At this September's Toronto International Film Festival, the publicist for julien donkey-boy sent out word: she was narrowing interviews to those who viewed favorably the previous work of donkey-boy filmmaker, Harmony Korine. I skipped to the front of the queue, being among the handful of American film critics enthusiasts for Gummo (1997), Korine's crazy-quilt, white trash, experimental epic. I split with, among many, The New York Times's Janet Maslin, who branded Gummo as the most loathsome movie of the year.
"I make different kinds of films, almost compositions or essays" said the soft-spoken, Korine, 25, when we talked, "and it takes time for the bourgeois critics to catch on, if they ever do. I don't make movies for a grand audience but for whoever enjoys them. I have certain fans who are dedicated. What is good is to get converts. America is slow, especially for cinema.
"A lot of my fans are other directors, like Gus Van Sant. Bertolucci is raving about my new movie. I got a letter from Godard. It was hard to read, it was two lines and had coffee stains, something about 'passing the baton.'
"I grew up watching films. My dad didn't talk much but we'd go to films. The whole movie-going experience is important in my life, almost an umbilical cord. It's depressing among so many young filmmakers that there is such a lack of intensity and love of the cinema.
"You'd think they'd want to make films differently, but filmmakers are overly reverential. It's very rare that they try to push the form. But if you are young, that's your duty."
Korine has many favorite filmmakers, beginning with Werner Herzog, star of julien donkey-boy. I ask him to name a few others.
"I like Leos Carax, and I love the actor, Denis Lavant, who was in Lovers on the Bridge. I like Kiarostami, although I'm not a huge Iranian film fan. I like Claire Denis. I like Godard's L'Histoire de Cinema. The stuff he is making now is even more interesting than the stuff in the 1960s.
"I like some Frederick Wiseman. I like Don't Look Back: young Dylan. I don't like that Ken Burns stuff, and the Tarantino films are so dated, they are dated before they are made. Cinema verite is a lie to me. I believe in poetic truth, like what hovers over The Night of the Hunter or The Passion of Joan of Arc. A really great film is rare. It almost seems Biblical, that it's always been there."
OK, time for julien donkey-boy, the story of an odd family--grandmother, father, two boys--sharing an apartment in Queens. Werner Herzog as julien's wrestling-obsessed, immigrant father?
"I wrote the character with him in mind. He didn't want to rehearse. He knew what his character would say and do: 'No rehearsal.' There's a lot of himself in there, as this character is based on characters he was around as a child. That speech he makes about Dirty Harry? That was the first time I heard it! But he loves Dirty Harry, and also World Wide Wrestling."
Julien donkey-boy bursts with a Flannery O'Connor-like gallery of annointed, possessed, real-life marginals: an albino, some "mentally challenged," an armless drummer, a man whose variety show act consists of ingesting packs of cigarettes.
Korine explains: "I love people who are so obsessed and so focussed, like the guy who swallows cigarettes. And I'm attracted to deformities: people with no arms, for instance, who have a positive attitude about life. It amazes me how they manage to get through."
And when people remark,as they certainly did with Gummo, that he is exploiting retarded people?
"If you show someone who is retarded, that's exploitation? If retardation is going to be made romantic, lovable, eccentric, like in Rain Man, to me that's much more offensive. If there's a character with no arms and legs, I want to see a person with no arms and legs, not Dustin Hoffman having no arms and legs for two weeks and people saying, 'Great performance.'"
If Korine had his druthers he would have cast his schizophrenic uncle Eddie. "But he's institutionalized, and they wouldn't let him out. Mostly my grandmother was scared that he'd go back to drugs."
That's Korine's grandma, Joyce Korine, who sits in the back of many scenes of julien donkey-boy. That's her couch, and her Queens apartment, where Harmony grew up.
"She lives there alone with her dog, and she's Jewish from Eastern Europe and can only speak about six words of English. It's not that she has a concept of the movie, but it's good to have her there.."
Grandma Joyce saw Kids, which starred Korine's then-girlfriend Chloe Sevigny and for which Korine contributed the sex-and-scatology screenplay. "She was angry that I gave Chloe's character drugs," laughed Korine. "She said, 'How could you do that? Give drugs to your girlfriend?"