Wednesday, 19 May 2010


from The Pictures #3 / illustration by Tom Moore

After almost a decade in soul searching cinematic limbo, Harmony Korine returned in 2007 with Mister Lonely. The film was an unexpected departure – at least on the surface – from the nihilistic, fragmented collages of films like Gummo and julien donkey-boy, films that made his name and established his reputation as a cinematic provocateur. Where the previous films were lo-fi and improvised, Mister Lonely was glossy technicolour, location sequences and complex effects. Where his older films were bleak, revelling in carnival grotesquery and desire to shock, Mister Lonely was occasionally hopeful, at times even sentimental. Reaction was mixed, and some wondered if a clean Korine had lost his bite.

Heads were turned, then, with the recent announcement that his latest feature, Trash Humpers, was already completed and would be released imminently. Shot on obsolete VHS and edited in a matter of weeks, the film was prominently billed as “a return” to Korine’s earlier aesthetic, even dubbed ‘Gummo 2’ by one French site. Following the exploits of a gang of elderly anarchists who smash up the scenery, harrass locals, tell offensive jokes, tap dance and, as the title suggests, fuck rubbish bins, the film (and initially, for want of screenings, the film’s high concept) was seen by some as a direct response to the vast scale of Mister Lonely – another intense reaction from an engrained reactionary, a film even more degraded, base and impudent than his early work.

However, just as Mister Lonely was less a departure from the philosophy of Gummo and julien donkey-boy than was at first apparent, Trash Humpers is more a small step forward than back, a minimal production that has more in common with its multi-million dollar predecessor than the films made a decade ago.

Both films have us join up to a gang of outsiders, celebrity impersonators or anti-social OAPs who have cut themselves off from their surroundings. The same could be argued for the earlier films, but there is much more of a sense in those films that the outcast characters belong to a similarly abjected community within the world of the film, a community within which they are accepted and play their roles. In contrast, the central character of Michael in Mister Lonely confesses his confused isolation in voiceovers. The trash humper Herv (the cameraman, played by Korine) delivers a monologue about the despair that lives in the routine of the community around him – going to work, raising families in their image, wasting time. The characters are speaking with the same voice, the same language and tones, undoubtedly the voice of the film’s author.

Michael seeks solace in impersonating Michael Jackson, “being someone else”, while the trash humpers find theirs in chaos and destruction, recorded in one long CKY-as-elderly-psychopaths home video. Between stunts they catch up with other subcultural crazies - a schoolboy preacher who sermonises while hammering a doll’s face, conjoined twin chefs (joined at the head). An alcoholic telling endless racist sexist jokes with no punchlines makes a guest appearance. Often the trash humpers murder their companions, though we only get to see the VHS grained corpses and are not a party to the killings.

The idea to construct the film as a found curiosity - a discarded VHS tape, a film as a time capsule – has echoes of Godard’s Weekend, and like in Weekend, is used more as a device of narrative and atmosphere than a pure concept. The home video looks crude, washed out and slightly decayed, coming across equal parts creepy and familiar. Tracking lines and VCR actions appear on screen, and are used stylistically as well as functionally. At one point, ‘REW’ appears and the tape seems to rewind, though only for a second or two, resuming in a new and unseen position that would not be found on a real tape. And VHS home videos were never played in cinemas. Their format was not intended to be blown up and projected on this scale. In doing this, Trash Humpers is every bit as much a ‘film’ as Mister Lonely.

The blown up VHS picture continually distorts, sometimes phasing in and out of abstraction, sometimes approaching poetic. The continual atonal laughter of the cameraman is unsettling verging on inhuman. The alien lives of the trash humpers are enthralling and repellant. Their infectious sense of freedom almost always gives way to dark manic episodes and woozy inertia. From the home video perspective we join in the revelrie and carnage and going too far. We’re made to laugh right out of our comfort zones and into a much darker place underneath the trash humper’s mask. The video stands as proof, a rememberance and evidence.

In Mister Lonely, Michael finds his utopia in a Highland commune for impersonators, far removed from the world, benign and in all ways fulfilling. Trash Humpers is another film about idealism and idealised worlds – idealism giving rise to rejection, building utopia by destroying. Michael’s dreams are shattered, but those of the trash humpers remain. There are no consequences for their actions within their home video world and it’s difficult to imagine any outside of it – they are totally self contained and self sufficient, and in a lot of ways very American.

Harmony Korine has jokingly described himself as “the most American director making movies today”, and this feels like something that has come to the fore in has last two features, much more so than his earlier, more European influenced work. Mister Lonely was about a man outside of his country, while Trash Humpers is about people who are very much at home, but the concerns in the films are identity and ideals and the search for both. In both films, the clarity of Korine’s voice shines through. The characters are pro-active and even motivational where in the older films they were observed. This nervous energy and compulsion to do something, anything, that brings a greater authenticity, a more intense and true experience into life – is no longer something that Korine just talks about in statement of intent interview questions, but something which, in recent years, has made its way into the fabric of his films as well.

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