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The Boston Phoenix Car Wreck

Harmony Korine writes a "novel"

By Nicholas Patterson

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Reading A Crack-Up at the Race Riots by Harmony Korine, the screenwriter of Kids and the director of Gummo, is like being in a car crash: it's an interesting, painful experience that doesn't make a lot of sense. Billed as a novel, Crack-Up works more as a novel in pieces. Broken inexplicably into three sections ("Crack-Up at the Race Riots," "Swan Son of the Spick," and "Like a Turk in Stockholm"), the book is a montage of lists, jokes, movie ideas, pieces of dialogue, rumors, and suicide notes. Like Gummo, Crack-Up trades in vignettes rather than sustained narrative. It's all disjointed riffs and disturbing images, often engaging and provocative, just as often tedious.

The fragments of Crack-Up are loosely duct-taped together by the themes of death, physical and mental illness, prejudice, gossip, fame, sex, violence, and drugs. The discontinuous barrage of ideas is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard, and screenwriter/director Korine makes explicit the connection between the montage editing techniques of filmmaking and his own writing style. At one point he says about D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: "He was not attempting to follow the accepted ideas of continuity, but rather offering his themes in a development much the same as thoughts flash in one's mind."

Korine is no D.W. Griffith, or for that matter Godard. When he's on, his mixmaster technique can provide insights both humorous and frightening from his fascination with media-saturated culture. He writes like a kid with Attention Deficit Disorder sitting in front of a TV with a remote control, hyperactively channel-surfing from Jerry Springer-esque scenes ("She was the type of girl you don't mind so much when you hear that her boyfriend beats up on her") to titles of books he will write ("2. Foster Homes and Gardens . . . 13. Calvin Klein Is a Flamer . . . 23. Help Me Rhonda Yeah Gimme Some Head") to an imaginary letter from Tupac Shakur to a German fan ("I was sorry to hear that your little brother was arrested and locked up, but what the fuck's he doin' rapin' bitches? I heard Hitler liked to get shit on, so what's up?").

If Crack Up's main weakness is its ambiguity, that's also its greatest strength. Many of the short sketches in the book are intentionally illogical or absurd. Consider "Skinhead Boy Movie: 1. Standing in his room doing a Nazi salute. 2. Father comes in and tells him to shave his crippled sister's legs. 3. He shaves her legs." Or, "The Most Famous Home Movie: 1. Peter Sellers playing in a field with a spotted cow."

In "Conversation between Skeezer, a nineteen-year-old crank dealer, and his ex-high school librarian: Oklahoma, 1996," a young drug dealer discusses enjoying The Great Gatsby with a former teacher who's trying to score some speed. You can see this scene as a commentary on education, drug culture, relationships between kids and adults, and the nature of authority, or just as a humorous scene out of a postmodern sit-com. It's an even trade: drugs for literary knowledge. Korine supplies no satisfying resolutions to any of the scenes he sets up, but his jarring juxtapositions can themselves be a tonic.

Sometimes Crack-Up is just plain frustrating. As in Gummo, Korine is more interested in playing with the medium than in providing plot or narrative, as he juggles story fragments and isolated images for effect. In the end, however, a point of view does emerge: Korine as a detached voyeur surveying a crumbling world. He ends the book:

All he would be was an observer. He waited with serenity. Life had never been good enough for him to wince at its destruction. He told himself that he was indifferent to his own dissolution. It seemed to him that this indifference was the most that human dignity could achieve, and for the moment . . . he felt he had achieved it. To feel nothing was peace.

You could argue that any good novelist needs this power of detachment. It allows Korine to make some startling observations, but also plenty of irrelevant ones.

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