Trying to erase Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers from one’s mind is like trying to scrub graffiti off a brick wall with a diaper and some spit. This alternately hilarious and haunting ode to a recent-but-bygone pop-cultural tradition might very well be Korine’s purest act of creative expression yet. Abandoning the lush, sweeping formalism of his last feature, Mister Lonely, Korine has expectorated a proudly deformalistic American trashterpiece.
A movie like Trash Humpers has never been made before. At least not intentionally. For with this experiment, Korine isn’t referencing cinema. His roots are knotted up in something else entirely. For those viewers who are unable to wrap their brains around what in the hell it is they’re actually watching, a brief history lesson is in order. Back in the 1980s, when consumer home video cameras had begun to run rampant, there emerged a strange underground phenomenon of the “found VHS tape” (remember, this was before the Internet, and long before YouTube—advancements that have since rendered said phenomenon obsolete yet have enabled infinitely more of these ‘accidental discoveries’ to emerge every single day). Back then, it was as exciting to discover a random home movie starring a redneck family in a trailer park in which the matriarch says she doesn’t have sex anymore because “my furburger done sewed up” as it was to view a hard-to-find gem like Love Streams for the first time. The promise of what accidental home video footage might reside on a well-worn and unmarked consumer VHS tape sparked our imaginations and kept us searching for more (I say ‘our’ because I was a participant in this strange underground tradition). It sounds silly to say this, but for me, the experience of watching Trash Humpers—and I’ve seen it three times now—is akin to re-watching Star Wars or Gremlins or another youthful landmark decades after the fact. It makes me think back to my own adolescence and how the world felt back then, back when it was still possible to be shaken and stirred.
As for the movie itself, that’s a thoroughly different, though just as invigorating, discussion. Trash Humpers plays like a grotesquely distorted mockumentary that can be best (and most cheesily) described as what would happen if the family in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre watched a Jackass marathon, grabbed a camcorder, and took to the streets to wreak their own havoc. Over the course of an unidentified stretch of days, four eerie human night-and-day crawlers—with the faces of melted 90-year-olds and agile bodies of teenagers—wander through parking lots, through backyards, onto front porches, and into the homes of bizarre local residents, all the while dancing and grunting and laughing and, yes, literally humping trashcans with reckless abandon.
At first, this comes as a comic shock. But as the nights get darker and the luminescent streetlamps take on an increasingly haunting glow, new emotions begin to emerge. Toward the end of the film, Korine’s old man character drives through a neighborhood and delivers an oddly sentimental state-of-the-union address about the sleepy defeat of the people living in these homes. Which leads into a shot of him in a garage, doing a throbbing dance in a Rebel flag t-shirt, howling and pointing at himself, as if to demand that viewers look at him. At this moment, Trash Humpers transcends its own formal and narrative limitations and reaches a state of poetry—a messy, odd, inexplicable poetry, that is.
In his 1997 directorial debut, Gummo, Korine held onto a few elements of traditional cinema even as he delivered a groundbreaking, prescient collage approach to storytelling (the more one considers it, the more that movie directly predates the choppy YouTube culture that we have become). The most distracting moments in Gummo are when non-actors deliver clearly scripted dialogue. It’s unavoidably distracting, especially when they’re crashing up against so many electrifying docu-infused moments. But in Trash Humpers, Korine has removed those bounds completely, establishing a situation in which there is no traditional ‘dialogue’—there is only action and reaction. Critics will argue—some have already—that this approach creates an environment that is critique-proof. I say hooray for that. Critics might also argue that if Harmony Korine’s name wasn’t attached to Trash Humpers, nobody would watch it. All I can say to that is that without Harmony Korine, there wouldn’t be a Trash Humpers.
Many people will not understand Korine’s purpose for making this movie. They’ll think he’s just trying to drive them out of the theater (though the mere fact that this movie is showing in theaters and not underground art galleries or online is another testament to Korine’s drive as a filmmaker). And that’s fine. But for those of us who came of age during this “found VHS tape” era and share a similar sensibility, it will strike an unexpectedly poignant chord. Trash Humpers is trash as art, it’s lost as found, it’s ugly as beautiful, it’s scary as funny. It’s awesome.
— Michael Tully