Harmony Korine's latest work — a seemingly unformed assemblage of scenes featuring people in garish old-person masks roaming the streets of Nashville at night, humping trash bins and causing other kinds of demented and surreal destruction, shot on VHS — isn’t going to win the filmmaker many new friends. But Trash Humpers might just be the most fully realized, assured film he's ever made — surprisingly funny and almost hypnotic for its 78 minutes of pixilated, perplexing chaos. And for all its attempts at randomness, something almost optimistic and sweet emerges from these bizarre characters’ collective insanity. In a sense, it’s also a kind of capsule for Korine’s own career, which has ripped asunder audiences and critics with its unapologetic wallows in the dark, surreal side of American life. The director spoke to Vulture last week about the inspiration for Humpers, and how, for all its bleakness and horror, it might be one of the more optimistic films he’s made.
You introduced the New York Film Festival screening of Trash Humpers by warning the audience that if they had a tendency to walk out of films, that they should do so right now. Did you stay through the screening to see if anyone walked out?
I couldn’t stay through the screening, because we brought a little baby with us, and we had to get her back home. I want to give people a heads up because I don’t want to damage anyone. It’s also why I gave the film such a literal title. This is the only film I’ve made where I wanted to give people a bit of a warning.
But at the same time you’ve described it as a “found object,” and found objects almost never come with warnings. You just kind of happen upon them, unexpectedly.
That’s a good point. Maybe I should’ve just called the film Cassette Tape or something.
Or maybe pretend like the print of your film got lost and that you were going to project this random old tape you found instead.
I thought of doing that, actually. Then the few people I showed it to told me that there’s no way anyone would believe I didn’t make it. We thought of not putting titles or anything at all on the film. There was even a conversation at one point about just making a bunch of copies and leaving them on the sidewalk somewhere, and seeing what would happen. Leave it in front of some restaurant or an old person’s retirement home or a police station or something. But I just didn’t have the patience or the trust for something like that.
And for all that, the film does have some narrative shape. It progresses through these random bits of humping and destruction, and we get things that look like scenes, with characters coming in and out, and there’s a very touching, quiet and strange coda at the end, with one of the female trash-humpers and her baby.
There is definitely a kind of narrative there. It’s a collection of moments that builds up to something. The order of events is basically the order in which they were filmed. Each day I felt that something organic was emerging from what we were doing. We would just walk around and sleep under bridges or behind a strip mall somewhere. We’d get these big tractor tires, and make a nest to sleep in. Then we’d go around and film what we did. That end scene with the baby felt like a natural ending — almost like we had said all there was to say. We had burnt and we had destroyed and we had fucked and we had ravaged everything there was, and now this was what was left.
Trash Humpers seems like the darkest film you’ve ever made, but it also has an optimistic quality at the end. How has fatherhood changed you?
I really have no clue. She’s only ten months old. It definitely makes you wake up earlier and gives you something extra to love. But I don’t see how you can have something like that happen and not be changed.
So where did you get the idea for Trash Humpers?
I would walk my dog at night back behind the alleyways in the neighborhood where I live in Nashville. And sometimes I would see these trash bins propped up against garages or lying on the ground. These overhead lights would be shining on them, giving them a real dramatic effect. The trash bins began to resemble human forms to me — almost like a war zone where the trash bins had been molested and beaten up and stuff. Sometimes, the way they were propped, they looked very humpable. Then I remembered that in my neighborhood growing up, there were these elderly peeping toms who would stare into my neighbor’s window. They lived in an old person’s home down the road, and they would come out at night. And I just put these ideas together.
The film reminded me a bit of Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small, which is basically just about a group of crazy dwarves causing total mayhem for an hour and a half.
I do love that movie. It’s one of my favorite films. But there wasn’t a conscious effort to think of any other movies when I made this. I really wanted to stay true to the idea of a found tape, and to mimic that. I think maybe the closest thing stylistically is Stranded in Canton, that William Eggleston home movie — mainly because it is a home movie.
At the same time, for all the awfulness that’s on display, there’s also a utopian quality to what we’re seeing. The trash-humpers live in their own idealized world. It seems ugly to us, but they’re living on their own terms.
I have a real deep love and admiration for these characters. Not for what they do, but for the way they do it. It’s an ode to vandalism and the creativity of the destructive force. Sometimes there’s a real beauty to blowing things up, to smashing and burning. It could be almost as enlightening as the building of an object. I wanted these characters to almost be like artists — artists of bad. Like they transcend vandalism and turn it into something creative, and they do it with such glee. There’s no sense of morality in the film, they just do whatever they want.
I gather you didn’t have an organized shoot with permits and things. Did you have any run-ins with bystanders or with cops while making the film?
Not really. We went into this expecting a lot more trouble than there was. But I was really surprised by how accepting and isolated people are. They just don’t notice or care anymore. The humpers would be humping these trash bins at night and the owner of the house would come out and ask us if we wanted the spotlight turned on. I feel like sometimes it’d be easier to get away with murder nowadays than ever before.
VHS really seems like the perfect medium for this film. The fuzziness of the image makes you question what you’re seeing, to some extent. I don’t think this would work in any other medium — not film or DV or anything like that.
I grew up in the age of VHS. I remember getting my first camera and reusing the tape over and over again. There was just something strange about taping over things over and over again, and then little images and moments coming back for a second or two when you watched the tape. There’s this obsession nowadays with technology and with the fact that everything looks so clear. Everything needs to be so high-definition. There was a strange beauty in the analog. You almost have to squint to see things through the grain and the mist. There’s something sinister about it.
How exactly does one edit a movie like this? I’m trying to imagine you sitting there, saying, “Okay, let’s cut two humps out of this sequence.”
I was very concerned with not making this work like a traditional movie. In traditional story structure, you’d have a scene starting in a certain place and ending in a certain place. And you’d have a breath at the beginning and at the end. I didn’t want that. It needed to approximate a randomness. We were cutting a lot on two VCRs, sometimes blindfolded. So we’d cut in and out of scenes seemingly without reason. I wanted a kind of an incidental awkwardness, like maybe the guy taping it had turned it off and on.
Was any of this film a response to the experience of shooting Mister Lonely, which had the biggest budget and the best-known cast you’ve worked with to date?
It was definitely a reaction to how horrible it was putting Mister Lonely together. The creative process on that film was wonderful, but everything surrounding it was stifling — the bureaucracy, the financing, the scheduling, etc. It’s like you were just talking the film away. I always wanted to make films as fast as it took to think them up, almost like you could just put up a canvas and start working.