First known to filmgoers as the teenage screenwriter of Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids, Harmony Korine seems to have enjoyed that rarest of things within American cinema: the pursuit of a purely individual, often radically rebellious vision. Aided in this pursuit by world-class cinematographers, bold actors, and the vocal support of legends such as Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci, Korine’s filmography includes Gummo, julien donkey-boy, and Mister Lonely. These films are difficult to classify in conventional terms and, like their director, have become known as much for their puzzling and provocative qualities as they are for cinematic merits.
Korine is an entertaining storyteller and skilled conjurer of images, but not always at the same time. His tendency to totally embrace the visual power of filmmaking results in works that seem to privilege isolated, challenging images and emotional reactions over narrative coherence. Additionally, he prefers not to analyze or explain his images once they appear before his cameras and the eyes of audiences. This remoteness alienates some viewers. One of the most common complaints among Korine’s detractors is that he’s putting on an act—pulling a ruse on his art-hungry audience.
Yet since when was it outside of the purview of a filmmaker to put on a show? Korine’s seemingly endless series of anecdotes, jokes, and sketches (expressed throughout interviews and books and ‘zines) do create an engaging context for his films. Even when his stories and statements do not literally relate to his movies, they illuminate his modes and moments of inspiration, revealing the source of his enigmatic images.
PopMatters spoke with Korine about his career and his latest film, Trash Humpers, a work which pushes Korine’s lack of narrative context to an extreme, offering a look into the lives of uniquely grotesque elderly figures that run around Nashville seeking to be entertained by outcasts and trash cans. Their scattered adventures combine to form a horrifically funny whole—what Korine considers at once “the future of horror film” and “the future of documentary”.
What motivated you to make Trash Humpers? Were you influenced by any particular films?
No, I mean, there weren’t any movies that I was thinking about…When I first got my first camera I would sometimes follow my grandmother around and it would make her crazy. And I would, I don’t know, basically try and drive her insane. Maybe that’s the closest thing to this that I can think of, are those granny torture tapes.
So real life experiences inspired you, rather than films?
It’s not that…I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to make a film. Maybe it’s not even a movie. It was conceived as something else maybe that was more like an artifact or something found, something that you can imagine being unearthed. I wasn’t really thinking about it in traditional film terms.
In Gummo and julien donkey-boy, there was similar “found” footage within a larger narrative context, but in this film you seem to lose the outer story altogether in favor of the found object. Did you intentionally minimize the plot?
Yeah, well it was a total concept. It was just more, I had this idea about these characters and I thought that it needed to work more or less like an artifact, or a piece of found footage, or a home movie or something. I wanted it to be physical. I wanted for you to imagine maybe finding a tape somewhere in the trash or floating down the river in a Ziploc bag.
Within that “pure concept”, did you follow any self-imposed rules or manifesto?
No, just the rules of being tugged in certain directions. There was no real traditional script. I had taken a bunch of photos. I used to dress my assistant up in these crude masks and he would walk through the alleyways in Nashville and he would poop on doorsteps, he would basically commit petty crime and minor acts of vandalism, dressed in these outfits and this kind of crude prostheses. And I would photograph him using only the worst cameras, the worst disposable cameras—broken flashes, foggy lenses and stuff. And we would get them developed in the cheapest way. There was something kind of interesting. Some kind of degraded analogue texture. I started looking at those pictures and started to think, well maybe there’s some kind of film here. It reminded me of VHS, and then that’s how it kind of happened.
I found the lack of context to be horrific. Do you consider Trash Humpers to be a horror film?
Yeah, I think it’s the future of horror film. I think the future of horror is comedy. And I think this is the first one of those ever made, produced successfully.
What was behind the decision to make the central characters such grotesque figures?
I’ve just always been horrified by old people that move really well. Sometimes when I see old men who run really fast down my street, it takes me sometimes days, even weeks, to get over it. It’s been like that for a long time. I remember I had a science teacher in junior high school who was 85 years old and held the pull-up record—the elderly pull-up record—and he would sometimes do it all day long in class, and we would watch him. I had nightmares for years about it. Same thing, I had a female tap-dancing instructor who was I think in her early 90s and she used to do these remarkable dance routines. It was the kind of thing that most people would fall out of their chair and would react super enthusiastically, be speechless. For me it was a form of torture and pure horror, watching this old woman move so well. That was the impetus for these characters.
You play one of the characters in the film. Occasionally your character steps into the action from behind the camera. Within the world of the story, is he directing the other characters?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask those guys. I really don’t know. Anything that’s not in the film, I can’t really say. You know as much as I do about these guys.
Given that, would you say the scenes in which the trash humpers encounter other individuals, give the film more of a non-fiction quality? I know in some places this work is being received as a documentary.
I would say this film is also the future of documentary, in that it’s almost all lies. You know what I mean? It’s almost all made-up. And in that way I feel that it’s completely the embodiment of the new documentary.
Because it’s coming to terms with the fact that anything you do on film is a lie?
Because it goes to something much deeper than cinema verite. It becomes like fire.
These characters seem like they want to be entertained when they meet individuals outside of their group. In each segment with the outsiders, I felt that they were almost auditioning for the main characters.
Yeah, well, I feel that those characters, the humpers, that’s really what they love. They just want to be entertained, like you said. They’ve been here for so long. They’ve been lurking in the shadows, and under bridges, and out in the woods, and all they want is a little entertainment. They seek out these performers. Maybe some of them are their friends. Maybe some are enemies. They just want to be entertained.
That episodic quality, of giving each performer his or her chance and then moving on, reminds me of some of your other work. In your books, for example, there are sketches that aren’t expected to fit within an overall concept, more like individual impressions. Do you feel that your films are following that trajectory as well?
