“It’s all just one long game,” rants a demonic reprobate in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, which screens at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1.That’s actually Korine talking, under the guise of a monstrous geezer— one of several populating this hauntingly immersive, knowingly fragmented work— as he unleashes a detailed rant on suburban domesticity. At this point, it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Korine’s eccentric output that he plays by his own rules. After Larry Clark discovered him skateboarding in Washington Square Park at age 19 and hired him to write the breakout sex drama Kids, Korine went down a chaotic path of media overexposure, emerged as a major radical artist and provocateur, then promptly flamed out. But his strongest tendencies stuck around when he reemerged.
Korine’s first two directorial efforts, Gummo and Julien-Donkey Boy, sympathized with social pariahs and emphasized morbid imagery. But then came the arrival of an older, happier Korine with the gentler, life-affirming Mister Lonely in 2007.
The movie follows a depressed Michael Jackson impersonator whose life turns around when he encounters a commune populated by other costume-wearing recluses. Trash Humpers also features masked outcasts, but they bear a much darker presence. Predominantly shot on VHS and edited with VCRs, the movie cycles through the lives of these elderly-looking creatures as they engage in twisted versions of leisurely activities: Singing, dancing and, yes, fucking garbage (or “fornicating trash,” as an enthusiastic humper puts it at one point), they appear to embody Korine’s darkest fears and deepest aesthetic interests at once.
When I sat down with Korine last week before the world premiere of Trash Humpers—which he shot on a whim four months ago—at the Toronto International Film Festival, he hadn’t done any interviews about it yet, and admitted that he wasn’t quite sure how to express his intentions. So we hammered it out together.
New York Press: It sounds like you reacted to a few sources of inspiration here.
Harmony Korine: There’s a law in Nashville that everybody has to put their garbage dumpsters in these specific alleys. Sometimes, I would dream about these garbage bins, or I would look at these garbage bins and some of them had fallen over or propped against a tree. There was something vaguely human about them. Then I started thinking about when I was a kid, and I saw a group of old people that were like peeping toms. It just brought back a lot of memories. I was thinking, ‘It would be interesting if these trash cans looked human,’ and then…these people started humping on them.
There are a few startlingly effective monologues in the movie. Did you script any of the dialogue?
I wanted to make something that was more like an artifact, something that was found or unearthed. I just wrote down a series of loose scenes, but there was no written dialogue. I figured out how to do it in a stealthy way. Once we started shooting, it took on its own logic. By the time it was shot, it was done. The experience was as close to free-form improvised painting as film making can get. We were moving as quickly as we could think it. Once I figured out the characters, I did a lot of tests beforehand, going to these locations with people in costumes late at night and taking photos. I was just exploring certain ideas. I would look at these photos I’d taken, and this lo-fi footage—there was something haunting about it. Everyone’s always looking for the most pixels, the greatest beauty. I thought, ‘Maybe it would be nice to use the absolute worst.’
Any cinematic influences?
The only movie that I was actually thinking about as a reference was the William Eggleston movie Stranded in Canton. It has this liquid home movie photography and an accidental narrative. He just walked around filming his friends in black and white video. It’s very fluid.
Once you had the look of the movie, how did you work out the narrative?
It’s a universe where people only do bad things. They enjoy killing, fucking and burning, but they do it in ways there are transcendent, poetic. They take sadism to a new level, turning it into an art form. They suck out of the goodness until it’s just true horror.
We’re watching crazy people do crazy things, but the images are less disturbing than bizarre and poetic.
To me, the most beautiful thing in the world is an abandoned parking lot and a soiled sofa on the edge of the parking lot with a street lamp off to the side. America seems like a series of abandoned parking lots, streetlights and abandoned sofas.
Throughout the movie, we hear you chanting, “Make it! Make it! Don’t take it!” What’s up with that?
I knew this guy who was in a cast for six months, but he kept lifting weights with his left arm. When he got his cast off, his right arm was like a twig, but his left arm was insanely muscular. I could never get that out of my mind. He would sit there coaching basketball and go, ‘Make it! Make it! Don’t take it!’ But sometimes he would do it with his strong arm, and sometimes with his twig arm. I never forgot that.
In contrast to so-called “torture porn” horror, you don’t glorify the violence in Trash Humpers, but you do seem to appreciate the perpetrators of it.
It’s kind of like an ode to vandalism. There can be a creative beauty in their mayhem and destruction. You could say these characters are poets or mystics of mayhem and murder, bubbling up to the surface. They do horrible things, but I never viewed them as sad characters. They’re comedic, with a vaudevillian horror element to what they do. They dance as they smash things and set them on fire. They’re having a great time.