I am now twenty-three and all I can think about is how that’s the same age Harmony Korine was when I wrote E-N-V-Y on my fist and socked him in the head. I was eighteen when I did it, and more obsessed with Harmony than I’ve been with any director, rapper, writer, rock-star, anyone. When I read that Harmony was having an art opening at the Patrick Painter Gallery in Santa Monica, I called my friend Nick Lowe and said, “Nick, man, Harmony’s coming to town. We have to beat him up!” I felt queasy and eager, as if someone had dared me to kiss a girl or jump naked into a lake.
Nick started cracking up when he heard my plan; he loved the idea. I knew Nick would understand. In high school Nick had gone to see John Waters – one of his early artistic influences – sign books, and since Nick didn’t have a book he asked Waters to sign his penis instead (Waters cheerfully obliged).
But a few days later Nick backed out of the plan. “While I fully support you punching Harmony Korine,” he said, “I don’t think I should play a part in the fight. This is your project.” I gave him a hard time about it, but finally I forgave him. I couldn’t stay angry with someone who called my loopy impulse a “project.”
My roommate Madeline also empathized. Little Madeline, petite, dressed like a French school boy out of The 400 Blows, asexual and serious (her lesbian relationships were still a few years down the road) – she looked at me and asked, “Are you really going to do that? Are you serious?” She wasn’t accusing or doubting me. In fact, her voice was slightly awestruck, as if my idea was the smartest thing she had ever heard.
Madeline was an intern on the 20th Century Fox studio lot, and she spent her lunch breaks stalking Gillian Anderson (Special Agent Dana Scully), or rather, lingering unnecessarily outside The X-Files sound stage. For an art project (we were both art majors at the University of California, Los Angeles, had both recently failed to get into the film school) she shot hundreds of Polaroids of Scully’s freeze-framed face and displayed them on a fluorescent light-table, as if they were evidence from some autopsy. She said that she wanted to “show how our consumption of trivial facets and details of mass culture has taken on an almost scientific morbidity – ” blah blah blah. I thought all her talk was just a cerebral windshield for Madeline’s more desperate cravings.
It’s the same for me with Harmony. I’d like to put some intellectual spin on what I did, but the emotions are, finally, embarrassingly simple. At the heart of the matter is Gummo, Harmony’s first film.
The movie opens and closes with tornado footage, and the tornado (with its fusion of chaos and eerie order) is the driving metaphor of the film. Set in Xenia, Ohio, Gummo depicts a desperate, stupid, vile and anarchistic white-trash wonderland. The film abandons linearity, skipping helter-skelter from found-footage to documentary, from blotchy video images to grainy stills. Beer-swilling rednecks wrestle a chair. A black dwarf rejects the sexual advances of a weepy drunk (played by Harmony). Two grown identical twins wash each other in a small bathtub. In a pool in the rain, two sisters take turns catching and kissing a waifish boy wearing a pink bunny hat.
And then the storm finally arrives. The “Bunny-Boy” runs through the downpour and holds one last murdered cat accusatorily toward the screen and the audience. Then the tornadoes come. The sky goes dark with flying leaves. Roy Orbison’s “Crying” wails in the background. The sun shimmers behind the writhing twisters. Houses and windows crack, the camera shakes, and the air takes horrible shape.
The first time I saw the film, in the final tornado montage, I started screaming at the screen. I smacked the back of the seat in front of me with my hands. I felt great, dizzy, like I was rich, like my name had been pulled out of a hat. I hissed, whistled, I laughed my stupid head off. But the dozens of times I’ve watched the film since, the final tornado footage makes me want to despair. I can’t think of a single other movie that I’ve cried at, but, as Orbison warbles and the tornadoes turn the world upside down, something in my chest seizes up, and I lose it.
Gummo became my personal model for a “great” film, one that performs a balancing act between fantasy and documentary. Harmony rejects the (still) popular notion of the director as a grand tyrant stamping his artistic OK on every aspect of a film. Instead of a director, I think of Harmony as a lion-tamer – the drama of his “act” is the tension between his personal aesthetic and the capricious nature of his subjects.
