Harmony Korine’s nose for cultural currency has often been right on the mark. It’s hard not to be when you’re at the helm of the zeitgeist. But this hasn’t exactly been the case for some time, since Korine has grown up and we’ve all become more jaded. What we might have found new and shocking in the 90s is old hat at this point. The primary appeal of his films at the time of their release was precisely that they were new and fresh, from the perspective of an artistic young mind wise beyond his years––or at least a weisenheimer beyond his years. The screenplay he wrote for Larry Clark’s Kids in 1995 laid the groundwork for what was to come; simultaneously hyperreal and unbelievable, it shed light on the truth about teenagers and their bad habits, but it wasn’t necessarily a warning against such behavior. When I saw it at the age of seventeen, watching people my age run rampant through New York City doing drugs, having sex and flirting with death seemed somehow glamorous. Korine has always ridden the line between good and bad taste, and never more so than when he began making his own movies. He has managed to enjoy ‘outsider artist’ status while in reality being the opposite. Which is a major target of vitriol for his detractors. ‘Fraud’ is a word often directed at Mr. Korine. But this time around, with the provocatively titled Trash Humpers, it seems the notion that he is a charlatan has to some extent been dispelled. This critic asserts that “for the brave souls who make it to the end, there should at least be no question of the movie’s sincerity. Whatever Korine means, he really means it.”
Korine’s penchant for the mischievous and bizarre has infuriated many who have been all too happy to dismiss his indulgent cinematic gestures, which flirt with inanity but in my opinion pursue, and at times achieve, transcendence. This Times review of Trash Humpers, touches on both ends of that spectrum:
Much of this is just so much juvenile posturing, but every so often the screen freezes into something approximating beauty: a blurry, spaced-out, yellow-green landscape, as alien as an ancient photograph.
But his work is about more than just good shots. Memorable characters are just as important, and range from an impoverished, undereducated boy perpetually wearing bunny ears in Gummo, to a Michael Jackson impersonator in Mr. Lonely, to, in the case of Trash Humpers, elderly, homicidal, peeping tom vandals (played by Korine, his wife and one other person in ‘old people’ masks), who literally hump trash. The phrase ’sweet trash pussy’ is unmistakably uttered.
His sense of humor is always on full display, which somehow manages to be overlooked despite absurdity running rampant throughout his oeuvre, but profundity bubbles under the surface. His aesthetic, as one reviewer put it, “mimics that of a scratchy old VHS tape. There’s a name for the genre he’s now working in — it’s called glorified public-access TV”. Indeed, Korine filmed it on VHS to get that low-budget, lo-fi quality. The choice to use this format is especially apropos for this film, which is set against the depressed landscape of semi-urban Tennessee, but it also feels like a natural progression for him. His fixation on forgotten, back-woods America almost demands that the format used to capture it be as much a product of the wasteland as his characters. In this, Trash Humpers succeeds brilliantly. We often feel as though we’ve discovered the film at the bottom of a dumpster and shouldn’t be watching it. Which is part of the irony. It suggests that we are as degenerate and voyeuristic as the grotesque characters before us.
To hear Korine speak about his inspiration for the film (video interview here) isn’t all that revealing, as it quickly becomes clear that the particulars are secondary to the broader mess. A curious thing about his strongest critics is that they seem to want to compare his output against traditional standards of filmmaking, when in fact his movies are closer to abstract artworks than ‘films’ as most of us know them. Now, whether we want to sift through the spilled-out contents of his perverse mind in hopes of finding something enlightening is another matter. My stance is that it is worth the effort, if for no other reason than because it is completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.