There’s a great moment in The Wire’s fifth season where the City Desk Editor of the Baltimore Sun looks over a photograph of a domestic fire scene and balks at the ultimate cliché: a shot of a burnt doll in a child’s bedroom. Noting an exasperating trend at work, he wonders if the photographer has a trunk full of charred dolls he brings along for stage-setting. Harmony Korine isn’t above dragging this tired symbol of childhood innocence around in his new film Trash Humpers, and being the mindless button-pusher that he is, he replaces abused plastic dolls with an actual infant later on. But in essence, he’s just like the photographer on The Wire: With every project, he pops open the same trunkload of shtick and leaves everyone to argue over whether it’s art. It’s a win-win situation for Korine, who’s either a genius or a provocateur who’s succeeded in gaming his stuffy critics.
The one redeeming quality in Korine’s work to this point—including Gummo, Mister Lonely, and even the purposefully muddy Dogme effort Julien Donkey-Boy— has been his impeccable eye for finding beauty (or sheer outré weirdness) in condemned places. But Trash Humpers reduces the Korine aesthetic to its bare essentials: He’s still interested in the random destruction and raw pathology of backwater grotesques, but even the thin narrative tissue of movies like Gummo has been cut away, as has such bourgeois concerns as composition, pacing, and the meaningful relationship between one scene and the next.
Though just 78 minutes, it feels like the longest film of 2010, following the misadventures of three trash (and tree and fire hydrant) humpers in geriatric masks who look like crippled castaways from The Hills Have Eyes. Captured via surveillance-quality videos that look like unearthed ’80s home movies, they do the sort of things that Korine characters tend to do: smash stuff, tap dance on broken glass, and launch into inane ramblings that speak to the “American Nightmare” (or whatever such lame pressbook platitudes that are commonly employed to lend importance to indie film’s reigning poseur). A monologue about the benefits of living headless offers a flicker of comedic life, but Trash Humpers is Korine the performance artist pleading for attention. Look away.