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By Dennis Lim
It is perhaps redundant to call Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers a provocation. For starters, the title is meant literally. Korine’s fourth feature—his second after emerging from the widely documented downward spiral that nearly ended his career, and his first to be shot in his hometown of Nashville since his 1997 debut, Gummo—chronicles the exploits of several grotesque elderly cretins (played by, among others, Korine and his wife, Rachel, in wigs and creepy old-person masks). They are the nightmare embodiment of the dregs of society, hanging out under bridges and in abandoned buildings. In the absence of traditional forms of entertainment, they make their own fun. They get drunk and urinate in public. They drop in on fellow margin-dwellers, who regale them with stories and bad jokes. They torture dolls. They violate the local plant life. And, as promised, they rub up against garbage cans for the sheer hell of it.
Trash Humpers is a virtual remake of Gummo, or perhaps better to say, a sequel, in which the glue-huffing, cat-killing teenagers of the earlier film have ripened—“matured” is definitely the wrong word—into feral geriatrics. Besides the common fixation on backwater horrors, both movies are essentially non-narrative collages of discrete scenes pitched somewhere between vaudeville and viral video. (The near legendary arm-wrestling match in Gummo, which devolves into an angry showdown between a man and a kitchen chair, suggests that Korine was a YouTube artist before the fact.)
But Trash Humpers is at once an uglier film (literally) and a gentler one than Gummo. This time Korine has found a suitably degenerate form to match the abased content. Shot on aggressively lo-fi video, complete with vintage-analog glitches and distortions, Trash Humpers is meant to suggest a found artifact—or more to the point, a battered VHS tape fished out of the garbage. (It looks like it could have been made for less than the price of the cheapest garment in a store by Agnès B., one of the film’s executive producers.) The usual X-meets-Y descriptions—and Trash Humpers brings to mind plenty, such as Beavis and Butt-head as done by David Lynch, Jackass in the style of Paul McCarthy—can’t begin to capture the strangeness of this slice of Southern-gothic science fiction. Is it a lost underground movie or a new species of freak-folk art?
As of this writing, reviews have yet to appear and Korine has yet to discuss Trash Humpers publicly. But it’s safe to assume that the movie will be polarizing, and that a good portion of the discourse will revolve around the appropriateness of its sideshow aesthetic. In other words, there will be a rehash of the old exploitation-versus-empathy debate that insistently circles, without ever quite illuminating, the work of so-called provocateurs from Diane Arbus to Ulrich Seidl.
I would guess that Korine’s taste for weirdness is less of an affectation than his detractors make it out to be. His myth-rich official bio has disproportionately emphasized his time in New York: the skate-punk screenwriter plucked from obscurity by Larry Clark in Washington Square Park, the budding performance artist who turned Manhattan streets into literal stomping grounds for the aborted beat-me-up video Fight Harm, the Page Six fixture who worked the downtown party circuit as part of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Pussy Posse. But Korine, who returned to Nashville to clean up a few years ago and by all accounts now lives in domestic bliss not far from his childhood home, has spoken of his deep attachment to the South and to its native strangeness, its fabled tradition of eccentricity. (“Nashville has this weird kind of hold on me,” he recently told the Nashville Scene. “A lot of the characters and the things I’m attracted to all came from growing up in Nashville.”) Though he did his best to obscure and even falsify his biography in the early years, it eventually emerged that Korine’s father, Sol, who taught him how to use a Bolex camera as a teenager, produced documentaries for PBS in the ‘70s about an array of colourful Southern characters (moonshiners, carny barkers, alcoholic fiddlers).
While Gummo, with its chic tumult of moods and formats, was very much the work of a precocious 23-year-old, self-taught and steeped in fashionable art and filmic references, Trash Humpers strips away the style in favour of a humbler and more coherent illusion. The movie presents itself not just as a document but as a product of the gutter; the action is always being recorded by one of the trash humpers (usually the Korine character, who also provides a cackling running commentary; Korine was also the film’s cinematographer).
It’s too simplistic to say, as some of Korine’s staunchest defenders do, that he sets out to “humanize” his freaks. He expends at least as much energy in this case dehumanizing them: the lead actors, let’s not forget, are wearing hideous masks. The trash humpers are self-evidently nasty, brutal, and stupid. At once ludicrous and pitiable, they inspire both laughter and revulsion. Chalk it up to a quirk of timing, but while watching Korine’s film, I couldn’t help drawing a connection with the overwhelmingly old, white, racist protestors who have gathered at town hall meetings in the US all summer to decry Barack Obama’s “Nazi” health care plan. (In late August, one particularly horrifying and hilarious clip surfaced of a man in an Obama mask whipping an oldster with a walker and a fetus tied to rope: a deranged passion play worthy of the trash humpers.)
But unlike Seidl (or, for that matter, Gaspar Noé), Korine is not a natural miserablist. With Trash Humpers, he has created not just a seamlessly abject milieu but a fully imagined world, with its own ritualized language and gestures. The characters treat the surrounding wasteland as an open-air setting for the ongoing guerrilla theatre that is their life. The film is a kind of stealth musical, a near constant parade of unlikely song, dance, and performance. The humpers frequently break into rhythmic yelping mantras (“make it make it don’t break it”) and warble what sound like old-time folk lullabies. Their vandalism has a peculiar grace: fluorescent tubes tossed like batons in the air, a softshoe performed on broken glass. And most of the friends they meet along the way are putting on some kind of freak show for the freaks. Two fellows in hospital gowns stage an Eng and Chang sock-puppet show. A man in a maid’s outfit reads poetry. Someone plays a trumpet in bed. A guy in a neck brace tells gay jokes that are not, by any objective standard, jokes.
When I spoke to him last year about his post-rehab comeback, Mister Lonely (2007), a fable about a community of celebrity doppelgangers, Korine commented on the film’s sincere, cockeyed outlook: “There’s an inherent drama in people who create their own utopia.” The assessment applies equally to Trash Humpers.
Korine’s work on the whole is susceptible to the dubious idea that freaks are chosen ones, somehow purer or freer than the rest of us, but what’s startling here is the rude, absurdist humour with which he puts across this normally sentimental notion. The humpers are nothing if not liberated, in touch with their animal instincts to the extent that almost anything—a trash can, a tree trunk, a fire hydrant—will inspire gross horndog lechery. The basis of all this acting out, as with the kindred performance-art spazzing in von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), is a broader disgust with the social order. In a rare moment of reflection (albeit one punctuated by derisive sniggers), the humpers drive through a residential neighborhood at night while the Korine character delivers a subdued monologue, claiming that he can “feel the pain” of all these God-fearing, home-owning, child-raising people who have settled on “a stupid, stupid, stupid way to live.”
Still, social criticism is a bit of a stretch for Korine. I take him at his word when he says his main motivation as a filmmaker is to create images that he wants to see and that no one else is providing. Trash Humpers is a proudly cruddy-looking film by an aesthete who understands the power and utility of ugliness. It’s full of indelible sunburst moments, strange, sober glimmers of beauty and poetry peeking through the bleakness: yogic poses against a radioactive sun setting in the background, night scenes illuminated by the soft pink glow of sodium-vapour street lights, an infant reaching up to touch the disfigured face of its mama humper. Can the most regressive work yet by an artist known for arrested development also be a sign of his newfound maturity?