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Friday, Jan. 5, 2001


A film genius in his own mind

Harmony Korine -- screenwriter of "Kids," director of "Gummo" -- fancies himself the enfant terrible of contemporary cinema. Well, he is . . . terrible. Certain critics have been calling him "the new Godard," and I'd agreewith that too. But when was the last time Godard made anything that played better on the screen than in theory?

Korine's sophomore effort as a director, "Julien Donkey-Boy," is pretty similar to the terrain he covered in "Gummo": freakish, random, willfully obscure and determined to push your buttons. At times it's also strangely beautiful, poignant and sad, reminiscent of the better works of Stan Brakhage or Derek Jarman.

That's the rub with experimentation: It results in a pretty high noise-to-signal ratio. The smart artist knows where to cut, has the eye to see what worked and what didn't; the self-indulgent type just leaves it all in, convinced that his every move is genius, and leaves it to the viewer to sort out. Unfortunately Korine (like Godard) falls into the latter category.

Korine's protagonist in "Julien," as in all his works, is damaged goods. Ewen Bremner (best known as "Spud," the hapless speed freak from "Trainspotting") plays Julien, a schizophrenic who looks like a reject from a Tim Burton movie, with metal teeth, crazy hair and a long leather coat. He comes off as oddly innocent or amusing half the time, but his motor-mouthed rants can get frightening, and there are intimations that he beat a smaller boy to death and had an incestuous relationship with his (now pregnant) sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny).

German director Werner Herzog plays Julien's dad, a cold disciplinarian who is prone to dancing to old blues records in his underwear while wearing a gas mask. Julien's brother Chris (Evan Neumann) is an athlete who is subjected to constant abuse from their father, psychological torture in the form of training.

So what happens? Well, essentially nothing. "Julien" is an amorphous film, seemingly randomly thrown together, with no apparent rhyme or reason as to what made the cut. Entire scenes beg the question "why?": a magic act of a guy eating cigarettes; Pearl playing "Frere Jacques" on a harp; an armless guy playing cards with his feet; a woman in a hood barking like a dog; Herzog getting a haircut in his front yard; or Julien's endless rants, like the one in which he shoots a poster of Hitler with a dart gun howling, "You killed the Jews, you killed the hippies!"

Funny? Well, this goes on for 90 minutes until Pearl miscarries, and Julien retrieves the dead baby, and carries it home with him where he curls up in bed with it. The End.

At one point Julien reads a poem at the dinner table: "morning chaos, eternity chaos, noon chaos . . ." repeated ad infinitum. His dad gets angry, claiming, "It doesn't even rhyme!"

"Yes, it does," Julien replies. "With 'chaos'!" Now this had me laughing, as did many of the films more bizarro moments. Only later did I learn that the director intended the film to be -- so he says -- a serious and sympathetic portrait of mental disorder. Well, ha ha, the joke's on me, but I wasn't the only one laughing.

Julien's dad dismisses the poem saying, "I don't like it. It's too artsy. I like something real . . . like the end of 'Dirty Harry.' " This is the sort of slyly self-referential line a filmmaker can slip into his work to render it immune from criticism. Disparage the work, and you're aligning yourself with the Neanderthal character who mouths these sentiments in the film. Call me a philistine, but I mistook Korine's sympathy for ridicule.

I'll take that risk, though: Korine is indeed "too artsy." His risk-taking experimentation can be fascinating, but it can be infuriating too, a tangled ball of gibberish and fractured images. Actually, this isn't artistic -- this is autistic filmmaking, with the director so totally focused in on the minutiae that fascinates him that he completely loses the ability to communicate to an audience.

There are only two ways to experience this film: with the left side of your brain or your right. Stick with the right, accept the movie as a hallucination, let it wash over you and catch the occasional glimpse of beauty, truth or meaning where you may.

Use your left brain, and you'll be fuming. Korine has stopped making sense.

"Julien Donkey-Boy" is playing at Cinema Rise in Shibuya.

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