Headless Humpers

Trash Humpers

Harmony Korine 2009

I’ve been interested in Korine’s output for a while now, although I’ve yet to see Gummo or Mister Lonely, starting out from Kids (I soon found that Larry Clark bored me when I saw Ken Park) and then enjoying parts of the book he published with Faber a few years later. As far as I remember, I watched Julien Donkey-Boy (that John Barth piss take title always causing me to chuckle) alone one afternoon in Barcelona – an empty, one-off screening in a makeshift cinema off Las Ramblas. As usual with Korine’s work, my reaction then was ambivalent, anxious, yet definitely not unaffected. His films are certainly powerful, usually an infectious stew, both visually and emotionally, mixing high and low, gristle and gump. In my memory, Julien… had near-psychedelic colour washes, patterns all lost to anchor, with some sequences having been shot from the centre of the main character’s chest, the camera view wildly gyrating as it looks back up into his face – as if you were being physically pressed into identifying with the tenor of his schizophrenia. Even then Korine’s work was concerned with the effects of poverty and dysfunction, bringing social outcasts centre frame, exposing the abnormalities of family life, as well as mental disorders. Supposed madnesses can reveal themselves as being the last products of logic. I recall Herzog playing the father, commanding scenes with a garden hose. Thinking back that film made me a little drunk, more than you would realise immediately, as if it had seeped a toxin into the body, such that when you emerged into the bright sun you felt as though you’d been up for five days – banalities became hallucinogenic, everything else an absurd meat for the mill. All good stuff.

Anyway, so I was looking forward to watching Trash Humpers last night, and wanted to try and write something about it quickly, so here goes. The film follows a group of four people (at least the main gang are four) over a period of a few days (and it seems clear that what we witness are everyday activities – this is the way they are, it is not some ‘bender’ we’re seeing). There are three men, two of them bald and one with a wig/glasses get up that makes him look a little like Jim Jones, and a woman with a purple hairpiece. Their facial features are striking and horrific: they look like corpses, with grey, wrinkled skin and retracted eyes. Their figures, however, reveal them as clearly younger people. Although the movie is presented as if the characters were filming themselves, it is clear that the actors are wearing heavy make up and facial prosthetics to make them look like this: unstable and disturbing crossovers between the young and the elderly, an appearance which feeds right into their strangely demonic and ageless behaviour.

A series of disconnected fragments are edited together, following only the barest narrative scheme. Scenes jump from one to another: the Trash Humpers do just that, dry humping dustbins, as well as anything else they set the minds to – trees, fences, hydrants, etc. They go about smashing things up, running riot, lingering in public (yet neglected) spaces, as well as returning home to a house shared with other marginal and eccentric figures. For the most part the effect is that of transporting you into the mayhem of a drunken night, but one that begins to get carried over into something else, something out of control. There are prolonged, repetitious outbursts of vandalism and casual violence, interspersed with moments of quietude and sleep, general bullshit, wildness, provocations and so on. It is something like the aimless destruction of bored teenagers, but here presented as an all-encompassing mode of being, as if these figures existed without constraint or restraint, free to do what they want. The more the film goes on in this way, the more you get used to the rhythms of their lives, subject only to whim, seemingly without threat or danger. Korine appears to capture and consider these actions tenderly, framing them as near-ritualistic acts or performances of significance worthy of celebration. There are many emblematic images of these scenes of destruction, where the choreography might just as well refer to A Clockwork Orange as much as Korine’s stated inspiration of William Egglestone’s Stranded in Canton. We follow the almost feral actions of the Trash Humpers, as if we were part of the gang, being shown a personal compilation of home videos compiled onto one tape. Korine’s use of VHS is telling here, and perfectly suited. The screen regularly splits into bands of interference, including the appearance of text prompts, and the beautifully grainy analogue images pulsate with variegated colour. My appreciation of this aesthetic might be something to do with me being part of a generation that grew up with videotape, being familiar with the particular kinds of degeneration its images can suffer either from overuse, constant re-recording, cross-edits and malfunctions. Throughout Trash Humpers there is a sense that an underlying chaos of fuzz and snow could reclaim the screen at any moment, seeping in at every edit or even slightest imperfection on the tape surface. When pictures do emerge from such old videotapes, they posses a unique kind of fragility which I think, together with the obviously technologically-generated texture, exactly suits what Korine is doing.

