Review: Trash Humpers
By Amy Taubin
(Harmony Korine, U.S./U.K., 2009)
A Dadaist delight, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers is a direct descendant of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, perhaps the first and only. Times have changed, and the spectacle of an orgy of the impotent, enacted by performers behaving like three-year-olds who’ve just discovered their penises and are excited to a frenzy by mindless acts of destruction repeated ad infinitum, may not pack the transgressive punch it once did, but the near-perfect balance of boredom and exhilaration can’t be denied.
Just as Smith found beauty in the tumultuous grain of faded 16mm film stock, Korine cherishes the unstable electronic signal recorded by obsolete video cameras on warped VHS cassettes where glitches, tracking errors, skews, and rolls threaten to obliterate the splotched, bleeding, contrasty colors of the image. The premise of the movie (if it can or should be classified as such) is that a clan of Nashville outcasts use the cameras to record their daily lives and specifically their strange practice of humping trashcans, tree trunks, street lamps—anything upright that doesn’t move. Smith’s “creatures” were poverty-row bohemians, encouraged to enact their own movie-star fantasies for the camera; the power of Flaming Creatures has to do with this intersection of documentary with poignant, timeless, often transgendered fictions of the self. The eponymous trash humpers are creatures of Korine’s imagination alone, although the amiable cast he has assembled perform the obscene rituals assigned them with gusto and a certain inventiveness, grinding their pelvises at every opportunity, breaking into tap dance routines, and accompanying their movements with nursery-rhyme-styled chants (“Shake it, shake it, don’t break it; make it, make it, don’t break it” being the theme song of the enterprise). A sequence where several humpers visit a supposed whorehouse, amusing themselves by alternately slapping the ample bottoms of women in G-strings and leering into the camera lens, is clearly a riff on the infantile mauling of the breast that leads to the feigned but nevertheless disturbing gang-rape in Smith’s film.
For all its intended artlessness, Trash Humpers is awash in references and homages, the most obvious, in addition to the Jack Smith ur-text, being The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the ghoulish makeup, David Lynch’s Eraserhead for the caterwauling punctuations on the soundtrack (the out-of-frame hyena-like laughs are Korine’s) and William Eggleston’s 1973 video Stranded in Canton for the several scenes in which sloshed humpers converse in slurred Southern drawls in living rooms cluttered with overstuffed furniture and the memorabilia of several lifetimes. One might also discern a certain effort toward art direction and costume design, as in a scene where a humper in a burnt-orange shirt and another in green pants shoot hoops on a green lawn against a red brick wall.
If the odes to filth and the filthy directed by John Waters and George Kuchar seem less pertinent, it is because their movies, at least in comparison to Trash Humpers, are blatantly driven by narrative. What Korine has assembled is a series of vignettes lasting anywhere between five seconds and a couple of minutes recorded with a shaky handheld camera, each aggressively terminated by an in-camera edit—a barrage of analogue visual and aural noise that in some cases seems to last as long as the scenes themselves. Each depicts a single activity, performed repeatedly but without any discernible build or, um, climax. Nor are the segments sequenced to create mounting tension or drama. It is this sense of time as stasis that makes Trash Humpers, like Flaming Creatures, so profoundly regressive—a throwback to the nursery, where the id reigns without social inhibition, and pleasure is focused on the present moment.
Smith’s film, like the entire project of the American avant-garde, was offered as a corrective and fantasized replacement for mainstream movies. Even though Korine transferred his degraded video to 35mm, Trash Humpers belongs to the “post-movies” era. To break it up on YouTube would destroy the cumulative power of its infantile repetitions and obstinate refusal to allow one thing to lead to another. But it seems equally unsuited to the movie theaters, where, for lack of a better option, it will soon find a home.