****/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras A
starring Paul Booker, Dave Cloud, Chris Cofton, Rachel Korine
written and directed by Harmony Korine
"To me, there is only one form of human depravity--the man without a purpose."-Ayn Rand
by Alex Jackson My last job was as direct-support staff in a group home for adults with autism and severe mental retardation. The grave and morning staff, I was basically responsible for getting them bathed, dressed, and fed for the day. In one of our training sessions, the instructor told us that all behaviour has some kind of payoff or reward. Of course, I had to challenge this. "What about pica?" I asked. More precisely, I wanted to know why one of our clients ate his own shit. The instructor politely scratched his chin and replied, "The behaviour must be rewarding unto itself."
That's a good answer. That's the right answer, I guess. It should be evident to anybody who has ever dealt with infants or pets that sometimes they eat disgusting things just because they don't know any better. The only thing they understand is that the act of eating is pleasurable. The theory is that we all weigh the potential costs and benefits of a particular action. If you want someone to stop doing something, you merely have to manipulate the cost/benefit ratio so that the target behaviour yields more loss than benefit. Or so that alternative behaviours yield a higher benefit-to-cost ratio than the target behaviour. This theory is easy to grasp, and it's applicable in any situation you can think of. Plus, it provides us with an answer that everybody can clearly see as being correct.
But answers like that fail to fully address the magnitude of the problem. It's rare that any of us ever accurately ascertains the true costs and benefits of a specific action. Surely, many of us make poorly-thought-out decisions we come to regret. More importantly, costs and benefits are rarely weighed in a uniform way. I've met several people who would, without a second thought, rather die or go to prison than be disrespected. Possibly, they can't grasp what death and prison truly mean, but I'm convinced that they are behaving as rational beings and simply have value systems alien to my own. Even if you accept that Man is essentially a rational entity, that doesn't necessarily mean we are all speaking the same language.
I'm currently working as a mental-health worker, sort of a youth counsellor/prison guard, at a lock-down facility for juvenile sex offenders. Several months ago, we had a patient who, in addition to being extremely aggressive, going off at the slightest provocation, was extremely suicidal. He liked to self-medicate with drugs and he liked cutting himself. We had to deal with him punching out windows and slicing up his arms with the glass shards. He had grown up experiencing years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both his parents in addition to their total neglect. He didn't deny this and would readily discuss it. It soon became clear to me that he wanted to die or go to prison, not only because this was preferable to ever having somebody disrespect him or have power over him, but also because he knew there was no other direction his life could take that would justify, explain, or resolve that childhood. Death or incarceration would be a dramatic final chapter that would pay off the first.
That's rational thinking, too, though it suggests that human behaviour is motivated by something greater than the pursuit of reward and the avoidance of punishment or consequence. We're all trying to find the narrative in our lives. We all need a future and a conclusion that will adequately contextualize our past and present. The notion of an existence made up of isolated individual moments with no real relationship to one another is good enough for the lower animals, but the burden of human consciousness necessitates that life be something more.
If Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers is easily his most difficult film, it's hardly an outlier in his oeuvre. Like Flannery O'Connor (whom Korine lists as a favourite author), Korine's grotesque comic tragedies are founded on a strongly spiritual sensibility. His films are really about failure. The people in Gummo, julien donkey-boy, Mister Lonely, and now Trash Humpers are lost and don't yet know where they are or where they're going. Korine's films are about Man in a fallen state searching fruitlessly for meaning and purpose where there is none to be found. He illustrates, perhaps better than any other filmmaker I can name, our core existential malaise.
The non-linear structure of Korine's films is very obviously a by-product of this spiritual chaos. The town of Xenia, Ohio in Gummo was hit by a tornado in 1974 and seems to have never made a full economic recovery. julien donkey-boy is told from a schizophrenic's point-of-view. Although Mister Lonely has a fairly straightforward A-B trajectory, it's about idolatry, about replacing God with Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe, and the failure of that idolatry. Consequently, several scenes exist more or less for their own sake and don't do a lot to advance the storyline. Narratively speaking, it doesn't represent that great a shift from Gummo and julien donkey-boy.
Viewers who complain that nothing much "happens" in these movies aren't exactly missing the point. We're supposed to be looking for a clear beginning, middle, and end that follow one another logically. Korine's films frustrate on this level, because he depicts mankind in a primordial state. Ideally, when we have the entire fucking thing completely figured out, life has a plot. In less-than-ideal circumstances, we're still searching for it.
The eponymous Trash Humpers are a band of Nashville-area "morons" (to borrow the term used by a critic blurbed on the cover of the DVD, Peter Keough of the BOSTON PHOENIX) who have, using a VHS camcorder, recorded themselves smashing televisions, tap dancing, and of course humping trashcans. To break up the monotony, they socialize with a variety of deranged locals. Korine, his wife Rachel, and their friends Brian Kotzur and Travis Nicholson don "old people" latex make-up to portray the Trash Humpers. It's unclear whether we are meant to regard them as actual old people or as actors dressed up like old people. Most reviews I've read presume the former, but that requires a suspension of disbelief the film hasn't necessarily solicited. It's not (just) that the make-up is singularly unconvincing--these Trash Humpers don't behave or sound like any geriatrics we've ever seen before. The only thing that makes us think of them that way is their physical appearance and their use of props like wheelchairs.
