d. Harmony Korine / 2009 / USA / 78 mins
Viewed at: London Film Festival (Leicester Square Vue – Screen 9)
“Trash Humpers is a movie that’s maybe not even a movie. I sometimes say maybe it’s something else, it works on a different logic, its more closely related to something that’s like a found artefact or an old discarded VHS tape, something maybe that you could imagine being put in a zip-lock bag and it having a a little bit of blood on it and buried in some ditch somewhere.” – Harmony Korine.
As always, films which seem to be about ‘nothing in particular’ often elicit the most in-depth responses. Trash Humpers, the latest visual utterance from US-indie agitator Harmony Korine, is no exception. Bear with me folks, this is a long one…
Trash Humpers is a pretty gruelling viewing experience, less because of the actual physical action – which has its moments – and more to do with the film’s general visual/stylistic aesthetic. Shot on ultra lo-fi home video technology and (supposedly) edited on two VHS recorders, this is Korine as his most willfully obstructionist. Narrative – in a traditional sense – is almost non-existent, as we follow a band of ‘elderly’ degenerates who wander around suburban Nashville – mostly at night – engaging in acts of petty vandalism, inciting violence, singing, dancing and – yep, you guessed it – humping trash, as well as trees and a range of other inanimate objects. Trash Humpers is, both within the film and behind the camera, a film about the limits of control and the illusory power of ‘freedom’.
At first glance, the extended silliness of trash humping and all its attendant tomfoolery simply doesn’t have anything to say, and what little ‘shock-value’ it possesses is quickly dissipated by endless, tiresome repetition, with the film constantly verging on the uncomfortably dull and the entirely pointless. The ‘superfluous action’ that fills a large majority of the film’s already short seventy-eight minute running time, tends to bury any cohesive narrative thrust which – intentional or not – acts only to alienate a large chunk of the audience, particularly those not accustomed to Korine’s usual tricksterism. In this sense, as many have suggested, Trash Humpers might have been more effective as a short film.
And yet, for a film which seems to be so intent on alienating audiences and seemingly lacks either cohesive narrative structure or meaningful social comment, there is a real danger in writing it off as either precocious pretension or puerile barrel-scraping. The very lack of a narrative and the jarring visual aesthetic (not to mention the irritating characters that populate the narrative), mask a series of existential anxieties that are buried within us all – from the fear of not knowing who we are or why we are here, to the terrifying prospect of ‘growing up’ and leading a ‘respectable’ lifestyle.
Korine the Existentialist?
On one level, there is a sense that Trash Humpers is a visual evocation of some of Korine’s darkest thoughts, particularly given that he is now some distance (and one feature film) away from his near complete mental breakdown, but it may also be Korine’s way of telling us about his own existential fears.
Like each of his films, Trash Humpers was both written and directed by Korine, and this time ‘starred’, amongst others, his wife Rachel (who also appeared as Red Riding Hood in Mister Lonely). Having worked together on the video for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s No More Workhouse Blues in 2004, the pair were married in 2007, and their first child, Lefty, was born in late 2008.
And so, once this information had filtered from the back of my mind, something became glaringly obvious about Trash Humpers – something that few reviewers seems to have picked up on as far as I can tell: this is very clearly a visual meditation on the psychological trauma of impending parenthood, in a manner that only Korine knows how. Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2009, and reportedly shot ‘on a whim’ four months previously, one could reasonably assume that the gestation period for Trash Humpers – from conception to creation – coincided quite neatly with the earliest months of the couple’s first child.
Once this is clear, it seems like Trash Humpers is littered with references to these anxieties about parenthood. And throughout the film, there is a palpable sense that Harmony and Rachel Korine were leading a particular kind of lifestyle that would obviously need to change with the addition of a child. Aside from the chilling refrain of a crying infant that litters the soundtrack, the infantile nature of the central characters and the constant appearance of dolls throughout the film (usually in a negative context: attacked with a hatchet or dragged behind a BMX), there are two key scenes in Trash Humpers that present a fairly compelling case.
First, there is a scene in which one of the humpers, played by Korine himself, drives around the nondescript suburbs of Nashville espousing his twisted personal philosophy, most notably the suggestion that his way of life is much saner, much more natural – and thus better represents notions of freedom – than those cooped up inside their bubbles of domestic ‘bliss’. Second, and perhaps most compelling, is the final scene in which Rachel Korine’s character appears as a mother figure, entering a house to collect a baby and walking around the pre-dawn streets comforting it. This is a Humper born-anew at the dawn of a new day, a ‘mother’ and child reunion, a time to make amends. And make no mistake, Harmony Korine’s films may seem at first glance to be childish and crude, but they emerge from the mind of an extremely perceptive, intelligent individual.
Genius or Charlatan?
