him to envision subversive, underhanded versions of particular celebrities that run counter to the dominant norms of recognition that govern how they are constructed and perceived via various forms of media. It is important to note that this subversion does not take place in a vacuum. Rather, Korine uses imitation and parody to work off the very image of (a) celebrity he seeks to challenge. Nowhere is this more profoundly and disconcertingly achieved than in the music video he made for Sonic Youth’s song Sunday. This is due to the fact that Korine was actually able to use a bone-fide celebrity to play (and thereby cite) (8) himself – in this instance, former child star Macaulay Culkin. Interestingly, in the year that separated Gummo and Sunday’s release, Korine gave an interview in which he professed a disinterest in working with star actors, unless he could cast them against type and subvert their public and professional image in some way. Talking with scriptwriter Shane Black, Korine emphasised a disinclination towards “anyone that’s, like, a professional. The idea of being a pro or someone who does it over and over again…it’s a job. Actors, to me, they fail to startle”. (9) However, when Black presents Korine with a hypothetical situation in which Kevin Costner displays an interest in working with him, Korine’s reply is a little more tempered, though no less subversive: “I wouldn’t…I mean, I would do something with him. Like, if I felt like I could make him do something he’d be embarrassed about”. (10) Interestingly, when Korine got the chance to work with Culkin, all personal hesitancies would seem to have been dispelled. As Thurston Moore (singer and guitarist in Sonic Youth) noted in the DVD commentary to Sunday, Korine “met Macaulay Culkin, like the night previous at some event or something and he went up to Macaulay and said, ‘I want to make a movie with you’. He became really obsessed”. Nor would his professed desire to embarrass a professional actor mark his approach towards working with Culkin, with whom he reportedly got on well. Nevertheless, Korine’s interest in citing and subverting the public cultural associations that an established celebrity actor could bring to bare on a visual work is, in the case of Sunday’s production and public reception, altogether clear. In terms of form and structure, Sunday predominantly consists of deliberately held, slow motion close-ups and medium shots of a predominantly bare-chested, (then) newly adolescent Culkin staring and pouting at the camera. These shots are interspersed with several shots and sequences that contain slightly more activity: Culkin kissing his then-fiancé, or playing guitar with Moore (with both individuals maintaining the camera’s gaze). In addition to this focus on Culkin, the video features scenes of frenetic activity (often sped-up in-camera), featuring pre-teen ballerinas practicing dance routines in a studio.
One of the most notable aspects of Culkin’s presence in the video is that he makes no pretence to perform a discernable role or embody a particular character. At no point does one catch a glimpse of the kinds of on-screen characters Culkin portrayed in, for instance, Richie Rich (1994), The Good Son (1993) or the Home Alone series – nor for that matter, any scripted fictional character at all. Watching the finished music video, it becomes clear that Korine’s interest in Culkin is centred squarely on Culkin as Culkin. It would be wrong to say that Korine casts the former child star against type, because Culkin is not really acting. He is hired for the job not as an actor, but as a celebrity. In this sense, Korine’s video seems a way of testing Walter Benjamin’s assertion that, “in the case of film, the fact that the actor represents someone else before the audience matters much less than the fact that he represents himself before the apparatus”. (11) In this vein, Sunday strongly echoes Andy Warhol’s one-shot experimental films, which depict his factory ‘stars’ and friends engaging in lengthy, unbroken spells of mundane activity – Robert Indiana consuming a mushroom in the forty-five-minute Eat (1963), for instance – or even states of complete non-activity, such as the (in)famous Sleep (1963), which featured John Giorno sleeping in real-time for five hours and twenty minutes. For Warhol, this was a parodic and ironic way of seemingly appeasing the popular obsession with celebrity by giving audiences nothing but ‘celebrity’ – albeit of the Warhol Factory variety. “People”, Warhol suggested, “usually just go to the movies to see only the star, to eat him up, so here at last is a chance to look only at the star for as long as you like no matter what he does and to eat him up all you want to”. (12)
There are certainly traces of this playful intent in Sunday. However, I would argue that the video succeeds more as a means of reassessing – through a citation that fails to match the ‘conventional’ child star image – the popular cultural associations that had, up to that point, been affixed to Culkin as a child celebrity. No longer the cute kid he had been only a few years before, Culkin’s new appearance is both significantly older and disarmingly sexual. Indeed, much of the video involves him doing nothing but gazing intently and directly at the camera for very long durations (13), pouting and lasciviously running his tongue over his lips, in addition to the aforementioned shot of him and his fiancé tongue-kissing. It is interesting to note how Korine leaves the more sexualised depictions until the end of the video, thus structuring the video around a movement from the ‘innocent’, G-rated Culkin of pre-adolescent fame to the alienating, sexualised teenage image of Culkin that confronts us in the video’s final moments. This risqué depiction finds resonance in a facetious, but nevertheless telling, remark by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. In reference to “The Bad Son”, a book of portraits that Korine took of Culkin while on the set of Sunday, LaBruce regarded it as “a remarkably modern artifact: has-been child-star kiddie porn”. (14) This goes some way to motivating Moore’s own comment – again from the music video’s DVD commentary track – that Sunday “was a very weird, off-putting video for a lot of people. Especially seeing this child star all of a sudden”.
