THE BOY WITH THE KALEIDOSCOPE MIND: Q&A with Writer-Director-Provocateur Harmony Korine


BY JONATHAN VALANIA To mark the 20th anniversary of A Crack Up At The Race Riots, his deliriously Dada attempt at writing, as he once put it, “the great American Choose Your Own Adventure novel,” we got the aging enfant terrible of American cinema on the horn. Discussed: Drugs, Tupac, apocalyptic Manson-ian race wars, why the Pamela Anderson sex tape is the greatest movie ever made, drugs, what band he wishes he could have been a member of, getting banned from Letterman for rifling through Meryl Streep’s purse in the Green Room, drugs, making a batshit insane video for The Black Keys as giant babies toted around by the ATL Twins (wearing Patrick & Dan death masks) in Baby Bjorns (SEE BELOW), form letter suicide notes, what historical figure he would like to be reincarnated as, the unimpeachable genius of Werner Herzog, i.e. his greatest defender, and how he once used hard drugs to quiet the screaming fractals of his kaleidoscopic mind. Enjoy.

PHAWKER: Before we jump into the book, I have a couple of warm-up questions. First question is what movie that you didn’t make that you wish that you did make?

HARMONY KORINE: Oh that’s easy, The Pamela Anderson Sex Tape.

PHAWKER: What band, living or dead, do you wish you were in?

HARMONY KORINE: Milford Graves, he’s this great drummer, that released records on ESP back in the 60s and he used to wear shin guards on his calves when he would drum. And sometimes he would tap-dance and stuff while he would play.

PHAWKER: Lastly, novel you wish you’d written?

HARMONY KORINE: Out Of My Trunk: The Milton Berle Joke Book.

PHAWKER: [Laughs] You’re good at this. So jumping to your book, Crack Up At The Race Riot, there’s a list of titles for books that you planned to write one day. Let me just throw some out here to get them on the record — Foster Homes & Gardens, Gentle Jesus and Drugs, Can’t Touch This, Chink And I’ll Pluck Your Slant, Give Me Some Clit, which is my personal favorite and last but not least Help Me Rhonda Yeah Gimme Some Head, did any of those books ever get written?

HARMONY KORINE: No. I wanted to write all of them, but then I decided that just the title was good enough. I would sit around and write in a way that a lot of writers write pages and pages of story ideas and character ideas, I would just write titles of books. The titles seemed to be perfect in and of themselves, and I felt that writing the actual book would just ruin it.

PHAWKER: So when you sat down to put this book together, was this a collection of stuff that you had in notebooks and ideas that you gathered over the years, or do you sit down with a blank piece of paper and come up with everything that’s in A Crackup at the Race Riots?

HARMONY KORINE: I was really young then, early twenties, was doing a lot of narcotics, hallucinating all the time, and just tweaking out, just kind of going for it. So I had all this creative energy, and I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to say or where it was coming from. I felt like, in some ways, I was just the conduit to it, to some type of some type of crazy narco micro drug poetry. And I was just spewing it out in some ways, writing on scraps of paper and notebooks and on the walls sometimes and then using computers and crayons and it didn’t really matter where it came from — high culture, low culture, things that I would hear on the train or, I might hear a conversation on a television show… when I would look at them as a whole, I would find this story with thematic connections in a collage-style narrative. And then I thought that maybe I could tell a story in this way, maybe even approach a novel in this way.

PHAWKER: There are a number of letters from Tupac Shakur, which are presumably fictional. What do you think happened to him? What’s your theory on what became of Tupac?

HARMONY KORINE: That’s a good question. I mean, I think he died, I think he really is dead. As far as who killed him, I don’t really know. I haven’t heard all of the reports, but I’ve read a lot about it. I have my ideas, but I don’t know. I think he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.

PHAWKER: Fair enough. Explain to me your fascination with the notion of a race war — this sort of Manson-ian apocalypse, helter-skelter.

HARMONY KORINE: I don’t know! I think it was a feeling… um, I don’t know. Maybe something more about a hidden America or something beneath the surface, a kind of racial divisions, I don’t know, racial appropriation. I kind of used them as a race war and kind of racial appropriate or, you know, cultural I should say, cultural appropriation is almost the same thing.

