The snapshot, smudged with soot, shows a man with a puzzled expression propped up in a hospital bed. He is clearly a patient of some kind. The object cradled in his arms explains the puzzlement: a clown-red baseball bat. Another soot-rimmed snapshot later, his position and expression have changed. He's lunging forward, plainly pissed. The bat looks headed straight for the photographer. Turns out the man had just awakened from a coma.
"I used to break into hospitals sometimes, and we would dress up the patients," Harmony Korine says. "We would crawl through the windows of these hospitals, and I would give them baseball bats and plastic gloves."
He says it fondly, amusedly, in the offhand way someone might recall a Cub Scout jamboree. The concrete floor of his basement is barren, except for some big green storage tubs stashed under a bare light. The lid of one forms a makeshift tabletop heaped with snapshots, most streaked with smoke and soot. The host picks up one Ziploc bag filled with photographs, then another, then another.
There's a wild-eyed man with a shock of silver hair, contorted into lurid scenarios of domestic mayhem with a fleshy woman whose forehead bears a crucifix tattoo. "They're these next-door neighbors I used to have in New York that I would get to strangle each other," Korine says. "They were this weird fucking couple I found out was into sadomasochism." There's a teenage Korine in minstrel get-up with a broomstick jutting out of his fly. There's Macaulay Culkin, bathed in babes and sickly light for a Sonic Youth video Korine directed. There's a gaunt stranger whose expression is so dramatic that a guest assumes he must be an actor. Korine shakes his head: "That was back when I'd break into mental wards."
From another photo, a slim, blurry wraith peers out from a backdrop of greenery, while the host's 22-year-old self looks on. "There's Chloe," he says — actress Chloe Sevigny, his former girlfriend, who starred in his 1997 feature Gummo and scoured local thrift stores for its grungy costumes. There are zines, notebooks full of random thoughts, even a heap of script notecards from a project called What Makes Pistachio Nuts?, involving a pig named Trotsky. All reek of ash and cinders — the result of a house fire (the first of two) six years ago, during a period he casually describes as "back when I lost my mind."
"There's something kind of strange about having all your memories drenched in soot," Korine says. Even stranger, perhaps, is the context that now surrounds them. Leave the dark basement, and its jumble of scorched, chronologically scattered memories, and you're suddenly in the picture of domestic bliss: an airy, immaculate old house in one of Nashville's most picturesque neighborhoods. A bowl of fruit salad and a plate of cookies await guests; a copy of Vanity Fair rests on a coffee table. In another room, his wife, Rachel, a willowy, brunette Southern belle who serves as sounding board for his flights of fancy, tends to their new puppy, Lupe.
Their home is just down the street from his younger brother Avi's house, where the two siblings wrote Korine's first film in eight years: a comedy-drama called Mister Lonely. A selection last year at both Cannes and Toronto, it's a winsome, disarmingly gentle fable about a lonesome Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who joins a commune of similar misfits, told alongside the parallel story of a South American priest (legendary German director Werner Herzog) and an order of flying nuns.
Korine grew up in a house just a few blocks from where he lives today. His production company O'Salvation, founded with the French fashion designer Agnes B., just relocated its office from Paris to Nashville, and he says he plans to make "three or four" films here, including one he's already written. "It's strange," says Korine, now 35, bearded and boyish, with no sign of the drug-addled mania that almost silenced him for good in the bleak days after 9/11. "On the one hand, it's weird being back, I guess, just because I'm back — just because of all the things I'd done or places I lived between when I left and here. But on the other hand, it seems like the most natural thing in the world for me, to be here."
There are no personal posters, awards, or grip-and-grin photos to be seen. "I have director friends, and you walk into their house and it's like a shrine to them, their posters, their awards — man, what the fuck!" Korine says, helping his guests to fruit salad. "Geez, get rid of that stuff!" Only the exquisitely framed and hung artwork — a Japanese fetish study in the living room, a Boris Mikhailov image of a smudged, spectral woman staring vacantly from a swingset, a set of stark early works by punk artist Raymond Pettibon — would indicate that the person who lives here is one of the most divisive, inspiring, infuriating, hated, and revered figures in recent American movies.
Smoke has followed Harmony Korine since the early 1990s, when he moved to New York from Nashville. At age 19, just two years out of Hillsboro High School and encouraged by outlaw photographer Larry Clark, he wrote the script for Clark's 1995 directorial debut Kids. His scandalous portrait of predatory teen sexuality caused an international uproar, provoked a war between distributor Miramax and its outraged corporate parent Disney — and made a talk-show guest and tabloid fixture of its author.
Still in his early 20s, Korine then wrote and directed two polarizing features — Gummo and its 1999 follow-up Julien Donkey-Boy — that were arguably the most boldly experimental American films of the decade. They were abrasive, plotless collages that dwelled in a zone of viewer discomfort and dislocation, possessed of a tone somewhere between the loony-bin talent night of Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies and the jokebooks Korine loved as a kid growing up the son of a documentarian, Sol Korine, who followed moonshiners and carnies throughout the South.