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Gentlemen prefer blondes: Korine cozies up to Samantha Morton on the Mister Lonely set.
What can you say about a filmmaker whose least shocking, most conventional film is Kids (1995), an unsettling but very seductive look at New York City teens screwing, drugging and stealing all the livelong day? Though Kids drew attention to its first-time director, renowned photographer Larry Clark, in retrospect the film proved as much a calling card for its screenwriter, 22-year-old Harmony Korine. No young American talent has been slapped with the vacuous enfant terrible label more often in the past decade, but just as the initial shock of Kids has given way to a soberer assessment of its significant achievement, so too do Korine’s later works (screening, along with Kids, as part of Cinefamily’s monthlong Korine retrospective) reveal a career that, for all its provocation, seeks to understand how the seemingly unsavory undersides of a society function. Time has blunted some of Kids’ shock value, but what remains pungent is its authentic aura of unhappy childhood and its time-capsule portrait of mid-’90s hip-hop youth culture in a major urban center. Many missed the obvious connections between Kids and Gummo (1997), Korine’s directorial debut, which uprooted his delinquents’ casual cruelty and moved it to a fictional Ohio backwoods. Gummo establishes Korine’s indulgent impulse to linger on the “quirky” — a black midget, a bickering deaf couple — but his hypnotic tone-poem temperament manages to seize on elitist audiences’ fear of white-trash vulgarism while presenting a world marooned from society’s cultural and economic advancements. Though it was no doubt heartfelt, the subsequent Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Korine’s examination of a schizophrenic teen (played by Ewen Bremner), rarely rises above meagerly improvised scenes of familial crisis and director Werner Herzog’s horribly hammy performance as Julien’s gas-mask-wearing abusive father. If you only know Korine’s features, try David Blaine: Above the Below, his 2003 BBC documentary about the endurance artist’s quest to hang suspended over the River Thames in a Plexiglas box for 44 days. Blaine might seem like an exception to Korine’s cinema of outcasts, but the filmmaker demonstrates that his morose friend, who slices his own ear at a press conference, is hardly a model celebrity. With all this aberrant behavior, perhaps it’s a relief that Cinefamily also offers a sneak preview of Korine’s forthcoming Mister Lonely, billed as his most accessible film to date. Still, be advised that it centers on two celebrity impersonators in love and some nuns trying to see if they can fly. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Saturdays at 7 p.m.; thru April 26. www.silentmovietheatre.com.)