In The Year of The Impossible Object

The Beach Bum and Beyond

The Beach Bum (2019) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In 1990, psychologist Robert Shepard created what he called “L’egs-istential Quandary.” More commonly called the impossible elephant, Shepard’s drawing looks, at first glance, like a normal pachyderm, but a moment’s consideration reveals the irreconcilable way the legs either do or don’t connect with the rest of the body. The appeal of this type of optical illusion—these so-called impossible objects—is derived not just from their elaborate violations of physics, but from the playful whimsy behind the entire notion. Be it in the form of a trident, a cube, or an apex herbivore, it’s hard not to be amused by something that brings you so tantalizingly close to a transcendence of the universe’s laws.

L’Egsistential Quandary | Roger Shepard
L’Egsistential Quandary, Roger Shepard

This feeling of pleasant disbelief was my first response to the early announcements surrounding my favorite film of 2019. With a cast list that ranged from Matthew McConaughey (as a poet named Moondog), to Snoop Dogg (as a man named Lingerie), to Jimmy Buffett (as Jimmy Buffett), and even Martin Lawrence in his first cinematic role since 2011, every choice seemed so utterly counterintuitive that it was hard to envision them being woven into a cohesive whole.

Possibly most confounding as the project’s shape continued to emerge was the evident warm tone. Harmony Korine, who’s directed only six films in the past 22 years, may still be best known to some as the teenage screenwriting prodigy behind Larry Clark’s notoriously explicit 1995 debut Kids; Clark’s film is resolutely realistic, but once Korine embarked on his own directorial career, his work quickly coalesced into a canon distinct as much for its alienating formal experimentation as its controversial themes. His 1997 directorial debut, Gummo, is an eerie feature-length collage depicting rural American life as a psychotic dreamscape, while for his 1999 sophomore effort, Julien Donkey-Boy, he created the first American film to earn the Dogme 95 seal of approval, an ascetic level of restraint that the nascent auteur married to a searing portrait of schizophrenia. At the time of The Beach Bum’s release, far and away Korine’s most renowned effort was 2012’s Spring Breakers, a hypnotic provocation that reframed Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez as amoral thrill-seekers. Each of Korine’s films is distinct in style and tone, but these notorious works are marked by an aggressive noxiousness. As far as most viewers are probably aware (if they are aware of him at all), Harmony Korine makes films that dare you to keep watching.

It’s easy to forget, though, that Korine’s little-seen third film is a work of bruised sweetness, likely among the gentlest films ever made by a famed provocateur. Mister Lonely, his 2008 return from an extended, Malickian absence from public life1, tells the story of a Michael Jackson impersonator who’s invited by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator to live in a castle off the coast of Scotland with a commune of others who choose to escape painful pasts by living as someone else, from Abraham Lincoln to Little Red Riding Hood to the Pope. Naturally, there’s an often overwhelming surreality to the film, but for once within the Korine oeuvre, that oddness is employed in a spirit of childlike hope—when the impersonators of Mister Lonely raise a toast, it’s “to the dreams that allow us to find one another, to seek refuge, and to pause for comfort.”

This sense of humanism carries over to The Beach Bum, which otherwise feels primarily like an inversion of the violently hallucinatory Spring Breakers. Featured once again are that film’s neon-drenched Florida landscapes and 24-hour debauchery, as well as Korine’s now-trademark elliptical editing style—both Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum tell their stories in non-linear sequences rather than traditional scenes. But where Spring Breakers, with its recursive and droning rhythms, was inspired by EDM, The Beach Bum, with its frequent giddy digressions, feels more like the filmic equivalent of loose and woozy yacht rock.

The Beach Bum (2019) | Neon
Neon

The Beach Bum concerns famed and eternally-stoned street poet Moondog’s efforts, following the death of his beloved wife Minnie, to finish his masterwork and access the $50,000,000 he’s promised in her will. Korine’s film joins a tradition—one ranging from 2018’s Never Goin’ Back to those cannabinoid godfathers Cheech and Chong—that I’ve come to think of as the “stoner picaresque.” Comprising some of the earliest novels ever written, picaresques are stories of pícaros, a class of eternally roguish protagonist who exists along the fringes of society, navigating episodes of bawdy satire and experiencing rising and falling fortunes while remaining always fundamentally a rascal. A stoner protagonist in their state of perpetual awe is often the ideal vehicle for this most classical style of storytelling, and with his unflappable bemusement, Moondog ably fits into a pantheon of characters—including that most famous American pícaro, Huckleberry Finn—who chafe at the strictures of so-called polite society and keep an eye always trained on the adventure beyond the horizon.

