28 February 2000

John Frankenheimer on Reindeer Games

DROP A DEAD SANTA TO THE SNOW IN A POOL OF HIS OWN BLOOD, ATTENTION WILL BE PAID.

While written by 28-year-old Ehren Kruger ("Arlington Road," "Scream 3"), the movie is John Frankenheimer's. The 70-year-old director's 35th major feature, "Reindeer Games" sounds like a little boy's version of a 1950s Phil Karlson robbery caper like "Five Against the House." But it's Frankenheimer's remarkable camerawork and cutting that elevates this often absurd, twist-riddled heist caper. (It's a long road from live television to Miramax's Dimension Films.) What would have easily been a genre bungle in lesser hands is, instead, a steely, nasty, twisty thing under the firm guidance of the fifty-year veteran (whose last feature was the extravagant existential posturing of "Ronin").

It's even easy to take Ben Affleck as the ex-con who makes the mistake of taking on a dead cellmate's identity for a weekend of hot sex with Charlize Theron. Affleck's latte-and-cookies presence telegraphs the naiveté of a character who's an ex-con yet still can get shilled into the robbery of an Indian-run casino.

The many turns and reversals at times threaten to make the story unhinged, if not delirious, but the robust Frankenheimer says firmly, "The subtext was so important. You can't really write about this stuff without tipping the movie, but we had to be sure what everybody knew in every scene and never allow yourself to be dishonest with the audience. Everything had to make sense in the end. I hope we anticipated and answered any questions anyone might have."

Is it a commentary on action thrillers, a put-on? "I didn't try to send anything up because I'm not good at that. But I do think that there is some humor in this movie. To me, it's not an action movie. I would describe it as a character-driven thriller. That's what I set out to make. 'Ronin' had so much more action in it that this. This is..." He thinks for a second, his eyes light up. "A suspense thriller. That's what it is."

Frankenheimer's exquisitely composed shots, lit in a desaturated, almost black-and-white range of colors, suggest that like the kind of person who would read a film script and see it play out in images as the words spill past. "My best movies, it's kind of like before I even start them, I can roughly seem them projected on this screen in my mind. Not shot for shot, but kind of a general idea of it. This was one of those movies. This is a medium of images. As you're reading certain scenes, even for the first time, certain images do -- at least to me -- come to mind. I try and plan a great deal before I get to the set. I pretty well know after rehearsal and working with my storyboard artist what this movie is going to look like. We pre-block a lot of scenes in rehearsal and I have a pretty darn good idea of how I'm going to photograph those."

While more about character than "Ronin," there are still remarkable images of his actors being flung across the wide screen here. Does he have a theory as to why violence is so much fun to watch? "I think the nature of the human being is to be challenged, to be pushed to the limits. I think that sometimes it's better to look at this vicariously than to have to do it! You'll get more satisfaction watching someone else do it, going back to the gladiators, when you could watch and not fight the lions yourself. And it truly works when you're connected to the character, emotionally invested. In 'Ronin,' you care about who's in the car. Then, when you're directing, you have to make that as realistic as you can."

Is there any kind of daily fear left after fifty years? "Well, Stanley Kubrick said it best, he said the hardest thing in the world in the morning is to get out of the car. What you say to the crew to get it going. I don't have that feeling of panic I had when I was younger. I know, quite honestly, that no matter how bad the situation is, or what kind of problem there is, I'm going to find a way to get out of it. It may not be perfect, but we're gonna get out. We're gonna come to the end of it. That doesn't make me overconfident, but it does take away a lot of the fear factor. There's anxiety, there's apprehension about whether it's being done the right way. There are hundreds of decisions a director has to make every day and it takes a kind of self-confidence to be able to make those decisions and to make them with some kind of equanimity. It's still difficult." With three pictures left on his Miramax contract, he adds, "I hope it always will be."