Even with this in mind, there is no doubting that – given screenings are mostly limited to film festivals – Trash Humpers can only serve to fuel both sides of the debate regarding the relative merits of Harmony Korine, particularly in light of an inherent tension between the ‘radical’ and the ‘infantile’. Is Trash Humpers a radical blast of unprecedented cinematic forethought or a childish, pathetic and puerile attempt to shock and repulse? In essence, is Harmony Korine a genius or a charlatan? One thing is for sure, the willful obscurity of this film seems to serve his fans (of which I’ll admit I’m one) quite well, but it also is perfect fodder for his detractors.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Trash Humpers is being discussed as something of a return to Korine’s Gummo glory days. Yet whilst his directorial debut foregrounded this ‘superfluous’ aesthetic – a kind of Second Unit gone mad – to further colour the internal world and add contextual detail, Trash Humpers‘ ‘superfluous action’ is much more indirect and – depending on your viewpoint – is either vastly inferior to Gummo‘s, or actively transcends that film’s willful naïvety.
Similarly, whilst the additional material in Gummo only occasionally featured its key characters, Trash Humpers places its own key quartet in the very centre of this ‘superfluous action’, somewhat limiting its scope and diminishing its impact in the process. The omnipresent antagonists of Trash Humpers exist as a continual reinforcement of the film’s total artifice, whereas the suggestion of documentary ‘truth’ was carefully woven throughout the narrative of Gummo, along with the strong sense of poetic realism that lay at its heart. Nevertheless, the centrality of ‘superfluous action’ in Trash Humpers perfectly ecapsulates the obstructionist ideals – a kind of moral and aesthetic ambivalence – that seem to inspire Korine, and thus sees him straying even further from the bounds of narrative and visual coherency.
In line with these obstructionist ideals, one could be tempted to read Trash Humpers as something of an anti-television film. When televisions aren’t being smashed to bits, characters are making comments like ‘this is too hot for TV!’ There is also, of course, the very fact that – aside from the actual content – the visual aesthetic adopted by Korine in the creation of Trash Humpers means its hard to see this ever getting the kind of mainstream TV showing that was afforded to Mister Lonely. In that sense, as in many others, Trash Humpers is Korine’s attempt to actively distance himself from his previous work. And in an age where everything on television is expected to be in High Definition, Trash Humpers is something of a welcome shot of ultra-low-quality video nastiness.
As such, the Dogme 95 movement – of which Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy was a part – is a clear reference point for Trash Humpers. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) springs immediately to mind, particularly considering the clear congruence between two groups of anarchic outsiders striving to find new expressions of freedom outside the capitalist mainstream. Korine’s only acknowledged influence so far is William Eggleston’s 1974 Portapak feature, Stranded in Canton, which also provides a series of portraits and vignettes of Southern characters, and which Korine has described as having ‘this liquid home movie photography and accidental narrative’. There are also, however, echoes of Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, especially the scene in which the Humpers ride BMXs around in circles.
Much like von Trier and Herzog, Harmony Korine has a particular penchant for myths and mythologisation. He has suggested a number of times that Trash Humpers was edited on two VCR’s, but – as always – its hard to separate the truth from Korine’s prodigious talent for self-mythology. For Korine though, this self-mythologisation gave way – quite some time ago – to the creation of broader, usually satirical – myths surrounding celebrities and historical figures. Anyone who has experienced books such as Crackup at the Race Riots, or caught any of Korine’s ‘zines or short video works (such as The Diary of Anne Frank Part II), knows that for Korine, the line between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ is always blurred.
The layers of mythology that populate each of Korine’s complex works makes it all the more necessary to dispute a critical tendency towards rash assessments of his films, and of him. In a Toronto International Film Festival round-up for Sight & Sound, Nick James described Trash Humpers as an ‘utterly one-note, one-idea film’. And while the film may be ‘one-note’ (something which I, for one, wouldn’t necessarily consider a bad thing), it most certainly isn’t ‘one-idea’. I think it can be rather tempting – and, let’s face it, easier – to simply dismiss Trash Humpers as infantile, pretentious stupidity (particularly within a one-sentence review), but as I have said already, doing so would be dismissing Korine and his work at your own peril.
Admittedly, having attended a screening at the 2009 London Film Festival, I have to say, a lot of people walked out. And I think most of those that didn’t were simply striving to find an anchor for this film, or at the very least waiting for something to actually happen on screen. But I think that’s partly the point. This is, after all, a very flat, low-impact narrative wrapped in a sheath of anti-aestheticism, that is puerile, infantile and actually rather pathetic. But what else could you expect from a film called Trash Humpers?
In retrospect, I loved this film. I left the cinema thinking it was great, but that I couldn’t possibly sit through it ever again. Now I’m not so sure, now I have a real hankering to test my hypotheses like a Victorian detective who’s solved the crime but simply wants to gather everyone in the drawing room of the stately home in order to let things unfold. Or maybe I’m trying too hard to find (and impose) meaning where it is not really welcome. Maybe the greatest thing about Trash Humpers – like the finest works of abstract art – is that it can mean whatever you want it to, it can be whatever you need it to be.