When it comes to pop art, says Mark Harris, being popular isn't the whole story

By Mark Harris
Updated October 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why Harmony Korine matters and Adam Sandler might not

How do you recommend a piece of entertainment that you know almost nobody will like — and should you even try? The question occurred to me last week while I was at a New York Film Festival showing of a movie called ”julien donkey-boy.” ”julien donkey-boy” is the second movie directed by Harmony Korine, the twentysomething bad boy who shot to infamy by writing the screenplay for the controversial ”kids” while he was still in his teens. I feel safe in saying that most of you will hate his new film. Go see it anyway.

”julien donkey-boy,” a grainy, weird portrait of a borderline schizophrenic shot on digital video, is a disturbing and uneven movie — it?s filled with long scenes that feel improvised, some of which go nowhere and some of which are wonderfully rewarding. Its use of shock tactics can lead to silliness (a masturbating nun) or deep emotional payoffs (the ending, which I won?t reveal). Its bleakness is unrelieved. But I was excited by Korine?s trailblazing use of video technology and the seriousness of his influences, which lean more toward John Cassavetes and Werner Herzog (who also stars in the film) than toward Brian DePalma and John Hughes.

The film is also hell to sit through. At times I found myself simultaneously elated by it and wishing it would end. So why am I telling you to see it? Because nine of you may hate it, but one of you is going to absolutely love it — and because our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to any entertainment that?s not validated by high ratings, big grosses, or popular taste.

You see it manifested in many ways. The week ”julien donkey-boy” showed, New York City was mired in what?s now become a national controversy over artist Chris Ofili?s use of dried dung in a portrait of the Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum. As those of you know from Ty Burr?s recent Hot Topic, New York?s Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, gave it a very bad review, and since his operating principle seems to be ”If I don?t like it, I?m going to run it out of town,” this meant trouble. (By the way, for those posters who responded to Ty?s column by saying ”I?m all in favor of the First Amendment, but not for this,” here?s the thing: You?re NOT all in favor of the First Amendment if your statement has a ”but” in it.)

Then there?s conservative presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who, when interviewed by an EW reporter about the violence in the new movie ”Fight Club,” said, ”I cannot find any constitutional case that I could make that would permit government limitations on this sort of thing.” The scary thing is, that means he LOOKED for one. (He?s all in favor of the First Amendment, but…)

And then there are some of our letter writers who too often dash off an email to movie critics Owen Gleiberman or Lisa Schwarzbaum whenever they pan a movie like Adam Sandler’s ”Big Daddy” or Ashley Judd’s ”Double Jeopardy” that then opens to big grosses, saying ”I guess you were wrong about that one, huh?”

They weren?t wrong. Living in a democracy means allowing all kinds of art to flourish, but art itself is NOT a democracy. Great art can be unpopular. Crap can be successful. And when it comes from an elephant and is studded with beads, crap can even be art. So the next time you hear about something you think isn?t to your taste, go. There?s nothing better than the shock of liking something you thought you?d hate.