So is that also an evolution? Where movies should be heading?
I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. Most of them are going in the direction of 3D. For me it felt natural, it felt good. There were no mistakes. Like at a certain point, everything is just perfect. There are no beginnings, middle and ends, but there are stories and there are characters, and that’s what the focus is.
Yet there are some really complex moments in the film. Sometimes the film reaches a level of sensitivity that…feels really sublime.
Those are the moments you always strive for. Those are the things that are difficult to articulate in words. Things that become more like chemicals, that become more like documenting an explosion.
One thing that had an effect on me was the repetition of the screeching laughter. It reminded me of the constant laughter in Even Dwarfs Started Small. This would annoy an audience not open to it, but once you accept the repeated elements such as the laughter and the lullaby, there’s something affirming about their presence. Were you using those to build a framework for the rest of the film?
Yeah, they became themes or connectors.
The lullaby in particular paid off in the final scene.
Yeah, the way it was filmed, everything that you saw was basically in order. There was no rearranging of scenes or anything, or even shots…And so each day was like a new chapter. So we would wake up and walk around and those were the things that would happen. If you turn the camera on and photograph a humper in a tree, they knew that was going to be in the movie, because I wasn’t going to try to manipulate the drama. So when those cackles would come in, it just felt like a natural thing. It felt like a connector. You would wake up and feel like cackling, you’d feel like screaming, you’d feel like burning something or fornicating with a trashcan. A lot of it just became like documenting the day. And all those audio cues just seemed to fit in naturally.
So there wasn’t much of a post-production process?
No, I worked with an editor who was 75 percent blind. He would duct tape pencils to his fingers and he would take apart the VCR and he would edit like that. He would kind of just sit there and loop the machines over and over again.
Then all of the PLAY, REW, and the text we see are a live playback?
In your work, you often manipulate the line between what is funny and what is sad. Do you ever consider how your sense of humor is going to strike viewers as being over the line or unorthodox?
I just always assume that it will. It always has, even before I started making movies. I always thought that comedy, that what someone laughs at is such a personal thing, so subjective…What makes one person look at something and see horror and ugliness and what makes another person look at the same exact image and see only beauty and humor? With the films, I try to put it all out there and I don’t really say or I don’t even really know, to be honest with you, whether it’s funny or horrible. It just feels right.
The image is more important than the story?
I like when films feel confusing. I think it’s exciting when something feels a little bit muddled or when it’s not straightforward. I always feel like that’s the best emotion, is a multilayered emotional reaction…I love movies that aren’t just one way—that you don’t just get one thing from. I never wanted to make films or anything that I felt like you could just talk away. I wanted to make work that was more like an emotion or something that went past/through you. So I’ve always been drawn to those types of characters.
I read David Fear’s review of the film, in which he writes, “If this is what passes for contemporary art terrorism we’ll opt instead for something truly subversive—like genuine art.” Is provocation on your mind when you make films?
Honestly, I don’t really think about it. I never have. I’ve never felt like there was a right or wrong way to react to a film. I make these movies because I need to, because there are certain images that I’ve always wanted to see in a certain way. But I’ve never felt like there’s a right or wrong way to react. I never felt like if someone watches a film and gets nothing from it or only sees whatever they see, or that they don’t enjoy it, I don’t think that’s wrong. That’s okay. The same thing when the opposite happens, when someone sees it and loves it and is excited by it—I’m happy, I love that reaction. But at the same time, there is no right or wrong way. I mean, what’s the right or wrong way to live a life? I don’t know.
Your character in the film poses a very similar question during his monologue in the car, which seems like one of the more structured scenes in the film. Is that your voice coming through?
I don’t know. I can’t really answer those kinds of questions.
Though would you agree or disagree that you’re engaging in so-called “art terrorism”?
I don’t know what it means. It’s not even good for me to talk about that kind of thing. That’s the type of thing that could make someone want to jump off a bridge. If I thought about that stuff too long, if I thought about myself in those terms, if I framed myself in that way or in any way really, it would just be difficult for me to move. I would rather just keep making things. That’s all that matters.
Which films do you find interesting at the moment?
Not that much. I think Michael Mann movies are really exciting. I love the way he makes films. A director from Mexico I really like, Carlos Reygadas, I think he’s made some great movies. I don’t know—W.C. Fields.
I think W.C. Fields would have probably appreciated Trash Humpers.
Yeah, I should have dedicated it to him.
Do you see your influence in a younger generation of filmmakers and artists?
Again, I don’t even really know. If I think too much about that kind of thing, I start to feel strange. I feel like I’m not myself. I start to seem almost like a stranger to myself. I might end up feeling really debased and rotten.
Like you would be talking about a persona that is not really yourself?
Yeah. It’s like a trap. Maybe I thought about it more when I was younger, when I was just starting out—more curious or more antsy. But I don’t really think about that so much anymore. I will say I hope there are people that enjoy it and it’s always nice when it’s a lot of younger people. I remember what it was like to be excited about things when I was young.
Ten years ago, you said in an interview promoting julien donkey-boy that 100 years of cinema should have produced something more complex than mainstream movies had to offer. What are your thoughts on the state of commercial cinema today and the near future?
The only thing to do in the future is to chop it up and to snort it down, to lick on it, to suck it, to grope it, to fuck it, to let it malfunction, to let it slip and slide, to burn it, to throw it down, to juice it, to send it to the doctor, and then to stomp on it, and then throw it around a little bit, ignore it, and then love it, and then probably end up leaving it.
And then it will have evolved?
I think then it will end up in a good place, but only then.
Finally, where do you see your movies in ten years’ time?
I don’t know. Who knows? I’m not even sure, probably just blockbusters and making ten or twelve movies with Lil’ Wayne.