Harmony Korine has been hailed as one of the great new voices of American cinema. Why, then, is he hanging out underneath David Blaine’s box? Steve Rose finds out.
In the hurricane of incidents, insults, opinions, speculations and projectile groceries whirling around the calm centre of David Blaine’s Perspex box over the past couple of weeks, it has almost passed without notice that the person filming it all is none other than Harmony Korine.
Yes, that Harmony Korine, the contradictory polymath who gained infamy at the tender age of 19 for having scripted Larry Clark’s teen exposé Kids, and who successfully built on that notoriety through his own controversial movies, Gummo and julien donkey-boy (“films based on underage sex and animal cruelty”, as one British newspaper put it last week). Respected film-makers like Gus van Sant and Werner Herzog have praised Korine as one of the few true voices American cinema has produced in the past 20 years. To others, he is emblematic of, if not directly responsible for, the moral decline of the west. Either way, his presence in London, at the helm of a reality TV show, for broadcast on Sky TV and Channel 4, seems rather incongruous, like finding Martin Scorsese guest-directing EastEnders.
It is unlikely that Korine is high on any TV executives’ list of directors they’d feel comfortable giving complete creative control to, especially for a stunt that has captured national attention so successfully, but he’s part of the package. When an interviewer queried Blaine’s choice of Korine before he entered the box, he said: “He is the only artist that could possibly understand this.”
Korine and Blaine devised this stunt together. They met at the premiere of Kids, in 1995, and have been close friends ever since. “I’d been hearing about him in New York before he was famous,” Korine recalls. “And the first time we met, he just made a powerful impression on me, like he does with everybody. He showed me a good trick. We were in a pizza restaurant. He got into one of the ovens and turned the heat on. He stayed in there for hours.”
Not long after their encounter, Blaine started filming his magic on the streets of New York, and Korine was part of his team. “I didn’t really have a fixed role. I’d just come and hang out with him, as kind of someone to consult. Most of that stuff was just experimental. There wasn’t any plan, we’d just try things and see what got a good reaction.” Bizarrely, Korine is credited as “gaffer” in the programme. “Yeah, that was just a title I chose because I liked the word.”
The two spent a few years generating gossip column inches as members of Leonardo DiCaprio’s hell-raising “Pussy Posse” in the late-1990s, but since then, they have been busy on their own projects. Korine on his movies, Blaine on his public endurance spectacles – being buried under a New York street, being entombed in a block of ice, and standing on top of a pillar for 36 hours.
When Blaine started talking about doing something similar outside of the US, Korine was on hand to collaborate. A key inspiration for this stunt, officially titled Above the Below, was Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, he explains. Kafka’s short story chronicles the decline of a once-celebrated public fasting artist, whose audience abandons him for more dynamic spectacles, like the circus. Kafka was supposedly mourning the loss of spirituality and mysticism in the modern age – so perhaps he would have been heartened by Blaine’s revival of public interest in the art. Or at least he might have understood the reaction to Blaine in the first week, when his box was pelted with eggs and golfballs.
Predictably, Korine was unfazed by the early hostility. “There’s no right or wrong way to react to it, that was the whole idea. We just wanted to do something that would spark a discourse. Some people might find it beautiful, some people might find it horrible, or harmless fun, or just stupid.” The stunt is now in its second week, and Korine is sitting under the box on a sunny afternoon looking out from behind the beefed-up security perimeter on a far less hostile crowd. The atmosphere has become positively carnival-like. Hawkers sell hot dogs and Blaine-related T-shirts, schoolkids chant Blaine’s name in unison in attempts to elicit a feeble wave. One woman wants six lottery numbers from him, a man moons at him, tourists take pictures of other people taking pictures. “I feel like PT Barnum,” says Korine.
While Blaine starves up in the box, you could say Korine has the easy bit, simply hanging around and shooting what happens. There’s not even much window cleaning to do now that the eggs have stopped. But nobody is quite sure what kind of programme he’s making. “We’re not shooting this like a TV documentary,” he says, adding that he’s never made anything for television before. “It’s going to be a kind of visual diary, but with set pieces too, sort of like pastiche bits.” So far he’s been seen baiting the crowd with false information, and leading them in a countdown from 10 to zero for no apparent reason. He has been shooting a Michael Jackson impersonator going through his paces under Blaine’s box. And he’s been in a helicopter over the Thames taking aerial shots. But they had also been shooting Blaine performing magic tricks in London for a month before he began his fast. “It’s not really magic magic, more like subterfuge on a mass level. There aren’t any card tricks, it’s going to be more like Chris Burden.”
Burden, the notoriously masochistic west coast artist, has been a clear influence on both Blaine and Korine. Among his more extreme performance pieces, during the 1970s, he confined himself to a baggage locker for five days, living only on water. He was also sealed under a sheet of glass for 45 hours at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, drawing national attention. And in his most notorious piece, Shoot, he filmed himself being shot in the arm at close range with a rifle.
Korine has performed similar artistic experiments in physical endurance. A few years ago he started a project called Fight, where he went out on the streets and picked fights with strangers, then let himself get beaten up. One of his cameramen was Blaine. The idea was to get himself assaulted by different New York ethnic groups, but the injuries sustained and the hospital bills accrued for each minute of footage proved to be prohibitive. “I won’t ever be able to go back to that,” Korine says with a smile. “But I might edit the footage together one day.” To be honest, he no longer looks like the sort of person who would do that sort of thing. In contrast to the firebrand Korine of old, who, accidentally or deliberately, seemed to stir up some kind of controversial incident every time anyone interviewed him, today’s Korine is considerably calmer and wiser.
“I guess I felt a general disconnect with life and with myself around that time. I’d been doing this since I was 19, and I felt so consumed by the work all the time, I felt like I was approaching life sort of tangentially. I wasn’t in a place I wanted to be.” Since julien donkey-boy, he’s spent a couple of years travelling outside America, living in London and Paris. The change of pace has done him good. His commitment to film-making has not evaporated though. After this, he says, he plans to return to the US, and start work on a new film. “I don’t have a house any more, I don’t really like anywhere enough yet, but I’ll probably go back to Tennessee and start writing.”
Meanwhile, one of his best friends is still suspended in a Perspex box by the Thames, 23 days away from his next meal. Kafka’s hunger artist set a limit of 40 days for his fast, after which time his manager judged public interest began to tail off. Blaine’s limit is four days longer, and Korine has no predictions as to how, or when, this will end. “Everyone’s talking about the hunger, but to me the mental aspect is a lot scarier. It’s about public isolation as much as hunger, the contradiction of it.”
So any idea why Blaine feels compelled to do this stuff? “He’s looking for something. Whatever that is, no one else knows. It’s his own personal journey.”