Controversial film director Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo) was directing the film that was going to be used as the centrepiece of the TV broadcast, and subsequent DVD; something that had gone largely unnoticed in the British press.
I got the interview thanks to a friend who was producing the TV event. The story was first commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph, who then rang me up five minutes before I was going to send them the copy, to say they didn’t really want it any more, and then sold to the Sunday Times, where it was passed around before eventually ending up on the news desk, who decided to just use it as source material for their coverage of David Blaine’s last day in his box.
Harmony Korine, the controversial avant-garde film director is lying opposite me on the couch nursing his neck, which he has inexplicably cricked. He thinks it may have something to do with being out on a crane last night, showing cue cards to the subject of his latest project, a certain Mr David Blaine.
A visit from a chiropractor around that afternoon has apparently made things worse, and now he is self medicating with a pack of frozen peas.
I am here with Korine to discuss how he came to be involved in this project, and why he has decided to keep such a low profile. He explains to me that he just wanted a quiet time to be able to create a piece that did justice to the incredible feat of endurance that his friend of eight years was going through. Somebody in the room jokes , “that, and you don’t want to be seen as David’s bitch”
Korine shot to fame in 1995 when Kids, the film he penned for Larry Clark divided critics. The film’s unflinching depiction of HIV and teenage sex, was seen as either immoral or the future of American cinema. Later projects, Gummo and julien donkey-boy were no less uncompromising dealing with teenage delinquency and schizophrenia respectively. Korine’s singular vision, and pioneering use of video technique, won him great acclaim from feted directors such as Gus van Zant, and Warner Herzog.
Korine is an enigma. On the one hand, he is a street smart ex champion skateboarder who for almost a decade, enjoyed hanging out with New York’s hippest crowd. On the other hand he is an intellectual fiercely concerned with preserving realism in film. So what is this champion of realism doing directing a piece for reality tv?
It started in 1995 when Korine met Blaine at the premiere of Kids. Later that evening they repaired to a friends house, which happened to have an old pizza oven. “David got in,” Korine tells me nursing his neck, ” and stayed in there for about half an hour leaving him, slightly crisp, and me very impressed”
They instantly became friends, and Korine was so fascinated by Blaine’s work that he joined the crew of Street Magic, crediting himself as gaffer, simply because he like the sound of the word. Although immersing themselves in their individual projects over the years, they had long harboured a wish to do something jointly.
Above the Below was eventually dreamed up one sunny spring afternoon by a lake in Minnesota. The original plan, Korine tells me ” was to have David in a kind of see-through egg, with a single string that would lift him about a hundred and eighty feet above the Thames, so he would be hovering towards the clouds, and people would have to look at him through binoculars.”
Far-fetched as it sounds, the plan was still to have him suspended over the Thames until just days before the event when Southwark council pulled their permission, causing panic amongst the production team, who frantically negotiated the current site.
The title for the event Above the Below was Blaine’s idea. The duration was in part inspired by Kafka’s story the Hunger Artist, in which the crowds became bored after 40 days, and by a desire to go further. It happened that Blaine’s birthday was the fourth of the fourth.The location came about out of a desire to do something outside the US, and where English is spoken.
Throughout the event Korine has been both film-maker (a term that he prefers to documentary maker) and supporter, with the power of attorney to pull Blaine out should things get too dangerous.
“I made up my mind, or rather we made up our mind,” he says “that that simply wasn’t going to happen. I was going to let him go through whatever he has to go through, and he has known that short of death or permanent injury I would not pull it”
“Right now”, Korine, who can only communicate with Blaine by shouting up, says, “David is feeling physically horrible, but mentally he can see the prize in front of him. As soon as this is over I will be going to the hospital with him. He will be on an IV drip for about four or five days before he can even eat broth or anything. Immediately post box is the most dangerous time. Anything he eats could kill him”.
Above the Below, the film, is playing in the background of the edit suite where I am talking to a still aching Korine. Anyone expecting something similar to, Frozen in Time, and Vertigo, which documented Blaine’s endurance feats in an ice block and on top of a 100 ft pole respectively is in for a shock.
Korine has borrowed techniques that he has learned from the cutting edge of film hip to produce what he calls a “non linear collage.” “I had this very specific idea in my head of what it was that I wanted,” he says. “I wasn’t going to make a straight documentary, and I wasn’t going to do a tv show, it was going to be a visual poem, I wanted to make something like my films.”
The film, shot on digital video, by Korine and various friends, walking around the site, and earlier around London and up in the air whilst Blaine performed “pieces”, has the air of an art house movie. It is a montage of images taken over the 44 day period over which pre-recorded poetry spoken by Blaine is interlaced with music that Korine has sourced from everywhere from baroque, to garage rock.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way in which Korine finds beauty in things not conventionally seen as such. “I guess I have always seen the world as horror, and I try to beautify that, so I see the horror in my own way, and I aestheticise it and I look at it with a heart” he tells me.
The other pieces, that were filmed in the month prior to the box are a secret, “They are not magic, ” Korine says, attempting to shake his head “they are like set pieces”. One suspects that Blaine’s trip atop the London Eye, strapped on by one foot (he wanted to do it with no safety precautions but his team wouldn’t let him) is one.
Korine has been delighted with the way the event has gone. All the egg throwing, all the adulation, all the casual interest, all the insults, all the amazements, he says they ” are all terrific, there is nothing to differentiate them, I see the whole thing as a whole, as a complete”
He goes on to explain, “this is not a stunt, I think it simply is what it is, and whatever you want to call it you are right to do so. I think at the highest level it might work as a piece of art, just because there is no right and wrong way to react to it, and it causes a kind of discourse. Some people will look at it and take nothing from it, others will look at it and say it is silly, and yet others will see poetry in it, and I think that is the best you can hope for”
This is a calmer and more philosophical Korine than the one who, for instance, started a project called Fight, a few years back, predicated on the notion that he would try to get beaten up by every demographic group in New York.
“I wouldn’t lay a finger on them but I would do whatever it took otherwise to get them to smash my face in.” The project ended when Korine a slight 5’7″ picked a fight with a bouncer outside a strip club and had his ankle and ribs broken.
When asked why he did it, Korine replies with a smile “I wanted to make people laugh, so I thought I would have to bleed”.
That project has been shelved but Korine is eager to start another. “A film-maker is not all that I am, but I am a film-maker first, the cinema is always what I love” He has already started writing his new film, and as soon as the event is over he will be going over to Tennessee to finish it.
Although less pugilistic, and currently teetotal he still hasn’t lost his uncompromising professional integrity. He was once described as a “visionary maverick who made the most incredible demands of his collaborators.” I doubt whether you could ask more than to sit in a box for 44 days sustained only by water.