If you met Moondog on the streets of your hometown (unless that is, you happen to live on the southern tip of Florida, which Korine paints as a land of bacchanalian permissiveness), you’d likely find him a grotesque nightmare. But the picaresque shares more in common with folk tales than Carveresque dirty realism, and so Moondog is permitted to traipse through life with ecstatic impunity, no matter if he’s stage-crashing a concert to riotous applause, having impulsive sex with a stranger in the active kitchen of an open-air bar on the day of his daughter’s wedding, or being sentenced to rehab by a judge who happens to be a fan of his poetry—“Don’t let us down, Moondog,” she tells him at the close of his hearing, speaking either for those assembled, for the population of Florida, or for humanity as a whole. “We’re rootin’ for ya.”

And, presuming they can stomach his defiant crassness and occasional assaultiveness, the viewer is, too. The Beach Bum is a fantasy, a vision of an impossible world in which an appalling man with an improbably graceful soul is hailed as the hero we deserve. As unlikely as it may seem, Harmony Korine, a man who just 10 years ago directed a movie titled Trash Humpers, somehow gifted us with the feel-good (or, at the very least, feel-buzzed) movie we so desperately needed in 2019.

It was in pondering the off-kilter glory of McConaughey’s performance that I first recalled the term “impossible object.” It seemed the best descriptor for this infectiously ramshackle film, particularly the symphony of impulses that comprise McConaughey’s embodiment of Moondog. From his odd spasms of shrill laughter to his tendency to lazily swallow random words and leave his speech teetering on the verge of incoherence, the choices seem so counterintuitively intuitive that’s it’s difficult to imagine them being articulated by either director or performer. Even as we may recognize the face—what little we can glimpse behind his prodigious blonde mane and massive reflective sunglasses—this feels less like another display of acting prowess than like a full spiritual embodiment, as though the perpetually laid-back star has somehow become the vessel for an eternal force of nature.

It’s hard to envision Moondog existing in any other film, and it’s hard to envision this one without McConaughey, as his rapturous presence provides the only imaginable nucleus around which such a disharmonious contraption could orbit2. Every element of The Beach Bum seems designed for maximum discord, from the evidently untrained actors sharing the screen with anointed stars to the panini-press haircut on Zac Efron’s jolly vaping arsonist (another in Korine’s growing collection of High School Musical stars reframed as monstrous hedonists) to the cocaine-addicted parrot. And yet, like the floatplane that squires Moondog about the keys in the hands of a wizened pilot who’s half-blind and fully-stoned, the operation attains liftoff and then sticks the landing in defiance of all reason.

The Beach Bum | Neon

Of course, any movie is an inherently impossible object, a pleasant diversion that obscures a vast system of illusions. Movies are most often designed to wash over us, enveloping and hypnotizing the viewer in this most holistic mode of storytelling, but even a moment’s critical thought reveals the mechanisms of the illusion, from special effects to editing to sound design. The accepted norms of film grammar have been honed for generations to suppress viewer awareness of this falseness, but The Beach Bum deliberately abuses the social contract on how movies operate. As in Spring Breakers, scenes are assembled from different loosely-blocked takes on the same conversations, which intercut to create the effect that characters are jumping across an environment—be it a yacht or a dive bar—while remaining in an unbroken moment. I’m hardly the first to point out that film equipment can be used to make magic; among the first camera tests were ostentatious displays of illusion, capturing the guileless delight of seeing the impossible made real. But as this idea—the possibilities of impossibility—took hold this year, I felt my relationship with movies, and their relationship to my perceptions, shifting and clarifying.

