Narco-Fueled Micro Deconstructed Jam: An Interview with Harmony Korine
May 8, 2013 | by Christopher Higgs
Harmony Korine’s name is usually paired with the word controversial. The writer and director of the films Trash Humpers, Mister Lonely, Julien Donkey-Boy, and Gummo, most recently he helmed Spring Breakers, which was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. A Crack Up at the Race Riots, his debut novel, was originally published by Mainstreet/Doubleday in 1998, and has recently been rereleased by Drag City. As unconventional as any of his films, the book presents a multimedia assemblage of text both printed and handwritten, drawings, photographs, news clippings, suicide notes, celebrity gossip, appropriated material, lists, diagrams, ideas for books and films, as well as stories and scenes that are at times humorous and at times disturbing, but always provocative and engaging. At the time of A Crack Up at the Race Riots’s initial publication, Korine explained the book to David Letterman as “the great American choose-your-own-adventure novel.”
I recently sat down with Korine to discuss the rerelease of A Crack Up at the Race Riots.
Since you wrote the book fifteen years ago, I wonder how you feel about it now. Do you still feel close to it, or does it seem like a distant memory?
I think both. I was about twenty-three when I wrote it, but it’s still pretty close to how I think now. It sets up a lot of the themes and ideas that I would start to work on later. I definitely see some connections and through-lines to things I’ve been doing today.
What do you remember about the process of composing it?
I’m gonna be honest with you, I was doing a lot of drugs back then. So my memory is kind of spotty, but it was definitely a kind of narco-fueled micro-deconstructed jam I was trying to get out.
Were you carrying around a composition book and jotting material down as it came to you?
No. At that point in my life I had no idea how to contain my ideas. The creative process was more explosive for me. And I didn’t have a filter, and I didn’t try to filter anything, as much as just try to get stuff down. So, I would just write everywhere. I would wake up in the morning and hear a conversation on the street, like a guy on crutches—this is my own sense of humor—I’d hear a guy on crutches going down the streets and I’d hear him muttering something to himself, something observational, and then I’d write that down on a piece of paper and then I would change his name. I would think, What if Clint Eastwood said that? Or, What if Snoop said that same sentence? Or, What if it was a quote from Margaret Thatcher? I was so interested in how the humor would change or devolve into something else. So that’s how it would happen. I would write things and then I would change the authorship. I would appropriate things from certain places. Then within certain quotations, I would change words around inside it, or changes sentences, or break it down in some way, or add to it in some way. And a lot of them were ideas for other things, but in the end I just liked the titles better. Like, they would be titles for books I would want to write, but I would look at them and I would think, Wow, the titles in and of themselves are exciting.
Did you just give all this material to an editor who then shaped it, or did you shape it and give it to them?
I shaped it. It definitely had a form and shape. It was close in some ways to how I had written the script for Gummo in that I had written it in this sprawling collage-like way, things were really tangential and scattered, but at the core there was some kind of—even in a loose way—type of narrative, or some type of thematic connection. And then once I had amassed enough scenes or ideas or stories or writing or whatever, I would start to place them in a way. After the fact I would start to build a story in that way.
The appropriation thing you mentioned a moment ago interests me. This was a conscious thing you were doing?
Yeah, I was doing that. I would write things and then I would attribute it to other authors. At that time, the whole idea of authorship and appropriation and collage and lists was very exciting to me. This idea of not knowing where things came from. Even kind of tricking myself. It was more like pulling things out of the air and making sense of them. Trying to tell a story in a different way, trying to make something that was more inexplicable but at the same time had a certain kind of heart to it. And also, again, it was very much about the things I was into at the time, joke books and books of lists. I used to have these books that were like anecdotal celebrity stories that I thought were hilarious, and I would take things from them and add things to them—I was getting into this idea of the myth, of mythology, how mythology can be bastardized and manipulated and played with in that way.
One of the amazing things about the book is its range of engagement with pop culture, from rap icons like MC Hammer and the Ghetto Boys to comedy icons like Buster Keaton and Peter Sellers. Does the juxtaposition of those two spheres have something to do with this idea of mythology that you’re talking about?
Yeah, it’s that. And it was also the idea of vaudeville. I was obsessed with vaudeville and that idea of showmanship. So I was seeing a connection between what people consider to be high and low culture. I could see connections in things like Walter Benjamin’s writing, and connections with certain rap stars and certain types of music. Again, appropriation in artworks and vaudeville, I was feeling these kinds of connections at that time.
I’m interested in your history as a reader. I came across an online interview you did with a UK magazine where you said you hadn’t read a book since the seventh grade. I feel like that has to be an exaggeration, right?
