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Harmony Korine

Depending who you ask, Harmony Korine is either one of the boldest filmmakers currently working, or a transparent fraud, gulling the soft-minded and pretentious into taking him seriously. Even by the standards of past provocations like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, his new Trash Humpers has raised the pitch on both sides of the aisle. Following a group of aimless miscreants in old-people masks around an unidentified city (Nashville, Korine’s current hometown), the movie is aggressively plotless, focused on random acts of aggression and unexplained outbursts that include fornicating with garbage cans and fellating dead tree limbs. Making matters more unpleasant, the whole thing is captured on old-school VHS, whose smeared colors and smudgy resolution make for a perverse kind of beauty. Fittingly, Korine’s movie is being released outside traditional channels, as the first foray into film by Chicago indie-rock label Drag City. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Korine about the movie’s “artists of mayhem” and his frustration with people who think art needs a point.

The A.V. Club: During the Q&A after the Toronto première of Trash Humpers, someone in the audience asked “What was the point of that movie?” You responded, “What is the point of your hat?” Do you feel any need to explain the film?

Harmony Korine: I don’t know. I’ve always got questions like that with all the films I make. I never feel like there’s any one point to the film, to anything, to any of the movies I’ve made. This one, it’s everything and nothing. It’s like, “What’s the point to life?” “What’s the narrative thread in a home movie?” It’s a collection of moments. Maybe it’s not even a real movie in the traditional sense. Maybe it’s something else. It’s its own thing. It’s hard to say, exactly. I don’t really know what’s the point. It’s like, what’s the point of a photograph? Sometimes I can try and make something up, but I think it’s better just to… it’s an experience.

AVC: Christo, the artist who did The Gates in New York, would tell people who asked the point of his installations, “There is no point. It’s art.”

HK: Yeah, I don’t understand what everybody’s obsession with “the point” was. Everything has to have some kind of a point for people to breathe easy. What’s the point of life? I have no clue, but sometimes there are things that just attract us and pull us in a certain way. Like you say, it’s art. It is what it is.

AVC: The film has a very unstructured feel, but a handful of the monologues feel substantially more written. Was that the case, and how did you decide where to place them?

HK: It was kind of a combination, because it was filmed in a way where we just spent a couple of weeks with the characters, roaming parking lots and strip malls and under bridges, and we’d sleep out in abandoned tractor tires and stuff. We would just kind of wake up in the morning, walk around and film things. I had a rough outline in my mind of what kind of activities and types of places I thought would be good to vandalize, a loose kind of story. And then I broke them up into days. The days are almost like chapters. Basically, in the movie, everything is as it was. I wasn’t cutting scenes. It was more just selecting kind of moments. We didn’t rearrange anything. It’s in the exact order that it was shot.

Usually with those monologues, I would have them at a point that I just felt naturally the story needed some kind of anchor. That play the conjoined twins put on was something I wrote when I was 18. It was called Mac and Plaque: The Wonder Twins Deactivator. It was about one twin brother named Mac because his favorite car was a Camaro, and “Cam” spelled backward is “Mac.” The other one was Plaque because he was born with one fully grown tooth, which was dirty. It was about how much they liked each other. I found the play in my attic or something, and I thought there were one or two kind of interesting, funny scenes. And I just thought that was something—that speech he gives about how great it would be to live without a head. The speech the hermit gives at the end in the car, that was just kind of made-up and spontaneous. That was in the moment. You could feel as we went. If it felt natural, if it felt like something the characters would say at that moment, then we would do it. 

AVC: Some people really dislike the film, and feel its only point is for you to further the image of yourself as a transgressive artist. But at the end of the movie, when your character is driving around at night, you give him a monologue that lays out the movie’s themes in a fairly straightforward fashion.

HK: That’s as close as it gets to what I would consider an explanation of the film. Yes, they are kind of artists of mayhem. They transcend evil in this way that almost makes it into an art form, or elevates it. They find beauty in destructive behavior, and they do these horrible things—lie, murder, defecate, and hump things. They repeat them over and over. It becomes part of their vocabulary.

AVC: You commented on finding beauty in destruction, which speaks to the visual look of the film. Not only is it shot on old, low-grade VHS tape, but it looks as if it was edited using two VCRs daisy-chained together. 

HK: That’s basically what happened. I had an editor that I worked with, a young guy. He was 75 percent blind in both eyes. We would sit there. We had a stack of VCRs. It was really hot where we were. We would play around and put pencils into the tracking. We became obsessed with this natural glitching that would happen. That’s how it was done. I felt like to do it any other way except to shoot it on VHS and edit it with VCRs would be a betrayal of the concept.

AVC: People of a certain age may actually feel a twinge of nostalgia when the “Auto Tracking” indicator pops up in the screen.

HK: When I had my first camera—I was a child of the ’80s. I remember what it was like reusing the same tapes over and over again, and having really bad quality and images kind of bubbling up from under the surface. I wanted to make a film that was more like an artifact or something physical, something where you can imagine a convict burying a horse somewhere, or a body bag floating down a river somewhere. It would be something physical, and I thought, “Well, tape is physical.” There was this haze of analog that—there’s something nice, I thought, about having to squint in the dark. It just made sense. There’s something eerie about it.