But who are these figures? Are the Trash Humpers a gang or some kind of family unit? Are any of them siblings or are they a collective of burn victims (as is alluded to later on in the film, when a friend announces, together with a trumpet call, a vague opportunity for their redemption)? They certainly come across as a nightmarish vision of extreme characters, ones you would not want to meet, and one supposes a playful indication of where a society that worships ‘trash culture’ might be heading. But the subtleties of this black joke are entirely clear, as the portrayal of these racist, homophobic savants may well be a poke at redneck ignorance or a celebration of downtrodden freakery. As in other works, the influence of Herzog is pretty clear (as well as von Trier), but Korine’s view is specifically American in a way that Herzog’s American features are not. Korine has stated how the American landscape is a crucial element to this film and they are certainly imbued with a whole range of emotional qualities, from urban pastoral, decay and desolation to the eruption of unexpected natural beauty. Flashes of a neon sunset appear like unheralded gifts, contrasted by chandelier flares hanging from streetlamps, blank scenes of roadside junk caught in the magic hour. Korine seems keen to emphasise, especially in a late sequence linking architectural facades and unpopulated spaces, that the perfect arenas for these disturbing people and the acts they perform, exist all around us. Everywhere, everyday, there are early morning car parks, there are puddle-ridden industrial wastes, there are back roads, alleys, and so on… And if these spaces are here, largely ignored, these figures are among us too, ignored to the extent that we may as well have become them ourselves.

As the film progresses, the Trash Humper’s unrestrained lives spiral out of control. Korine manages to convincingly transport you from the patterns of delinquency into those of something more sinister, as actions become more and more extreme. The increasing violence has already been prefigured by simulations, including the torture of dolls and teasing, before moving into scenarios of genuine torture on other people. A transition point comes soon after a scene where a poet, dressed as a French maid, offers the clearest indication of who these figures are (but for whom?) in a drunken, crashed out scene on a late night overpass. The Trash Humpers are labelled as the symptoms of a human disease, worthy of pity as they are “spawned by our greed” and “bought with our cash”, suggesting that the film might just be a rant against materialism. We quickly cut to the poet having been killed with a hammer in the Trash Humper’s kitchen. The doll torture also serves to set up the shock of the last sequence, where two of the gang break into a house and steal a real baby. The tension as to what they might do to the child is palpable, and the fact that they do not harm it and in fact seem to care for it, is in a strange way a relief and a disaster – as if these figures, for all the destruction they can unleash, were not necessarily self-destructive. They know how to survive, how to endure. The way in which these scenes are shot again betrays the affection that Korine has for his creations. Underneath a single street lamp, the ‘mother’ and child are bathed in light, in the centre of an oddly moving tableau.