One summer I worked at a small video store in New York City. One of the other employees, Mitch, had worked as a production assistant on Gummo, one of the few professionally trained members of the film crew. He thought Harmony was a joke. “The guy didn’t do anything! The cinematographer [Jean-Yves Escoffier] did all the real work, and the actors had to come up with all the scenes and lines on their own. He just ran around like a stupid fucking kid saying, ‘That’s cool! Yeah! Do more of that!’”
What Mitch wanted, obviously, was a “real” director, someone to control the film. Harmony has no interest in this. In an interview with artist Mike Kelly, Harmony said, “We tried really hard to have images come from all directions. If I had to give this style a name, I’d call it a ‘mistake-ist’ art form – like science projects, things blowing up in my face.”
For example, in Gummo a child in pink bunny ears, short-shorts, and plastic flip-flops walks into a junkyard, and is attacked by two scrawny kids, brothers, dressed up as cowboys, and weilding cap-guns. “I hate fucking rabbits!” One of the kids shouts at the Bunny-Boy. The oldest is seven or eight years old, tops, the other a few years younger. “Goddamn rabbit!” The boys fire their puny pistols and the Bunny-Boy falls to the mud, dead. They stand over him, howling and cussing, “Rabbits come into my fucking house I kill ‘em! Look at his fag bunny ears! He smells like pussy! He smells like an asshole! He smells like a big dick. HE SMELLS LIKE A PILE OF BULLSHIT!”
The Bunny-Boy is a kind of white-trash totem animal. He wanders, mute and magical, through Harmony’s Xenia. In a doorless bathroom stall, the Bunny-Boy plays the film’s droning accordian theme song . He is a creature of fantasy (born, no doubt, from Freaks, Los Olvidados, La Strada), a shard of Harmony’s imagination.
The cowboy brothers, however, are pure documentary. Even if their roles seem familiar, there’s something about their lispy hate, the unadulterated spit and ignorance of their words that exists outside the artificiality of film-making. Like the lion tamer’s lions, they are alive. Perhaps they have been led, duped even, onto Harmony’s vaudevillian stage and forced to interact with the whimsical Bunny-Boy, but for a brief moment they are so dangerous and present that there is no denying them.
What are we to make of this scene? Do we classify it as an imaginative construction or as an unsettling moment of documentary? Both, of course, and neither. It is the “Reality TV” principle taken to the millionth power. It’s Chris Burden crucified on a Volkswagen bug. It’s Andy Kaufman riling thousands of Memphian wrestling fans. The Bunny-Boy is fake, a piece of fancy. The children are real, ferociously so. Art and reality meet in the junkyard (it could have been a country club, a suburban dining room, it doesn’t matter), equally matched, and grapple there.
Another reason Gummo hit me so hard is because it all seemed so damn familiar. The film could easily have been set in my hometown, Manila, California, Pop. 1000, Elev. 0, a cluster of houses and trailers strewn along a sandy peninsula on the northwest coast of the state.
I remember walking down the railroad tracks near my house and being accosted by two freckled blonde brothers (in my memory their faces have actually been replaced by the Gummo kids). “You fucking hippie faggot!” one shouted. “Hippie faggot!” the younger one chimed in.
I was a senior in high school, in jeans and a T-shirt, and with only the slightest suggestion of a George Harrison haircut (circa ’66). “What exactly makes me a hippie or a faggot?” I asked the older brother. He sucked in his breath, and in one bilious exhalation, screamed, “Because your face looks like my ass crack! AND YOU SMELL LIKE SHIT!” As I walked away, the younger brother hurled a pebble at my back.
