If his most recent release Red Rocket highlights anything, it’s that Sean Baker’s interest in displaying socio-economic subcultures on-screen shows no signs of waning. As a filmmaker, his unrelenting interest in showing the less fortunate, the lower economic classes, and the straight-up depraved whilst maintaining a certain anarchic charm is a tendency that is rarely seen in American cinema. In this sense, only Harmony Korine is Baker’s modern equal. However, whilst Baker is primarily seen as something of an indie darling, with his approach considered honest and sensitive, Korine, historically, has often been lambasted as a provocative curator of the vulgar. His approach is more exploitative than candid. Granted, it could not really be said that Korine’s reputation has hindered him, and his detractors don’t mean his films are universally criticized. Nevertheless, his notoriety in comparison to Baker’s remains noteworthy.
This comparison is most evident in their directorial trademarks and the stylistic similarities between the two filmmakers; not only do both seem predisposed to capturing the decrepit and run-down through such an unfiltered gaze, but they also often frame it the same. Casting unprofessional actors, juxtaposing pop songs, intentionally shooting with a lower resolution (Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy / Baker’s Tangerine), and contrasting beaten-up characters and environments against high-contrast color palettes (think of the excess of neon in Korine’s Spring Breakers and the saturated paint that provides the backdrop to Baker’s The Florida Project) are all typical of both of their filmographies. Some of this can be explained by Baker clearly being a fan of Korine, you need only see his Letterboxd review of The Beach Bum for proof of this, but there is more than just fandom to be found in how their approaches to culturally relevant topics collide.
Where Tangerine shone a light on transgender characters and sex workers, a culturally relevant and important topic, Julien Donkey-Boy can be seen to have done something similar in hindsight, giving a starkly honest presentation of schizophrenia when other films of the era were dramatizing it. Where Kids (Korine’s first writing credit) was brutally frank in exposing a redemption-less side to youth culture in the late 90s, Baker’s Red Rocket now ambivalently presents a morally challenging lead character in a time when the line between right and wrong is thicker than ever. So where then do their approaches and reputations diverge? What has caused them to be seen as ultimately, vastly different filmmakers? One way to start to address these questions is through comparing the filmmaker’s approaches to their characters in their most recent releases, Red Rocket and The Beach Bum, and how it broadly encompasses general interpretations of them as filmmakers.
The Beach Bum is Korine’s 2019 comedy release that follows Matthew McConaughey‘s perpetually intoxicated “Moondog” as he floats hedonistically around the Florida Keys via rehab and a host of other oddball characters. Red Rocket finds former porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returning to his hometown in Texas and spotting a romantic and/or business opportunity in the 17-year-old “Strawberry” (Suzanna Son). Again, the films share similarities, not least a morally questionable, hedonistic lead character who is captured in a guerilla-style aesthetic as they traverse a depraved backdrop – you gotta go low to get high, as Moondog puts it. The difference is, though, while the filmmakers have created characters that are equally obnoxious, with Mikey’s general moral bankruptcy and Moondog’s unnecessary actions – kicking a man and his trombone into the sea for no reason, for example – Korine’s filmmaking suggests a much greater fondness for his character.
As in Korine’s other films, the camera is often handheld and, despite the wide-angle of the lens, is placed in close proximity to the character. This style of filmmaking suggests a chaotic involvement in the actions on-screen, creating in some cases as with Trash Humpers, for example, almost a documentary feel to the recordings. Though he makes use of extensive handheld himself, Baker’s films are also littered with static wide-shots, creating a distance from the ongoings and a sense of detachment that implies Baker is neither condoning nor condemning his character’s actions. The comeuppances, or lack thereof, that the respective characters get in Red Rocket and The Beach Bum only seem to emphasize this disparity in how much the filmmakers like their characters.
In Red Rocket, you are told right from the start of the film that Mikey isn’t welcome, clearly a result of his past misdemeanors, ostracising him from these characters. But through his charm and undeniable charisma, Baker leads the audience to a place where you catch yourself slightly rooting for this man, in spite of all his flaws. Eventually, though, Mikey’s actions catch up with him. The film concludes with Mikey being awoken in the middle of the night and having the money that he has made from dealing drugs (mostly to people he was told explicitly not to deal to) stolen from him, stopping him from going back to California as he had planned. Alternately, The Beach Bum concludes Moondog’s debauched journey with him completing his poetic memoir, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and miraculously floating away from a boat explosion that he has caused, laughing as he does so. While you can’t deny that the company of both characters is enjoyable in an anarchic and conflicting sense, Baker ultimately gives his character what he probably deserves, rather than lauding him. This is what extends the sense of Korine’s involvement / seeming indulgent enjoyment of his character’s debasement, and makes it easy to see why his character’s reputations may have diffused through to his own, giving him a more lurid notoriety.
Undoubtedly, this lurid feel is also synonymous with the excess of Korine’s films, though. Whilst Baker never pulls his own punches or paints his characters as faultless – having the leads in Tangerine smoke crystal meth in a bar bathroom, for example – Korine amps his up to the extreme with more dirt, grime, and debasement to the point that you can’t help but feel shock value is key to them. It is feasible, though, that Korine feels this glut of degradation better gets across his point; by shoving it in the viewer’s face, he is forcing a confrontation with how unseen these sects of society have been in film. It does, therefore, seem that this and the clear nihilistic essence that runs throughout Korine’s films simply makes them less palatable than Baker’s, creating an acerbity that is not seen in the latter’s films.
The anarchic nature and the disturbing endings in Korine’s films are akin to this, they leave a sour taste that Baker’s don’t; there’s no redemptive or cathartic finale for Korine’s decayed characters. Baker’s maintain their dearest friendships, with Alexandra (Mya Taylor) coming back to Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and helping her clean herself up after being the victim of transphobia in Tangerine, or get what might be seen as for the best, with the example of Mikey’s ending or how Halley (Bria Vinalte) eventually loses care of Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) in The Florida Project. In contrast, Korine’s characters drive off in Lamborghini’s as in Spring Breakers or tragically kidnap and cradle a miscarried unborn baby, as in Julien Donkey-Boy.
Ultimately and simply, Korine is also just more experimental than Baker as a filmmaker. He was the first director outside of Europe to make a film under the rules of the Dogme 95 manifesto, after all. His craftsmanship is more preoccupied with the images and creating an audiovisual experience whereas Baker is largely character-driven; this, in itself, lends to vastly differing takes on the sociopolitical systems that both filmmakers often seek to expose. It’s often more visually and viscerally exciting to take the decay to the extreme, a tendency Korine clearly prefers to the emotionality of sitting contemplatively in a long-held shot that Baker leans towards. Cast out Korine and his deranged characters as you may, but there’s no denying that he and Baker are painting the same strokes, just with very different brushes.
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