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October 25, 2009

Trash Humpers (2009)

Before moving on to matters at hand, allow me to submit the following for your consideration. First up is Harmony Korine's video for Will Oldham's Workhorse:

And then his commercial for Thornton's:

Both spots use the same deceptively simple technique to similar ends. The latter clip could be seen as a refinement of the former, in that it is beautifully photographed, impressively designed, etc. Just the same, the former could be viewed as 'more pure' than the latter, in as much as a music video could be perceived as more auteurist or singularly expressionistic than a television commercial. I would propose, however, that any comparative distinction based on the artistic worth of either work is a disservice to their director. One can order them according to taste, but not according to artistic value.

It's by this token that Korine's new film, Trash Humpers, cannot be perceived as a lesser work than his three previous features. That it went from concept to world premiere in the span of four months makes it no less important a piece of his oeuvre than the long-in-gestation Mr. Lonely. Likewise, the more traditionally formal aesthetic of that film cannot empirically be considered superior to the smeary third-generation VHS that Trash Humpers was shot on. In short, this grating film about degenerate elderly sociopaths who prowl the night, molesting hapless garbage receptacles, is as worthy of serious consideration as any other film that screened at NYFF or Toronto this year.

I say this not because anyone is actually crying foul over its cinematic merits (indeed, the film seems to be slipping quietly on by) but moreso because I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed it, and was engaged by it, as a cinematic experience. Korine has stated that he wanted the film to feel like found-footage, like a videotape someone found in a ditch and decided to watch; but he's also said that he'd rather the film be seen on the big screen, projected on 35mm. This dichotic set of intentions actually speaks volumes to the actual experience of watching the film: it looks, on the surface, like found-footage, but never feels like it. As Karina Longworth writes in her review, "the hand of the artist is just too visible. It’s just too good to be trash."

At times, perhaps, that hand is indeed too visible, and those intentions too obvious - there are moments that feel like Moments, designed to evoke a specific reaction, and they're sore thumbs amongst all the other randomly juxtaposed detritus that is genuinely provocative in its own right. The camera's arbitrary discovery of a corpse in the woods, for example, is a lot more chilling than an accidental murder that's clearly been staged. But by and large, Korine keeps our disbelief suspended, even as his hand is clearly evident (his penchant for tap dancing is given full thrift here). That his film is ugly, obscene and perverse is easy to take at face value, as his aesthetic choices are never in doubt; but that it's also scary, unsettling and consistently hilarious - and somehow narratively sound - is where he plays his trump card. What's that Groucho Marx quote about vulgarity?

Also, would I write all this if this wasn't a Harmony Korine picture? Would I even watch it? I wondered this even as the film was playing, and quickly decided that it was a moot point, because it is a Harmony Korine film, and that implicit fact is one which not only gives the film its raison d'etre but also affects how we, the audience, interpret what we're being presented with. An artist, once they've accosted the public eye, can foist upon it all manner of media that would otherwise be overlooked; a great artist won't take that right for granted, but he may just play with it. Hence: had this exact same film been made by some kid in Nashville, or if some kid in Nashville had found this film on a videotape in a ditch and uploaded it to the internet, it would still contain all the same intrinsic qualities it has now, but it wouldn't be as compelling, as watchable, because it wouldn't have the context that an artist - one who's proven himself to be a great one - always gives to his work.

It's at this junction that I suggest you stop reading and watch a clip from the film, if you haven't seen it already.

And now, to further qualify what you've just seen: a recent Indiewire article noted that of those audience members who stayed through the end of a recent screening, the majority of them were male, between the ages of twenty and thirty, all of whom responded enthusiastically - and all of whom probably were watching a certain program on MTV about nine years ago. Trash Humpers, with its crappy aesthetics, wayward athletics, juvenile sexuality and not-quite-right old age makeup, is the logical extension of Jackass. The two films begat by that cherished series were cinematic works of art in their own right (I'd have been happy to see them included in the NYFF lineup in their respective years), and Trash Humpers is its natural progeny. Genetically fucked up in every which way, but beautiful all the same.

Posted by David Lowery at October 25, 2009 5:50 PM