I know those are his exact words because I wrote them down as soon as I got home and used them later in a short story. Unlike most of the kids in Manila, I wasn’t poor, but the “white-trash lifestyle” was all around me. A family died when the father’s meth-cooking operation blew them to pieces. Our neighbor Ralph choked to death on his own vomit, his wife, Lily, unconscious beside him. The town’s only gas station shut down before I was born, the pump nozzles splayed, the gallon and dollar dials rusted to 00.00. Local kids knocked the City Limits sign off its post and threw it in a ditch. When I tried to stop Brady O’Leary, age ten, from thrashing his dog with a chain, he whined at me, “Why not? Jesus, it is my dog.” When my sister borrowed some sugar for cookies one Christmas, there was a warning note in the jar: Careful! Sugar.
In high school most of my stories and Super 8 films were about Manila. Though not exactly part of it, I was intoxicated by the grain and texture of these lives. Everything seemed rawer, more immediate, for these people, especially the children. Despite the meanness and bigotry, there was something perversely enchanting to me about their knee-jerk existences. It was the whole “Noble Savage” idea, minus the nobleness.
One of my short stories from that time describes Manila’s mythological origins: the town was born as trash washed up by the ocean. Wire, chain-link, fiberglass, tires, and broken glass discarded by other, nicer, coastal towns accumulated on a shoal. The detritus slowly formed structure: shacks, old cars, sheds, trailers, railroad tracks. People suddenly appear, scuttling like homeless hermit crabs out of the drift-junk, clutching salty clothes to their clammy bodies. Manila “thrives” for a short time. Kids scream, dogs howl, cats fuck. Then a huge wave rises out of the ocean; it sweeps over the peninsula, and, in a few clattering crashing minutes, takes back everything it has given.
This scenario is not, in fact, so far-fetched. Seismologists have predicted that the long dormant Cascadia fault line just off the coast of Manila could slip sometime in the next 50 years causing an 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale “megathrust” earthquake. The quake will launch a tsunami, a wavelength rippling through the ocean at 600 mph, invisible until it reaches the shallows.
Then, suddenly, the tide will rise eighty feet, battering the town with debris-choked water. Next the tide will drop eighty feet, exposing seaweed and gasping fish. This trough and wave combination will pummel the town seven to twelve times in only an hour. Like a sand-castle in a rising tide, the entire peninsula could liquefy and crumble.
The last time the Cascadia fault shook – according to massive disturbance in the geologic record, Native American folktales, and Chinese historical records – was on January 26, 1700 A.D. Another is due. It could come any day. Growing up, this natural disaster both worried and delighted me; it was awful, but it also seemed to make sense.
What’s significant here (as far as me punching Harmony is concerned) is that I was fumbling, in my mind and fiction, with nearly identical social setting and characters, and that I viewed these lives through the same calamity-tinted glasses. When I started shooting videos and super8 films (melodramatic pans of a busted Buick, “Eat Shit” graffitied on it), I was groping for something that I didn’t understand yet. There was something there, and I wanted it. I just didn’t know what “it” was. Or, I didn’t know what “it” was until I saw Gummo and started screaming at the screen. And now we’re starting to get to the heart of it. Because, the truth is, I never got a hold, never got my fingers around it. My “white-trash” films were sentimental hokum. They stank. They smelled like shit.
When I was thirteen, just beginning to jot down my sloppy adolescent thoughts, Harmony was in New York City selling his teen-ploitation screenplay Kids to photographer Larry Clark. While Harmony was filming Gummo, I was shooting a video about dorm life (of all lame subjects). The year Harmony had his art opening, my biggest “achievement” was boxing with Nick in an alley and having some midnight “massage parlor” girls come out and watch.
Tomorrow it’s the ripe old age of twenty-three, and artistically I don’t have much to show for myself. My Manila movies are crappy, and I don’t plan on making more. When I think about Gummo I feel robbed. An artist’s childhood is his birthright, the stuff of his dreams and nightmares. Sure, there’s always an endless supply of material to fuel painting, poetry, performance-fucking-art, but sometimes there’s the one “big” work waiting to be made, the one “right” way to make it.