10 February 2000

Even Herzog started small: Harmony Korine

I'M FASCINATED BY WORK THAT STIRS UP OTHER ARTISTS. Work that somehow floats atop the white noise of critical disdain. Not so much novels that no one reads from "writers' writers," but work that somehow strikes a chord with all the right people. We like people whose lists of things are like our lists. Watch how many writers divine the soul of a party host by scanning the bookshelves around the room. (Understand why most video collections are kept in closets and cupboards, tender fixations held away from unmerciful eyes.) And what inspires artists can be the commonest trash—which will later be held up as great "pop."

A way around to explaining what I adore about both the public image and on-screen effect of the films of Harmony Korine. Some cast him as a crass provocateur, sucking up the moldering carcasses of the careers of 60s and 70s icons like Herzog, Fassbinder, Godard and others. While the 25-year-old Whitney Biennalist is often dismissed as a bratty poseur, deep strains of personal concerns filter through his work. Salon wrote recently about Korine's father, Sol, who was a documentary producer in Georgia for PBS in the 70s and had a September showing of his work at New York's Anthology Film Archives. Surprise: the fascination in Gummo (1997) with the South and its eccentrics is there in his father's work, prefiguring motifs and fixations in the young Korine's enterprises. With julien donkey-boy (1999), Korine attempted to work through his life-long relationship with his schizophrenic uncle Eddie. Our bearings are lost to Ewen Bremner's stammering attempt to capture his earnest soul and the camera's equal unhingedness. In effect, Korine attempts to embrace not only familial madness—but the family's cool gaze onto other hard realities.

It ADDS up. I have a clutch of friends in their early 20s who pour my coffee at the local shop and tell the best cracked-up stories, a crew of variously talented, wondrously wild-eyed, wild-haired musicians, skateboarders, video enthusiasts, hairdressers, painters, etc. They beg for Harmony gossip and long for Harmony limited edition collectibles. Talk to them: they see what's going on; he's not just chi-chi for a post-MTV generation. They speak knowingly of Korine's grabbed images in league with contemporary photographers like Nick Waplington, Juergen Teller, and Terry Richardson.

But all too many critics, the notably unctuous David Denby among them, sound like bosom buddies of David Letterman when they speak of Korine, cranky oldsters fearing the manic energy of youth. Yet there is something else I'm shocked they miss. I also esteem Korine for his avoidance of the low craft that passes for rock-video-dazed imagemaking, never truly ever referencing the lingo that's been manufactured for his demographic. When he does indulge in pop effects—even making a sublime video for New York downtown hipsters Sonic Youth's "Sunday"—they're often compellingly experimental, refusing to make jokey reference to video games, drugs, or television that confirms and comforts; yes, I, too, am a friend of "Friends." What truly calculating type would make the penultimate shot of their first feature an image of a frail, angelic, girlish, rail-thin, bare-chested boy in bunny ears rushing through gray rain to the camera with a dead cat in his hands while Roy Orbison wails "Crying"? Is this kid a careerist?

Take the earliest glimpse of Gummo. The mischief starts before the first image appears. As the Fine Line Features logo unfurls, a child chants, "Peanut butter, peanut butter..." and as the Time-Warner name burns in, the chant continues: "Motherfucker!" A nice opening for a largely visual, overtly experimental narrative on a megacorporation's release slate. It's a precis the articulate autodidact relishes. "I love it. That to me is the future. The most subversive thing you can do with this kind of work, the most radical kind of work, is to place it in the most commercial venue. When Godard did Breathless, the reason it became influential and changed the cinematic vernacular is that it came out in a commercial context. I only think things change when they're put out to the masses, regardless if somebody dislikes them."

