Harmony Korine’s Assault on Moralizing

I’ll admit I left The Beach Bum a little less taken with it than Sam was. I had already read his review and expected, frankly, a more searing indictment of Moondog. He is reckless, a lifestyle afforded him because of his money. He steadfastly refuses to take other people or his own art seriously. He feels like Bukowski, or a Beatnik, living in a world that doesn’t really allow for those sorts of characters anymore. Basically, I wanted Moondog to be punished, because he felt to me like an indecent character who kept getting away with things. But Korine didn’t ever punish him.

A while back I wrote an article about Korine’s previous film Spring Breakers, that walked a pretty similar line. The girls serve as the “hero” in the hero’s journey, and aren’t even treated as anti-heroes, in the same way that some of the characters of modern day television are. Characters like Walter White, and to a lesser extent Don Draper are clearly labelled evil or problematic by their shows. By condemning them their shows express a moral position not radiating from the central character, but instead from the world around them. We might be following and even rooting for someone who is evil, but both we and the show recognize the evil we’re rooting for. Korine’s films don’t do that. He definitely focuses on people who society as a whole would expect some moral judgement and comeuppance for, but the films both fail to deliver that. They’re not indictments of these characters.

The movies cleave maybe a little closer to Rick & Morty, which I’ve also written about in the past. Rick & Morty is a show that both attempts to claim to be breaking down Rick, while simultaneously creating a universe that is governed entirely by his rules. Roiland and Harmon feel that Rick is “bad,” but they fall short of actually challenging him on the show. His depression is maybe his punishment? Is affirmation by the universe that he’s right a form of punishment? Regardless, if he is punished, it comes from within, not from without. Again, we hit a dead end when we come to Korine. Neither Moondog nor the Breakers exhibit any sort of guilt over their actions.

In some ways, Korine’s commenting on expectation. What is a film supposed to do? Is it supposed to show us a reflection of the world, or affirm our wishes for the way the world should be? How can it affirm our morals if all of us have a different set of morals? Korine is showing us his perspective, without moral judgement. There’s a reason Moondog can be equated to Bukowski and the Beatniks, or countless other individuals out there living their life currently to no acclaim. Some people do skate through life unscathed, doing things others might frown upon. Moondog looks, in his defense, like he’s having the time of his life. By and large, with one notable exception, he doesn’t seem to be seriously harming anyone. He isn’t someone I’d want to meet, but that’s sort of my deal, isn’t it? The Breakers are a more outlandish example, and they do cause… well, rampant death and destruction, but Korine still doesn’t punish them. He simply captures a series of events and then leaves the moralizing, and the judgement, to us.

By not challenging them, or punishing them, he does in some ways excuse their behavior. Films inherently have some sort of slant, for lack of a better word, even if they don’t have an outright message or moral. It’s clear he’s extremely fond of these characters, and in part I imagine that’s because he’s a creator, and I always think creators should be fond of their characters. In another part, he views them as unencumbered by society’s strict set of expected morals and respects that. Sam frequently refers to the films as satire, and I don’t totally disagree with him but don’t totally agree with him either. The films are heightened, but if they’re satire they’re done without any sharp teeth. They’re silly versions of characters, but we’re more frequently laughing with them than at them. It speaks to a big heart, but a big heart for potentially bad people can become complicated. Then again, it might not fall to Korine to pass judgment on these people. His argument seems to be against passing judgment, and in a circular sense it’s a little difficult to pass judgment on that argument. His message might be a lack of message.

A few years ago I wrote about how The Incredibles is a complicated film for me because I love it but have problems with what I perceive as its message. Korine’s films don’t quite fit into that category either. By presenting near satire, but with affection for the characters it should be lampooning, he ends up presenting scenarios and characters, and allowing the viewer to interpret them through their own morals while simultaneously examining those morals. Sam wrote that The Beach Bum is about privilege, and a searing indictment of it (interesting to note, the protagonists of Spring Breakers are also very rich). I didn’t get that from the movie, but… why not? What other things about Moondog bothered me, and why? Why did I want the movie to do certain things and not others, and what does it say about my own judgment of people and morals, and what does it say that I expect a film to conform to them? Korine doesn’t have a message and as such forces you to both find and create your own.

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