It can be humiliating to realize how simple one’s psychology really is, how patently obvious the influences are. For years I thought punching Harmony was this mysterious chapter in my life, but looking back on it… Let’s just say: I wrote E-N-V-Y on the fingers of one fist, and L-O-V-E on the fingers of the other. And then I went looking for trouble.
So I’m at the opening. It’s at Patrick Painter Gallery at Bergamot Station, a handful of galleries and artist studios clumped around an asphalt courtyard. Though a few friends were also coming, I took the bus here alone. It was, I’d decided, my thing. Also I was sloshed. I had been drinking tequila all afternoon, and had a flask of Jose Cuervo in the back pocket of my jeans for nerves. I wore a white-trash outfit: my faded “work” jeans, the ones to get dirty in, and a car-mechanic shirt buttoned over a wife-beater. I wanted to be the kind of person Harmony would be interested in. I wanted to seem desperate and dumb, and I suppose, looking back on it, I was.
I arrived early, and Harmony was still putting the show up, making sure the artwork was properly hung, figuring out the labels and prices. He seemed annoyed and nervous, like a kid before a recital or school play. He kept calling people on his cell phone; he sounded bratty. Most of the details of the day are pretty foggy because of the tequila. I know the first time I talked to him he was sitting on the wine table watching the art-scene people arrive. I thought that the typical art gallery atmosphere of defensiveness (everyone worrying that their bluff will be called) was mixed with a dangerous buzz. Were there more freaks and riff-raff here than at most openings? Didn’t everyone seem a little angry and crazed? It felt like everyone had something to prove.
Gummo is just great. Sure, he said. I told him that it did, captured, something I hadn’t seen before. He shrugged that off. I told him that I fucked his grandmother (he lived with his grandmother for years), but couldn’t keep a straight face while I said it. He wasn’t impressed. I wanted to fight. He said that he didn’t really feel like it. He excused himself, and joined a group of his friends who had arrived: a white guy with an afro, another in camouflage and big yellow sunglasses, etc. Harmony wore a white T-shirt and his beard was grown out all over his face, like some adolescent Mennonite. His skin was pasty and wet; he looked sick. I probably talked to him three or four more times that afternoon. He was mostly polite, somewhat annoyed. The way I imagine him, he always has a trace of sneer.
Finally I did it. People were mingling in front of the gallery, drinking, chatting. Harmony walked past and I ran two steps and punched him in the side of the head, just above the ear. Or maybe just below, near the joint of his jaw. I don’t remember how hard it was, but I know it was loud. The feel of my knuckles on his head (the only physical contact we ever made) vanished in a rush of fear and adrenaline, but I can still hear the hollow clunking sound. Nick Lowe confirmed this with me later. “It was loud,” he said, “everyone heard it.”
What happened next seems hazy and dreamlike, especially the visuals (my glasses got knocked off at some point). Harmony didn’t fall down, but moved (staggered?) away from me. Then he swung at me with something, but the people around us were already holding us back. So he started swearing, a rush of profanity: cocksucker, motherfucker, son of a mother fucking bitch!
He was snarling, hysterical. I’d only had children fling this kind of language at me before, and I was surprised to learn that it stung. It sounds slightly idiotic, considering the circumstances, but it hurt my feelings. I bounced back with some of my own (“Come on motherfucker, let’s go!”) but it sounded forced and theatrical. What was I talking about? What was I doing?
He screamed at me, “You son of bitch! You sucker punched me! I’ll fucking kill you, man, I’m going to fucking kill you!” and, for the first time, it crossed my mind that punching someone might make them mad. Up until then I had only been thinking of myself, of the moments leading up to this moment. And fighting Nick in the alley had always been intimate; afterwards, sweaty and hurting, Nick and I squatted on the concrete, leaned into each other, almost embraced. It was something we were doing together, a shared purpose. Harmony wasn’t interested in sharing – he was pissed.
Some single-minded part of my brain had convinced me that this was something that I had to do, but now the voice in my head was sarcastic: Well that’s just great, Nathan, now you’ve done it!