AVC: The movie encourages you to create your own backstory. I never knew who lived on the second floor of the house next door, but one day these workmen threw everything out the window, as if the person who lived there had skipped out on the rent, or died. Trash Humpers seems like the kind of thing you might have found in that apartment. 

HK: It’s very close, because I grew up in this neighborhood and there was a neighbor I had that had something like 150 copies of On Golden Pond. He had taped an entire year’s worth, 1987, of CNN, every single moment from beginning to end. We found hundreds, literally hundreds, of VHS tapes. I found a VHS tape of Pee-wee’s Playhouse that was wrapped in condoms. It was almost like voodoo. That’s the kind of thing that I thought, “I can imagine this Trash Humpers movie being found in that pile.”

AVC: There’s a big push in the movie industry, which you’ve never really been a part of, toward high definition, 3-D, and a certain kind of clarity. Did that play into your thinking at all?

HK: It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to HD or the clarity. I always get sick of these conversations where people are so obsessed with pixels, with high definition, and even with technology in general. I find it just dull and heartless. And so I wanted to use only the worst machines. I wanted to make only the crudest images. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction, but it was just something that felt like it needed to be done.

AVC: Does that look just intuitively go with the crude and somewhat ill-defined behavior of the characters? Was that calculated on your part?

HK: Yeah, definitely. And it also just went with the idea of a found tape. There’s something I felt making a film that looks so cruddy.

AVC: Your movies in general—Mr. Lonely may be an exception, because it seems more scripted—are about behavior, much more than any kind of conventional story. Does that interest you more than character development or structure?

HK: I just don’t see life having plots. I’ve never liked people that plotted things out. At the same, I love stories and I love characters. What I always remember in films is specific scenes and moments and characters, faces, voices, details, tone, the ambience of things, as opposed to car chases or things that are just mechanisms, plots, whatever it is, things that are incorporated into stories in order to let the audience feel more comfortable. I feel like enough people make those types of movies. It’s not to say that someday I won’t do something like that. I never really felt that way about my films. I wanted them to be more like an experience, more like something you couldn’t just talk away, something that was difficult to articulate and that maybe moved you.

AVC: Let’s say it’s Tuesday night and you’ve finished dinner. What do you watch when you sit down on the couch?

HK: I watch bad television. What I watch and what I make aren’t necessarily related. My heroes are the Marx brothers, W.C. Fields, or the Nicholas brothers, but my films don’t necessarily reflect that. They might a little bit. I don’t know, actually.

AVC: There is a weird slapstick quality to some of this movie.

HK: I felt like Trash Humpers, at least the first half, was a comedy. It was like the closest thing to a Three Stooges movie.

AVC: Does it bother you that so many people chalk your movies up to bad faith? Words like “poseur” get tossed around a lot.

HK: Honestly, I don’t even think about these things. It’s not something that’s a part of my thought process. I don’t think about myself that often. That’s the type of thing that makes someone lock themselves in a box, you know what I mean? I do things because they feel right, because I feel there are certain images I want to see. Whether or not everyone out there likes it, loves it, hates it, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m always going to keep making films. 

AVC: You’ve said you made this movie the way you did as a reaction to the way Mr. Lonely came together. What did you not like about the process of the earlier film?

HK: I found the process kind of stifling. I always wanted to be able to work as quickly as I could think, to not be precious about things. It was more about building up a body of work than anything else, you know. Making films for different reasons, just be able to act on a whim, you know what I mean? In some ways, to work like a painter. I just wanted to be able to move as quickly as I could think. The way the system is set up, at least it’s always been set up, is it works against you as far as spontaneous impulses go. Mr. Lonely took years to put together, and there was a bureaucracy, and it took a long time to raise the money, to deal with casting and all these issues. And in a lot of ways, it drains the enjoyment, the spontaneity. It’s kind of like cutting off your legs. It works against the creative impulse. With this film, I had an idea. I started out just taking photographs with my assistant in these crude masks, fornicating with tree branches and pooping on people’s doorsteps and using disposable cameras. And I thought, “Wow. There’s something kind of exciting about this.” And then it was like, “Well, maybe we can make it into a movie.” From beginning to end, from when a thought came to me to when we finished shooting, it was a three-month process, which was terrific. It was great. There wasn’t much money, it was away from everyone, and it was more just about making this.

AVC: You have to watch the movie more than once to get this, because we don’t see your character onscreen until fairly late in the game. But the second time through, it’s clear that you’re directing a significant portion of the action from behind the camera, in character. A lot of the repeated slogans and songs seem to come from you, as if you’re cueing the actors to start in with them. How much of the time were you in character?

HK: For that whole time, I was in some ways always in character. Even when we were editing it, I was in character. I was editing it as if I were a lunatic. And so I guess, to some degree, the whole time. 

AVC: How committed were you to that part? When you’re out there in a parking lot smashing stuff up and there aren’t a lot of lights and crew around to remind you that you’re making a movie, does the line between doing something as a character and just doing it become thinner?

HK: Yeah, definitely, and I love that. I love when you don’t know which way is up. It’s an exciting place to be. I love when it all just gets kind of hazy and boozy. Sometimes it’s fun to slip on the banana peel.