When KIDS was released in 1995, there was a lot of “controversy” behind its explicit content involving teens, drugs, and violence. I remember all of the hype clearly; I was 16 at the time. The film’s writer, Harmony Korine was 22, however, he was only about 19 when he wrote it [wikipedia claims “18” Korine has guessed “20”]. I watched KIDS and thought that it was a solid film, but it didn’t change my fucking life like the nightly news had claimed that it would. Then again, I think that any lack of shock value for me may actually be a testament to the reality that had been infused within it. While KIDS jump started the careers of first time actors like Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigney, Korine didn’t quite live up to the “promise” that many had expected for him. That’s not to say that he didn’t continue to produce amazing pieces of work or to move forward in his career, it’s just that he never seemed harnessed into the limitations and ideas that had been placed on him by others. One way to put it would be that the “promise” that the golden boy had placed on him wasn’t a promise that he had actually ever “made” himself. In ways, his story is Pecker-esque and, as quickly as upper class socialites might take in a troubled youth for their own self-righteous ego boost, they will toss his ass out and turn their backs on him once he lives up to his inherent nature by intentionally smashing their Fabergé eggs, getting their daughters drunk, and stealing their Escalades.
Whether or not the mainstream media had already lost its interest, Korine didn’t truly grab my attention until he was able to gain control of his own projects for himself. I think that Harmony shook a lot of people after his directorial debut with the beautifully unsettling, GUMMO. Let’s face it, the mainstream demographic is often open to the idea of offensive and/or crude material, but not beyond any context that they can easily process or recognize. This was 1997, so think marketable Hollywood “bad boys” like Eminem, Marilyn Manson, etc. While KIDS presented some graphic ideas, GUMMO was so realistic and raw that it actually pulled viewers into the grime with it. It had the ability to instill a subconscious feeling of guilt for observing the voyeuristic footage and not having anyone to report the indecencies to. This isn’t what America wanted; simple shock value they understand and this wasn’t it. I think that a lot of people ironically determined that Korine was a one-note with nothing more to offer than vulgarity, while not realizing that what they were actually responding to was the fact that he had taken a drastic turn away from what they had expected of him. One man who responded emphatically to the work was German master of film, Werner Herzog. After seeing GUMMO, Herzog labeled Korine as “a very clear voice of a generation of filmmakers that is taking a new position” and followed that up by saying, “It’s not going to dominate world cinema, but so what?” You’re not likely to find a more accurate breakdown of the filmmaker anywhere.
While many filmmakers and critics focus on how content fits into their preconceived notions of pre-manufactured film structure, Korine has always seemed much more focused on re-examining the film making process altogether and in exploring what its capabilities are as a tool and an artform. In 1998, a book of his random musings, fragmented thoughts, and suicide letters titled Crack Up at the Race Riots was published, challenging the idea of what determines a legitimate piece of literature. In 1999 the film, Julien Donkey Boy pushed the envelope further with an even looser structure, hidden cameras, and minimal scripting. Unfortunately, its association with the recently birthed Danish film movement, Dogme 95, tended to overshadow what the film was able to accomplish on it’s own merits. For the all but abandoned Fight Harm project, he ran around getting his ass kicked while David Blaine filmed him, but, for the most part, Korine didn’t return to film until Mister Lonely in 2007. This was arguably his most accessible work and, although I still found it incredible, it seemed to float by without much widespread detection. With his latest project, Trash Humpers, Korine proves that he still has no intention of playing it safe or sticking with any semblance of what could even be considered a “familiar” format. Believe it or not, this may actually be the most inaccessible piece of film that the native Tennessean has ever presented.
