So, anyway, Haromony Korine’s back. The former enfant terrible who gave us Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy before alienating a lot of fans with the almost-like-a-real-movie Mister Lonely has returned to his roots, so to speak, with Trash Humpers, a shot-on-VHS-camcorder-and-blown-up-to-35mm pseudo-found-footage extravanganza that literally screams “look at me! I’ve still got it!” and, annoyingly, sort of proves he does.
Following the exploits of three elderly vagrants (actually three younger actors in disturbingly-well-realized latex masks, one of whom is the “writer”-director’s wife, Rachel Korine) around the streets of Korine’s new adopted home of Nashville, Tennessee (gosh, he really is still hip as hell, isn’t he?), Trash Humpers contains really no linear narrative whatsoever, and is essentially comprised of a series of vignettes featuring our erstwhile trio humping piles of garbage and trash cans, as the title suggests (okay, flatly states); humping trees and fellating their branches; humping mailboxes; peeking in the windows of homes; taking shits in people’s driveways; teaching kids how to hide razor blades inside apples; taking their wheelchair through a carwash; ignoring dead corpses lying in ditches; dragging a talking doll on a rope behind a bicycle; hanging out with a series of non-actors who either are, or should be, mental patients; setting off firecrackers; and occasionally killing somebody.
If you give a shit about who these vagrants are or why they do what they do, you’re watching the wrong movie. Korine’s point, to the extent that he even has one, is, as ever, merely to document — all interpretation is left up to the viewer.
And that element of honesty is really what keeps me from hating this pretentious twit’s guts.
I really can’t find much to disparage in the film itself aside from the fact that we’ve seen all this done before, and better, by Korine himself — Gummo kind of set his modus operandi in stone and subsequent efforts haven’t really been able to top it, but this movie is, in fact, still interesting — just a lot less groundbreaking. The shitty VHS camcorder work is certainly appropriate to the material and adds a new stylistic touch to Korine’s repertoire, but beyond that, if you’re familiar with his shtick you pretty much know exactly what you’re getting here and, to its credit, the film delivers. But I’m not sure Korine can really shock us anymore — and despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s clear that he still desperately wants to do so.
I offer as evidence of this charge a scene wherein our three trash humpin’ heroes are visiting the house of two local eccentrics who go around wearing a sewed-together double-hat and matching backless hospital gowns. They all sit down for a pancake breakfast with dish soap in place of syrup.
Okay, fair enough. The usual Korine weirdness-for-its-own-sake thing, right? But Jesus, how they go on about it. They spend a good few minutes making damn sure us folks out there in the audience understand that they’re gonna eat dish soap. “You mean syrup? ” “No, soap!” “Here we go, eat that soap!”
Okay, we get it already. One of the things I hated most about Juno was how Diablo Cody just had to rub the supposed “coolness” of her characters in our faces — Juno doesn’t just have a hamburger phone, for example — she takes a call and lets the person on the other end know she can’t hear them so well because she’s talking on her hamburger phone ! News flash, we can already see that!
Needless to say, the same principle is in effect here, with the key difference being that Korine’s work actually is outre, instead of providing the kind of safe, sanitized version of “out-there” hipsterness that Cody’s made the bedrock of her career. If a teenager got pregnant in a Harmony Korine film — well, that did happen, in Julien Donkey-Boy. And it wasn’t played for light comedy. But geez, Harmony, all I’m saying is trust us a bit — we know this shit is weird, you don’t need to hammer us over the head with a reminder of just how weird it is while we’re watching it. Let the material speak for itself.
The other thing that’s lessening the impact these little slices of almost-aesthetic-terrorism Korine lobs out every few years — and this is no fault of his own — is the internet. There was an air of disrespectable danger surrounding Gummo due to the fact that the pretentious legions of “officially licensed” film snobs were nearly unanimous in their denunciation of that film as being pointless and exploitative of its freak-show subjects. Now we’ve got a secondary legion of semi-officially licensed film snobs, the “superstar bloggers,” if you will, best exemplified by the likes of the insufferable and hideously pretentious Karina Longworth, who cheerlead for Korine’s films as genuine examples of guerrilla cinema and profound works of art. Personally I liked his stuff better when the critics just hated it. It just loses some of its charm when there’s not a big scarlet letter of disapproval stamped on it by the powers that be.