PHAWKER: Well you could say that really from the beginning of America, there’s been sort of a racial cold war going on, couldn’t you?

HARMONY KORINE: Yeah, I mean I guess. What I mean when I say a cultural appropriation is when, let’s say… Anyways, I can’t really explain it.

PHAWKER: Okay, let’s move on. There’s a number of suicide notes that you’ve written for people that they can sign on to and just leave behind if they don’t actually feel like writing their own suicide note, which was really thoughtful of you. My question is for you is do you think suicide is this impossibly brave act of self-actualization or is it just a cowardly surrender to the void, a giving up?

HARMONY KORINE: I don’t know, both probably. I never really viewed it as one thing. I think it’s like anything else — specific to the situation. I mean, obviously, it definitely doesn’t seem like a positive.

PHAWKER: Do you know anyone that has committed suicide? Do you have any friends that have committed suicide?

HARMONY KORINE: Yeah of course. Yeah, definitely.

PHAWKER: Was your reaction anger or sadness or all of the above?

HARMONY KORINE: Um, let’s see… Probably confusion and sadness probably. It’s sad if you like somebody and you’re never going to see them again.

PHAWKER: Werner Herzog was an early champion and remains one of your biggest fans. In my opinion, you couldn’t get a more ringing endorsement than having Warner Herzog in your corner. Are you still in touch with him? Are there any plans to work together in any form in the future?

HARMONY KORINE: Yeah, I actually saw him last week in Rome. He was directing an opera. He’s a king of cinema.

PHAWKER: In the book, there’s one page or one entry that’s just a single word: Hepburn. Can you explain that or elaborate on that or give me an idea of what inspired that?

HARMONY KORINE: I was trying to imagine a novel that consisted entirely of one word. And if you were going to write The Great American One-Word Novel, what would it be? And then I remember that page is actually the last page in the book. It took me a couple of years. And then I just thought of the word HEPBURN and I thought, ‘That’s it, that’s my one-word novel.

PHAWKER: That says it all?

HARMONY KORINE: Definitely. There’s probably, like, the entire history of the world is wrapped up in those letters.

PHAWKER: What happened with that Black Keys video that you shot for “Gold On The Ceiling”? I actually saw some of the rough edits of it. To the best of my knowledge, it never actually was released. Can you fill me in on that? I thought it was brilliant, by the way.

How did you see the rough edits?

PHAWKER: I did a MAGNET cover story on the Black Keys about a year ago, and it was around the time that you were working on the video.

HARMONY KORINE: Oh. Well, what was your question again?

PHAWKER: Whatever happened to it? I thought it was awesome.

HARMONY KORINE: It exists, it is out there. You can look at it, I think it’s on YouTube. I think they just put it out there after the fact. They probably didn’t want too many people to notice it. I think that the record company was worried that, you know, it could do some damage [to their career] or something.

PHAWKER: Can you just briefly describe it for readers that have not seen it or do knot know about this?

HARMONY KORINE: It was just about, what was it, twins, giant twins. And just how they used to walk around with tree branches and baby suits with big nipples and you know, shoot guns and just do good things for the community.

BLACK KEYS: Gold On The Ceiling

PHAWKER: You’ve probably been asked this a million times so I’ll apologize in advance for asking you this again, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give you the opportunity to comment about the Letterman incident. Anything you have to say in retrospect now?

HARMONY KORINE: No, well which one? There’s…

PHAWKER: The getting banned from Letterman after he allegedly caught you going through Meryl Streep’s purse in the Green Room.

HARMONY KORINE: Yeah. I would say that…The whole issue is pretty funny to me. It’s definitely, how can I say this…I would say it would be easy to say what really happened but it’s better just to let people think they know what happened. I kind of like where it’s gone on it’s own and so I just let it be what it is.

PHAWKER: You are wrapping up doing all of this press for Spring Breakers. Overall, what’s your feeling about the critical reception and the commercial response to the movie?