At a wedding reception this past Labor Day, I talked movies with an avowed MCU devotee, and after we compared notes on the various Avengers’ various adventures, he asked my favorite franchises. I scrambled to think of an ongoing property I could express genuine enthusiasm for, but finally had to admit that while I’m happy to consume franchise films, by and large these tentpoles don’t provide what I look for at this point in my filmgoing life. More and more, I find myself going to the multiplex in search of something startling and unexpected—I want to experience stories I’ve never considered, visions I‘ve never imagined might be possible, and I gravitate to voices that tell these stories in ways I’ve never envisioned a story being told. As I look back on the films that have most profoundly impacted me in the past half-decade, this sense of absolute singularity is the recurring thread. From Mandy to Lady Macbeth to Moonlight, to Mad Max: Fury Road, each taught me some new way of seeing the world, offering me elaborate and stylish facsimiles of life that I could use as a new lens through which to interpret my own.

One of the most arresting moments in The Beach Bum finds Minnie and Moondog dancing on the last night of her life. As they twist and twirl, flirtatious and drunk on a darkened pier, we see impressionistic flashes of other moments from across their history as a couple. And when Minnie considers her husband, Korine and editor Douglas Crise create an unspoken sense that she is simultaneously considering the full scope of their life together. One moment is able to comprise the full scope of a love story by simple virtue of a graceful arrangement of images.

I don’t think it can ever be overstated how much the advent of film editing has influenced the way so many of us conceive of our experiences. Who among us, during a wedding, a graduation, or some other moment of overwhelming emotion, hasn’t conjured a retrospective montage in our minds? The way we experience movies shapes the way we experience life, and to experience a movie like The Beach Bum, to ingest and absorb this much giddy existential gratitude, strikes at least this viewer as quite a blessing.

Early this past summer, I noticed a pattern recurring every time I went to the movies. When the trailer for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood played—as it inevitably did between May and July—I was unable to make it to the end without getting choked up. It’s not that these early glimpses of Rick, Cliff, and Sharon struck me as intensely poignant; rather, at some point in the back half, I would start experiencing an acute euphoria, usually in response to the ecstatic quick-cut montage hitched to the soaring crescendo of Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Show” (certainly a contender for song of the summer amongst a certain segment of cinephiles). The entire effect would leave me overwhelmed with a sort of preverbal bliss, or at least something that felt like it amidst the spiritual exhaustion of 2019. The tears stinging my eyes came from pure gratitude at the possibilities extended to me by the combination of music, cinematography, performance, and editing, all of them coalescing into an experience that transcends its craftsmanship. 

This fraught cultural moment, in which controversy over a movie can escalate as far as military intervention, can seem awfully bleak. And the opportunity to see the ordinary world made extraordinary—made delightfully impossible—has felt like a gift worth treasuring (to coin a phrase) now more than ever.

Proximity to the seemingly impossible can be infectious, but that escalating thrill comes with its costs. It’s key to The Beach Bum’s worldview that Minnie is the one behind the wheel for her fatal car wreck; Moondog, sitting shotgun during that head-on collision, has almost certainly imbibed more than his wife, but it’s inconceivable that the universe of Korine’s film would extend such fatal consequences to him. Minnie is intoxicated as much by Moondog’s cheerful disregard for consequences as she is by the substances in her system, and—cosmically unfair as it may be—she’s punished for her belief that his impossible immunity could extend to her.

This anxiety over the perils of pushing the limits of the possible felt surprisingly near at hand as I went to the movies this past year. Again and again, I saw explosions in technological advancement obliterate the line demarcating what’s feasible to see onscreen, and as delightful as these illusions could be—perhaps most notably Gemini Man’s shocking but largely benign attempt to definitively jump the uncanny valley by casting Will Smith opposite a photorealistic conjuring of his younger self—they could just as easily expose rabbit holes of existential distress. 

The year’s most popular animated film, the slavishly faithful remake of The Lion King, was rendered with such unimaginable detail that it’s often reflexively referred to as live-action, and even those of us who understood the characters were animated couldn’t help but be astonished when it was revealed that not a single frame of the film (apart from one landscape shot seamlessly included as what the kids might call a flex) featured any natural elements at all. The results were awe-inspiring, but they often felt eerie and nauseating. We rely on our stable understanding of the line between the real and the artificial, and it isn’t hard to draw a line between the technology that brought us The Lion King and the abrupt rise of so-called “deepfakes,” video technology that can enable a canny imitator to photorealistically put words into any mouth—not to mention create the illusion of any body performing any action—from a world leader’s to your very own. A technology capable of effectively simulating reality will be unstably dangerous in the wrong hands, no less so than a stick of sweating nitroglycerine, and if the mind happens to wander during Jon Favreau’s numbing VFX showreel, it can inadvertently stumble into exactly this thicket of troubling questions.

