Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers oozes with a fetid stink, a grimy and seedy riff on collapsed memory, VHS aesthetics, ‘trailer-trash’ subculture, and the vagaries of Americana. It is a film of situations but with little plot; Korine’s interest in showing the aimlessness of these lives matched only with his disinterest in telling a conventional story.
We follow a gang of four nameless, inveterate scumbags (the ‘Humpers’ of the title), all donned in Freddy Krueger-esque old person masks as they go about causing disturbances on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, and interacting with various locals somehow even more disconnected than they are. It’s a road movie (that great American genre) from the depths of suburban hell and a series of vignettes with no overarching intent other than a feeling of unease, as if Jackass had been made in the 1980s as an SOV experiment by Nick Zedd and shot entirely in a town left behind by society and progress.
Indeed, although it is situated in the backwoods of America, it takes place somewhere closer to the backdoor of the American soul, and reading about the ineffectiveness of polling in the recent American election made it hard not to think about the abandoned ghosts Korine presents us with. They spew racist diatribes, tell circular anecdotes, and menace the meagre whisps of society that have curlicued around them. They are ‘liberated’, but completely isolated, suggesting not so much Walden as Bickle.
The film makes its bona-fides explicit in one of the earliest and most directly unsettling scenes. The Humpers speak with a nameless young child (bunking off school) who, among other things, shows them the best way to suffocate a baby doll with a plastic bag, before beating the doll with a hammer. It’s an obvious and arguably cheap trick to portray a child behaving in such a disturbed manner which is redeemed (if such a word is appropriate) by Korine’s commitment to its effects. Every single aspect of the scene is maximised for audience discomfort (right down to the whip that the child holds while being pulled along by one of the Humpers in a wheelchair), and it is an effective tone-setter.
However, more than being simple ick-gimmickry in search of a reaction, Korine seems to be articulating and critiquing the inbuilt aversions within us that cause negative reactions to certain things that just feel off. Indeed, the whole film is a catalogue of things that are ‘wrong’ made by someone indelibly in love with images. other than the scene described above it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint why. The Humpers often tap-dance after completing an act of vandalism; they’re prone to not reacting, or to staring into space as the camera looks at them; they do, indeed, hump an awful lot of trash, as well as fellate low-hanging branches.
Taken on their own, most of the things that happen in this film skew more towards the mindless and banal as opposed to threatening. Instead, there seems to be a sense of menace around all of the things that the Humpers do, as if the aesthetic mode by which Korine has captured these things imbues them with a feeling that isn’t inherent within the actions themselves. The film is not wholly sinister, however; Korine has also spoken of the beauty of the streetlamp, and there is a perverse beauty in some of the shots of highways and streets that Korine films at night, lit by these lamps.
Within that light, Korine seems to be suggesting, is a world of possibilities, and in that spirit it seems fair to describe Trash Humpers as a free film; free from standards of narrative, cleanliness, audience enjoyment, comfort. The laughs that punctuate the film, coarse and shrill titters that unnerve and unsettle, are so abstract as to cease even being laughter; but they are nothing if not liberated. The only concession to cinematic technique is in the editing; to signal the end of a segment, Korine fills the screen with VHS snow while cutting from one shot to another to the other. It’s easy to miss, and the effect is one of continuity; in its own way, it’s not dissimilar to Hitchcock dollying into a partygoers back in Rope to continue the effect of the ‘unbroken’ shot.
With all this in mind, the key to fully understanding the film is in Korine’s note included in the DVD release, in which he states that Trash Humpers is a sort of tribute to a group of old perverts he used to witness as a child;
‘i remember when i was a child there was a small group of elderly people who would hang out in the back alleys and underbridges by my house. they always seemed to be getting drunk and dancing. one night i looked out my bedroom window and saw a gorup of them humping trash cans and laughing. it sounded like they were speaking a strange invented language.
This is a film about them.’
Taken as a document of, or elegy to, or examination of, a series of images that lodged in Korine’s brain as a child, it takes on a probing hauntological quality.
It almost invites you to locate your own series of formative images, those grimy resonances that you carry with you through to adulthood. I can recall mine, or at least, the impression of mine; illicit looks at hidden VHS tapes of horror films that had been bought by older kids with more lenient parents than my own; a red-brick wall, standing solitary as the other three walls comprising a house that once was lie in rubble around it; the long grey line of the British high-street, flanked on either side with charity shops filled with dead men’s clothing and betting shops filled with dead men; the smell of cigarettes and old ruddy-faced drunkards with sallow eyes talking aimless dribble in pubs with carpets the colour of grey and puce.
It is easy to write Trash Humpers off as a slight and trite piece of provocation. But in mining something that lies so close to his own subconscious, what Korine is really doing is inviting you to bask in the 4am glow of a (sideways and warped) reminisce of a formative moment in his aesthetic development. It is a film about recollection, about finding the beauty in the failure of the American dream, about liberation, about bad taste. Stan Brakhage wrote of the power of film to liberate the adult viewer in the reconstitution of potent childhood visions, and asked the immortal question ‘how many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of the word green?’
Korine, in his turn, seems to be asking how many lost souls you can capture in the analogue slits of the VHS tape, in the neverending panorama of the yellowing light of a street at night, and yes, in the bottom of a discarded trashcan.
I believe it is no less valid a question.