Still, if this is supposed to indicate some kind of visitation from a society to come, if this is what the future holds for American dreams and nightmares, what should be made of this? The degeneracy of trash worship might be an easy thing to set up as a one-liner, but then what is trash culture? Who decides what is trash and what isn’t? Something about this uncertainty of how these figures are positioned (as regards to today’s disenfranchised, the poor and powerless, etc.) comes across in the scenes where the Trash Humpers interact with other, secondary characters (non-actors, perhaps unaware they are being filmed?). One example comes when a worker in a railway yard is encountered, describing how he has been struck by trains on more than one occasion. The implication seems to be that there is an affinity between him, his way of life or outlook, and that of the Trash Humpers – which is then undercut when the gang become quietened, almost shocked, when the man starts to dance and make the sound of a train whistle – as if he were crazier than they were. I’m still not sure about much of this. Obviously it’s not a great idea to try to enforce specific readings on this kind of film, but I did wonder if there were a more subtle swipe being made at the middle classes or middle America, given the fact that the Humpers seemed to be relatively comfortable in their lives. They had no restrictions to them, as they made their own entertainment. They could afford a modern car, to book a trio of prostitutes, and to live in and keep up a clean apartment. The scenes in the apartment were interesting for other reasons, especially the interactions of people living together without social borders or limits on their behaviour towards others. It reminded me of a few films I saw at the Serpentine Gallery a few years ago, made by the artist Luke Fowler: What you see is where you’re at (2001) and The Nine Monads of David Bell (2006). These films staged pseudo-documentary investigations into the lives of residents at Kingsley Hall, a London refuge set up by psychiatrist R. D. Laing in the mid-sixties. The refuge was part of an experiment that aimed to provide an alternative model for the treatment of mental disorders and schizophrenia. Both residents and therapists lived communally, in an environment free from drug treatments, breaking down the traditional hierarchy of doctor-patient relationships. The unsettling chaos of Kingsley Hall was echoed for me in the scenes where the Humpers make pancakes, the farce punctured by mantras revealing their attitudes to what they view as the phony superficialities of other people’s lives – “Make it don’t fake it!” – as if it were only within the ‘asylum’ that genuine, primal action could be tapped into.

Another interesting scene took place in the apartment. One of the other minor characters, who appeared to form a kind of double-act with another man (they were both dressed in patient’s robes, open at the back, and were ‘attached’ with a length of stocking between their tops of their heads, like Siamese twins). In heavy contrast, we see one of these figures start to give a speech concerning what it would be like to live without a head.

Immediately there were connections, considering the nature of the gang, with Georges Bataille and the Acéphale review (1936-1939). Bataille and his secret society called for ‘headlessness’, not only as a possibility for man to escape his thoughts, but a model of an organisation of existence in which hierarchy is rejected and overseeing authority is abandoned. And what is the Humper’s existence if not unauthorised, their crowd being “chief-less” and without rule? But in living without a head, they also live without reason or sympathy, without protection of law. And where Bataille convened Acéphale meetings in night time forests, emphasising the necessity to “become different or cease to be”, the Trash Humpers are all half-asleep in the basement, not listening to this evocation of a possible philosophy, not listening to any wild or speculative justifications for what they are or what they do. It’s no doubt the case that they would simply not acknowledge such things and do not need them. But there could be a decent description of the Humper’s in Bataille’s text The Sacred Conspiracy, where he writes: “Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison, he has found beyond himself not God, who is prohibition against crime, but a being who is unaware of prohibition. Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless; this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime.” This mixture of innocence and criminality is perhaps what Korine wanted to preserve and I think he is mostly successful at this. At least he should be commended for maintaining the coherence of the dark vision, prolonging the tone of the dream until the last minute. The emotional image that burns through is undecided, strangely unsatisfying – these monsters are also children, and there is no clue as to what to do with them.

For all that, for me it was in the rare moments when characters spoke directly that let the film was let down slightly, as it seemed an unnecessary step for Korine to make. Although there are recurring fragments of a cappella song, often coming from behind the camera as a voiceover [“O Mr Devil, you surely love me,” “Three little devils jumped over the wall…”], this surreal, vaudevillian commentary becomes deflated when the camera is addressed and a justification given for what’s been happening (is this the director’s?). When driving along a residential street, the character with the wig and glasses (played by Korine) speaks about “smelling the pain” of the people locked into conventional lives – declaiming it “a stupid way to live” – before going on to claim that the Trash Humpers are free people who choose to live “one long game”, one that he “expects we’ll win.” Of course, we might believe him – for he’s not talking about some direct conflict, but the inevitable endgame of a culture determined to swallow all the ‘trash’ that is served to it – if we knew exactly what trash was or the limitations of our ability to resist it or transform it into art.