Of course, we can’t talk about cinematic impossibility without acknowledging the mind-melting digital fur technology of Cats, which debuted—after years of mounting curiosity—in a trailer that shook the world3 this past July. It had always seemed impossible that anyone could cinematically conjure anything to match the camp delight of the stage show’s furred leotards and elaborate makeup, and so anticipation reached a fever pitch during the leadup to that trailer and its reveal of what approach Tom Hooper—among the most aggressively tasteless auteurs to ever attain prestige status—might have taken.

The approach he did take—a perverse melding of human faces with slender eroticized feline bodies covered in viscerally tactile hair—seemed such a delightful violation of good taste that I couldn’t help thinking of it as prestige paracinema, a garish bad object served straight-faced to the public as mainstream art. That first publicity push was a cultural rubbernecker’s dream that feels uniquely of its time, not just for the cutting-edge technology on display but for the brazenness with which such grotesquerie could be offered as Oscar bait4. When asked in August what the summer’s most significant film had been, I chose the Cats trailer as “the most important cultural object of this sweaty and absurdist summer,” and I was only halfway kidding, perhaps even less.

Cats

It seems almost too apt that one of the major food stories of the year was the introduction of “Impossible” meat to the nation’s fast food franchises. It’s enough to make you question whether the word has outlived its usefulness. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, so many out-of-the-way things have been happening lately that it’s easy to think very few things indeed are really impossible.

I quoted Carroll’s line in the first essay I ever contributed to Bright Wall/Dark Room, a piece I wrote between the election and the inauguration of Donald Trump partially as an attempt to process my stress over becoming a parent at the dawn of a new era that laid bare so much of my illusory understanding on the limits of the possible. After Trump’s election, like so many people, I naively believed the government’s immune system would fight him off like a virus to be replaced by someone with at least a modicum of experience and comportment. This result had been an inconceivable reorientation of my perspective, and it shook my innate faith in our collective cultural self-interest, not to mention anything better than half-certainty in the long-term survival of the human race. 

Even beyond outrageous endeavors like the attempted travel bans, the trans military ban, and so many other efforts to rob vulnerable people of their right to exist, the Trump administration has, with mind-boggling carelessness, rearranged the judiciary and crippled federal agencies, triggering effects that will reverberate for generations and dramatically hasten oncoming climate catastrophes. Even now, more than halfway through this presidential term, I can’t quite shake the headspace I was plunged into on election night, a place I described in that early essay as one from which “I could see no clear path towards anything like hope.”

That headspace remains particularly overwhelming late at night when I’m lying in bed and find myself gripped by vertiginous panic, unable to stop catastrophizing the world my daughter and son will grow up in. All I can hope is that when we all see this oncoming altered world, we can find our way to the feeling Peggy Lee sings of as Minnie and Moondog dance in Minnie’s last few hours of life. “Is that all there is?” Lee continually ponders after catastrophe, underwhelmed even when her home burns down. “Is that all there is to a fire?” If this is indeed as much as any of us can expect, Peggy Lee concludes, alongside Moondog, Minnie, and their ilk, then “break out the booze and have a ball.”

As impossible as the full effect may seem, obscured as it is by the uniquely bizarre flourishes imparted by Korine and his ensemble5, The Beach Bum has a remarkably conventional story arc: Moondog’s status quo is upended, he is offered an ultimatum, he experiences trials en route to fulfilling his quest, and ultimately succeeds beyond all expectations, only to land happily back at square one and quite literally ride off into the sunset.

The final plot twist comes when Moondog at last unlocks his massive inheritance. The conquering poet orders the executor of his late wife’s estate to take out the $50,000,000 in cash, load it onto a boat named Success, and sail it down to him. When Success arrives, Moondog throws a party for hundreds of his most beloved Floridians, a soiree that culminates when he climbs onto the boat to set off fireworks. Falling prey either to inebriation or the whims that he trusts to guide all his decisions, Moondog deliberately shoots a firework into the cash, and Success erupts in a fireball. As singed bills rain down on the crowd, Moondog—the eternally invincible pícarodrifts giggling back to shore in a lifeboat.

