Cinema distribution in the 21st century is a joke. Films even slightly outside of the mainstream may never get picked up, may get left behind and instantly forgotten or – at best – live half-lives on torrents. Despite being made by a filmmaker whose work a number of people look forward to, this looked like it was going to be the fate of Trash Humpers.
Made in 2009 on VHS technology, the film features four actors in face prosthetics playing the role of a strange gang of elderly troublemakers who do indeed hump trash in Nashville. A distributor bureaucrat would look at this synopsis and decide that there is no profitability in Trash Humpers and pass on it. So we should be grateful to Warp (and Drag City in the US) for stepping in to save the movie from oblivion. Trash Humpers had not even managed to appear on torrents before they stepped in, so that it has now been screened at cinemas (outside of a few festival one-offs) and will soon be pressed onto DVD is a good thing.
But being instantly forgotten is what a part of Korine wanted for this film. He didn’t shoot it on VHS just because it would be cheaper. He wanted it to seem occult, secret, backwards:
“We thought of not putting titles or anything at all on the film. There was even a conversation at one point about just making a bunch of copies and leaving them on the sidewalk somewhere, and seeing what would happen.”
Inevitably, perhaps, he didn’t do that and now Trash Humpers finally has a proper release. The screening at the ICA on Thursday 10th June was hosted by the film blog Ultra Culture. They put a lot of effort into their hosting duties. A man from the website (whose name I don’t know and will hereon be referred to as “Ultra Culture”) took the mic and started talking to the audience about Junior Apprentice and who is good on it. He then asked for a volunteer who won a can of coke and some sweeties. He then asked for volunteers to wear bin-liners and do Trash Humper impressions to be judged by Harmony Korine, who was there via Skype. He made everyone at the end of the aisles stand up and gave them prizes of DVDs and books. He asked if anyone in the audience had a birthday coming up. He then made everyone sing “Happy Birthday” to that person. She won a chocolate cake. There was a surplus of prizes, so the rest of the entertainment included Ultra Culture asking who wanted the rest of the prizes. He asked who wanted a James Bond t-shirt and then gave it to them. Then he asked who wanted a Star Wars t-shirt and then gave it to them.
The whole thing was like a children’s birthday party hosted by T4. I had come to the cinema to see a movie, not to participate in the mandatory up-for-a-laugh activities of an 18 to 30 holiday. If Ultra Culture had asked audience members to pass a balloon to each using only their legs, then I wouldn’t have been surprised.
These shenanigans culminated – half an hour later – in the screening of a short video where a different Ultra Culture showed clips of Trash Humpers to tourists in Trafalgar Square. You may be surprised to find out that many of them didn’t get it. Maybe this could become a running series of vox pops? Show an arty film to tourists in Trafalgar Square and watch them not get it. Most of those questioned play along gamely, but the whole conceit is so dull. Basically the attitude is, “This film is mental LOL!” The general public is by now so used to the idea of being asked stupid questions by people holding microphones that they can quite easily slot into the role of interviewee. The video is saved by the appearance of Stephen Bayley, who says, “I don’t like music or film or theatre. I don’t like things that unfold in time.”
I’ve one more example of Ultra Cultures’ “LOL wacky!” approach before I get to Trash Humpers itself. The website provided a print-out to audience members that shows a still from Korine’s video The Devil, The Sinner and His Journey, which features Johnny Depp. The text around this still says, “Let’s take a break and look at a picture of Harmony Korine in blackface sitting on a sofa next to Johnny Depp. Awesome.” Apart from the fact that Korine is wearing corpse paint, not blackface, this is a completely moronic statement. It also neatly sums up Ultra Cultures’ dumbed-down mentality in one word: “awesome”. The idea that maybe there’s something more going on in this video or in Korine’s work, the idea that his work might sometimes be unsettling, sad, bleak or scary as well as funny, that he might have been going for something other than ker-razy – all gone, with one word. It’s awesome, dude.
The Trash Humpers aren’t just a joke, they’re demons. Fucking, masturbating, shrieking, singing. Acting like juvenile delinquents with progeria, they are neither old nor young. They are both. They are the two groups that scare the middle ages of society and haunt public space: teenagers and pensioners. Neither have anywhere to go. Some are institutionalised, many wander or hang out in non-places. Empty places like carparks on the side of country highways in the middle of the night or the back alleys of suburban sprawl. But the demonic Humpers do more than loll about aggressively with nothing to do. They furiously dry hump bins and toss off plants and cackle like witches. They fraternise with prostitutes and a transvestite street poet. They fuck the former and kill the latter. This murder, along with many other events, makes a nonsense of the “awesome” reduction of Ultra Culture. The murder is not awesome. The dark colour of the blood, the casual nature of it’s insertion into the narrative after the (not shown) event, the (non) reaction of the Humpers to their murder and the embodied documentation of outmoded VHS technology all cause the aftermath of the murder scene to be anything but meaninglessly or hedonistically “awesome”.
