A film should, according to Godard, have a beginning, middle, and end (even if they aren’t in that particular order). I am, personally, a huge fan of this ideal. It is the careful structuring of a story that engages the audiences and whisks them away into the world of the characters.
I am willing to make allowances in certain cases: I would argue that many of John Cassavetes’ films lacked any coherent structure, and yet they still proved to be some of the most engaging, powerful, and dramatic explorations of character in the history of the cinema. But then, Cassavetes was exploring fascinating people that we can all engage with: a distraught husband who has lost the ability to reach out to his mentally-frail wife; an ageing actress who has lost the will to carry on; a strip-club owner who has forgotten why he loves the Sunset strip. Cassavetes uses improvisation, ad hoc camera-work, and fluid storylines to ensnare the audience and take them on a captivating journey into the world of his characters.
Harmony Korine has never been a stalwart of classical narrative structures, but the characters he chose to study were at least classical in their innate ability to encapsulate and create conflict. His first writing credit was on Larry Clark’s much-lauded debut feature, ‘Kids’ (1995). A film that felt a lot like Cassavetes’ character studies, ‘Kids’ helped blur the lines between feature filmmaking and the incisive, honest photo-journalism that made Larry Clark a household name in the early 1970s. While Korine’s script did loosely adhere to a narrative structure, it was clear that he was much more interested in exploring fragments of his characters lives, and building up a more layered, web-like understanding of the characters that would stick in the minds of the viewers, rather than simply forcing the viewer to empathise with the characters for 90-110 minutes before discarding them on the way home from the cinema.
Korine’s next project, which also constituted his directorial debut, was ‘Gummo’ (1997). ‘Gummo’ was the story of a group of teenagers stranded in a tornado-ravaged Ohio town; and it proved to be another successful experiment in non-linear storytelling. The barren, hopeless surroundings and the meaninglessness of the characters actions were perfectly reflected in the confused, episodic nature of the story.
I am therefore usually willing to align myself with Harmony Korine, despite my personal preference for traditional narrative storytelling. He has a rare ability to create fascinating characters, and expose the drama, conflict, and emotion at the heart of theses characters and their surroundings.
I must admit, however, that I was slightly more suspect than usual when I took my seat in the BFI Southbank this afternoon for the London Film Festival press screening of Korine’s latest film… ‘Trash Humpers’. The film follows a trio of geriatric perverts who butcher innocent people and teach a primary school student to crush a doll’s skull with a hammer.
While ‘Kids’, and even ‘Gummo’, had some semblance of narrative and traditional character arcs, ‘Trash Humpers’ is a helter-skelter, chaotic home video, seemingly shot by one of the very psychotic creatures we are watching. I can’t imagine Korine ever wants us to feel empathy for these people, nor does he seem to make any effort to explore them, or justify his decision to make a film about them. There is no semblance of realism in the film, and no attempt to make the film aesthetically attractive. But I cannot deny that I sat there, thoroughly engrossed, for the entire 78-minute running time.
The three main characters are not actually elderly, they are really young men and women dressed up in prosthetics. They closely resemble the Jackass crew in the sections of their feature-length films where they dressed up as old people to perform pranks on unwitting members of the public. I mention this connection not so much as a visual aid, but because it may explain why I noticed a dark humour and childish mischief in the film. The three characters are an unsettling mixture: the power and virility of young adults, mixed with the naïveté and irresponsibility of small children, all wrapped up in the decaying cadavers of the elderly.
Korine, in his director’s statement, explains that the characters were inspired by a group of, presumably homeless, elderly people who used to hang out under a bridge near his childhood home and hump trash cans while laughing and communicating in garbled noises. It is a testament to Korine’s odd artistic mind that he never let go of this childish memory. Many people would have adapted the memory every time they remembered it, slowly explaining away the mysteries until it was just another banal childhood experience. But Korine refused to explain this memory to himself; he preserved the thrilling mystery of it, and managed to transfer it onto video without losing the raw, almost horrifying childish simplicity of the memory.
These are people that only a child could imagine in a nightmare, but suddenly we are face to face with them, with only a cheap video camera to protect us. We are forced to mingle with them and listen to their gargling, screeching noises and destructive, irrational behaviour. Sometimes we are just standing next to them in a field while they hump, and masturbate, trees. But sometimes we find ourselves in a playground with them while they teach a child to strangle a doll with a plastic bag, or sitting at some warped house party where one of them has beaten a man to death and is standing in a pool of blood in the kitchen… laughing.
Korine has done a fantastic job of making the film look as cheap and shoddily made as possible: the whole film looks as if it has been edited in camera, and even the credits have been created in the cheapest possible video format. At no point from start to finish do we have cause to release ourselves from the illusion and gasp with relief that this really was just a stunt by one of the mavericks of American cinema.
The film never really employs any traditional conventions to illicit fear in us; but it is an unsettling concept and it shares with the horror genre that visceral, disgusted feeling that we get when we desperately want to escape from something but we cant run away. To quote Korine’s director’s statement again, “it is a new type of horror; palpable and raw.”