Yeah, it is an exaggeration, but not by much. I’ve started lots of books, but it’s hard for me to finish them. It’s weird. I don’t even know how people read new fiction anymore because there’s so much old fiction that exists that seems great that’s unread. It’s overwhelming to me. But, I mean, I do read. But there probably haven’t been many people less literate than me that have been in The Paris Review.
The crazy thing is that when you get to Tupac’s list of favorite novels, on page seventy, of the book, those are all pretty serious literary classics.
Yeah, I guess those are books–I went to college for one year–and those are things I was looking at during that time or that I would hear people talk about. I would buy those books and read passages from them or read the whole thing if I could make it through and, again, it would be like talking about Kierkegaard but maybe Kierkegaard would be funny next to Milton Berle. Or, like, the history of molestation in the Boy Scouts. I remember there was a book about that at the time that was a compilation or an encyclopedia that I thought was the craziest thing I ever read, and I was like, How could something like that even exist? So I wanted the book to work like that.
Did you study writing or film?
I studied writing at NYU. I graduated high school in Nashville and then went to the creative writing program, and in the first year that’s when I wrote Kids.
I imagine readers might want to make connections between the book and your films, maybe in terms of themes or style. You mentioned this earlier, but are there ways you see the book as being in conversation with your films, or do they seem like separate things?
I think it’s tricky, you know, there’s trickiness in the book and trickiness in the films. It messes with identity and personality. It pushes this idea of moral ambiguity, and again I was trying to break things down in such a way as to make things emotionally confusing—things that are funny are also kind of tragic, sometimes they’re both at once. Also there’s a lot about a certain type of celebrity, mythology, and sociopathic characters, suicide notes as form letters. And even in the way that it’s presented, the form of the narrative is probably not so far from my first couple of films.
Do you think about the book as experimental or avant-garde, or do those terms turn you off?
I don’t know. I think a lot of it is base humor. I don’t know if you remember those dirty joke books that were all one-liner dirty joke books that kids used to walk around with in elementary school. I wanted it to be close to that. This idea that you could just open a page and be charmed and offended by something in thirty seconds.
You’ve mentioned confusion a few times, which is one of the reasons I really gravitate toward your work—I like art to be confusing. I see confusion as extremely valuable. Many people, however, dislike confusion and see it as a negative thing. What’s your position on confusion?
Well, confusion or dissonance are things that sometimes work in opposing ways but they kind of set the story straight. Sometimes the most interesting thing to watch is the way things dance with each other or connect with each other in ways that you would never expect. I’ve always felt more attracted to things that were more emotionally complicated. I had these experiences as a kid, I remember certain things happening in school that were horrifying that I would see, certain things of violence or certain things of cruelty, but around that something might happen afterwards to cause everyone to laugh, and that always blew me away. I remember watching girls fight in tenth grade, and these girls are just beating the shit out of each other, ripping each other’s clothes off, and I remember watching these girls fighting in a hallway with all these lockers around, and hundreds of kids shouting and one of the girl’s shirts came off and she had these big boobs and I remember while she was in a headlock some dude went up and started feeling on her boobs. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen, because it was such extreme violence and you had all this energy around the periphery with all these people screaming and you had some dude in the middle who was completely turned on by it and had no shame and just went for it. And I didn’t even know how to compute all of those things happening at one time. And at the same time, it was interesting to me because it was like a play or some kind of strange theater. There was something obviously horrifying about it, but at the same time it was oddly compelling in a kind of theatrical way. And so that was always something interesting, you know, when people talk about morality or right and wrong, sometimes it’s hard to tell which way is up and which way is down, and sometimes those situations are the most dramatic and interesting.
You’ve said about the book that you wanted to write the great American novel or the great American choose-your-own-adventure book. When you emphasize “American,” I wonder what characteristics come to your mind.
I think that most people make a mistake when they try to define it in some type of descriptive way. I would say that it’s mostly a feeling. When I talk about America or about being the most American director or writing the great American novel, it’s more about a feeling, about what’s beneath the surface or what’s behind the alleyways and the strip malls. It’s a kind of a sinister headspace that’s more inexplicable, more like something in the air, that reminds me of being a kid and being lost and forced to … you know, like my dad getting angry at me and making me walk home on the side of the road on a highway and then showing up to my house eight hours later and no one even cared. That to me was a great American experience. And that’s kind of what I was after.
I’m curious if you have any plans to publish another novel any time soon?
Yes, I do. I actually started one now that I think is going to be the best thing I’ve written. It kind of picks up where this book leaves off. It kind of works in a similar way, but it’s a slightly more unified concept. I want to have it done hopefully by the end of the year. It’s something that I’ve been working on for a while now, in between films, and it’s something I’m just getting back into. Actually right now writing is probably the most exciting thing for me. Writing and painting are probably what I enjoy most.