When I saw Harmony Korine’s newest film, Trash Humpers, during the New York Film Festival, the theater smelled like farts and stinky feet, which makes sense because I was sitting on the floor and people around me had their shoes off. My neighbor on the filthy carpet actually tooted out loud. It was the perfect setting for Trash Humpers, a series of shittily videotaped, broken vignettes of degenerates in masks that look like a cross between old people and herpes. They stumble around, grossly mistreat everything they have, hoot and screech, senselessly murder their “normal” neighbors after half-listening to their bad poetry, and then tap-dance. It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel bad about the human race. And true to the title, they mount garbage like horny animals. People like to rub their dicks on any ole thing, don’t they? And they don’t even have to be guys to do it.
I sat down to talk with Harmony, and of course our conversation did meander into the outré, with tales of the latest Baton Rouge craze of dudes popping E into girls’ buttholes and a freak-show strip club where there was a dancer with an elongated coccyx that looked like a tail made of extra spine and so she tied a ribbon around it to make it look pretty. But frankly such talk is what you’d expect of him, so why not surprise you with something different?
Vice: Hi Harmony. I’ve been on a 13-hour rock block of you. I saw Trash Humpers, then went to bed, had dreams about it, woke up, and now I’m talking to you.
Harmony Korine: Yeah, that’s a pretty heavy-duty thing to watch before you go to sleep.
A lot of people in the theater were laughing, but I found it kind of depressing. Was it supposed to be celebratory?
I think the characters—the Humpers—are celebratory in the sense that they love vandalism. Everything that’s bad, they love. They love breaking things, smashing things, burning things, destroying things. They do it with a mixture of sadism and pure glee. In that way, it’s a kind of ode to vandalism. They’re almost artists of violence.
They remind me of these kids in the late 90s/early 2000s who called themselves the Baltimore Rowdy Crew. They used to carry around suitcases of ceramics and wear tool belts around their waists and set up their figurines onstage and smash the shit out of everything.
Who let them into the club?
Still from Trash Humpers (2009)
What’re you gonna do, it’s Baltimore!
I wonder what happened to them.
They all started “serious” boring bands.
But anyway, I wonder if you agree with your characters and what they’re doing.
It’s not really about me agreeing or disagreeing. I go back to the premise of the movie: It tries to mimic a found VHS tape, an artifact, something that was unearthed or dug up in a ditch. A tape that was found in a drawer somewhere, or maybe in a Ziploc bag floating in a river. The only thing I felt the need to stay true to was the sense of it being a sadistic mystical journey. As far as me agreeing, there’s certainly some things I really do admire, and then the stuff like murder and rape—
That you admire as well.
No, no. I’m not condoning that. It’s just, that’s what the Humpers do.
The film seems more commentary than narrative.
I don’t even know if it’s commentary. It’s a document.
But you did create it—it’s not like you found these people.
What I mean is that I didn’t make the film as a commentary. Hopefully there is some kind of accidental deeper meaning—and I think there is. But I wanted to create a film that existed on the surface and anything else was accidental.
In the way of, like, What does a home movie mean? What is the meaning of a home movie?
Right. It seemed to me that there was quite a bit of commentary: The world is shit, doing anything about it is futile, parenthood is scary… and then there’s all kinds of mocking, of the thrill of gastronomy, the pageantry of womanhood—
Oh yeah, I’m not saying there aren’t themes; there definitely are. It’s just more like, when I was making the film, because I was also a participant as one of the Humpers, it was shot very much as you see it.
You mean like with three flashlights and a 35-year-old camcorder?
Yeah, and not just that. It was also shot and made exactly in the order that you saw it. So it wasn’t like making a traditional movie in the narrative sense. There was just a collection of moments; there was no coverage. We were never going for close-ups.
Was there a script?
There wasn’t what you’d really call a script. I used to walk my girlfriend’s dog—uh, I mean my wife’s dog. Sorry, I just woke up.
It’s OK. Me too.
Actually I guess it’s my dog. I was walking my dog… or our dog. I walked our dog down these abandoned alleyways in Nashville at night, and there were these overhead lampposts—the ones they were obsessed with in the movie—this light that was very dramatic, and most of the time they were just lighting up these trash bins that were propped up against garages and next to trees, and sometimes I would look at them and they seemed mildly human. It almost seemed to me like a war zone, like a post-war zone, and the trash bins had personalities and they were hurt or molested. And it seemed like some of the growth—the tree branches and leaves and ivy—was now starting to wrap around them, bringing them back to earth. I remembered that when I was a kid there was this group of elderly Peeping Toms who used to hang out in the neighborhood, and sometimes I would see them stare into my next-door neighbor’s window.
Yeah, they were old, I guess like in their 70s. They used to all walk with limps, and they had very similar faces.
Yeah, like the hornier, stranger outcast of a retirement home, having just crawled out of the window. That’s what I imagined them as, or maybe they just lived in a shack somewhere in the neighborhood. But I started to put those two things together, and I started to think about those trash bins and these bums fucking the trash and staring into windows. I would dress up my assistant and put him in masks and things and buy disposable cameras, and we would take photos late at night with the worst possible cameras. Once I started really looking at the pictures I thought there was something there, something kind of haunting and eerie about it. So that served as a kind of template or as close to a script as I used.