This ambiguity extends across the entire film. To what extent is their behaviour natural, to what extent is it play-acting for the camera, and where do we draw the line? When I was a teenager, singing the praises of Korine and Gummo on the message boards of AOL, some asshole told me the whole thing was done better, and with more heart, in the films Paul Morrissey directed for Andy Warhol in the late '60s and early '70s. I've since become familiar with and a great admirer of Morrissey's work, but while I concede that he occupies the same basic continuum as Korine, he's working at a different place on it. Morrissey helped to elevate bad acting into its own artform. The dissonance between actor and character became the texture of the film. Whenever something in these movies didn't "work" in convincing or entertaining us, it at least worked as a document of the specific time and place in which the movies were made and was possibly more effective at this than a cinema vérité approach would've proved.
Korine does something like that both in Trash Humpers and in sections (maybe not the whole) of Gummo. Nevertheless, the picture's tone is colder, more detached, and more anthropological. The written synopsis of Trash Humpers is much funnier than the movie proper, which is rather joyless and maybe even melancholy. Korine has no particular perspective towards these characters or their actions and doesn't seem to identify with them in the slightest. The murky, bland look of VHS exasperates the anhedonia of Korine's flat, documentarian tone. He films these people humping trash cans as if to say, "I saw it, I was there, it happened."
A lot of critics mislabel Korine a provocateur. The charge is entirely understandable, yet I think they would prefer callow provocation to what Korine is doing here. Compare Trash Humpers to Giuseppe Andrews's Period Piece. Andrews is a true provocateur and Period Piece is a genuinely disgusting movie. Accordingly, it's a hollow film but a witty and original one. He begins it with the hardcore rape of a teddy bear and, well, that's definitely not something you see every day. Korine is never that inventive, because he's not that interested in transgressing boundaries. Trash Humpers isn't really a work of exhibitionism--it's a film about exhibitionism. These characters use exhibitionism, this playing for the camera, in an attempt to give direction and meaning (i.e., a narrative) to their disordered lives.
The society that the Trash Humpers inhabit is entirely bereft of popular culture. Unlike Gummo, there is no Slayer, no Madonna, no Tasmanian Devil. There's no reference to anything outside their immediate memory and experience. Let me append that statement: When the Trash Humpers demand that two mentally-ill men entertain them, they proceed to tell the story of the Siamese twins Ang and Eng with sock puppets. The story ends in tragedy and the female Trash Humper becomes angry. She wanted them to make her laugh, but this was depressing. Essentially, this is Xenia, Ohio another twenty or thirty years down the line. As they followed their basest impulses and denied the most basic social conventions, the world around them continued to decay.
There's a scene midway through the film where a middle-aged man dressed in a maid's uniform recites a poem to the Trash Humpers that uses "humping trash" as a punchline. In the next shot, he's lying on the kitchen floor in a puddle of blood, one of the Humpers having bludgeoned him to death. This appears to have been a non-actor improvising, but it's clear that Korine coached him to reference "Trash Humpers" in his impromptu poem, effectively reminding us that this is a scene in a motion picture called Trash Humpers. Because this deliberately theatrical gesture is juxtaposed with the aftermath of his murder, we begin to suspect the whole sequence was staged for the "movie." Not just the one Korine is making, but the one the Trash Humpers are making as well.
This unreality is further underlined by the fact that we don't actually see the man's murder and that his death has no real half-life to impact the rest of the film. Still, it invites many more questions than it answers. We can believe that the Trash Humpers would murder a derelict for shits and giggles; and we can believe they would want to film his dead body. But what's the point of staging a murder? Particularly when it seems they are only shooting this video for themselves? It appears this is an attempt to create civilization anew. They've taken all the things they've always done and tried to make a movie out of them.
Near the end of Trash Humpers, the female Humper (Rachel Korine) looks up to God and asks Him for direction. In the very last scene, she kidnaps a baby and sings a lullaby to it with the same melody as the "Three Little Devils" ditty (essentially a codification of the Humpers' delinquency) we've heard throughout the film. We're led to believe that she has finally found meaning in her life through motherhood. As the Korines recently became parents in real life, this sappy sentimentality might be genuine, but it's such an abrupt and under-thought conclusion to everything that came before that I have great difficulty reading it on a literal level. As a forced "happy" ending, it gives form to the entirety of Trash Humpers while implying that any such form must be tentative at best. The philosophical conundrum of Trash Humpers is a tricky one to truly illustrate, but it could very well be an impossible one to conclusively solve.
