Despite their emphasis on anarchy and debauchery, Harmony Korine’s films about poverty are actually not very fun to watch. In fact, the director of Gummo (1997) and Spring Breakers (2012) has become somewhat notorious for his stylistic obsession with repulsive images, and his free-wheeling portraits of America’s forgotten lodgers often toe the line between cinema-verité documentary and horror. Though recently shifting to more comfortably comedic depictions of white-trash characters thrust into the limelight (with 2019’s The Beach Bum profiting off of marquis-friendly names like Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron), Korine made a name for himself creating gritty handheld films about characters and communities that were obscured from view in mainstream American culture. Though he works exclusively in fiction, Korine’s carefully curated tableaus are easily mistakable for the kind of on-location poverty ethnography popularized by the Maysles brothers in their 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. Shooting on small budgets and employing nonprofessional actors often told to “play themselves,” Korine instilled his films with a sort of lower-class realism that evokes the same sense of ethnographic veracity even though all of his work is scripted.
To get to the heart of what makes Korine’s lens so effective is to understand how it differs from conventional, fetishistic views of poverty. The phrase “poverty tourism” contains several interesting “tells” about the cultural perception of poverty in America. In a broad sense, the term refers to the profit-driven recasting of lower-income locales as spectacle—to be accessed and gawked at by better-off consumers. Though this is most literally carried out in the form of “gang tours” or “homeless-for-a-night” urban experiences, it is also the predicate for every movie or TV show dedicated to the documentation of “trashy” living. There is an innate voyeurism in the concept, a superficiality of interaction that fetishizes low-class lifestyles, as long as they are experienced at a distance. Poverty tourism implies that poverty, aestheticized and exoticized, is actually profitable for those not living in it, that although most Americans abhor the thought of actually being poor, they find something seductive in the curated performance of poorness. Either by appealing to tragedy, comedy, or the industrious spirit of survival, poverty tourism suggests that poverty is entertaining.
Parallel to this sense of spectacle is the self-perpetuating myth that surrounds the poverty cycle in the American imagination, one that attributes chaos and disorder as causes of this economic mire rather than symptoms of its larger systemic issues. Bootstrap rhetoric and respectability politics inspire many Americans to believe that poverty is a sort of self-inflicted failure, and that lawlessness and violence are simply characteristics of “another America” that is contiguous to theirs but otherwise distinct in every way. And although this hardening distinction breeds animosity for the lower-class, it also feeds a cultural fascination with these populations that remain invisible and systemically sealed off, who are indexed in the popular culture by gang violence and anarchic freedom. This “other America,” seen from the outside, is a microcosmic community that has been severed from the “macro” structures of government. The microcosm’s isolation is fetishized as a new “Wild West” governed only by hedonism, self-sufficiency, and a struggle to survive, with the American poor having been by-and-large reduced to archetypes – aestheticized hillbillies, gangsters, and the noble hobo.
What makes Korine’s take on this oft-exploited social class so unique is that he simply refuses to pathologize his characters. His protagonists are not stoic sufferers, nor are they tragic lost causes—they are men and women, but mostly children, afloat in the detritus of towns with bad roads, no civil services, no law enforcement, and seemingly no law itself. They are playful, violent, and aimless. They sing church songs and folk songs while preparing canned spaghetti in run-down kitchens. They hunt stray cats and ride bikes. They play-fight and giggle and hit dolls with hammers, and lift weights in their basements and tell stories on their porches. They derive their own structure in an isolated world without schedules or social mobility, where playing is preferable to sitting still, and sitting still is preferable to death. These characters can be unlikeable, cruel, or simply inscrutable. Their habits can be repugnant (look no further than the title of a film called Trash Humpers for proof) and their living spaces are filthy, murky, and overtaken by weeds and mold. They tell rambling racist jokes that are blunted by their sheer incomprehensibility. And yet despite the offensiveness of their aesthetics, they emanate a dignity different from the kind offered by the tragic hero narratives of many other films that grapple with American poverty.
In fact, unlike in the “poverty tourist” style of filmmaking, narrative itself is somewhat absent from Korine’s films. In lieu of continuous storylines, Korine’s films string together disparate events, interviews, and musical montages to give holistic views of a very specific environment. Each film can be described vaguely with a narrative summary, but these usually only serve as pretexts for the vignettes that follow. Korine’s 1997 cult classic Gummo depicts the odyssey-like travels of adolescent boys Solomon and Tummler as they bike around collecting dead cats to pawn off for pocket change, but it’s really the film’s setting—a fictional Midwestern town still scarred from being hit by a tornado several years before—that takes center stage. Korine’s 2013 film Trash Humpers has an even simpler conceit, following the childish and hedonistic exploits of a group of hooting elderly people as they romp through the backyards and parking lots of small-town Tennessee.
In either case, there are no character arcs to sentimentalize and very little sense (or moralizing) to be made of the disparate events we witness. Korine will introduce us to a pair of sisters dancing in the nude on top of their filthy mattresses, or an inebriated man ranting about his parents’ neuroses, or a boy wearing bunny ears who plays dead when bullied, but the director never gives any of these characters a particular weight in the already threadbare narrative. The camera remains completely external to their perspective of the world. They fight, play, dance, shatter, shoot, muse, and mumble, gliding through open doorframes and dirty linoleum floors with a sort of aimless freedom that might have seemed exploitative if Korine had tried to make any sense of it. He doesn’t saddle his films with a moral compass, and he doesn’t ever indicate that there is a world outside his wasteland wonderlands.
With their emphasis on play and their characters’ anarchic bids to pass the time, these films traffic heavily in spectacle, but it’s a spectacle that the characters are engaging in too. It’s hard to laugh at characters that are already laughing at themselves. At times, the otherness of Korine’s grimy, confusing worlds seems to loom large, playing into stereotypes of the American poor as a wild, inscrutable people. But even when their actions and aesthetics alienate the viewer, there’s something incredibly earnest and unabashed about the characters that populate these screen-worlds. They’re eminently comfortable being other: they’re not performing poorness, but living it, playing with it, taking the abandonment of democratic society with a grain of salt and living in a way that makes living tolerable. It’s tough to watch most of the time, but that visceral reaction we experience while watching a boy eat spaghetti in a murky bathtub forces us to confront a bigger question: why do we want to watch?
Ultimately, Korine’s work defies the trend of poverty tourism by rendering the spectacle of poverty in terms that don’t translate as entertainment for outsiders. His films don’t posit their lower-class characters as fallen angels who dream of ascendancy, or as loveable tramps who mug for the camera. Korine’s characters are free to be abhorrent to a wide audience, because in the sense of their real-world analogues, they don’t exist for an audience. Their anarchy exists not as a hostility to “the real world,” but as a form of self-governance in the wake of diminished resources and severance from governmental structures. They are ignored by the world of institutions, so they ignore it right back until it effectively ceases to exist. As communities abandoned by democratic governance, they are no longer represented or representative of anything. They have shaken off their signifiers and they mean nothing to the poverty tourists who deem them unwatchable.
Photo credit: Still taken from Gummo, Fine Line Features, 1997, via Martin D. Baker on Youtube