From the disconcertingly funny, weirdo Americana of “Gummo” to the vaudevillian drama of a celebrity-impersonator commune in “Mister Lonely,” the beautifully grotesque films of indie auteur Harmony Korine always become, without fail, cult treasures that get audiences talking. Whether you think his is the work of an insincere hipster or an eccentric provocateur, you can’t deny his originality, especially in his scuzzy, unsettling new curiosity “Trash Humpers.” If we’re laughing, can we call it a comedy?
Possibly, although his latest won the top prize at last year’s prestigious CPH:DOX (yes, an international documentary festival), and even the filmmaker himself doesn’t exactly consider the project a movie. A seemingly elderly, or deeply facially scarred, quartet of cretins (played, in part, by Korine and his wife Rachel) terrorize a suburban wasteland of parking lots, alleyways and apartment complexes, boozing and demolishing and, occasionally, dry-humping garbage. Shot with antiquated VHS equipment, “Trash Humpers” is a highly entertaining art prank from either the gutter or outer space. I phoned Korine to discuss the film, but only got his voicemail. Minutes later, he called back in the middle of a covert mission, apparently while the coast was clear.
You sound distracted. Is this an okay time to chat?
Yeah, sorry. I may have to talk a little low. I’ve been doing this, like, stakeout for the past ten days. I think I’m very close to catching this guy.
Who are you staking out?
A couple weeks ago, there was a guy released from jail in my neighborhood. He definitely seems like the kind of guy you wouldn’t want living on your street. He would ride his bicycle up and down, and throw lemons and stuff in people’s yards for no reason. And then, we had a small statue that I got from an auction. Do you know who Baden-Powell is?
Sure, the founder of the Boy Scouts.
Yeah. There was a statue he made, and I had been trying to get it for a long time. We had it in a flower garden in the front of the house. This guy was staring at it… Sorry I’m whispering, I’m trying not to let anyone hear me… So, I thought this guy just wanted to do some garden work. Then we saw him steal the statue. I didn’t know his name, so I asked around. Anyway, I think we’ve found his house. We’ve just been sitting outside, waiting to see what happens. I have two taser guns with me.
How long have you been waiting for him to come out?
We first found his house a little over a week ago, and we spent last night out here. I’ve seen him a few times, and I think it’s in his shed. My friend Lamont tried to get in through the ceiling, but it didn’t work because we didn’t have the right tools.
Are you positive you’re in the right place?
I have a feeling. A gym coach I had in junior high school lives on this street, and he definitely knows more about what goes on than anyone else. He tipped us off. It would be terrible if this wasn’t the right guy and we wasted all this time.
Good luck. So let’s talk “Trash Humpers.” If you don’t consider it to be a movie, what exactly is it?
It’s maybe a movie in that it’ll eventually be projected on a screen, and released as a movie. But it was never conceived of as narrative filmmaking in the traditional sense. It was meant to be a found object, like a VHS tape or an artifact, something you could imagine being thrown away, buried in a ditch, floating down a river in a Ziploc bag, or nestled away in your granny’s panty jar. Something that’s more unearthed. The kind of thing you could imagine being buried in the colon of a racehorse.
Did you always imagine it being feature length?
Originally, it started out as photographs. I would dress up one of my assistants, who would go out late at night. We made these papier-mâché masks that resembled a burnt marshmallow. The facial features were like extreme burn victims. We would have him go fornicate with trash, defecate on people’s doorsteps and smash things, just terrorize the neighborhood. I’d photograph him doing this, and used only the absolute worst cameras, technology, developing and technique. The images looked crude and vile. There was something interesting there, maybe some kind of film. That’s how we decided to make a movie that replicated an old VHS tape.
If these depraved oddballs were real, where do you think they came from?
I don’t really know. That’s a good question. Like [it was] said in that one speech, they’ve been here for a long time. I feel like they’ve always been there, like, the American shapeshifter. They’re shadow people who live under bridges, and out in the woods or underpasses, and down roads that no one goes down. They’re the type of people that dance late at night in abandoned parking lots, whose hobby it is to smash fluorescent bulbs. Maybe they exist in the atmosphere.