NOTE: Please go to Trash Humpers Certified Weird entry for an in-depth discussion of the film. Trash Humpers was one of the two winners of the second Reader’s Choice poll, and has been promoted to the List. Comments are closed on this version.
DIRECTED BY: Harmony Korine
FEATURING: Rachel Korine, Harmony Korine
PLOT: A narrativeless, shot on VHS chronicle of four rednecks in wrinkled geriatric masks
who wander around a nearly deserted suburbs drinking wine, demolishing abandoned television sets, torturing and murdering the bizarre outcasts they come across in their wanderings, and (of course) humping trash.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Any film in which four rednecks in latex masks that make them look like escapees from a nursing home for the criminally insane force a pair of Siamese twins connected at the head by what looks like a giant tube sock to eat pancakes doused in Palmolive obviously has weirdness in its corner. But among Trash Humpers many qualities, weirdness isn’t the pre-eminent one: the movie is also repetitive, ugly, pointless, unsavory, deliberately annoying, and tedious. In fact, the weirdness here is likely just another blunt weapon used to bludgeon the viewer; the film is intended as an anti-audience provocation rather than a movie. As one reviewer sagely put it, “Harmony Korine dares you to hate this movie…and I accept.”
COMMENTS: Mimicking the lo-fi aesthetics of VHS tape, complete with horizontal hold tracking errors and blocky-fonted “play” and “rew” legends appearing on the screen, is a great trick to give Trash Humpers an antiquarian, found footage feel. But the look isn’t the only anachronistic thing about the movie, which evokes (like a third or fourth generation dub) the punk spirits of earlier shock auteurs like Paul Morrisey (1960s), John Waters (1970s), and Nick Zedd (1980s). First rejecting conventional cinematography for the camcorder’s glare, Trash Humpers next dispenses with narrative in favor of disconnected episodes celebrating the beauty of vandalism and sadism. In between bouts of garbage copulation, the nameless humpers break TVs with sledgehammers and ride around a deserted, trash-strewn Nashville with baby dolls dragging behind their bicycles. In the course of their wanderings they meet a boy in a Sunday suit whom they teach to slip razor blades into apples, pancake-making fake Siamese twins, overweight prostitutes who serenade us with a chorus of “Silent Night,” and a street poet dressed in a French maid’s costume. Korine indulges his peculiar obsessions with the grotesque and with white trash anti-culture to the hilt here; the implicit sense of classism and self-satisfied superiority grates just as it did in Gummo. In fact, Trash Humpers resembles nothing so much as the work of a budgetless student filmmaker determined to emulate Korine’s notorious first film. But the inspired moments that gave life to Gummo, like the spaghetti in the bathtub scene, are missing, as is the stylistic variety and any semblance of emotional involvement with the characters. This makes Trash Humpers, even at a slim 78 minutes, an avant-garde endurance test. Philosophically, the movie is reprehensible. Some generously see in it a critique of disposable consumer society, but if you take Korine at his word, he admires the humpers and sees them as the stand-ins for the outsider artist free from society’s conventions. His director’s statement calls the film “almost an ode to vandalism” and he has said in an interview, “I have a real deep love and admiration for these characters… There can be a creative beauty in their mayhem and destruction.” The humper he portrays expresses disdain for Americans sleeping in their comfortable suburban homes, while he prowls the night looking for something to smash. “That’s a stupid way to live… We chose to live like free people.” The humpers’ freedom is Sadean, however; they live with no consequences to their actions, free to torment Siamese twins and kill transvestites with hammers for a thrill. They’re redneck Übermensch, living outside of society’s conventions according to their own laws, but they’re too stupid and unimaginative to do anything interesting with their freedom; they smash idols (television sets) but can build none of their own. Korine is very good at shining a flashlight on American ugliness, but his art seldom progresses beyond that point. All he does is look for a new skewed expressionist angle for that beam, and fiddle with the contrast. He has a talent for the shabbily uncanny: the geriatric masks are calibrated to look almost like real makeup, but are just artificial enough so that you never figure out whether the humpers are actually intended to be old timers, or if they’re just wearing masks for anonymity. Korine himself frequently warbles a little tune about “three little devils” while filming empty parking lots or weed-strewn fields, and the falsetto folk melody mixes the irritating and the sublime in a curiously effective way. In these tiny slices Korine nearly transmutes hideousness to beauty, but, like the failed cinematic alchemists of ugliness before him, the universal formula remains as elusive as ever.
Trash Humpers was made in only a few weeks with a small crew of family and friends, and largely improvised; production began soon after the director’s biggest budget production, Mister Lonely (2008), flopped commercially. Distributor Drag City got fortuitous mileage out of Netflix’s initial refusal (since revoked) to stock the film, which made the picture’s content seem much more daring and outré than it actually is (it’s not tame, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen much worse).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Korine works in an almost blissfully weird utopia of marginalized naughtiness here, and more craftily distills his willful transgressiveness into something strange and watchable.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by our own Cameron Jorgenson, who said “looks very promising [but] it may not make it, because Gummo is already on the list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)