REVIEW: Garbage-Sexing Evil Comes to Life in Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers
Conceived as a kind of found object -- a tossed-off VHS tape courtesy of your local freak patrol -- Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers is a feature-length viral video, a modern concept mixed with retro raw material and then extended well beyond its means. Trash Humpers is aggressively formless and yet disingenuously reliant on certain structural effects to justify its 77 minutes, and Korine himself has admitted that is not quite a movie. The film's identity crisis opens up interesting questions about its natural habitat: For a while I thought it might be the first feature release optimally viewed on a grimy laptop, or even better, in the palm of your hand. By the end I was sure it would be most at home projected onto a white wall of the Whitney, a backdrop for white people sipping white wine, impressed with themselves for being impressed.
As is often the case with Korine's output, the ambient chatter proves more involving than the thing itself. After about 15 minutes the movie's aesthetic interest -- an undeniably compelling, unhinged showcase of Korine's lingering affection for the repellent -- had run its course, and I found myself wondering what other people had thought, or ginned up, in response. I was open to any distraction, in fact, from the remaining 50 minutes of Korine's cable access nightmare. The thing is too studied to be truly transgressive (even the decision to convert the piece, which was shot and edited on VHS, to 35 mm, feels like a contrived, look-ma move). The problem I have generally had with Korine's grotesquerie is that I can't decide whether it bores my socks off or unnerves me on a level I will do almost anything to avoid.
Defiantly unwatchable if occasionally transfixing, the film is essentially the home movies of three marauding burnouts. Two look like old, melted strongmen; the third is a horrifically aged crone (played by Korine's wife). With hicky accents and unbridled impulses, they troll the streets of Nashville, peeping in windows, crashing on floors, killing a number of unsatisfactory jesters and maneuvering for maximum traction before, yes, humping an unlimited supply of trash. There is something perversely childlike about the quality of the images: these are hideous bogeymen, with high-pitched squeals and unfathomable desires. They put Palmolive on pancakes, for the love of Pete!
Along with the destabilized color scheme and distortive quality of his chosen format, Korine applies eerie, wide-open shots of lone figures dully observing some third, deranged party, to the film's portal-to-the-unconscious feel. The aimlessness of the material captures the notional moment when camcorders became ubiquitous -- even among the freaks, apparently -- suggesting the birth of the impulse to turn a camera on and point it, for lack of anything better to do. For an '80s kid (as Korine was) with any imagination at all, this is the scandalous artifact you spent your whole childhood searching the gutters for, the vindication that garbage-sexing evil really does live in this world, and it looks exactly like you thought it would.
Or maybe not quite exactly. Korine couldn't resist adding a few "humanizing" touches to the anarchic proceedings, including a speech he delivers himself (he appears in the same garish masks as the others, augmented by a Prince Valiant wig and a confederate flag T-shirt) about how trapped the other side is in their 9-to-5 groove. "I don't mean to do wrong, Lord," the old woman laments at one point. "Why don't you guide me?" The film ends with an extended shot of her cradling a random baby. The greater burden of making sense of any of this is left with the viewer, a directorial prerogative that assumes the audience is willing. If you are at all familiar with Korine's frustrating, flaky, but intermittently rewarding work, that's a decision you've already made.