A moment ago I mentioned the freak-show aspect of all this, and that’s really what makes the proceedings here tick — it’s not so much the random and thoughtlessly violent (Korine has described this movie as “almost an ode to vandalism”) actions of the trash humpers themselves that provide the interest here, but the endless succession of truly disturbed people they come into contact with. Let’s face it — after the first trash-fucking scene and first tree-fucking scene, subsequent ones are going to lose their impact, even if one of the humpers is screaming “get that trash pussy!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And after the fiftieth time one of them intones their unofficial motto of “make it, make it, don’t fake it!” or sings their unofficial theme song that goes something liek “three little devil went out for a walk,” you want to punch their fucking lights out. After you see one of them taking a dump outside on a driveway a subsequent scene where one of them is blowing out birthday candles on a cake while sitting on the crapper with the female THer telling him “you’ll pass it” seems pretty punchless. But the menagerie of sub-marginals on display never ceases to amaze, from the wanna-be-conjoined twins doing a sock-puppet-theater rendition of the lives of Yang and Chang, the original Siamese twins, to the shirtless overweight loser who sings songs about his penis on his guitar to the sub-moronic redneck cracking racist and homophobic “jokes” that have no punchline to the obviously disturbed older dude who “exercise regimen” consists of laying on his bed and lifting his chin up for 60 seconds at a time to the transvestite poetry reciter — God help me, they all kept me glued to my seat long after the whole garbage-fucking thing had played itself out.
I caught Trash Humpers at a midnight screening (it’s being distributed around the country in limited-release by music distro outfit Drag City after garnering something of a reputation at SXSW and other film festivals) at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis over the weekend, and the primary audience reaction was laughter — the scenes meant to shock and horrify, or even to just make you go “what the fuck?,” seemed to fall a bit flat — and I think that’s evidence of the fact that the main “problem,” if you will, here, is one of diminishing returns. A viewer unfamiliar with Korine’s previous work would probably find this to be the most appalling, inexplicable, atrocious, and downright indecipherable thing they’ve ever seen. But for those of us who have seen his other films, it’s all kind of been done before, and better. even the ending, with the female THer making off with a baby from someone’s house, is a watered-down version of Julien stealing his sister’s dead baby from the hospital right after we learn that he’s the father in Julien Donkey-Boy.
Still, in terms of doing what it sets out to do, Trash Humpers comes through. Korine has said that he wanted this movie to have the feel of a video tape found in a ditch or the bottom shelf of a VHS rental shop or in an old dresser drawer or the attic of an abandoned house, and to have the viewer pop it in the VCR without knowing what to expect and get an accidental glimpse into an unfamiliar parallel reality — one that they knwo to be real, but have no experience of. On that score, it succeeds admirably. But he’s proven in the past that he’s capable of much more.
Still, in spite of the fact that this feels like a watered-down rerun of previous efforts, and the fact that this flick has become something of a cause-celebre for the self-appointed hip, there is an honesty here underneath all the “look at me, I’m still cool and transgressive!” messaging of this film. I may not care much for the aging- former- hipster-still-desperate-to-be-relevant persona of Korine himself, nor the fact that he’s treading on familiar ground and “giving the punters what they want” rather than pushing himself in new directions, but I can’t take issue with all his motivations.
Some filmmakers put out a movie to make a buck, others to make a statement. Korine doesn’t seem too terribly interested in either. In the end, Trash Humpers feels like a movie he made just because — well, he could. And while that’s probably not praiseworthy in and of itself, it’s not really deserving of criticism, either. It just — is.
Kinda like Trash Humpers itself.