Trash Humpers is not really a movie. Or so its credited writer/director, sometime indie-film enfant terrible Harmony Korine (writer of Kids, director of Gummo, julien donkey-boy and Mister Lonely), has claimed repeatedly since its film-festival premiere last fall. "It's made to be more like an artifact," he says. "You can imagine it being buried in a ditch somewhere." So when Korine didn't answer the phone at the appointed time for this interview, I wondered if he had bowed out of promoting the film entirely. Perhaps the best way to sell the notion that Trash Humpers is a relic without an author would be for its author to just not sell it at all.
Then he called back. "Nashville's underwater, there's this flood," Korine said, his toddler daughter audibly crying very close to the phone. "We live by the zoo here, and it flooded, and they were having to walk these elephants out. So we were just on the porch, watching the elephants float by."
Korine's depiction of Nashville home life in Trash Humpers is not as bucolic. The title is literal: Trash Humpers is about an ad hoc family of unnamed freaks who roam suburban Nashville drinking, breaking shit and, above all, fornicating with stand-up city-issued trash cans. The lead actors — including Korine; his wife, Rachel; Travis Nicholson and Silver Jews drummer Brian Kotzur — are unrecognizable under latex masks and bodysuits, which age them several decades, into seniors in such full-on physical decay that their bodies seem to be decomposing before death. There's no story, per se, and there's more moaning and noisemaking than dialogue, but there is a distinct arc: The Humpers escalate from dumb-ass vandalism to full-on violent felony, dancing and singing all the while ("Make it make it don't fake it" is their rap/rallying cry). The Humpers' reign of terror seems to be gleefully consequence-free, until the final vignette, when we see evidence of its psychic toll: Rachel Korine's sole female humper separates from the gang and, in whiskey-soaked despair, begs God for guidance. We go from laughing with the Humpers to fearing them, to feeling something close to sympathy for them.
The film has no credited cinematographer — the Humpers documented themselves on now-antique handheld VHS cameras, while in costume and in character. The performance style is subsequently anticinematic: The Humpers are showing off for the camera, with the sense of abandon that comes from the assumption that what the camera captures will be seen only by friendly eyes. Korine may want Trash Humpers to be read as a synthesized relic accidentally unearthed, but he has never made a film that's visually indeliberate. Even when the action captured is unquestionably ugly, Humpers' video imagery, so degraded and oddly colorful that it looks like a Gerhard Richter blur painting, is eerily beautiful.
Presumably hoping to maintain a shred of mystery about Trash Humpers as a would-be found object, Korine is reluctant to reveal much about the production process. When asked about the Humpers' makeup, he mumbles, "I worked on it with these people in Los Angeles."
Like, professional special-effects artists?
"Yeah," Korine says uneasily, after a silence. "Well ... just great mask people."
For the actors, constructing the reality of Trash Humpers required total immersion. "For two weeks, we lived in those areas — we would sleep at night under the bridges, in strip-mall parking lots, make beds out of tires and things — and we had people who would help us, bring us food and stuff," Korine explains. "We'd usually start filming a couple of hours before it got dark. And then we would just, like, walk around and commit acts of vandalism."
Trash Humpers is most effective when positing contemporary American life as a kind of holy culture war. In one scene, a large gentleman in a French-maid costume recites a rhyming ode to "the grizzly facts of what so-called civilization has done to us." In another, Harmony Korine's character drives around and delivers a kind of Humpers-versus-the-world manifesto. He can "smell the pain" of the normal neighborhood folks through walls of their homes, and feels no sympathy for them: "We choose to live like free people. It's just one long game. And I expect we'll win it. I expect that all these people will be dead and buried long before I catch my second wind."
This in-car monologue, which anchors the movie, "was kinda spontaneous," Korine notes. "We were out there kind of living like that, and it just came out naturally. And maybe it's like an explanation — it's as close to an explanation of the film as you're going to get."
Without the protections of a more traditional film production, this roving band of miscreants somehow got away with shooting themselves humping trash all over the greater-Nashville area without arousing negative attention.
"We were prepared to get hassled all the way, but it really didn't happen," Korine marvels. "We'd be out at, like, two in the morning, and these guys would be fucking the hell out of these trash bins, and a porch light would pop on and some old woman would come out and ask if we needed an extra flashlight. It was strange. People really didn't seem to mind."
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That response is endemic to the local spirit (or lack thereof) Korine hoped to capture by shooting in the suburbs of Nashville, where he spent much of his childhood before moving to New York in the early '90s (and subsequently becoming a hipster icon at 19 as the screenwriter of Kids). The Trash Humpers seem to be the only living souls left in a hyperrealistic land of abandoned junk, spotted with corpses. The press notes describe it as "a world of broken dreams beyond the limits of morality." Korine calls it nostalgia.
"It was about trying to go back to a certain feeling from when I was growing up," he says. "We shot in a lot of places I remembered from when I was a kid. These kids, we used to call them fluff heads, they used to make this drink out of Lysol and soda water in gallon jugs. You'd get really dizzy and puke. A lot of kids, American-Indian kids especially, drink way too much and kind of rot out their insides, and they would die in ditches, stuff like that. So we went to places that I knew had a long history of doing shit like that."
When Korine tells stories like this in interviews — presenting the streets of Nashville as a place where elephants float and teenage wastoids drop dead, positioning himself as a kind of frontline reporter on surrealism in action — it's tempting to call it bullshit. Promoting his last film, the relatively high-budget elegy to celebrity worship Mr. Lonely, Korine claimed he spent part of an eight-year hiatus from directing living with the Malingerers, a South American cult searching for a golden fish. Google "malingerers," and the only reference to a fishing cult you'll find is in interviews with Harmony Korine; the first search result is a Wikipedia page defining "malingerer" as "a medical term that refers to fabricating or exaggerating the symptoms of mental or physical disorders for a variety of 'secondary gain' motives, which may include ... avoiding work."
In the case of Trash Humpers, it doesn't seem to matter much if Korine's inspirational memories are to-the-letter authentic or fabricated. A horror film shot with the "check this shit out!" pride of a skate video, Trash Humpers' nightmarish depiction of gluttonous self-destruction in a climate of fear powerfully (and often hilariously) burlesques the true America reeling from the side effects of excessive, shortsighted consumption, where pop culture is dominated by exhibitionists, and new fast-food products more than likely to rot out our insides make headlines for their grotesquerie. With both his anecdotes and his films, Korine's tall tales give our culture the allegorical treatment it deserves.