Jean-Luc Godard, that champion of auteur theory, opened his cataclysmic 1967 Weekend by slyly abdicating authorship: "A film adrift in the cosmos," read the first title card; "a film found on a scrap heap," read the second. Weekend was crime-scene evidence, a charred husk with which Godard prosecuted his case against cinema, himself, the audience. It concluded with a death sentence delivered in text: "fin de cinema. " Godard's faith had expired, but the universe continued to expand without him, while the scrap heap kept growing—and in high def to boot.
Guided by Weekend's fiery light, Harmony Korine—still best known for writing Kids as a teenager and directing Gummo soon after—journeyed to the garbage dump to sift through the shit that's piled up there since 1967, and he's returned with a souvenir of his own, a movie that might not even be a movie, if we are to believe its creator. As Korine explained to slashfilm.com earlier this year, Trash Humpers is "more like an artifact. I don't know—this is going for something else. It's not really meant to be watched like a film. I would be fine if it was projected into a toilet bowl. It makes no difference to me." Korine's ambivalence is almost revolutionary in a spec-obsessed film world of pore-plunging HD and nitpicking commentary tracks and told-you-so Twitter blasts from Kevin Smith, but it's also an epic cop-out: If Trash Humpers isn't meant to be watched like a movie, then it can't be reviewed like one, either. Korine 1, critics 0. However, you will be paying money to buy a ticket to sit in a theater to watch 80 minutes of moving images with a title card at the beginning and credits at the end. So let's call it a movie. Let's call it an awful movie—I wouldn't want this thing anywhere near my toilet bowl.
The title refers to a quartet of geriatric perverts (Korine and friends in nightmarish latex masks) who prowl Nashville's streets and alleys looking for Dumpsters to hump and plants to fellate and cross-dressing men to murder and fire hydrants to whisper sweet nothings to and corpulent hookers to spank. It's a shapeless document of sleaze; one can imagine it playing on a loop in a dark room that no one dares enter. Shot on old-school VHS to resemble a degraded home movie, the sole virtue of Korine's circus sideshow is the initial nostalgic rush of traveling back in time via wobbly tracking and tessellated night photography. It looks like a thrice-dubbed Faces of Death bootleg or a copy of Behind the Green Door that was stolen from some dad's sock drawer and played by so many horndog boys on so many humming VCRs that the tits and ass have been worn to fuzzy nubs. Might Trash Humpers be more effective as a samizdat curiosity or elusive detention-hall rumor? Probably. But that's an inaccessible context, a conceptual will-o'-the-wisp.
Korine might be "going for something else," but it's a terribly familiar something else, an art-school provocation (complete with a battered baby doll) culled from an especially pretentious video store clerk's "employee pick" shelf. The tactile surfaces and corpuscular decay recall E. Elias Merhige's hellish Begotten, the episodic body horror-cum-slapstick wanly echoes everything from Pink Flamingos to Jackass to Even Dwarfs Started Small, while the punk-rock scuzz plays cartoonishly tepid next to James Fotopoulos' Back Against the Wall. But the film Trash Humpers resembles most is Lars von Trier's The Idiots, in which middle-class pseudo-revolutionaries pretend to be retarded and "spazz out" in public to protest phony bourgeois concepts like civility and order and reason. Korine's humpers are the idiots in their senescence: still committed to abjection, filth and fucking shit up, but beyond politics and self-justification. They're existential antiheroes pissing into the abyss. "We choose to live like free people," says one wizened fiend near the end, and that seems to be the spirit in which Trash Humpers was conceived, but it feels more like exhaustion than liberation. Korine's just having his fin de cinema moment. Let him enjoy it—by himself.
opens Friday, June 18, at the Hollywood Theatre. Harmony Korine will appear at the 7:10 and 9:15 pm showings Saturday, June 19.