Korine sees his goal as a mix of realism and absurdism, captured by whatever means—"Mistake-ism" is a word he's coined for himself—try every damned thing as if you'll never have a chance to again. Yet Gummo tumbles along to its own blissed-out rhythm, never pretending to the alleged ethnographic veracity of the Korine-penned Kids. Korine, mistaken for a skateboarding New York clubber, in fact spent his formative years near Nashville, where Gummo was shot. Gummo is a Southern piece through and through, particular in its embrace of a dark and freakish mood. "Oh, it's totally, one-hundred percent Southern," Korine agreed the first opportunity I had to speak with him. "I'm a Southern boy so how would it not be? I'd say Gummo is an American film; it's Southern, but it's strange. But it's a genre-fuck. I love the South, love it. I didn't leave until I was 18. I had to move out to understand it."

Gummo takes the form of peculiar vignettes, a form Korine admires in American joke-telling as well. His eclectic teenage white-trash fantasia, which is composed mostly of vaudeville-like routines, vignettes that incorporate an albino woman who adores Patrick Swayze and mentally challenged performers, and unlikely actors such as a grown-up, tap-dancing Linda Manz, the once-young girl from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, as a silly if loving mom. Teenage beauty is lovingly portrayed, unlike Larry Clark's prurient approach, and Korine is knowing in his depiction of teenage fear of "the other." His teenagers, like Malick's, are innocents who make it up as they go along. And Gummo boasts as many bare boy-chests as a season's worth of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts fashion layouts. Many scenes are knowing about the dynamic between teenage homosexual panic and homoeroticism, but Korine would only grin when I tried to get him to talk about this aspect. "What do you want me to say?"

As photographed by the great cinematograper Jean-Yves Escoffier, Gummo alternates gorgeous, sometimes dreamlike imagery, with poker-faced scenes that can be intensely distasteful. There's glue-sniffing, cat-torture and the mercy-killing of an invalid grandmother. Yet Korine's use of music and sound is rich and inventive, and his sometimes startling use of mixed media, including Super 8, video, and Polaroids, marks Gummo as bold work. At its brightest luminous moments, Gummo suggests the go-for-broke immediacy of 90s Asian filmmaking.

As does julien donkey-boy, easily one of the most striking films on release in 1999, steeped in the subjectivity of the lead character's confusion and a closing half hour that strains for the transcendent and may even have attained it. The slim thread of plot in the second Harmonic vaudeville tosses off longeurs along the way, but you will not be able to reconcile the depth of emotions it churns up by the final reels.

Those subscribing to conventional wisdom expect only jagged sarcasm and sub-Even Dwarves Started Small obscurantism from Korine. But julien is a nagging artifact. For instance, Julien finds an epiphany at a Pentecostal church service late in the film, the voices raised to heaven like his own gibbering incantations. It's a headlong turn, yet there are other strains of spirituality in Korine's vision: the images, strikingly transferred from video, at times resemble the aged, candle-smoked enamel layers of religious icons, suiting the pitch in the film's final turn toward a muzzy, muted religiosity.

Korine expresses disappointment that more journalists have not been rude to him. I asked how he would react to Gummo getting labeled "self-indulgent." As if anticipating howls of hatred to come, Korine says, "How can an artist be expected not to be self-indulgent? That's the whole thing that's wrong with filmmaking today. Ninety-nine percent of the films you see do not qualify as works of art. To me, art is one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person. Self-indulgent to me means it's one man's obsession. That's what great artists bring to the table. When fucking critics or whatever say, 'he's self-indulgent,' I don't know what that means. The reason I stopped watching films is because so many people lack any kind of self-indulgence. We can talk about aesthetics and influence but in the end when I go to see anything all I want is to be entertained in a different way. I don't want to be bored by the bland and generic. Film is a dead art because of people not taking chances."

I honour Harmony just for the adrenaline he's shot through the spry young shoots I know: someone their age who flails gainfully against the boundaries of art he only half-understands but is willing to die trying (or try dying, in the case of Fight, a project aborted after much personal injury.) I can't knock the kid.

[Originally published in a slightly different form in Cinema Scope's Best of the Nineties issue, February 2000.]