But what exactly was the audience seeing (or, indeed, not seeing)? The child star they all remembered or something else? In essence, what one finds here is a gap between the audience’s expectations of the ‘innocent’ child star and the hormonal, sexually aware adolescent that they are instead confronted with. Similar to his zines, Korine (with Culkin) incites discomfort by failing to cite the normative characteristics that governed the actor’s image in the general public’s mind. However, I want to further argue that this is not merely the pitting of one image against another, but the blurring of two images that might otherwise seem morally reprehensible to each other. Rather than giving us the child star from the Home Alone series, eternally fixed in a childish state of ‘innocence’, Korine paints a non-essentialist picture of Culkin in flux. The image given to us in Sunday is of a former child star caught in the no-man’s-land of adolescence – the liminal, ambivalent space between ‘child’ and ‘adult’. Korine makes no bones about sexualising his on-screen subject, his big close-ups and Culkin’s lascivious expression forcing us to confront the reality that the former child-star is indeed growing up. But I want to contend that what truly disturbs is the uncanny similarity-in-difference that Sunday’s Culkin bears to the iconography of pre-teen Culkin. This goes beyond an obvious similarity in appearance between child and adolescent, finding additional amplification in the way Korine deliberately frames Culkin in order to emphasise and make reference to his younger self. Consider, for instance, how Korine foregrounds the former child star’s lips and mouth in a way that seems to cite and mirror the famous Home Alone (1990) poster. This sort of similarity does not allow us to easily extricate the ‘adult’ from the ‘child’, and Korine deliberately seeks to blur the boundary between the two. Rather than perceive this difference as simply a gap between an audience expectation fixed in the past (the sweet and innocent Culkin of the early 90s) and the reality of the situation in what was then the present (the sexualised adolescent Culkin in Sunday), the music video raises the far more provocative notion that child actors have always had something unsettlingly desirable about them, and that there has always been something disconcerting about the way the cinematic apparatus encourages us to gaze at them. James R. Kincaid, in a provocative thesis, argues that “what we think of as ‘the child’ has been assembled in reference to desire, built up in erotic manufactories, and that we have been labouring ever since, for at least two centuries, both to deny that horrible and lovely product and to maintain it”. (15) Kincaid views Culkin as one in a series of “big-eyed, kissy-lipped blonde figures”. (16) Not surprisingly, those ‘kissy’ lips receive particular attention in Sunday, encapsulating how the video skews the anxious border between an underhanded eroticised representation and an above-board signification as ‘cute’. As Steve Carlton-Ford notes – albeit in a different context, but one that implicitly reflects the grey zone of attraction I am discussing here – “child stars are never fully children nor fully adults”. (17) By emphasising the similarities between Culkin in childhood and Culkin in adolescence, as opposed to sealing off their differences, Sunday draws attention to this uncomfortably ambiguous field of desire and disavowal.
In his representation of Culkin, Korine is thus able to reintroduce, via a ‘bad’ citation of the child star’s image, “the excluded [in this case, eroticism] into the system itself” (18), by revealing how this erotic dimension was, to a certain extent, always there – and much the same can be argued about the way he appropriates and redeploys the popular images of his stars in Spring Breakers. But what makes Korine’s execution particularly unsettling in Sunday is his construction of the gaze. In her seminal essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey notes how the cinema provides the ideal setting in which to indulge in acts of scopophilia – the pleasure of looking without being seen. The basic nature of the film world as “hermetically sealed” off from the intervention of viewers produces “a sense of separation” that “plays on [the audience’s] voyeuristic fantasy”. (19) In addition to the fact that a woman conventionally assumes this passive position, while the audience frequently identifies with and shares the gaze of a male protagonist, the object of the gaze rarely directly faces the audience or admits to their presence by gazing back. Such recognition runs the obvious risk of breaking the fantasy – inciting a “destruction of pleasure” (20) – and forcing the spectators to confront their own guilty status as peeping toms. This is precisely the subversive sabotage undertaken in Sunday. The celebrity is represented onscreen as an ambivalent, uneasy object of desire, but moreover as an object that gazes back. And what a perplexing gaze it is, emanating from a face that signifies from the uncertain space between innocent/lascivious, boy/man, endearing/unsettling, the phantasmic memory of the child star image and the on-screen adolescent (mis)citation of that image. Neither marked down to one or the other of these positions, Culkin is a typical Korinean subject: hovering above an ambivalently marked interstitial space that forces the audience to come face to face with the uneasiness of their own preconceptions and desire for reassurance.
