Garbage cans and trash bags are not the only inanimate objects to get dry humped in Harmony Korine’s outrageous fourth feature. Mailboxes and telephone poles are similarly defiled, and periodically random sticks and other indeterminate phalluses are enthusiastically jerked off. These simulated sex acts are not, however, the strangest things you’ll see in Trash Humpers, and they can hardly account themselves for the steady stream of walkouts sure to flee Alice Tully Hall tonight and tomorrow, when the movie has its US premiere, rather improbably, at the New York Film Festival.
Returning proudly to his Southern Gothic-punk roots after the lukewarm reception of last year’s glossier Mister Lonely, Korine has fashioned as crappy-looking a movie as possible.
Presenting itself as the homemade production of its eponymous horndogs, Trash Humpers evokes early 1980s VHS video, complete with on-screen VCR cues (REW, PLAY, AUTO TRACKING) interjected as if they were silent film title cards.
The Humpers are a band of vagabonds who carouse before the camera in parking lots, suburban alleys, and low-income homes. The cast (which includes Korine and his wife) wear wrinkled old-man masks, and whenever they tap dance, which they do often, they remind one of Mr. Six, that creepy bald pitchman for the Six Flags franchise. Occasionally, the principles are joined in their endless dissolute revelry by other assorted freaks, notably some BBW hookers, as well as a pair of Siamese twins who cook up pancakes and then, at the insistence of the others, eat them with dish soap instead of maple syrup. Mostly, though, the Humpers stick to themselves.
Korine refrains from ever showing us a face from the straight world, which only heightens the feeling that we’re seeing a place that is simultaneously alien and familiar. The sounds of traffic (planes, trains and automobiles) are omnipresent, as are the sickly fluorescent lights that spill onto our nation’s infrastructure on a nightly basis. Driving around one evening in search of a middle-class home suitable for peeping into, one of the characters proclaims that he and his friends live a more “balanced life” than these people, meaning us, do. This comment recalls a similar moment in Gummo—Korine’s prodigious 1997 debut film—when a glue-sniffing cat killer expresses his contempt for the bourgeoisie: “They sit there in their pretend little lives, in their homes.”
As the critic Dennis Lim noted recently in a perceptive article about Trash Humpers in Cinema Scope, Korine’s latest will likely inspire “a rehash of the old exploitation-versus-empathy debate that insistently circles, without ever quite illuminating, the work of so-called provocateurs from Diane Arbus to Ulrich Seidl.” Such a debate has in fact dogged Korine ever since he wrote the script for Larry Clark’s Kids at age 18. But never in his career has this kind of response seemed so entirely beside the point. Yes, Trash Humpers is deliberately shocking, but to dismiss it as the work of a mere provocateur, one must have a dirty mind overly fixated on all the rampant trash fucking. Because what makes this fictional artifact from an alternate-universe America so unsettling is that it is never quite alternate enough for our own comfort.