I'd like to take a little of your time to talk about Trash Humpers if I may. May I?
Even if you're not familiar with the film I don't think I'm spoiling anything by telling you that it's about people who hump trash and that's about it. Aging enfant terrible Harmony Korine, together with his wife and a few friends, donned old-person masks, ran around smashing light bulbs in parking lots, giving blowjobs to shrubs and dragged baby dolls behind bicycles. This juvenalia was filmed on what looks like VHS filtered through somebody's butt and called a movie.
The average critical response fell somewhere between exhausted disappointment and apoplexy. The Merc's Zach Pennington falls solidly into the first end of the spectrum asking Korine to grow the fuck up with the implication that it's probably not going to happen. Willamette Week's Chris Stamm is a little closer to the other side, accusing Korine of a "fin de cinema moment" that fails on every level.
Many fans, of course, have a drastically different view of the same movie. A commenter named Blasphemer wrote on Zach's review:
Saw this Sat night, the 7:10pm show with the charming Mr. Korine in attendance (Gus Van Sant was also there, sitting 2 rows in front of me, incognito in a red flannel!). 'Trash Humpers' is an amazing document of today's ghoulish society! Korine is the Luis Buñuel of our times!! Zac Pennington: you are a fucking moron.
And so it has gone with every film Korine has released since Gummo. The same debate happens over and over again with Korine labeled the arch-poseur of cinema by one side and film's last great artist by the other. I want to put my two cents in (after the jump).
From where I'm sitting now and from where I was sitting at the Trash Humpers screening (that's right — only seats away from Gus Van Sant, incognito in a red flannel!) it seems that both sides are paradoxically over- and under-thinking what Korine has always been doing. During the Trash Humpers Q&A with Willamette Week critic and lamb-to-the-slaughter Aaron Mesh, Korine stonewalled every attempt to inject sub-textual meaning into what he had made. He and his wife humped trash and beat up dolls because “it seemed like the thing to do”. Why force-feed men pancakes covered in dish soap? Why not? Why shoot firecrackers off a pedestrian bridge onto a busy freeway? Same reason.
And it wouldn't have been a Harmony Korine production without audience grumblings about exploitation concerning the obviously mentally ill people Korine unflinchingly films jabbering nonsense and banging on guitars. This accusation has never stuck for me. To say that Korine is exploiting these people seems to inject too much intent into what he's doing. I think it's more accurate to say that Korine is filming the mentally ill because he felt like it and that's where the thinking stops.
There is little as irritating to critics and fans alike as meaninglessness. It is ingrained cultural wisdom that the good movies we see — at least the good “art-house” movies we see — have meaning greater than the sum of their parts. Many people who enjoyed the enigma of Gummo felt cheated with Korine's casual admittance that the ever-present boy in bunny ears in that movie existed solely because the director liked the way it looked. Again and again Korine rejects any view of the movies beyond “it is what it is.”
This puts Korine in an interesting position. Is it cheating for an artist to insist that their body of work means nothing more than it is or is that actually a truth that critics and fans feel uncomfortable accepting? Would admirers of Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" take the piece differently if the artist had eschewed ambiguity and stated that it was merely a sideways urinal? Would the piece mean any less?
All I know is that I didn't feel cheated when I saw Trash Humpers. I paid to see people humping trash and that experience was really all I got out of it, for better or worse.
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