Harmony Korine’s latest film, Trash Humpers (2009), is one of his best, and is his most experimental and non-linear work yet. Its setting is similar to that of his earlier film Gummo (1997) — American waste — but is even more extreme and crazier. I suppose “setting” is a questionable term in this case, as Trash Humpers is barely scripted if at all (apparently some segments were loosely scripted, but most of it was improvised). The filming took place in Korine’s native Nashville, in its back alleys and abandoned parking lots, highway service roads and overgrown backyards. It depicts three people, sometimes four, two to three men and a woman, in old-people’s masks or make-up, who go around doing just what the film’s title implies — simulating sex with garbage cans, dumpsters, and other objects, sometimes fellating tree branches or plants. When not involved in this, they smash objects like cinder blocks, tv sets, and fluorescent lights while drinking bottles of cheap wine. But don’t make the mistake of looking for a “story.” There is none. Part of Korine’s brilliance is his having freed himself from the tyranny of linear narrative. There are recurring elements, motifs, but thankfully no story (not that story can’t be done well, but here it would inevitably be hokey). In this regard, Trash Humpers as an abstract film evokes life more faithfully than any conventional film can. It is a series of unrelated events connected by nothing more than the chronology in which they have occurred. From what I have read, the scenes as we see them are presented in the order they were filmed. Perhaps, though, the mere presentation of these random scenes can be said to create a kind of narrative in itself. If so, so be it. At least it is organic and, dare I use this word, real.
Certain scenes verge on disturbing. The characters take a hammer to a baby doll’s face, repeatedly, or drag it behind a bicycle. It sounds innocuous enough, tacky even, but through the repetition of these scenes an odd sense of pathos begins to develop for the doll, which is heightened by the later introduction of a real human baby. In another scene, shot in a room of a house, a kidnapped man is killed in a very realistic-looking manner. These are not necessarily nice people (nor were the kids in Gummo). But in their seeming nihilism, there is meaning to be found. I hesitate to make this an essay on the meaning of the film, because I think the meaning is supposed to be, at least according to Korine, secondary to his filmic concerns. As with the films of David Lynch (who also tends to deny any underlying meaning in his work), though, it is there. It has to do with being an outsider in American society, being excluded from it, as one of the characters articulates towards the end of the film, asserting that most people would envy the freedom their lifestyle bestows because their own lives are mundane and predictable. (Ironically, ironically, however, the character who posits this is wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt.) In all this Trash Humpers is vaguely reminiscent of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), both of which also depict small but tightly-knit groups of people who reject societal mores by acting in their own particularly bizarre ways — but who are ultimately seen to be flawed people.
Korine himself has said the following about the characters in Trash Humpers: “It’s kind of like an ode to vandalism. There can be a creative beauty in their mayhem and destruction. You could say these characters are poets or mystics of mayhem and murder, bubbling up to the surface. They do horrible things, but I never viewed them as sad characters. They’re comedic, with a vaudevillian horror element to what they do. They dance as they smash things and set them on fire. They’re having a great time.” And it’s true. There’s a great and satisfying sound when the fluorescent bulbs explode, when the cinder blocks hit the tarmac, when the firecrackers are set off. There’s a visceral, unsettling effect to the shrieks added to the soundtrack, to the roughly-cut videotape on which the film was made. Korine’s medium here, video, is a critical element. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the film that it is if it wasn’t filmed/cut on video. In many ways it has the feel of contemporary home-shot video escapades made famous by tv shows such as Jackass. But beyond that, the video itself adds an aesthetic aspect that takes Trash Humpers to a whole other, lyrical level. Just as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) was deliberately shot on expired film stock, Korine’s medium here is crucial. Streetlights burn their light into the videotape like midnight suns. The strange flowing water in an industrial yard reflects clouds and sky in an unexpectedly heightened dream-like manner that almost seems counter to the cold, clear expectations that video implies.
Well, let me get to the point. As a statement, this is one of the best avant-garde films of our era, and possibly all time. Korine is our most ambitious director, our most experimental. Lynch has to be considered here too. But what sets him apart — this point John Menesini recently made to me — is that Korine is the quintessential American director. Not quintessentially American in the sense of Walt Whitman, but I would suggest more in the sense of William Carlos William (“The pure products of America/ go crazy—”). In the conversation with Menesini, I countered by saying, But Lynch’s themes are also quintessentially American. John said, Yeah but there’s something European in his technique; and I guess he’s right; Lynch is a descendent of surrealism. I love surrealism, but okay, that gives him a European influence. Nothing wrong with that (and maybe there’s even a kind of surrealism in Trash Humpers too?), but it leaves Korine as the one who is probably more naturally immersed in the American idiom. Korine’s America, though, is (almost) at a dead end. These characters are people with nothing much that is positive or generative to offer (the real baby that appears later in the film is stolen/kidnapped; old people humping trashcans is the antithesis of sex). Where Williams ultimately sees some kind of ongoing potential in the American people, Korine seems to be suggesting that America has become the wasteland (to continue the poetic metaphor, the wasteland of T. S. Eliot) that Williams rejected (in, for example, “Spring and All”). But Korine is not his characters, and I think the ultimate statement of Trash Humpers is that there is unexpected beauty and art in the overlooked back places of America, and that it takes a filmmaker like to Korine (or a poet like Williams) to find it. And is there not something generative and life-affirming in the act, in the improvisation? In a kind of filmic destruction which has imbedded in it the potential for subsequent new creation?