Harmony Korine’s 79-minute feature Trash Humpers is built around the antics of caricatured redneck freakazoids—two men and a woman wearing what look like flesh masks on loan from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. They dance in parking lots and alleys, break glass, dry-hump trash cans, and jerk off (and/or fellate) tree branches, pausing to yowl insults at one another and holler like hillbillies in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Returning home to their working-class duplex, the central trio is joined by two more characters that could be friends, relatives, or slaves (maybe all three?). They cook pancakes for the main trio, then join them at a dinner table and eat the pancakes with dish soap. At first I thought we were supposed to read them as conjoined twins because their skulls are tethered by what appear to be sock tentacles, but sometimes they remove the socks and move about autonomously, and in the movie’s lyrical high point, one of them stands in a basement and delivers a monologue about what the world might look like if humans had no heads. There’s one other semi-important character, a prepubescent boy in a black suit who bashes a doll with a hammer. For some reason (his unadorned face, perhaps), he struck me as the most normal person in the movie.
But what is normal, really? It depends on where you stand, and Korine appears to loathe the very concept. He stands outside commercial narrative norms, trumpets his outsider status, makes a point of stocking his films with people that viewers aren’t inclined to look at and don’t enjoy being made to look at, and devises unconventional, often abrasively obnoxious ways of presenting them. Korine started out as the screenwriter of Larry Clark’s Kids and made his directorial debut with 1997’s Gummo, a freak-show tone poem that played like Badlands by way of Werner Herzog’s maybe-a-documentary-maybe-not Stroszek. Most New York critics hated it (myself excepted; that’s my New York Press blurb across the top of the DVD box, enthusiastically recommending the movie and probably ruining friendships in the process).
In its determination to confound and unnerve, Trash Humpers makes Korine’s previous features—which also include Julien Donkey-Boy (which costarred Herzog) and Mister Lonely, nearly plotless films that at least had framing narratives and moments of recognizable psychology—seem downright cuddly. The director’s run of work traces an aesthetic arc similar to that of David Lynch’s films after Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. As if convinced that devising and photographing surreal and/or grotesque situations was not inherently disturbing enough, both directors have mounted sustained and incrementally more aggressive attacks on commercial narrative conventions, to the point where they now make movies that seem to disintegrate as you’re watching them.
Trash Humpers strikes me as the endpoint of Korine’s unhinged odyssey. It is to Gummo as Inland Empire is to Blue Velvet: an attempt to deconstruct (maybe destroy) the few familiar and comforting aspects of the artist’s early career. The movie is shot on blotchy VHS, and cut to suggest a record of true events that was edited in-camera by pressing a “stop” button. The beginnings and ends of scenes are demarcated with zigzag ribbons of white noise and stamped with blocky letters. The performers grate on your nerves, then fray them, then snap them like rubber bands. The movie is as transparently “provocative” as the shallowest undergrad theater experiment. But it’s also ferociously committed to its hyper-abrasive aesthetic, and as unmoored from so-called “normalcy” as anything by Kenneth Anger, Jon Moritsugu, or Jack Smith. When I call it a dream film, I don’t mean that the “Look, a dwarf!” sense of the phrase; I mean it evokes the tonal shifts and anti-rhythms of a dream in a way that very few films dare. (When Variety described Trash Humpers as a documentary, I thought of the critic Godfrey Cheshire’s great line about Citizen Kane: “It is, at the very least, a documentary of the inside of someone’s mind.”)
It would be tempting to dismiss Trash Humpers—indeed, Korine’s whole career—as a prolonged stunt aimed at sparking derision, anger, charges of pseudo-intellectual, indie-hipster fraudulence, and loads of free publicity. And yet to do so would not only play into the director’s hands but also ignore evidence that beneath all the punkish formal affectations, Korine is a committed (though calculatedly off-putting) postmodern artist, a starry-eyed poet-prankster whose every image prompts the question, “Is he kidding?”
The short answer is no, he’s not—but making you wonder is part of his M.O. Describing his films as “ugly” or “pretentious” is a lazy response belied by receptive scrutiny of what’s on screen. Korine frames his shots and moves his camera not like an amateur, but a gutter visionary striving to purge any trace of commerciality from his work. He doesn’t reject the idea of beauty; he builds his movies in ways that make beauty damn near impossible to find. And then, by God, he finds it. From the orange-brown glow of exterior nighttime scenes (scored with whirring insects and the whoosh of distant interstates) to the way he hangs his camera out of a fast-moving car window and catches a flashlight’s beam gliding over houses and trees, there’s real beauty in Trash Humpers; that it had to fight so hard to be born—and that the director himself is the one who made it fight—makes its appearance all the more startling.
Remember the humanoid rabbits sitting in front of that TV in Inland Empire? This is what they were watching.