Harmony Korine's The Diary of Anne Frank Part II (A Film in Three Parts) (2000) is a 40 minute video triptych which includes a mixture of found footage; a digital video diary of down-at-heel small town America; clips from Korine's own films; exquisitely saturated Super 8 film and pop songs, hip hop, opera and half heard dialogue. For a piece of work that initially looks like a lazy use of an all too often lazy vernacular - large scale projection, darkened, modishly scrappy ex-warehouse space - it's at once moving and banal, intriguingly and suspiciously ambiguous.
The influence of Werner Herzog, Korine's hero, is occasionally a little too obvious. As with his films Gummo (1997) and Julien, Donkey-Boy (1999), the handicapped and disadvantaged are the subject of The Diary.... For much of the time, a disabled young man miming masturbation and pretending to hold a camera, occupies the left hand screen, acting as a kind of dysfunctional motif which underpins the rest of the piece. Bored kids run amok like the diminutive stars of Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small (1971), while townsfolk aimlessly go about their business like the hypnotised, bereft citizens in Heart of Glass (1976). Ostensibly non-narrative, Korine's work shares the incantatory quality of Herzog's peculiar cinematic expressionism. Superficially, it studiously asserts a kind of casual lyricism through apparently accidental conjunctions of music and imagery. The tapes differ in length, the editing is a little rough-around-the-edges, the hand-held camera work shaky in lurid video hues, but the work's veneer of well-crafted slackness obscures a careful marriage of musical and filmic textures. If nothing else, it is great entertainment.
That said, perhaps it's Korine's tired use of multi-screen projections, or maybe it's the deliberately Grand Guignol vignettes, but something about The Diary... doesn't quite ring true. Take the soundtrack, for example. You don't have to be Manny Farber to recognise that cinema has more often than not made cynical use of music, at best to subtly add emphasis to the scene in question, at worst to bolster bad scripts or drive shoddy narratives faster towards their dénouement. The Diary... manages both. In one touching scene, an old man dressed as a black and white minstrel remarks to the camera 'they say I'm not funny anymore', before performing a stiff, faltering dance while singing 'My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean'. Contrasted with the rather melodramatic use of opera at the film's climax - including nostalgic Super 8 footage, the silhouette of an albatross in flight and the handicapped young man unable to fully control his movements - and you have insidious cinema. Take away the music and what are you left with?
By presenting itself in quasi-documentary form, The Diary of... enters into the ethical wranglings documentary film-makers and anthropologists have been involved in for years. On one hand, it expresses something of the frustrations of life in trailer trash USA. The scene, for example, in which three young Death Metal fans, dressed in camp Alice Cooper-style Satanist make-up rip apart and vomit on a copy of the Bible is bathetic in its po-faced, adolescent attempt to shock, but it's also a sad, impotent gesture of frustration. On the other hand, however, 'sympathetic' is such an easy plaudit to use. We can chat about the artist's oeuvre over a beer, perhaps remark on the plight of the destitute like dutiful Victorian patricians, while Korine and his mates can head on back to Manhattan, check out the footage and plan the transatlantic show. But in choosing to present, for the most part, raw documentary footage accompanied by an almost hyperbolic soundtrack, The Diary... is as much an essay in art's denial of its entertainment value as it is a meditation on life in poor Mid-West towns.
Like the wannabe teen Crowley-ites shredding the Bible, the grandiose title is in keeping with the film's occasional gauche morbidity. Its deliberate crassness, though, is redeemed by Korine's sensitivity towards the film's real tragedy - the sense of entrapment brought on due to economic or political vicissitudes. Its reflexivity is powerful and its ambiguities leave audiences unsure as to whether they should shake the artist's hand for creating an intelligent, well crafted piece of cinema (cinematic in its ambitious scope and sense of itself, as opposed to, say, Bill Viola's pretensions to sombre sublimity) or punch him out for poking fun at their own liberal mores. As contentious as it is, with so much tediously shallow video work around, Korine's first gallery foray is a welcome pain in the arse.
First published in Issue 54