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It has been dismissed as overindulgent and sensationalist, but Harmony Korine’s work is patently effective.  And by effective, I mean emotionally exhausting.  He has been a presence in Hollywood since 1995, when he was scouted by Larry Clark in Washington Square Park and contracted to write Kids, which ended up being a breakout film for both of them. In his first screenplay, Korine recounts a sordid episode in the life of an unknowingly HIV-positive teenager, who wanders aimlessly through New York City streets with little purpose beyond the corruption and perversion of others.  Larry Clark hired unknowns, including many of Korine’s friends, as actors.  Korine’s writing is so real that it is, at times, disgusting. But Korine’s unflinching fixation on sordid detail lifts the film out of its squalid backdrop, and to a level that reveals the serious internal crises and contradictions of its subjects.

Leo Fitzpatrick’s Telly is lascivious, deviant, and obsessed with deflowering young girls. In the 24-hour span of the film, he successfully convinces two virgins to sleep with him. One of his past conquests, Jenny (Chloë Sevigny), is diagnosed as HIV-positive after accompanying her more sexually promiscuous friend to a women’s health clinic. Because she has only ever slept with Telly, she knows that he too is sick, and spends the remainder of the film trying to catch up to him before he can unknowingly infect anybody else. Jenny’s startling, unwarranted medical prognosis seems all the more unfair when compared to the reckless but consequence-free behavior of those around her.  In Kids, the most respectable and responsible character ultimately receives the worst punishment. Not only is this disease-ridden milieu dangerous, it’s all encompassing and inescapable. Jenny, though she did agree to let go of a part of her innocence by having sex with Telly, still holds on to much of her youthful purity; she wears no makeup, dresses plainly, and manages almost all the time to look squeaky clean. But ultimately she is swept up in the forward movement and downward spiral of those around her, and ends up as much a victim to her environment as anyone else. And this trend ends up seeping through to the next wave of New York City adolescents. Just as Telly pulls his victims into sexual promiscuity, his example pulls other young neighborhood kids into the violent, sex and drug-fueled lifestyle that he leads. Telly’s influence becomes readily apparent in a party scene in which a group of young boys sits on a couch, nursing a blunt that was a gift from one of their older brothers. They each tell their own stories, trying to outdo one another. Some of the closing shots, at the same party, reveal half-naked bodies strewn across all surfaces – couches, tables, the floor – like the remnants of some perverse, pubescent, licentious battlefield.

The juxtaposition of coarse language and acts of gross violence, with childlike innocence and virginal purity is recurrent in Korine’s work, perhaps most notably in his use of Chloë Sevigny.  The actress, who was for some time romantically involved with Korine, appears in Julien Donkey-Boy, as Pearl.  In one scene, her blonde curls are illuminated in a brightly lit room while she plays the harp and sings.  In the background, her emotionally abusive father (Werner Herzog) calls her a dilettante and a slut, and encourages her brothers to torment her along with him.  Like in Kids, each of the characters in Julien Donkey-Boy is broken in some profound way – by abuse, incest, or delusion. The film’s structure is fractured and fragmented, and seems to be shot from the point of view of the schizophrenic Julien (Ewen Bremner).  Its disjointed and sometimes dizzying sequences beg that the audience distance itself, both from the form of the film, and from its deeply flawed characters. When the father reads aloud from a bottle of cough syrup – “Warning: do not take if you have hypersensitive… hypersensitive… am I hypersensitive?” – he is asking on the viewer’s behalf as well as his own. Korine questions the boundaries between sanity and insanity, as well as comfort and discomfort, until the line between acceptability and intolerability becomes muddled. He pushes the viewer to ask at what point the father’s emotional abuse, as well as Korine’s sensory, filmic abuse, becomes too much. The viewer isn’t held at an aloof distance from the violence on display, but suffers along with Julien’s younger brother Chris when his father sprays him with the cold water from a hose, telling him to stop shifting around and yelling, “Come on, be a man, it might even seep through your skin.”

A similar father-son dynamic can be seen in Ken Park, another Clark-Korine collaboration. The film is composed from a series of interconnected vignettes, each revolving around one of several teenagers. These are flanked by two brief clips, which tell the story of Ken Park, a suicidal skateboard kid, and friend of the other characters. His life and death – along with exacerbating family circumstances – serve as Korine’s excuse for the violently and sexually deranged actions of the remaining characters. For instance, Claude’s emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive father, who asks him, “Do you consider yourself a winner? You know, Claude, sometimes I look at you and I feel ashamed.” Such fatherly abuse and competition is pervasive, and drives the characters toward their mothers, and the mothers of their friends. Like in Julien Donkey-Boy, intense mother-son relationships approach – and in some instances breach – the taboo of incest.

The same familial relationships can be seen in each of Korine’s films – abuse from the father, tenderness from the mother, annoyance and intrusion from the dog.  It is hard to see these as anything other than projections of Korine’s home life onto the screen; and it is probably not coincidental that the most endearing characters are often scrawny, brunette teenagers – much like Korine at the start of his film career. The lack of any linear plot in films such as Ken Park and Julien Donkey-Boy is not unintentional. This absence just serves to mirror the aimless nature of the central, confused, and lonely adolescents. Ultimately, his films cry out for adult guidance, if only to distract from what one of Kids’ ravers calls their “amazing sexual exploration.” In both Kids and Ken Park, Korine wrote in two simultaneous lines of conversation, and intercuts between them, to emphasize the total lack of understanding across age and gender boundaries.  But his lens is not judgmental, nor is it condemnatory. Instead, it exhausts every angle of observation of adolescence. And documented in its totality, in all its crassness, youth becomes “like a vision of perfection, yo.”