But there were clues before the murder scene that this film wasn’t just “awesome” in a one-demensional, braindead way. The scene with the little fat boy with glasses for one. All the acting in the film appears improvised and the inclusion of the fat boy in this scene looks like it came about because he just happened to be there. The Trash Humpers laugh at his poor basketball skills and sing and play in a creepy manner with a baby doll. The fat boy does not look comfortable during this and has the anxious expression of a child who is not sure if things are going to turn worse, but is outnumbered and kowtowed by older, bigger people. The scene is nothing like the murder aftermath, but the boy’s obvious anxiety makes the scene not about comedy, but about the true strangeness and chaotic nature of the Humpers.
The humourous aspect of the film does deserve a mention. Korine often talks about using comedy, especially old school vaudeville-style comedy, in his work. Jokes and the structure of jokes have played an important function in his work throughout his career. Trash Humpers is no exception. One of the characters, conjoined with another at the head by a stuffed pair of tights, delivers an old fashioned stand up routine and the humping of the Humpers is so ridiculous it is usually either funny ha-ha or funny-peculiar.
The Ultra Culture print out cites Jackass as a precursor to Trash Humpers and I think this is right. In particular there is a Jackass prank where Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze wear facial prosthetics to look old and then fall over in public. Sometimes they rap or break dance or display fake erections. All of these things could have happened in Trash Humpers, but the mood and humour is very different.
Part of that comes from the lack of punch lines – the lack of any release valve – in the humour. Another part is the degraded nature of the VHS which is exploited throughout. Visually it either looks hideous or beautiful. Light sources bleed across the tape and ordinary colours become sharp and intense, the shapes that contain them become blurred at the edges. The use of outmoded and/or very degraded reproduction technology is a hallmark of Korine’s work and could make one reasonably describe it as hauntological. In fact, when I first saw the inlay of Ariel Pink’s album The Doldrums (especially the inside back cover), my first thought was that it reminded me of Harmony Korine, in particular his art works.
One important point to make about this film is that – in the context of the 21st century – it is revolutionary because (like julien donkey-boy) it doesn’t have a conventional script. To get a film made a script is a necessity. This reliance on text is the reason why Peter Greenaway claims we have never had a cinema, only illustrated text. Harmony Korine has taken a big risk by making this film, as without a detailed dialogue script it would be impossible to finance it through the conventional channels. Not only that, but because of the deeply conservative nature of the film industry, this film almost disappeared after being shown at only a few festivals and the plans to release it on DVD have only just materialised, two years after it was made. That it took the film arms of record labels to get this film out should tell you something. To put the late arrival of the film in context, many films spend only a few weeks at the cinema before being released on DVD. This cannot be blamed solely on torrents. The film industry has been timid and conservative since the 90s. Like many areas of culture, the rot had already set in before the internet released cultural by-products from their former, inflated pricing structure.
Korine had already set Humpers up to disappear, to fail commercially. If the film never resurfaced after doing the rounds of festivals, its mythology would serve perfectly the status of a lost artefact. The in-cassette edits and lack of explanation as to who or what the Humpers are play into this concept of a hidden world. Throughout his career Korine has focused on unseen, roughly-hewn, backwards, forgotten and unpalatable elements of culture. From blackface to glue sniffers to albino rappers to black metal iconography to Macaully Culkin, the wrong and the gone are what fascinates him.
“I wanted to make something that was its own thing, with its own logic. It’s more like found footage, or an artifact. The kind of thing you could imagine being buried somewhere in a ditch, or floating down a river in a plastic bag”.
All of this gets lost in Ultra Cultures view of the film, even though the above quote featured in their print out. They want people to see this film, but they aren’t prepared to ask them to meet the film on its own terms. The problem with taking the fun-day-out style of Secret Cinema is that once you’ve treated people like children at a birthday party the most challenging form of culture they’re going to be able to cope with is Ghostbusters. Trying to trick people into thinking that Trash Humpers is just a bit wacky isn’t going to work. Trash Humpers is funny, but it’s also quite disturbing and unsettling. All that’s going to happen when you focus – for a full half an hour before the screening, no less – on the former at the expense of the latter is you’ll confuse the Secret Cinema crowd and annoy people who are interested in the film. Trash Humpers can’t fit into the simplistic idea of empty fun and for that alone it is worth your time. Just don’t expect a prize and a coke.