It’s borderline pointless to even try and review this “film” and, since I hadn’t originally planned to, I’ll try to just hover around its basic essence. One word that I’ve seen thrown around in reviews quite a bit is “nightmare“. I can totally understand what the reviewers had intended by using that term, because there is a grimy dreamlike quality created by filtering the footage through a weathered VHS style aesthetic. While I can, in some ways, confirm the concept of it being nightmarish as strikingly accurate, it can also be completely discounted, just based on the sheer subjectivity of the term itself. Everyone has their own hell and everyone has their own idea of beauty. As with most of Korine‘s work, the director doesn’t hold much value in “directing” or controlling what the viewer will take away from the work. He makes “feature presentations” and just presents material to be interpreted and/or experienced by the viewer. He doesn’t seem to be interested in breaking his work down much more than that, but everyone else seems to feel it necessary. This may be because Harmony‘s work is based more on feeling than created for analysis and, when people are trying to understand something so badly and feel the need to be considered as “in the know“, getting that clarification is treated like something of necessity and urgency.
I saw Trash Humpers in Seattle during the second of two showings featuring Korine in attendance. As you will further discover in our accompanying article, Harmony‘s Q&A for the second showing came prior to the screening of the film. To alleviate any potential worries for audience members who might feel that, without viewing the film first, the Q&A would be rendered useless, the director began by asking, “Any of you seen the trailer?” He then followed the question up by saying, “Yeah, so it’s that same shit. You know what I mean? You saw the trailer, you know what it is.” On the simplest level, his statement is pretty much true. For those who don’t know, Trash Humpers is basically just a bunch of footage collected over a 2 week period by Harmony, his wife Rachel, and a couple of other associates/accomplices, as they lived the lives of destructive and elderly social deviants. Korine has stated that the footage is presented in the order that it was recorded and that the actors stayed in character throughout the duration of the filming, sleeping in places such as behind strip malls and underneath bridges. There is no defined storyline or any official “meaning” behind the film. There is, however, plenty of footage involving firecrackers, loins being writhed against dumpsters, and various property being smashed to shit.
If you remember that scene from GUMMO with skateboard legend, Mark Gonzales wrestling chairs in a kitchen, Trash Humpers is often like an extended version of that. As a young child, I spent uncomfortable nights at friend’s houses that felt or resembled that scene. I’ve also been a teenager and bought weed from apartments holding that vibe. When I was about 19, I was doing renovation work for a friend’s parents who bought and fixed up properties. This one was in Lake Stevens, Wa and, after getting paid one day, we went on a mission to track down a sack of the chronic herbs. We met some random fool who brought us to an apartment where we could hook up and he introduced us to some woman that was anything but unfamiliar with indulging in bathtub crank. From what I remember, I think she made subtle advances towards us and, when her kids walked into the living room, she told them all to get completely outside of the apartment. They were young kids; there was at least one toddler. She wanted to party and keep getting high. We just wanted to leave. Unless you are a merciless pole-smoking crackhead with a closet full of grenades and nugget tweens locked in your basement that you feed bleach to, you are likely to find yourself in a situation that’s a little out of your comfort zone, at one point or another. If you want to buy weed, you’ll eventually wind up in the tweaker den with a closet full of stolen car stereos. If you want to get some pills, you might have to get them from the chick a decade or two older than you, who swiped them from her dying grandma and who’s boyfriend looks at you like you are trying to fuck her, while her child is drinking Natty Ice in the corner. “You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.” You may find yourself blowing lines in a house and look up to discover some wingnut playing with an assault rifle. No matter how sketch what you’re doing is, there is usually a place that can, simultaneously make you feel both less and more sketchy just by being there. Places that I’ve lived in have even provided that environment for others. Trash Humpers manages to bottle that feeling of uneasiness and the grating paranoia of a first-time double spy, but it also reintroduces the beautiful simplicities that accompany the sound of broken glass, sun-damaged garage sale wares, and unchecked aggression. You might find yourself questioning if you should even be judging if the judgment of others is questionable. Perhaps, the only question you might have is why YOU aren’t out breaking more shit. This isn’t exactly a cerebral film, but it’s hard to believe that you won’t feel anything.
