Eye For Film >> Movies >> Trash Humpers (2009) Film Review
Reviewed by: David Graham
Where to start with Harmony Korine’s anti-aesthetic middle-finger salute to modern cinema? A little context helps when tentatively approaching the ‘Texas-Chainsaw-family-does-Jackass’ netherworld of the titular Trash Humpers. Inspired by a bunch of antisocial OAPs who haunted the director’s Nashville childhood (although it’s always important to remember that you can never take Korine at his word), Trash Humpers was designed to be come across as a found object, the sort of unlabelled videotape you might find in a charity shop bargain-bin and be compelled to watch out of morbid curiosity. It’s a home-video vaudeville, harking back to Gummo and seemingly a response to its critical reception. Korine never wanted that film’s characters to be taken as a literal freakshow (despite naming Tummler after the traditional sideshow warm-up comedian), but since that’s what happened, here he gives us just that. These characters live their life on a knife-edge between performance and sheer indulgence, the fact that we view their endeavours through their own lens making us uncomfortably implicit in their exploits.
Korine is obviously in love with the abandoned and outcast – whether in material or personal form. A burnt-out car is as fascinating to him as your everyday wino – and here he puts us squarely in their place. The film opens with and is punctuated by scenes of them ‘fornicating’ with trash; wheelie-bins, garbage bags, dumpsters, even lamp-posts and telegraph poles, if it’s inanimate, it’s arousing to them (as if this wasn’t absurd enough, they even fellate branches and masturbate plants). It’s unclear whether they are genuinely getting their rocks off or just amusing each other, but these sequences are obviously designed to both titillate and, especially later in the film, alienate the audience. There is so much trash humping, done with such vigour, that the commitment to it somehow becomes both admirable and desperate.
The much-vaunted VHS visuals give the film a grimy, jittery realism in daylight and a strange luminosity in its twilit scenes. Korine obviously loves the tarnished smear that this footage achieves; he lingers on the glow of streetlamps, store-fronts, stadium-lights, basking in their unforced beauty, only visible through this particular medium. Similarly, the constant yelps and screeches that accompany the ‘action’ may initially irritate, but they soon become insidious, whether you enjoy them or not. They are somehow expressive of such childish glee and unhinged debauchery that they carry a bizarre integrity. The sinister nursery rhymes which crop up frequently also worm their way into your head, their repetition becoming either creepy or entertaining depending on the circumstances.
The secondary cast of oddball locals and dubious performers break up the impending monotony with everything from makeshift puppetry to random anecdotes, debased prostitution and beat poetry, unfunny homophobic jokes and pitiful musical renditions. That the humpers enjoy and appreciate their surreal efforts lends these scenes a sympathetic quality, encouraging us to consider who these people really are, how their lives must be, and to look for a shred of worth in what they bring to the table. The humpers’ own occasional monologues are surprisingly easy to relate to – Korine’s character’s defence of their position as ‘free, free, free people’ stands in opposition to his observations of the ‘stupid, stupid, stupid way to live’ that most of his neighbours subscribe to. When he describes how he can ‘feel their pain’ in the ‘trees and houses’, it’s all too easy to agree, even as he undercuts his points with ironic assessments of the humpers’ own ‘balanced’ lifestyles. The female humper (‘Momma’) dominates the film’s final ten minutes, and betrays a despair that goes someway to explaining their nihilistic behaviour, her babydoll fixation leading to climactic scenes which are as oddly touching as they are frightening. You’re left wondering just what will happen after the tape runs out.
The director’s described this as a ‘new type of horror film’, and one of the things that’s most disturbing is that the characters’ antics are usually happening in public; cars and people go past unperturbed by them, and the humpers themselves are equally unashamed of their own behaviour. It’s almost like the scenes in ‘Halloween’ with the near-subliminal glimpses of Michael Myers in the background, but filmed from his point of view as if he was too smashed to get around to the slashing. Moments where the characters peep into peoples’ windows at night also appeal to our fear of being watched, the darkness they inhabit made all the more uneasy for its VHS murkiness. The murders and death are handled so flippantly as to be seriously unsettling. They either happen off-camera, the aftermath presented so suddenly as to be jolting, or ‘in medias res’, with the centrepiece of a warped birthday celebration being the suffocation of an unnamed man. Even here, there is a discomforting level of humour; the dead-or-dying man is commanded to ‘Go to sleep, boy! Dream! Dream!’, as if he has any choice in the former, and as if his death could be anything but a nightmare.
In particular, an early scene involving a child runs the gamut from cruel to exploitative, pushing the audience’s buttons to breaking point and becoming way more upsetting than it theoretically should possibly be. With nothing but some roleplay and props, it achieves an intensity way beyond anything this year’s over-hyped schlock-fest A Serbian Film manages with its graphic collation of children, sex and death.
It would be rich of me to say you either ‘get’ this film or you don’t; Korine himself would have a hard time explaining what you’re supposed to get from it, and doesn’t even purport to try in his interviews. It’s more accurate to say you either ‘get into it’ or don’t; the film is a purely visceral experience, which by and large does everything it sets out to do – repel, amuse, horrify, bore – with a sickening but punk-rock panache. I’ll also say that my first viewing – on someone else’s DVD – was underwhelming, even confounding. But the images, sounds and ideas stuck in my head like a bone in the throat; I found myself compelled to return to this soiled artefact to pore over it at length. In doing so, I found myself sucked in; the humour grew funnier, the horror more stark, the mixed messages more clear and the emotion, the humanity – yes, there is some to be found – more real. I even went out and bought it to watch it a third time, and will no doubt return to it repeatedly.
Just as this film is supposed to be like something unearthed from a rubbish heap, it offers more than meets the eye. Would it have made it this far if it weren’t for Korine’s stamp as writer/director/star? Probably not, but he himself would probably justify it by saying it wasn’t meant to be commercially available in the first place. Whether this is genuine or a double-handed defence and come-on is unclear, but what’s certain is that Trash Humpers has a natural home in the home (there are even VHS copies available that have been ‘hand-filthed’ by the director). If you let it into yours, you will find yourself exquisitely warped by the experience, for better or worse. At least now I know what I’m dressing up as for Halloween this year.Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2010
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