Taking Out the Trash Humpers

In his three-and-a-half-star review of Crash—the 1996 David Cronenberg movie about the fetish that combines sexual arousal with car crashes, not the 2005 Best Picture about the fetish that combines racial disharmony with outrageous narrative coincidence—Roger Ebert claimed that Cronenberg’s film was all about a perversion that does not exist.

I looked it up. It appears to be called symphorophilia. Hey, who would ever doubt Wikipedia? (For sticklers, it does not appear in the DSM-IV, but it would likely be included with other unlisted disorders under the new designation Paraphilia NOS, or “not otherwise specified”)

As for the grotesque obsession afflicting the gonzo-odd “cult-freak collective” inhabiting filmmaker Harmony Korine‘s obscure and subversive 2009 movie Trash Humpers, that’s another story. Oh, is it ever another story. The picture made quite a stink—ha ha—at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, and while it is obviously not a documentary, exactly how to define the experience as an object d’art has been at the heart of much criticism surrounding it.

For as much questioning as there’s been as to whether or not it is or is not actually constituted as “a film,” I was surprised upon viewing Korine’s latest feature-length provocation that it was easy enough for me to supply the answer: It is most certainly a movie. An art movie. A deliberately offensive art movie. A movie destined to be seen by few and well-regarded by fewer still.

Count me among those very, very few.

By no means am I a Korine loyalist. I am an admirer of his script for Kids, the cruel drama directed by Larry Clark chronicling a day and night in the lives of New York teenagers untroubled by the consequences of recreational drug use and unprotected sex. On the other hand, his directorial debut Gummo I found off-putting, when I wasn’t busy being utterly bored. Julien Donkey-Boy has the virtue of a darkly humorous performance from filmmaker Werner Herzog (a public admirer of Korine’s works); Korine also scripted director Clark’s Ken Park, which doubled down on the aberrant promiscuities that informed Kids, but to what may legitimately be called a lesser impact as it made brief appearances in U.S. festivals before vanishing from sight.

Korine’s most mainstream effort came with Mister Lonely in 2007. You might think a filmic conflation of Michael Jackson, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, the Pope, Shirley Temple, and Abraham Lincoln—with Herzog making a return to the fold in an extended cameo involving a convent of Third World nuns—would have aroused a greater stir, but by adopting a more conventional set of priorities, Korine perhaps alienated both his hardcore fan base while never effectively bridging the divide between his artistic concerns and those of mass audiences.

So, why not just go for broke once again?

Trash Humpers is produced in the “found footage” style, representing itself as being shot by one of a group of deviants lurking around a Tennessee suburbia. The family members may be related by blood; they might be elderly, or they might just be wearing the creepiest Halloween masks you’ve ever seen; they might be effective stand-ins for the clan from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

They spend their days and nights, yes, humping trash cans—but they’re also drawn to smashing fluorescent light bulbs while dancing vaudeville routines; teaching a manic, chubby young boy who brutalizes baby dolls with a hammer how to insert a razor blade into an apple and convince a stranger to eat it; listening to half-told jokes about “queers” and minorities screamed aloud by a local friend wearing a neck brace, and…well, I’ve barely started, but you get the idea.

Viewers waiting for a traditional narrative to take shape will wait in vain, but the film has a clear arc of ideas, visuals, and purpose. The debate about whether or not the film is a motion picture per se is specious, as it’s obviously very much crafted. Shots are selected to work with and against one another; rhythms are established by way of action, cutting, sparse and recurring dialogue, visual composition, color, and sound.

An object of lust in Trash Humpers (2009)

Shot with an ancient VHS camcorder, Trash Humpers is the kind of film David Lynch has been promising to deliver ever since he abandoned celluloid for digital video. Korine (who also serves as a co-star in the film and the cinematographer) takes the limitations of the video image and artfully pushes them to extremes; streetlamps and clumsily aimed flashlights punch burning holes through the frame; blocky, muddy picture noise sometimes conceals exactly what is happening and who might be watching, and what their reactions might be; the film’s soundtrack is a masterpiece of naturalistic unease worthy of Lynch’s Eraserhead. The score is strictly tinny source music, but it emotionally informs us all the same.

I don’t want to spoil exactly where the film goes at the end for those very, very, very few who might take the plunge with the movie—I will just offer that, as far as claims that it represents a nod towards redemption for these amoral outcasts whose crimes escalate from indecent exposure to vandalism to murder, I say that much to the contrary, the film’s jury is truly out on that score.

The possibility exists at the climax that an encounter with life in its purest innocence might actually convert one of the trash humpers to a more humane state of mind. Perhaps the seeds are sown for that transformation at some unforced juncture earlier in the film, but it is my reading that it’s just as likely that the vilest outrage is something the film simply breaks away from just before it happens.

In its stark and uncompromising form, Trash Humpers belongs in a small catalog of other disturbing and divisive achievements from the past. I mentioned Lynch’s Eraserhead, but it also takes a rightful place alongside cult films like Pink Flamingos, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Yes, in one respect it shares a real kinship with Caligari. The world of this movie is just that bizarre and unearthly, manifesting dread out of the most mundane things and so effectively cocooning itself in a wasteland of isolation, obscenity, and madness that it evokes a landscape we are not likely to see again in any other film.

Maybe your response is good, ‘cause I don’t watch that kind of trash anyway.

Fair’s fair. This is a movie made to be inhospitable to most, so ignoring it may be your best bet unless you have a real taste for experimental cinema that violates mainstream sensibilities with rude and spiky determination. As is often the case with films like this, though, there exists a constituency for the view that such “degenerate” projects ought never to be made, which plows across that thick boundary line separating polite critique from insipid authoritarianism.

And that’s what is truly offensive.