The Case for Trash Humpers
Harmony Korine's new film is caustic and dangerous, but that's how we like 'em.
By Andy Campbell,
3:18PM, Fri. Mar. 26, 2010
A friend of mine walked up to me while I was standing in line for a film at SXSW and without saying hello exclaimed, "You liked Trash Humpers?! I walked out." Such was the sentiment shared by a former student of mine and her boyfriend who, 15 minutes into the film asked for the check and left
Besides feeling bad for the Alamo waitstaff who were short-shrifted more potential tip dollars, I feel exhilarated. Perhaps even more so because the two folks I knew who walked out are smart and wonderful – they're not cine-philistines at all! It has been a long time since the cinema felt dangerous, contagious, and caustic – I would argue since the glory days of Jack Smith and Carolee Schneemann. Trash Humpers is somewhere in there, between the sexual playground of early John Waters movies and the filmic experiments of Guy Maddin.
It is a difficult film, and the juvenile content doesn't mean the director's intentions are juvenile. Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers is essentially a collage of scenes of senior citizens (who are clearly younger people dressed up in oldfolk drag) doing bad things: humping trash cans, destroying property, killing younger people, humping mailboxes, peeing in driveways, laughing at racist and homophobic jokes, singing songs at inappropriate times, humping fences, and sleeping in ditches and abandoned houses.
The film is presented as "found" object, although a close examination of structure and off-kilter make-up lets one know that this is anything but readymade. For me, Trash Humpers is most closely allied to Marcel Duchamp's Étant Donnés, an installation that is as titillating as it is creepy. After disappearing from the art scene midway through his life, it wasn't until after Marcel Duchamp's death that Étant Donnés was "found" already assembled, and then given a permanent home in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You encounter the piece in a nondescript hallway, and are forced (because you look through a peephole in a large wooden door) to become a peeping Tom. The careful construction of Étant Donnés mirrors the careful construction of Trash Humpers, both cradle the abject and the sublime. When one of the characters in Trash Humpers points his camera on a fire hydrant and whispers "I love you," it is both a comedic revelation and an admittance to sexual deviance – as we deduce from previous scenes that this man's love will come soon in the form of vigorous humping. He does love that fire hydrant. The horror is: It's true. Trash Humpers is a salve to torture-porn films like Hostel that aestheticize human cruelty like it was the latest BMW. When the characters in Trash Humpers do despicable things, when they go on racist or homophobic rants, no one in the audience laughs. Or if they do, it's that uncomfortable, mouthy laugh that is inevitably coupled with disbelief. The cawing near-scream of Korine's character, who laughs throughout much of the film, is enough to distance anyone from pure pleasure.
But Trash Humpers is not joyless. Five minutes into the film, one of the male characters, in an abandoned parking lot lifts a television high over his head with great difficulty, and sends it down crashing on the asphalt. As soon as the television hits the ground he begins to perform a soft-shoe/tap routine. There may not be a funnier moment in the film. Others join him for a dance that turns into another opportunity to viciously kick and destroy the television.
This is why Trash Humpers is the queerest film at the festival. No internal characters are gay, and there is no secret kind of lesbian content. What I mean is that the film sets up a world in which social and sexual deviance go hand in hand. Senior citizens, like the very young in our culture, are imbued with meanings of innocence and purity. Old folks don't have sex, do they? Young kids can't be murders, can they? Oh yes they can. In Trash Humpers we see both. Deviance here is a way of rebelling from and recoding the social.
Perhaps it's worth the time to end with a mini-meditation on the act of humping. Humping is non-procreative, non-normative sexual behavior. One that imitates the actions of penetrative sex without "going there." Why do these old people hump the inanimate objects of suburbia sprawl? Why not! There is something in Korine's film about manners, about structures of living – in other words the unspoken yet agreed upon social contract by which most of us live our lives – that is violated, toppled and well humped. While the audience sits motionless, nearly inanimate, it may be that we're the trash. As one of the characters in the film tells us (in the film's most didactic moment) the trash humpers are truly free. They're living the dream.