- Compared to his previous work, Spring Breaker’s public and critical success has been exceptional in both senses of the word. According to Box Office Mojo, the film has grossed over $32 million worldwide, on a budget of $5 million. Rotten Tomatoes records a 66% ‘fresh’ review status. To put that in perspective, all of Korine’s previous feature films currently hold ‘rotten’ statuses (less than 60% of critics gave the film a positive review), with Trash Humpers holding 58%, Mister Lonely 46%, Gummo 33% and julien donkey-boy bottoming out at 26%.
- In contrast to the dearth of writing on celebrity in Korine’s films, a great deal has been made about this use of non-actors. See, for instance, sections of Mike Kelley. “Mike Kelley Interviews Harmony Korine”. 1997. http://harmony-korine.com/text/int/hk/?p=38 [accessed 01/12/2013]; Gavin Smith. “Gummo”. Sight and Sound, vol. 8, no 4. 1998. 38-39; Gus van Sant. “Foreword”. 1997. http://harmony-korine.com/text/int/hk/?p=36 [accessed 01/12/2013].
- It will of course be objected that professional actors who can make their own claims to celebrity have certainly made prominent appearances in the Korine oeuvre. Chloe Sevigny’s presence in Gummo and julien donkey-boy is perhaps the most notable case. Other actors like Samantha Morton, Diego Luna and Ewan Bremmer have all taken key roles in his work – not to say anything of the presence of cinematic giant Werner Herzog or French art cinema favourite Denis Lavant. But the starring roles in Spring Breakers all have a public profile and box office draw that distinctly dwarfs any of these actors, certainly within the domestic U.S. market.
- As of this writing, the music video is available to stream at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CXD8PK6Djc.
- Audio commentary to Sunday. Available on Sonic Youth. 2004. Corporate Ghost – The Videos: 1990-2002 (DVD). Santa Monica: Geffen Records
- Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated from the French by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. (London and New York: Continuum, 2005). p. 19
- Korine. Collected Fanzines. Page numbers not specified.
- The term ‘citation’, which I use repeatedly throughout the remainder of this essay, is an internalisation of the term as utilised in Judith Butler’s theories of gender performance. To provide a very short definition, Butler’s concept of citation derives from the notion that any action, speech act or representation relies on a prior model to be rendered intelligible. It is through the repeated citing of such prior models in our daily speech and behaviour that certain representations and concepts are materialised and become the norm. However, one can also deliberately (or even inadvertently) subvert such models by performing a ‘bad’ citation that, while close enough to the original to be recognised as such, nonetheless plays against the associations we have come to expect from the model being cited. For an elaboration of Butler’s ideas, see her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). pp. 128-141 and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). pp. 12-16. For the linguistic and speech theory origins of Butler’s concept of citation, see Jacques Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Limited Inc. Translated from the French by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
- In Lynn Hirschberg. “The Two Hollywoods – The Screenwriters: Shane Black; Harmony Korine”. 1997. http://harmony-korine.com/text/int/hk/?p=40 [accessed 11/10/2011]
- Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (Third Version)”. Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938-1940. Translated from the German by Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott. (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006). p. 31.
- In Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art 1956-1966”. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975. (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2000). As if to prove the critique, Sleep was essentially remade in 2004 by Sam Taylor-Wood, this time featuring a certified celebrity, David Beckham. In what might be taken as symptomatic of the average contemporary audience’s shortened attention span, Beckham only slept onscreen for a total of 67 minutes, essentially just having a catnap.
- The entire four-minute video consists of only ten shots (an average shot length of roughly twenty-four seconds), six of which feature Culkin, of which four have him staring directly into the camera.
- Bruce LaBruce. “Harmony & Degeneresy”. 1998. http://harmony-‐korine.com/text/int/hk/?p=74 [accessed 11th October 2011]
- James R. Kincaid. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992). p. 4
- Kincaid. Child-Loving. p. 369.
- Steve Carlton-Ford. “Review: The Cultural Significance of the Child Star, by Jane O’Connor”. Contemporary Sociology, vol. 38, no 2. 2009. 139-140. p. 139
- Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). p. 45
- Laura Mulvey. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Visual and Other Pleasures. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989). p. 17
- Mulvey. “Visual Pleasure”. p. 15