Of all the left-field surprises to come out of Hollywood in recent years (see: two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill), few have been quite as stunning as the runaway blockbuster success of last year’s SPRING BREAKERS. Drenched in neon colors, gratuitous nudity, and dubstep, the film’s jarringly out-of-character turns from James Franco and Disney starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez piqued the nation’s curiosity, garnering a wide release and millions of dollars in profit. What much of that movie-going public didn’t realize, however, was that SPRING BREAKERS was in fact the latest avant-garde experiment from perennial Hollywood outsider Harmony Korine, who managed to make the jump from the art house to the multiplex with all of his twisted sensibilities and aberrant weirdness intact. There were, needless to say, a lot of puzzled teenyboppers.
But as confused as the movie left the Beliebers of the world, the success of SPRING BREAKERS baffled no one more than the relative few who had seen Korine’s previous film: a grainy, profoundly perverse oddity with possibly the most bluntly honest title in movie history. It’s easy to see how SPRING BREAKERS could trick the masses into thinking it was something else, but you pretty much know what you’re going to get from a movie called TRASH HUMPERS.
Shot on grainy, degraded video, TRASH HUMPERS offers a snapshot of four rubber-masked geriatrics (including Korine and his wife Rachel, looking decidedly different from her role in SPRING BREAKERS) who wander around a suburban town destroying property, laughing maniacally, and performing lewd acts on trees, fences, and, yes, trash cans. Their orbits sometimes intersect with other local oddballs, including a well-dressed child preacher, an eccentric poet in a French maid’s uniform, and two gentlemen in hospital gowns whose heads are connected with what appears to be a length of pantyhose. And that’s… pretty much the whole movie. Occasionally, the ‘Humpers will casually murder one of their acquaintances, or pause for an oddly pastoral moment (as when Korine’s character rhapsodizes with surprising elegance about their superior way of life), but, by and large, the film is more concerned with tone than plot.
Even Korine, who introduced the film this past Monday at the Harvard Film Archive, seems unsure how to classify it. “Is this even a movie?” he asked half-jokingly before the film. “I kind of feel like it’s its own thing.” Korine has never been known to be an easy interview subject (as seen in his increasingly bizarre conversations with David Letterman in the late ’90s), and, in the Q&A session following the screening, he led HFA director Haden Guest through a Marx Brothers routine of deflections and asides (“What are we to make of these characters on a surface level?” “Um, I never really thought of them as surfers.”). Korine explained that he and his cast essentially remained in character for the duration of the shoot (“Herve basically directed the film,” he said, referring to his character), and that he only knew that the movie was over when he “couldn’t think of anything else to fuck or destroy.” He also revealed, apparently seriously, that his editor on the project was 99% blind. Speaking of the film’s reception, Korine expressed bafflement that TRASH HUMPERS won the DOX Award at the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival: “I made the whole thing up. I didn’t know a movie could be a documentary, and also be all lies… It’s very modern.”
Which brings us back to the question of what TRASH HUMPERS is, exactly. In his review of John Waters’ similarly anarchic PINK FLAMINGOS, Roger Ebert declined to assign a star rating, concluding that “it should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object.” This reading of TRASH HUMPERS would place it in good company in his catalog; while best known for his film work, Korine has also tried his hand as a painter, musician, novelist, zine publisher, and professional skateboarder (amusingly, he revealed that he had even entertained childhood fantasies of “reinventing tap dance”). “I don’t really think of myself as a filmmaker,” Korine said in one of his rare unguarded moments, “I think part of being a modern artist is just wanting to do everything. I’ll do commercials. I’ll write novels. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera, but I’ll direct one… I just want, at the end of my life, to look back on my body of work, and it’ll be something beautiful.”
Beauty might be a strong word for Korine’s particular oeuvre, but it’s certainly something. Here’s hoping it keeps sprawling for years to come.