One of the best-known and most thought-provoking examples of conceptual art is John Cage's 1952 composition titled, with dry accuracy, 4'33". Composed for any instrument or combination of instruments — personally, I prefer to see it "played" on a harp or a tuba, something heavy — the piece consists of the musician(s) doing absolutely nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds; the performance, aurally speaking, consists of whatever incidental sounds — coughs, heavy breathing, the squeaking of seat cushions — happen to be produced in the auditorium during that period.
This was a brilliant idea, and it raises all kinds of fascinating questions about what does and doesn't constitute music, but let me point out two things. One, interesting though the experience undoubtedly is, you don't really have to see the piece performed to appreciate it — a mere description of it suffices. And two, even if you do see it performed, it's less than five minutes long. That's because after about five minutes, you get the point, and are ready to move on.
Trash Humpers, the latest empty provocation by Harmony Korine (Gummo, julien donkey-boy) runs 78 minutes — fairly short by the standards of feature films, but eternal if judged by the requirements of conceptual art. And I submit that this alleged "film," which was shot on consumer-grade VHS and deliberately distressed to look even uglier, is essentially conceptual, and hence at least 73 minutes and 27 seconds too long.
Frankly, I can't even claim to be much impressed by the concept. Wearing grotesque masks designed to make them look like obscene parodies of the white-trash elderly, Korine and several other actors commit various senseless acts of violence and mischief, cackling hideously all the while. As advertised, they engage in frottage with various trash receptacles. They break stuff with hammers or by throwing it high in the air and watching it crash to the ground. They chant nonsense phrases and tunelessly hum folk ditties. And all of this nonsense is structured as discrete, random vignettes — with the exception of the final shot, which does feature a startling shift, you could re-edit Trash Humpers in any way imaginable and it would remain fundamentally the same entity.
In truth, any given 4'33" of this work can stand for the whole. By design, Trash Humpers doesn't grow or expand or head off in unexpected new directions or ring subtle variations on a theme; it just demands that you submit to its freak-show aesthetic, which insists that grotesquerie is its own form of beauty, over and over and over and over again. You either appreciate this kind of thing or you don't. I've got better things to do with 78 minutes. —MIKE D'ANGELO
Above all, Trash Humpers deals with pockmarked, wizened surfaces. Harmony Korine's most blatant, in-your-face gesture is his use of the grungy consumer-grade VHS, complete with the sort of tracking problems, roll-bars and clunky toploader VCR messages ("PLAY," "AUTO TRACKING") associated with the infancy of home video technology. The Humpers presumably use the cheapest camcorder possible, some Betamax found on a trash heap.
The other most obvious element is the use of prosthetic masks. The Humpers are clearly young people in leathery elder-drag. This means they can shuffle around, break things, go nuts with the relative physical ease of young people, which makes the Humpers' inscrutable redneck anarchy all the more frightening. Their chants ("Make it, make it, don't take it, make it, don't fake it") are cryptic. Their screechy Good Ol' Boy giggle erupts like an animal call. These Humpers really get around. Even in wheelchairs.
When we see these weirdos through this discarded-video haze, several things happen. Korine provides us with diametrical opposites: an alien transmission from another world, and a class-bound, low-rent piece of shit from the Salvation Army underbelly of Turdblossom, Tennessee. But Korine uses the medium with a master's touch; he's reviving the desolate poetry of Gummo through a scrim of loss and impenetrability. Korine consistently employs the flattening of low-grade video to play with scale. The mottled blacks of night vision activate the frame into an anxious, swirling field. Perhaps most importantly, the glinting absorption of artificial light that has always been video's stock-in-trade gives his Humpers the parking-lot halos they clearly haven't earned.
But all this merely gilds the lily. Do they hump trash? You bet they do! (During one vigorous bout, an off-camera Korine implores, "Get that trash pussy!") But just as important, the Humpers molest nature. A thick branch of a tree sticking through a cyclone fence is grabbed at crotch level for a sort of arboreal jerk-off. Near the end of the sequence, another Humper fellates the leaves hanging from another tree at mouth level. These "unnatural acts" continue throughout the film. Trash Humpers is, among other things, Korine's low-caste landscape study of the Deep South, a kind of response to William Eggleston's work refracted through notably different aesthetic and political lenses. But Korine's point is also deeply literal. When people have been humped by their environment for so long, it was only a matter of time until some of them began humping it back. —MICHAEL SICINSKI
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