The Beach Bum (2019) | Neon

There’s a pronounced streak of Zen thinking to The Beach Bum, the Buddhist conception of existence as a series of interlocking cycles—the understanding that both good and bad fortune come and go, and thus the best approach is to embrace life’s grand equilibrium. As the credits rolled on The Beach Bum, the first film I thought of wasn’t Spring Breakers. It was Jim Jarmusch’s Zen opus Paterson, the story of another gentle poet and fixture of his community who seeks comfort in the notion that his life and works are just “words written on water.” Paterson and Moondog both suffer calamity—the former losing years of writing, the latter his fortune—that sets them on their heels and tasks them with moving on into new possibilities. “What a fuckin’ blast,” a once-more destitute Moondog mutters in the film’s concluding line before drifting on to whatever may lie in store.

In a massive closing statement, Moondog argues that what sets him apart from the rest of society is his philosophy that “this life gig’s a fuckin’ rodeo [and] I’m gonna suck the nectar out and fuck it raw dog ’til the fuckin’ wheels come off.” The Beach Bum may be a formal inversion of Spring Breakers, but in this ethos of crude serenity, the film identifies itself most notably as a spiritual inversion of Mister Lonely, Korine’s wounded reintroduction to a world that had so often labeled him a spoiled punk. The protagonist of that film, the MJ impersonator known only as Michael, believes he’s set apart by his unique understanding of what it’s like “to hate your own face.” This line is one of the most sincerely raw ever conjured by this vulgar auteur, and after Michael’s melancholy, there’s a feeling of redemption for both artist and audience in Moondog’s bliss, his certainty that “the world is conspiring to make me happy.”

It’s that unabashed faith in the power of spiritual resilience that I most cherish about this particular impossible object, and as much as anything provoked in me by the films of 2019, it’s Moondog’s picaresque optimism that I hope to carry into 2020. Things so often seem impossible these days, but as this beautiful beach bum, having defied disbelief by going from fugitive to Pulitzer Prize winner, chides his daughter in the closing stretch, “Never bet against Moondog.” No matter how hopeless things may seem, it’s always worth keeping at least a little bit of faith in the impossible.

  1.  Like Malick, details concerning Korine’s whereabouts during his absence are hazy, with the young auteur later prone to dramatic and contradictory claims including (but not limited to) a sojourn hunting a mythical fish with a South American cult and cohabitation with an invisible dog. Unlike Malick, a reasonable assumption for Korine’s sabbatical might be a demoralizing bad-faith reputation that can leave critics presuming the worst“C’mon, Harmony,” Paul Tatara rhetorically sneered in his CNN review of Gummo, “Mano a boyo. What are you really trying to prove here? I know, I know. I’m such a toady to the straight-laced mass media…”

  2. Though rumor has it Gary Oldman was Korine’s first choice for the role, one could be forgiven for assuming the film was conceived as a McConaughey vehicle, as the story seems happy to capitalize on audience awareness of the star’s offscreen behavior. As The Atlantic critic David Sims writes in his Letterboxd review, The Beach Bum is “a sensitive and rich adaptation of Matthew McConaughey’s police report from that time he was arrested for playing bongos naked while stoned.”
  3. Or at least that loose collection of extremely online cinephiles we call “Film Twitter,” who essentially declared July 18th a personal day so that full attention could be devoted to communal recovery from the trailer’s online premiere.
  4. At least before that resounding collective revulsion led the marketing team to pivot from typical promotion to the sort of snarky digital patois that characterizes so many corporate Twitter accounts, a semi-desperate attempt to demonstrate comfort with the now foregone conclusion that this movie would be more curio than classic.
  5.  Perhaps most remarkable among these flourishes, at least to my mind, is Korine’s choice to have the film scored by venerable journeyman John Debney, who provides the film with a soundtrack virtually indistinguishable from his work on the Reese Witherspoon romcom Home Again. When underscoring scenes as outrageous as those underscored in Spring Breakers by original Skrillex compositions, a conventional sonic palette is rendered deeply uncanny. Harmony Korine may be nearing 50, but thank goodness his prankishness seems in no danger of dimming.