Nick had to fill me in on some of the best details later. First, I didn’t realize what Harmony had tried to attack me with. “A crutch!” Nick told me, gleeful. “That lunatic pulled this lady’s crutch out from under her.” Harmony had immediately grasped the low drama of the situation and made it more raucous and exciting.
Another thing I had to be told later: several people started shooting the scene on their digital cameras, and when everything was over, there was scattered applause. The crowd thought the whole thing was planned. They thought it was art. Harmony Korine’s opening? Of course there will be a fight arranged. But you do not arrange a besotted fan. These things happen by mistake.
After a minute or two, a security guard came and tossed me off the property. He was a black man, thin, past fifty, one of those security guards you see sometimes at banks or museums in their ironed pants and starched shirts, and can’t help but wonder, “If push came to shove, what, exactly, would this poor old dude do?”
Well, what he did was wrap his arms under my armpits and across my chest and drag me backwards across the courtyard. There was something almost gentle about the way he held me. “Let go of me, man,” I pleaded with him. “Please, come on, don’t throw me out.” “You’re bothering people here, son,” I remember him saying softly in my ear. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
Between my wretched vision (no glasses), the adrenaline, and the tequila, the city was too loud and too bright. I walked around, found a nice telephone pole to lean against, and started bawling. I don’t tell this part of the story most of the time, but the truth is, I felt miserable and stupid and lost. I was actually lucky: a few minutes after I was thrown out (I’m told) Harmony gathered up his buddies and went looking for me, presumably to do some real damage. I don’t know how they missed me – I was only a few blocks away – but they did. Finally, I called a friend collect and asked him to pick me up.
Later, when Nick told me that he thought the “whole thing had gone really well,” I felt a strange pride, as if I had done a good deed. When I heard that the fight was a topic of conversation at one party in East Hollywood, another in Silver Lake, I actually had the gall to say, “Yeah, I did that asshole a favor. Come on! This will help his reputation. You don’t get to be an enfant terrible without taking your licks.”
When Madeline came back to our apartment from school (she couldn’t make it to the opening) she wanted to know the whole story. By then I’d been looking in the mirror, chatting on the phone, puffing myself up. Madeline sat on my futon, and I paced back and forth, the adrenaline running again, telling the story, adding the good parts about the crutch, the video cameras, the clapping. She was clearly impressed, even jealous. The closest she would ever get to Gillian Anderson was later that month when they bumped into each other coming around the corner of a building (“Just like something in a cartoon!” she would tell me).
“So why did you do it?” Madeline asked.
I’d been anticipating this question, and had come up with a first-class answer. “I guess that’s like asking Rauschenberg why he erased the de Kooning,” I said. “Sometimes you can’t just learn from the artists you admire or who came before you. Sometimes you have to delete them. You’ve got to make some grandiose gesture to get them off your back. The anxiety of influence and all that. You have to prove to yourself that they’re nothing special, nothing sacred.”
“Wow. I like that,” she said. “Does that work?”
“Sure. Of course,” I said. “Of course it does. Of course…”
Last year I moved out of Los Angeles to get a Masters in English in a college town in southern Mississippi. It is, of course, the poorest state, and I’ve heard a few good stories about the ways lives are lived, but that stuff doesn’t seem as juicy anymore. I pretty much stick to the Liberal Arts Building and the Library. For Thanksgiving I went home to Manila, but I stayed inside my parents’ house the whole weekend.
My television is on my bedside table and I watched Gummo twice yesterday, once in the morning, another time before falling asleep. I skimmed through parts, jumped around. It’s flawed, I tell myself, it has all kinds of silly scenes, weak spots. I didn’t cry at the end, wouldn’t let myself. My own video camera is in the closet with the towels. The eyepiece is broken. I haven’t pointed a film camera in years. I guess I’ve given it up.
I’m turning twenty-three tomorrow, and sometimes I wish I had another shot at Harmony. This time I’d fucking kill him.