Published Feb 01, 2000As rank avarice and the shameless pursuit of celebrity for its own sake seem to be the ordure of the day, it's always a nice kick in the groin to hang out with artists who are keeping it real, especially when their notion of what constitutes reality bears little relation to that of the rest of the world.
I haven't seen Harmony Korine since I visited the set of Easter a short movie he'd written and asked Gus Van Sant to direct, intended to be part of a larger trilogy in Mayfield, Kentucky a considerable unit of time ago, so while in New York recently I figure I better give him a bell to catch up. I thought I'd seen him the last time I was in Gotham, when a scruffy, puffy young fellow who looked but exactly like him showed up at a screening and after-party for the new Summer Phoenix movie which I attended with Gus, who originally introduced me to Harm. Harmful had sat right beside us in the theatre and both of us greeted him warmly, but he looked at us blankly as if he'd never laid eyes on us before. Gus had had a dream the night before that he was at party at which Harmony looked right at him but didn't acknowledge him, so we were convinced that it was him. People had said it was because the "blockers" he was on something to do with weaning yourself off opiates, I can never figure that stuff out turned him into a walking zombie, but I couldn't quite believe that.
As it turns out, it was an impostor. Somebody who has the same scrappy beard as Harmony, wears the same kind of shabby chic clothes, and goes to the same type of events that he might be seen at, always gets mistaken for H but apparently never corrects anyone. That's an impostor, isn't it? I hope so, because impostors are very glamorous. Stanley Kubrick had one.
So I call up H a couple of times at his Connecticut number, where he's been living in a house, but he's not answering. Then I hear a rumour from a former friend of his that Harm's house had burned to the ground on the weekend and that he lost all his worldly possessions. The story goes that he was picked up by his former paramour, Chloë Sevigny, to go thrift shopping, and when they returned all that remained were the smouldering ruins of his home. Unkind speculation has insinuated that it was torched on purpose as an attention-getting device, to gain sympathy and thereby woo back his ex-girlfriend, but this is complete hearsay.
Back in Toronto, I email the lad to get the real story. As it turns out, the house did burn down, but according to H it was due to faulty wiring. He did lose everything (scripts, books, art) but he seemed pretty philosophical about it. A chance for a new beginning, he says, and an opportunity to devote himself entirely to cinema. He will be directing an ambitious project under the auspices of Lars Von Trier, and has furthermore legally changed his name to Laird Henn at the post office for 12 dollars. Yes, you heard it hear first: Harmony Korine is no more. When I share this choice bit of information with Gus, he says he's jealous because he wants to change his name too, but now H has beaten him to it.
I'm only relating this information because a) by the time you hear the story through "legitimate" channels it will be so distorted that it won't be nearly as interesting or edifying as the truth, and b) I've been thinking lately that genius must be borne through extremes of experience and tremendous upheaval, which interests me a great deal. Then again, it could all be an elaborate prank, another sign of genius. At any rate, he's moving to London.
Another genius friend of mine, Kembra Phahler, who performed recently in Toronto at Vaseline, has also gone through some extreme ch-ch-ch-changes lately, although not quite so dramatic. After 11 years of performing, recording, and touring, her excellent band, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, has gone the way of Menudo. Kembra, who started out in the experimental film scene in New York in the 80s, has appeared in numerous movies and magazines, including a particularly memorable spread in Penthouse, but she is perhaps best known for her intoxicating live performances. In her trademark piece, she stands on her head naked while her minions break raw eggs into her vagina. She has also had said vagina sewn shut on several occasions. And I thought having my mouth stitched closed took guts.
Kembra and I didn't speak once for seven years because of something unflattering I wrote about one of her movies, but we've managed to put that behind us. I haven't gone back to check what I said, but I wouldn't be surprised if I had my head up my ass when I wrote it, considering how amazing I think she is today. I see her now as a kind of avatar, channelling an extreme female spirituality through her body. She comes across as a cross between the Hindu goddess Shiva and Karen Black at the end of the third segment of Trilogy of Terror when she turns into the little voodoo doll that's been terrorising her. I was probably just intimidated.
Like most of my friends who give performances involving blood or carnage of some kind, or public sex acts, or pornography in the name of art, or any other number of transgressive shtick, Kembra has an amazing quality of grace and magnanimity that would seem to be at odds with her public persona. After her performance here, and at dinner after a screening of some of her work the following night, I was mesmerised by how frankly she talked about her life and career. At 39 (no silly fudging about her age) she claims to be aging "not very well" (not true in my estimation) owing to all the years of touring and the heavy paint and full body make-up she incorporates in her act. But she enjoys the idea of aging, and would never bother having herself injected with Botox or collagen, or go under the knife. Many of the friends involved in her band have suddenly gone stark raving straight, immediately retreating to the complacency of marriage and family after years of non-conformist and outré behaviour, but Kembra perseveres. She also resists perpetual entreaties to tone down her act in order to be co-opted by the mainstream. Not to be a snob, but one of the songs she sang at Vaseline, an epic, visionary number about her love for the movie Blade Runner, is just too damn good to be wasted on the masses.
While I'm on the subject of Vaseline, watch for Will Munro, the impresario behind the club, to soon join forces with Lynn McNeil of Lee's Palace to start a rock'n'roll fag bar for civilisation's discontents at the Dance Cave above Lee's on Sunday nights. In the tradition of New York's Sqeezebox and L.A.'s Sucker, the club will feature lots of pretty boys, hustlers, baby butches, Diesel dykes, and criminal types engaged in lurid sex acts, wild performances, and other mind-altering activities. Toronto is way overdue to break out of its gay ghettoish existence and start shaking its tail in a manner not sanctioned by bad queer television. The last I heard, the night was to be called Sex or Sleaze or Sleaze Palace or some such equally sinful, sinister moniker. I, for one, am already on the guest list.
As for me and my house, I'm currently dating a Shiite Muslim from Dar El Salaam, which, in case you didn't know, is the capital of Tanzania. As he is slowly attempting to convert me to his religion, my new motto, which may come in handy at Sleaze Palace, is "I slam you slam we all slam for Islam." He's an extremely spiritual fellow with seven personalities and a penchant for hypnosis. So hypnotised was I, in fact, on a recent date that I neglected to buy tickets for the movie we attended, and walked out of the restaurant we dined at without paying the bill. Miraculously, in both instances, no one seemed to notice. It may have had something to do with the Iranian pot we were smoking, however.