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by Eric Kohn
September 12, 2009 2:17 AM
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REVIEW | For the Love of Trash, Korine's "Humpers" Fetes the Freak

A scene from Harmony Korine's "Trash Humpers." Image courtesy of TIFF.

If "Mister Lonely" suggested that Harmony Korine had developed a sentimental streak, "Trash Humpers" proves that his original subversiveness was merely in hibernation. The movie, a succession of incomplete scenes shot on lo-fi video, plays like a first person version of "The Devil's Rejects." A psychotic family with shriveled mugs resembling Freddy Kruger live together in an undisclosed suburban setting, mulling about their deranged existence while engaging in eerie behaviors and the occasional murder. Unquestionably Korine's most experimental production, it cycles through scenes as if assembled from found footage. But there's an engaging connectivity to this vision of savage outsiders, both within the context of its fleeting 78 minutes and when considered in relation to the larger framework of the director's consistently provocative career.

You can see why Werner Herzog loves this guy: Like the German auteur's best narratives, "Trash Humpers" not only sympathizes with socially ostracized misanthropes -- it adopts their perspective. The camera observes their lifestyle and the cameraman (generally one of the wrinkled characters) frequently engages in it. Constantly heard chanting "Make it, make it, don't take it" and an eerie tune about "three little devils," he provides the lunacy with a makeshift avant garde soundtrack. These beastly creations certainly march to the beat of their own drum. Korine brings us into a hermetic world not unlike Todd Browning's "Freaks," where things that initially seem dark and unsettling become normalized.

Of course, the premise of "Trash Humpers" contains purely absurd connotations. The title is a literal description of the maniacal protagonists' unlikely sexual proclivities. Only those compelled by the allure of attempting to comprehend its vulgar tongue-in-cheek appeal will access the fascinating madness beneath its juvenile surface. Recalling the profane performance art of Brock Enright, the humpers' insane behaviors imply a universal tendency toward self-destruction. Garbage sex is just one aspect of their collective perversions. One of them casually fellates a tree in their backyard, another reams a doll, and the whole lot gets a kick out of smashing television sets. These oddly emblematic behaviors, coupled with scenes of the humpers listening to friends recite poetry in shadowy backdrops, turn the movie into a deeply encoded social critique. When a cross-dressed hermit laments "the grizzly facts of what civilization has done to us," his resentment hangs in the air. It's a collage of Americana gone mental.

Since "Gummo," Korine has made it his prerogative to make poetry out of nightmarish imagery. Digital video suited his gritty style in the Dogme feature "Julien Donkey-Boy," and the old-school VHS look pushes it even further. The degraded colors and intentional tracking problems create a filter of decay that defines each scene. Korine challenges viewers (those willing to sit through the whole thing, anyway) to deny the movie's mesmerizing appeal. Amidst the chaos, he mines for unsuspecting beauty: An overweight prostitute in tight lingerie sings "Silent Night" to a captivated audience. One of the demented friends of the humpers holds court with a nearly moving soliloquy on why the world would improve if people were headless ("Everyone could eat off the table"). In these compelling moments, Korine shows that his creativity comes from fierce convictions about the wisdom of outcasts. The stars of "Trash Humpers" celebrate their naughtiness because nobody bothers to stop them. The same observation could easily apply to Korine himself.

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8 Comments

  • Bengi | August 2, 2011 8:14 AMReply

    My experiences of watching 'Trash Humpers' - first time, alone, jampacked with serious and poignant images of America.... Did not emit a single laugh. Second occasion; with friends, a little drunk - it became THE funniest thing! Each scene embedded with humour, ironic c─▒rcumstances, the unexpected yada yada... My point: that for me it is interpretable in two (at a minimum!) ways. This is why I follow Harmony Korine's work with such interest! It could all be easily dismissed as 'tasteless' or 'incoherant'; but I could argue against that forever (: haha. The interviews with Harmony on The David Letterman Show highlight how damn quirky he is! I cannae wait for further stuff (:

  • KayCeeAriZona | April 1, 2011 8:44 AMReply

    I actually REALLY enjoyed this movie. My roommate expressed to me that I should think of it as Gummo, lo-fi with no plot. We sat down to watch it, I completely underestimated what he meant by that. I foolishly had partaken of some JWH Compounds which intensified the movie ten-fold if not more. I tripped my ass off, got up and walked away multiple times. I would come back and sit down for a little while, take as much as I could and then get up again. It blew my mind!!! I plan to watch it again today with a friend who hasn't seen it, we're going to Spice it up and force ourselve to sit through the movie in it's entirety! Wish us luck. I would suggest to anyone with access to JWH and this movie to try it out. It will rock your world! Perfect film length/trip duration, by the time it's over you come down and try to figure out what just happened in your mind and on your screen. Radical, I praise Harmony Korine. He's a genius and this is a masterpiece!!! Not for the meek or weak...

  • Kendall | September 6, 2010 3:54 AMReply

    Korine is much like David Lynch in that he has a specific visual and aural language that defines the mood of his pieces. But you can also draw parallels to John Waters in his characterizations.The people who inhabit his world all have the same or very similar speech patterns and attitudes. This is clearly a director with a specific vision.
    At the core of the piece are the characters wearing masks of older people and expressing themselves "freely" . Many of the high points are the other actors who appear maybe for a scene or two and add depth to their world with monologues.
    And their world it seems is a dirty industrial part of town just outside of downtown but not quite suburban.
    This town doesn't seem that far off from the disaster ridden area in Gummo in feel, and becomes the star as much as the characters.
    Mr. Korine creates special and unique moments instead of lineage. And these moments are captured using older VHS technology. This old technology becomes a garment for the piece much as the Salvation Army or thrift store clothing is worn by the central characters. As much as Harmony employs the past it is also destroyed playfully with as much fervor.
    As an audience we aren't given names or back stories which gives us a certain freedom and unconnectiveness .
    T.H. leaves you with a half empty/half full feeling like looking back at the glass of milk in a silly and horrific new way wondering "do I REALLY want to drink this?....I can understand how some wouldn't...but I think it's delicious...and i will drink the next glass Harmony pours me gladly.

  • jazz4111 | September 26, 2009 9:21 AMReply

    Re: Trash Humpers, From The Village Voice's J. Hoberman:
    "I've always considered Korine an untalented poseur, but, as the poet said, a fool persists in his folly until he becomes wise. October 1, 2"
    Okay, I just couldn't resist commenting on this: I guess Hoberman went to the same Nursery School as cmodderno! C'mon you gotta admit - that's pretty funny!

  • jazz4111 | September 14, 2009 9:06 AMReply

    You are quite perceptive cmodderno, I should have said I wouldn't watch ANOTHER one of his movies given similar circumstances. My review (from Toronto) of his first movie "Gummo" to wit: "the cinematic equivalent to being pissed on."
    And if you haven't heard the word poseur since you were five, you must have gone to an incredibly erudite nursery school!

  • cmodderno | September 13, 2009 3:48 AMReply

    I haven't heard the word poser since I was five. If you haven't watched a film by him then you there's no basis for you comment.

  • pegu | September 12, 2009 10:13 AMReply

    shhh, you just gave him the storyline for his next one

  • jazz4111 | September 12, 2009 9:44 AMReply

    I wouldn't watch a movie by this poseur if you duct-taped me to a chair and cut my eyelids off!