When you hear the call of Harmony Korine, you are likely to either turn away or heed it. I can understand why some impulsively have no interest in him, especially considering the uncompromising oddness of his earlier works, which repulse as much as they fascinate with their brazen crudity and abject shocks to the system. But if there’s any film he could make that could change his naysayers’ minds, it would be The Beach Bum. The redolent excess that marked the aesthetic of his previous effort, Spring Breakers is still there: neon lighting abounds, the characters relish their delinquent streaks with loud bursts of troublemaking, topless women dance on boats for no other reason than to titillate, and recreational drugs are imbibed as frequently as alcohol (it’s the most stoner comedy I’ve seen in a long time). Korine is a man who loves to revel in the “muchness” of living, and he’ll punctuate this repeatedly in any way he knows how. Fair enough. When you’re watching film after film as a cineaste and critic, and many of them are directed by artists who prefer holding back and taking in the sparsity of life, someone like Korine is a refreshing treat. For him, the world is a sensory bulldozer that lets you party hard, blasts you with a hangover, and then gets you back up to party again. It’s a world that also knows sadness and loss—that people close to you are ephemeral and will leave you in an instant, that the lows come as quickly as the highs, that our encounters with others must always have an expiration date.
The Beach Bum is just such an odyssey. From the eyes of Moondog (one could say his fictional stand-in), Korine charts the course of an artistic mastermind and mischief-maker who is truly the last of his kind. A man who cares little for prescribed rule and order because he finds all the happiness he needs in his own brand of bohemian nonconformity, much like how Korine carved out his own cinematic space as a freewheeling boundary-pusher. The film’s bonhomie radiates solely from Moondog’s stoned affability, which is given breath and being by an excellent Matthew McConaughey. Admittedly he’s a little on the nose casting-wise, but given how his career is indebted to playing similar characters, one can’t quibble with seeing him in a louder iteration. And because he sells it so well, it’s hard not to be taken by the film’s good vibes, which extend even to the sadder plot twists. What struck me most about this, actually, was how Moondog’s tragedies did not grind him down. No matter what curveballs are thrown at him, he does not look at them as endings or obstacles. He simply accepts them for what they are and moves on, and as someone who is prone to dwell negatively on such things, I found it touching. Very in keeping with Moondog’s poetic character, and also the key to loving him in spite of his absurdities. Or are they absurdities? What if the true absurdities are the symptoms that we cling to in order to exacerbate our existential ills? What if the superficial absurdities, like the clothes we wear or the lifestyles we choose (be they conventional or no), are the very quirks we need to embrace in order to have a fulfilling life? If Moondog is a character in the sense of being an interesting person, he also has character—an inner strength of being that is worthy of emulation.
Did I catch you off guard? Moondog? Worthy of emulation? But see, this is the greatness of Korine’s work. It is, I think, one of his chief preoccupations as a filmmaker. He reminds us that there are people out in this world who we would never dream of gaining inspiration from because of their personal extremes. We underestimate them, ignore them, shun them, all because they don’t live their life the way we want to. What Korine asks us, especially in this film, is (and I put it bluntly) to get over ourselves. Moondog may be an aberration, but he is also a talented aberration—talented enough to win the Pulitzer. He loves drugs and women and parties, but he is also a generous lover of the people he knows and the world that surrounds him. Furthermore, he continues loving even in the face of great loss, because he understands that our time here is precious. To live well is to live fully, on your own terms, without bogging yourself down with the minute details of every cruel reality. The Beach Bum, with its special brand of picaresque imprecision, is a work that asks us to continue writing Moondog’s poetry of life because it’s a life that roars with an open heart.