HARMONY KORINE: It’s great. It’s been terrific. I’m happy with both things. I’m happy the movie exists and that people seem to enjoy it and I’m pretty thrilled by it.

PHAWKER: And if we could just talk briefly about drugs. Drugs have been, I don’t know, I’m not sure where things stand as far as whether you still ever recreationally take drugs or if that’s a closed chapter in your life. Obviously drugs have a very well publicized destructive side to them. But I was wondering if you could speak to what role they could play in triggering creativity or getting in touch with, you know, parts of your consciousness that we don’t get access to on an everyday basis.

HARMONY KORINE: Hmm… Well, you know, they’re like anything. They’re good if you can make them good; they’re bad if they don’t work for you. But I have a lot of good experiences on them and obviously I had some crazy shit happen. So it was difficult for me. But I won’t say, you know, certain things, especially hallucinogens that… They were interesting. I had good times. But you know, it’s hard for me to say too much about it because I also don’t want to promote anything.

PHAWKER: I understand.

HARMONY KORINE: It’s hard because you don’t want to promote and also I don’t want to say unequivocally that ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’ because there was both a greatness and a lot of horror in a lot of my experiences. But, you know. Drugs are trippy.

PHAWKER: You mention hallucinogens. I was wondering how old were you when you first tried psychedelic drugs? The reason I ask that is because you strike me as the kind of person who is tripping without drugs, if you know what I mean?

PHAWKER: I wasn’t huge into them. I was actually into harder narcotics, like, I was into things that allowed me to give me some type of control or slow time down. You know. And so I think I probably did some type of hallucinogens like 15 or 16 or something. But it never really was my thing. I never really liked things that you have to work for, you know what I mean? They were more of something to do every couple of years or something.

PHAWKER: So drugs, for you, weren’t a way, really, of sort of tapping into hidden reserves of creativity or whatever. In a way, maybe it was just kind of a way of muting the visions in your head or just kind of getting a relief from the noise in your mind?

HARMONY KORINE: Yes. At the time I was really young and in the middle of all that stuff. I felt that it was good to be able to stop the noise, to artificially calm myself down. It was a kind of anti-socialization that I was interested in. I wasn’t doing drugs to make it easier to hang out with people. I was doing them to entertain myself, I guess. I do not think that they — I never made films doing them. I don’t think that they, I do not think that they are necessarily beneficial for interesting artwork. I don’t think that that’s true.

PHAWKER: You don’t think that it’s true that they trigger creativity or…

HARMONY KORINE: I think that they trigger something, I think that they can trigger something. I don’t really know, just because it’s creative doesn’t also mean it’s good. It could trigger bad creativity too. Like I’ve seen that in a lot of people, you know what I mean? And also, they contribute a kind of, a false sense of emotion. So people are disconnected from actual emotion and you’re just trying to approximate actual emotion, and then that becomes a tricky situation. But again, that’s just my situation and everybody’s situation is completely different. You know what I mean? Everyone is completely, everyone’s body chemistry and metabolism process is different.

PHAWKER: Sure. And whatever baggage they bring to it and all that kind of thing. Let’s end with this: True or false, there is no God?


PHAWKER: False, okay. And if you could be reincarnated into any figure in history, who would you be?


PHAWKER: Michael J. Pollard. The character actor from the ‘60s? OK. Last question — if you could go back in time and do anything differently in your own life, what would you do differently or do over?

HARMONY KORINE: Oh, no, nothing, because, no, no no, never, never, never. I wouldn’t fuck with that stuff. Then I wouldn’t have my daughter, you know? Or my wife or anything. Everything affects everything. You never mess with that. It’s all perfect, as it should be.

PHAWKER: Fair enough. Well listen, sir, thank you very much for your time and your answers were very funny and amusing and enlightening and I wish you well.

HARMONY KORINE: Thanks. And I will end it with this: I really just think that it’s all just a dream, anyways. It’s all perfect.

UMSHINI WAM (Bring Me My Machine Gun) Dir. by Harmony Korine

Featuring Die Antwoord.