After Hurricane Irma ravaged Key West, Jamil Gonzalez and Judd Alison, two local film fixers and location scouts, watched as sailboats sank into the water. On one of them, Gonzalez said, somebody had written "Send Help," with a phone number—and when they called it, they realized, thankfully, that everyone aboard had landed in a shelter. It was a harrowing experience, they said, and it came only one month before Harmony Korine, the legendary cult filmmaker who wrote the seminal movie 90s Kids and directed 2012's oddball mind-bender Spring Breakers, would begin principal shooting on his newest project, The Beach Bum—a look at "Cosmic America," and the drunkards, degenerates, and romantics who inhabit what was once Ernest Hemingway's famous, mythic retreat.
"We were pretty intrigued—this happened soon after the hurricane, and we didn't quite know what we were going to do—and we kind of originally set up that we wanted to do some sort of relief, to help everybody out," Alison said. "And the more that we were trying to help people out, we were really getting to the people who got hurt the most. These are the people who weren't the tourists. These are what we call the 'conchs'."
Released on Friday, March 29, The Beach Bum (produced by VICE Studios) is a kind of blown-out love letter to the Florida Keys, a sun-soaked dark comedy that revels in the resilience of the longtime residents of the Keys—the houseboat owners, the bartenders, the boozers—and the lifestyle they don't want to (and won't) give up easily. These are the conchs, through Korine's eyes.
"Most have decided that hurricanes are just part of the way of life living down here and have come to terms with them," said David Hawthorne, dockmaster of Garrison Bight Marina in the area. "They like the life style and just deal with it."
The Beach Bum has been described primarily as a character-driven film, as if Woody Harrelson had pushed the wheelchair-bound Matthew McConaughey right out of the final scene of True Detective season one and dumped him in front of a bar in the Florida Keys. There, alright, alright, alright, he transforms into Moondog, the type of guy who's sloshing red wine in the morning and wearing whatever mismatched clothes he can find, as he writes—or avoids writing—a sort of Great American novel, Richard Brautigan–style. In McConaughey's own words, as he told GQ: "Moondog's a verb. A folk poet. A character in a Bob Dylan song dancing through life's pleasure and pain knowing every interaction is another 'note' in the tune of his life." This is the sort of stuff Moondog himself says in the movie.
Then, there are the men (mostly men) he gets into trouble with. Zac Efron, with a Zoolander-esque haircut and a Bluetooth incessantly in his ear, seems to love God and snorting narcotics with equal fervor. Snoop Dogg very successfully smuggles drugs. Martin Lawrence, a dolphin guide with a coke-snorting parrot who has Vietnam flashbacks even though he never served, can't tell those mammals from sharks, which [spoiler alert] eventually becomes his undoing. Naturally, Jonah Hill has a Southern accent. (He often makes an appearance on a putting green.) Jimmy Buffett enters the screen as himself.
"The more time you spend in Key West, the more time you start to see a specific type emerge, Harmony Korine told me over the phone. "This kind of celebration of a lack of ambition. It's check-out culture."
"These sorts of people, they know how they're living," Korine continued. "It's really an amazing thing."
Talking to Gonzalez and Alison, too, you get the sense of what he's talking about—they seem as if they'd be good conversation over one or seven beers.
"Harmony's big thing is that he wants everything to be authentic," Alison told me.
Like the "coconut guy," who showed them around in a "drunken stupor," and introduced them to a secret patch of aloe. (He demonstrated the healing powers of this miracle plant, Alison said, by rubbing it all over his face.) Or the older black Christian couple, descendants, Gonzalez said, of the first black settlers in the region, who had been more than happy to turn their home into a whorehouse for the shoot. Or the guy who owns "Well Hung," a boat Moondog boards in the movie, who operates an actual bed and breakfast off of it. ("The only thing we changed," Alison said, "was the name. But, honestly, he might have left it.")
It's very easy to get caught up in all these personalities, just as it was when James Franco and a bunch of Disney Channel stars wielded guns in Spring Breakers. But The Beach Bum is as much about that place—and the feeling of that place—as it is about any of the flamboyant characters, because neither of those elements are possible to articulate without the other. This is obviously an exaggeration of that, though Korine did mention to me that he's witnessed men trying to speak to dolphins.
"We tried to find places that were a little bit more hidden," Korine said. "We filmed in different Keys, not just Key West." Places like, as Gonzalez and Alison rattled off and recommended: the Hogfish Bar & Grill, Schooner Wharf Bar, Duval Street, the southernmost point of the United States, Palm Beach Country Club—a resort golf course that's also open to the public, a microcosm Doug Carter, the general manager there, summarized of the Florida Keys at-large. ("You get all kinds of people," he told me over the phone, "everywhere you go.")
"This place is really like nowhere else anywhere," Alison told me. "You still have the big tourist crowds that come through, but you have the derelicts, too, and everyone who drops off. Think about it—if you have nothing left, and you have no money, and you want to be an artist, you might as well do it in paradise."
Not even a hurricane can stop that.
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