Korine has been quoted repeatedly as saying that his intention for Trash Humpers was that it would come across like some sort of “found object” or “artifact“. Something that you could find “in a ditch” or floating down a river in a plastic bag. About 8 years ago, I was at an estate sale in Rancho Cordova, Ca and we came across a ton of VHS tapes with cow mutilation footage on them. The woman who had owned the home that we were in was some sort of conspiracy theorist that was paranoid of alien abduction. Even more interesting than the shit we found was the speculative history of its previous owner that I was forced to create on my own. The environments that are explored in the film range from parking lots and basements to unkempt dying lawns and rooftops at night. Korine has stated that, aside from weathered/poorly-tracked VHS cassette tapes, the aesthetic was partially inspired by the beauty of streetlights. I’ve lived in a Datsun 510, smashed bottles, and have slept in rest stops and parking lots. I drank Hypnotiq while a dead possum (with a row of dead feeding babies attached) got its own backwoods Viking funeral in a pile of yard waste. I’ve blown snus with flannel-clad locals in a Eureka bar that was straight out of the Lobo on Roseanne and gone to bars in the Atlanta ghettos to watch rap battles. I’ve drank 40 ounce generic malt-liquor in the streets of strange suburban neighborhoods in foreign states and thrown shopping carts off of anything that I could find which was high enough to throw shit off of. Some of my memories are clearer than others, but the feelings are still the easiest thing to access. I can’t remember everything that happened in Trash Humpers either, but these are the type of personal memory flashes and feelings that are roused up when I think about the film. Perhaps the greatest thing that the project could achieve would be to simply acknowledge the validity in the random pieces of debris left behind in the form of anonymous photographs, home videos, and vandalized wheelchairs, along with the indescribable and ghostlike emotional residue that can be tied to them.
“Is the film worth seeing?” I don’t know the answer to that. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for and how open you are to dealing with what you might get instead. People often sing along to songs like ridiculous assholes, not even knowing the real lyrics or what these songs are supposed to be about. The power of music is that it can help to create and/or facilitate emotions in the listener. Movies are the same, but there seems to be some level of narration or direction that people expect when they’re watching a film. They want a build up to what’s coming; a bit of a heads up, if you will. Trash Humpers doesn’t provide that; it just drops you dead in the middle and swims around in any direction that it chooses at any given moment. Maybe something explodes… maybe something gets dry humped. Maybe someone gets fatally smashed in the head and maybe nobody gives much of a reaction before moving on to something else. Maybe the footage just buoys out and does little more than exist. Perhaps it says something about humanity and the simple pleasures in the comradery of destruction… but really, who gives a shit? The real answer is, “Do you want to see some random grainy video of people smashing shit and acting like mongrels for 90 minutes?” It turns out that I do (not really a surprise). So like Harmony said, it’s pretty much just like the trailer and, like I wrote earlier, there’s really no point in reviewing it. It’s easier to describe what it’s not than what it is, because what it is, is whatever you feel from it. It’s an experiment in generating an emotional reaction or feeling, which is all that any real art is at its core anyway. You basically have to just decide to watch it or decide not to. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true. There was a situation once where I was in a car traveling around a mountain road and I saw a dead horse laying in the other lane. We had been smoking, I was faded, and its organs were strewn out along the dirt and asphalt in plain view. It made a blunt and definite impact, but I don’t know how I could possibly ever “review” something like that. This film is a simple gift that a man from Nashville made for himself and anyone who wants to see it. I think that’s pretty much the extent of it and, if you do see Trash Humpers and feel the need to understand what it was “all about” or decipher the real “meaning” behind it, you’re probably missing the entire point.
This following video contains the audio track from an “interview” that aired on May 11. 2010 on the KXLU radio in Los Angeles. The program, Center Stage, is hosted by a man named Mark Gordon, but this video wasn’t posted by him or the station. The party responsible for uploading the video to youtube is actually the film distributor, Drag City records, which might be surprising, considering that it does little to shine a “positive” light on the project. It is, however, a good example of how little importance Harmony Korine really places on marketing himself or trying to explain where he’s coming from with the project.