Chicago-based independent record label Drag City has taken over distribution duties for Trash Humpers. As you may expect, this is a tricky one to evaluate from an A/V standpoint. Looking like it came straight from the camcorder, the 1.33:1, VHS-sourced image far surpasses, say, the average YouTube upload, in terms of sharpness and clarity, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is an even greater triumph. (The smashing of the televisions has a nice, mushy sound but the dialogue, for good or ill, lacks anything resembling arty distortion.) With that said, there's little chance that anybody would ever mistake this for a "real" movie. It manages to maintain some modicum of audience-alienating brackishness.
Trash Humpers was the first Korine-directed film to ever make it to Salt Lake City, where it played for one weekend at the historic Tower Theater. Predictably, it found no defenders among our local critics, and the public seemed entirely indifferent. (There was only one other person at the Saturday matinee I attended.) This DVD strikes me as having less of a bland analog flavour than that 35mm print, although my impression was possibly clouded by the whole "theatre experience."
At the age of thirteen, I went to this cinema to meet "The Simpsons" director David Silverman. He was doing a roadshow on the heels of that show's 'Who Shot Mr. Burns?' cliffhanger, holding Q&As, signing autographs, and screening never-before-seen "Simpsons" footage. And I remember clippings on the walls advertising Peter Jackson's X-rated "puppet movie" Meet the Feebles. I'd read reviews in the newspaper about movies like Jackson's Dead-Alive, the Belgian "snuff film" Man Bites Dog, and the Korine-scripted Kids; they all played at the Tower Theater. There was something frightening about this venue. I knew that if I were to watch any of these movies, it would somehow mean surrendering the protections of childhood. Trash Humpers is a film in that tradition, and seeing it in this movie theater, especially, brings up certain feelings and emotions that can't be translated to the small screen.
Extras consist almost exclusively of footage from the cutting-room floor. I'll be the first to admit that Trash Humpers is, at times, self-indulgent and monotonous and, at 78 minutes, plenty long enough. Do we really want to sit through what Korine considered extraneous? Alas, this is the best kind of deleted material. Indeed, it's as good as, if not better than, anything in the finished film, and it helps us to better appreciate the picture's tonal consistency.
"Deleted Scenes" (17 mins.) begins with one of the Trash Humpers singing "Are You Lonesome Tonight" (just that single lyric) into a dildo. This is a very funny and poignantly retarded bit of business, but it's too satirical, too "in-the-know" pop-culturally savvy, to have a place in Trash Humpers. A lingering, investigating shot of a black lawn jockey fails for similar reasons. It effectively breaks character--whoever is shooting this recognizes it as a politically-incorrect obscenity and none of the Trash Humpers are that sophisticated. Meanwhile, I suspect the fat kid in church clothes calling one of the Humpers a "warthog" was cut from the film, in part, because it registers as a direct homage to Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation."
"Mac and Plac" is apparently a play that Korine wrote when he was 18 and "found in [his] attic" before embarking on Trash Humpers. It's performed here, possibly in an abridged form, by two loonies for the amusement of the Humpers. All that remains in the finished film is the "Ang and Chang play-within-the-play" previously mentioned and the now-famed monologue about how great it would be to live without a head. The complete routine (27 mins.) includes a reference to Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond that again would've lightened the austere tone of the final product. Near the end of the bit, a Humper--the one performed by Korine, I believe--relentlessly heckles the loonies, creating a curiously potent anxiety within the scene. The names Mac and Plac are of particular interest to Korine fans: In the original script for Gummo, Bunny Boy says that his parents call him Mac because their favourite car is a Camaro, and as he was born with one long, dirty tooth, they wanted to name him "Plak." These same origin stories are repeated in the "Mac and Plac" skit.
"Blood of Havana" (2 mins.) stars one of the Humpers but was never intended for inclusion in Trash Humpers. It's a music video of sorts that finds the Humper wandering around Havana, Cuba (?!). The short has an energy distinct from the feature film and holds arcane appeal as an obscurity. It concludes with handwritten credits. Closing out the platter is a 24-page "fanzine" featuring promotional stills from Trash Humpers, a typed "synopsis," and a "director's statement."
Part of me feels a little bad for making this the latest entry in FFC's Must-Own index, but whatcha gonna do? If you feel as strongly as I do about Trash Humpers and you want to own it on home video, this is surely the best possible version. (A Blu-ray release would be superfluous.) For those who feel they can only get the true Trash Humpers experience with VHS, Drag City is selling a limited-edition cassette (150 in NTSC, 150 in PAL) in packaging specially-"vandalized" by Korine himself! (I can make out what were originally boxes for Blake Edwards's A Fine Mess and Repo Man amongst the pics on their official Trash Humpers website.) These run for just over $75US--I'm not sure that even I am a big enough fan of the picture to plunk down for that. If ever there were a film that lent itself to fetishizing, however, it's this one. Trash Humpers is also for sale in 35mm (!)--an even more limited run (only five!), in cases customized by Korine--and as a digital download. Originally published: January 10, 2011.