By J. Hoberman
Harmony Korine, aging enfant terrible and self-proclaimed "most American" of American indies, finds his level and brings it home to Nashville with the gloriously desultory slap in the face of public taste, Trash Humpers.
Korine has proposed the film as a VHS tape found in a ditch. Most simply described, this quasi-underground, midnight-friendly, faux-primitive "artifact" documents a trio of fake geriatric bohos, outfitted in thrift-store finery with faces frozen by transparent wrinkle masks, engaging in all manner of antisocial behavior—smashing TV sets, torturing dolls, pouring dish soap on a stack of pancakes, and, most frequently, lasciviously grinding their groins against back-alley garbage bins. Often performed in wheelchairs, these activities are interspersed with the trio's idiot cackles, singsong slogans ("Make it, make it—don't fake it"), and doggerel chants about "three little devils [who] jumped over the wall, chopped off their heads, and murdered them all."
Acting badly merges with bad acting, especially after Trash Humpers turns into a succession of vaudeville acts: Guest performers, including the filmmaker, entertain the three desiccated devils by using sock puppets to stage the story of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, or holding forth on the advantages to life without a head. The opposite of Korine's relatively posh, celeb-impersonator snooze, Mr. Lonely, Trash Humpers suggests a cretinous remake of John Water's Pink Flamingos or perhaps a musical created by the brain-eaters from the original Night of the Living Dead—and, like Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, compounds its sins by pulverizing the rules of "normal" filmmaking. The cruddy video image, already oscillating between smudgy black-and-white and unstable color, is further degraded by bar rolls, drop out, skewed tracking, and stray "play" commands—and then perversely exalted by being transferred to 35mm.
A spectacle to be watched in a wino stupor (even if it did have its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival), Trash Humpers is funny from the get-go; the joke expires after 20 minutes, around the time that three hookers, having already been rhythmically spanked, serenade the three devils with a toneless version of "Silent Night." The movie, however, continues for another hour of inane nursery rhymes, mock splatter interludes, documentary dog-teasing, and, signaling Trash Humpers' direction, a succession of unfunny "hate" jokes programmatically sans punch line. It lasts too long, if not long enough to send the viewer muttering into the street.
Sign of the times: Trash Humpers is all about free expression, but Korine's transgressions seem a lot less expansive and liberating than Waters or Smith's did back during the invention of identity politics. Flaming Creatures and Pink Flamingos bracketed the existence of a counterculture; Trash Humpers appears long after that counterculture's demise, in a context where the exercise of freedom itself has become a crabbed and paltry act. (Would that the Tea Party scolds really were flaming tea-baggers!) Rather than self-actualizing, libidinal ecstasy, Trash Humpers projects a cranky resignation to the world as it is; still, it's picturesque.
The outskirts of Nashville might as well be the ruins of a vast mental hospital, with former inmates wandering through its deserted dumps and dead-end streets. As bucolic as the image of a discarded toilet reposing in a field of weeds, Trash Humpers revels in the melancholy beauty of random photographic reproduction—a pair of pink stretch pants illuminating the debris in an overgrown shed or, lit from within, the blue awning that adorns a featureless concrete slab. It's ultimately less a celebration of impulse behavior than a celebration of the parodic impulse to record.