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Tucson Weekly Korine Out Of Control?

Screenwriter Harmony Korine's Latest Work Sets Up His Creative Life As Something Of A Cliffhanger.

By James DiGiovanna

JUNE 29, 1998: 

A Crackup at The Race Riots, by Harmony Korine (Doubleday). Paper, $14.95.

HARMONY KORINE'S first public work was the script for Kids, one of the most poetic screenplays of the last 20 years. Kids had more than beautiful language, though; it also had a compelling story that used classical tragic structures. He followed this with his directorial debut, Gummo, which was less successful in that it attempted to be a non-narrative film, but kept falling back into an uninteresting narrative about cat-killing boys and cat-loving girls. However, when it escaped the standard story form and inserted odd and irrelevant scenes, Gummo was often brilliant.

Perhaps taking that as a cue that he should dispense with narrative altogether, Korine has churned out A Crackup at the Race Riots, which reads like the unexpurgated private notebook of a smart, nerdy high school boy who envies the bad kids. In fact, that's probably what it is...there seems to be little editing, and there's easily twice as many embarrassingly bad bits as good ones.

Although the jacket copy refers to Crackup as a novel, it's really nothing of the sort, being more a collection of ideas and short sketches, some set in mono-spaced Courier, others handwritten, lending it a found-object quality. There are recurring dialogues with Joseph Mohr, author of the lyrics to "Silent Night,"; crude, one-line comments about celebrities ("Jessica Tandy had an elongated vagina...Dostoyevski used to watch his wife shit..."); numbered lists of ideas for images, or movies, or gags ("4. A former prostitute with a low IQ poisons her priest. 5. An alcoholic tap dancer is rehabilitated."); one page stories and scenes; hand-drawn diagrams; crossed out, unreadable sections, and other detritus.

Some of the bits are good, coming off as well-played prose poetry. However, much of it indulges in Korine's snobbish passion for portraying people as filthy and stupid, a habit that no doubt comes from being an egghead youth surrounded by the standard roster of insensitive teens--in spite of his many accomplishments, Korine is only 23 years old. It was this tendency that evoked a lot of the criticism of Gummo, which basically took an under-represented portion of the American populace, the poor whites who live in semi-rural areas, and presented them in the most unflattering light possible.

Still, I can reservedly recommend reading Crackup, as it's something of a page-turner, which is hard to pull off in the absence of plot or characters. A lot of its appeal comes from the brevity of the sections. The average page has less than 200 words, and only two of the pieces go on for more than a page. This makes the book work like an episode of Laugh-In: It doesn't matter if only one out five jokes is funny, because they keep coming so fast that one doesn't get bored waiting for the good ones.

The good ones tend to be the bits that sound like movie ideas, like this piece from one of the numbered lists: "1. Murders are committed in a spooky house by a cripple who produces synthetic legs by self-hypnotism." Nonetheless, most of the movie-idea lines rely on trashy shock value rather than real inventiveness. The same is true for the short-short stories that pepper the book: Some manage in just a few words to set scenes that are extremely suggestive, like the best minimalist poetry; others simply indulge in potty humor.

The closest parallel to this book would be some of the later works of Kathy Acker, but those still tended to return to narrative elements, whereas the only continuities in this book are certain recurring forms. Such things as collections of suicide notes, imaginary letters from a sex-obsessed, mama's-boy version of Tupac Shakur, dialogues between celebrities from the '30s, and references to '70s pop and German philosophy give the book the sense of being a whole, produced by a single author, but one who seeks to break that wholeness down into its smallest parts.

It's this cut-up style and discontinuous form that's the best part of Crackup, and one wishes that more publishers of Doubleday's size would be willing to take a gamble on this kind of experimentation. Unfortunately, Korine seems to have been blessed with a book contract more for his success in cinema than for the merits of this volume. In attempting this sort of thing, it seems important that all the parts shine, and there's a little too much filler in Crackup. The fact that Jim Carroll blurbed the cover is indicative of the mentality that Korine's calculated naughtiness appeals to, but the good sections show such promise that Korine's life becomes something of a suspense film: Will he move towards the witty wordplay and inventive imagery that make the best parts of his films and writing so engaging? Or will he aim low and assume that his success is due to the griminess of his themes? Though both of these tendencies can clearly work together, in Crackup they seem to fall apart...as though Korine were laying out the options for his future.

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