But what you’re saying—none of that context is in the film. Are people supposed to get that?
No, that’s just where it came from. Maybe it came from somewhere deeper and I’m trying to explain something that shouldn’t even be explained. Maybe it’s just something that existed deep within my mind. I don’t know! I like to close my eyes sometimes and go to a place that’s deep and not question it so much.
And leave it to the rest of us. I liked your editing choices, how one of these guys would just go on and on, and you really got that feeling of when someone’s going off on some boring story and you have to laugh. You would just cut someone off mid-sentence and move on. They might actually be providing some context and then you decide, That’s enough!
We edited it mostly on two VCRs, so I was trying not to make anything look too neat. I remember as a kid when I got my first camera and I would just reuse the same tape over and over again. I wanted to make a movie that had that same feeling, random moments or scenes bubbling up to the surface. Things would get to the point where they were so saturated and grainy and blown-out that you wouldn’t really know what you were looking at—and then it would come back in.
Is that technically how you shot it as well? Because you know there are those people who’ll spend millions of dollars to make something look terrible.
I was getting so sick of hearing these conversations about best cameras and most pixels and most technologically advanced this, that, and the other. I thought maybe there was some kind of beauty in the fog of analog. It went with the theme of the film, but I thought we should use the absolute worst five-dollar cameras. Sometimes even those cameras were too good.
Where’d you find them?
Friends’ attics, things like that. And then we’d obviously reuse tapes over and over again.
It seemed like it was fun to make.
Oh yeah, it was great. It was very spontaneous. We would walk around for a couple of weeks and wake up under a bridge somewhere.
Wait, you slept on the streets?
Yes. Well, we slept in the woods mainly and hung out on bridges and in abandoned parking lots of strip malls. We made these kind of nests out of big tractor tires, and then we’d wake up and walk around and start to film. It went on until I realized it was as far as we could document.
Was there any actual dick-to-trash contact?
I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but I actually think one of the guys might have broke one of his balls.
Oh my God! Well, moving on, the title’s kind of ridiculous.
What, you don’t think that’s profound?
It’s meant to be a little stupid, right?
I love the sound of Trash Humpers, and I wanted to name it something that was very much the most literal description of their activities. I didn’t want to name it something that gave anyone a false idea of what they were about to see.
That’s nice of you.
I honestly felt it would be horrible of me to try to lure people in to see it thinking it was going to be something else. I didn’t want to psychologically damage anyone.
Tell me about the “normal” people in the movie.
A lot of those people I’m close to in real life. I think they’re the Humpers’ entertainment. I think when the Humpers are not raping or destroying or killing, all they really want out of life is to be entertained. It feels like the normals are these quasi-mystics who are lurking in the shadows and have been there for a long, long time.
You could tell the normals were each playing themselves. You can’t fake those long yellow gnarly toenails.
Right. I know them, live by them, grew up around them. We’d walk to their houses and knock on their doors.
Do you think people are going to think you’re making some comment about the film industry?
I hope not. I just try to tap into something that’s more of an emotion. You could make an argument that this is a horror film, but a horror film that deals more with ambience and tone or an emotion that’s difficult to articulate.
I totally agree with that.
I thought it’d be nice to make something that you can’t speak away.
It is difficult to figure out how I feel about this.
Maybe it’s not even a movie. I’m being totally honest—I would be happy for you to call it whatever you want. I think in some ways maybe it is something else.
There’s so much abject neglect in this film—how we create things only to neglect them.
Whatever your interpretation is, that is correct. When you watch a home video, what is the deeper meaning? I don’t know; it’s different for everyone.
I think it’s a history of American culture.
It is, and in some ways it’s a strange love letter to all those types of places I grew up in, spending hours on end smashing fluorescent lights. I could go on, and maybe we’d talk about the deeper meaning, but I feel it’s best for me to make it and put it out there, and hopefully there’s some kind of reaction. I’ve never felt like any of those movies I’ve made have meant anything in particular. They mean everything and nothing, and I’m saying that in the same way as life… what is life? I have no idea what the meaning of life is.
You have an idea.
No, I really don’t. Is there some kind of deeper meaning?
I think so!
I think it’s to pursue happiness and advance the soul.
What about people who have no chance of that?
They can pursue it and do the best they can. Like, I believe in past lives and everything’s a learning experience for the soul and all that. But I know what you’re saying. There’s a chicken slaughterhouse kitty-corner from my apartment, and I find it very disturbing and upsetting. But I started making peace with it by telling myself all those chickens are former horrible dictators and murderers who’re reincarnated to have a terrible life and then have their wings broken and heads chopped off. That’s part of their souls’ lesson.
I hope you’re right. And I hope I’m not reincarnated as one of those chickens.
I think you’d have to do a lot worse than make a film called Trash Humpers for that.
I hope so.