The Wondrous World of Harmony Korine: Close-Up on "Mister Lonely" and "Trash Humpers"

Two provocative and wildly different films by Harmony Korine fight to reassert people's individuality in the face of a homogenizing society.
Leonardo Goi

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely (2007) is showing March 24 - April 23, 2018 and Trash Humpers (2009) from March 25 - April 24, 2018 on MUBI in the United States. 

The schizoid characters populating Harmony Korine’s very literally titled Trash Humpers are too busy fornicating with trees and trash cans to talk, but when they do, they speak in thought-provoking tongues. As the writer/director’s 2009 feature comes to an end, a character interrupts a late-night vandalism spree to deliver a subdued monologue: “When I drive here at night I can smell the pain of people… smell how they are just trapped… it hurts me to think they’re all living such balanced lives.”

Should there be a manifesto to the grotesque philosophy embraced by the humpers, this will probably be it. Premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (and winner of the DOX award at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival the same year) Trash Humpers chronicles the prankster exploits of three masked characters as they spend their days and nights dry humping trash bins, masturbating tree branches, eating pancakes with dish soap, smashing old TVs sets to tap dance around their broken carcasses, laughing hysterically—more hyena-like, high-pitched shrieks than human giggles—and filming each other along the way. They wear flesh masks borrowed from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films and speak like hillbilly caricatures; they surround themselves with other unmasked people—their friends, victims, partners in crimes?—and co-opt them into joining their obscene rituals.

Shot entirely on a lo-fi video, down to the vintage glitches and distortions, Trash Humpers has the feeling of a found pseudo-artifact, a VHS tape fished out of the garbage and heading straight back into it—the kind of footage that has been lost for a reason, and whose viewing demands a great deal of discretion, patience, and guts. There is no structure, no plot, no score, and no attempt to address the rationale behind the trio’s obsessive and obscene performances. Except, perhaps, for that brief monologue toward the end.

“This is important,” the man—Korine’s own character—reminds his mates before ranting on the “stupid, stupid, stupid way to live” embraced by the law-abiding, child-bearing people living in the neighborhood the car drives through. Punctuated by sniggers as it may be, it is the first and only time in Trash Humpers’ 78 minutes that a character articulates their critique of the outside world in a way that goes beyond copulating with inanimate objects. At the heart of the humpers’ hysteria is a rebuttal of the social order they inhabit: their pranks are never performed for the sake of a few laughs, they respond to a deep disgust for the pristine and artificial outside world.

I chose to emphasize this fragment because it seems to me to encapsulate a message that reverberates across Korine’s filmography: an invitation to escape from the banality of the ordinary and to embrace the scenarios that open up when normality is shattered—horrific and absurd as they may be.

Mister Lonely

Born in 1973 in Bolinas, California, by 2009 Korine had already four feature films under his belt: a couple from the late 1990s—his breakthrough Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)—and another pair he’d made in the late 2000s after surviving a heroin and crack addiction: Trash Humpers and Mister Lonely (2007). A deeply melancholic and postmodern fable, Korine’s post-rehab comeback follows a Paris-stranded and achingly lonely Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), who is invited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to join a doppelgängers’ commune in the Scottish Highlands—“a place where,” as Monroe reminds him, “everyone is famous, and no one ages.” By the time Michael arrives, the commune is already packed with guests, including a Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), an Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange), the Queen of England (Anita Pallenberg) and the Pope (James Fox).

Cut to Mister Lonely’s second storyline: nested inside the jungle of an unnamed Latin American country, a community of nuns drops sacks of rice on hungry villages, flying aboard a plane co-piloted by father Umbrillo, a priest played by none other than one of Korine’s fondest admirers, Werner Herzog. When a sister survives a parachute-free 2,000 ft. fall, the community decides to repeat the feat to prove their faith in God.

Taken separately, it is hard to see what—if anything—Trash Humpers and Mister Lonely could ever have in common. Aesthetically, Trash Humpers’ de-formalism and its guerrilla VHS look are diametrically opposed to Mister Lonely’s lyrical cinematography, courtesy of longtime Michael Winterbottom collaborator Marcel Zyskind. Plot-wise—surreal and berserk as the combination “suicidal ski-diving nuns meet freak doppelgängers” may be—Mister Lonely does follow a three-act structure, and not the episodic collage of pranks the humpers patch together in their tape. But at a deeper level, something in the way the vandals and the impersonators articulate their struggles seems to cut through both.

“There’s an inherent drama in people who create their own utopia,” Korine said about his 2007 feature. Watching Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers one after the other, the statement could just as easily be directed at the trio of masked sociopaths. Certainly less grotesque-looking, the doppelgängers are no less deranged than the humpers. “How long have you been Michael?”, Morton/Marilyn asks Luna/Michael during their first meeting at a Paris café. “I guess I was born this way,” he replies. It’s a remark that echoes a poignant monologue Luna delivers only a few minutes before, when he opens up to a manager-friend: “I always wanted to be someone else—and never felt comfortable with who I am.”

The humpers may not verbalize their struggle with the same degree of self-reflection, but they do suffer from an uncannily similar inability to fit in, and resort to escapism as a way to both reject and attack the ordinary lives they so deeply scorn. Again, their flight from reality may not amount to a team retreat in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, but it is a utopia of sorts nonetheless. Fully masked and free to unleash their most primordial instincts, they inhabit a world they have built in antithetical terms to the one they seek to destroy—an ugly, atrociously violent and gritty wasteland.

The emphasis on masks is also worth spelling out in greater detail. The humpers trio and the impersonators wear ornaments that alter their identities—albeit in markedly different ways. The monstrous flesh masks worn by the humpers make them unrecognizable to the public eye, a device enabling them to carry out their vandalizing escapades undetected. The makeup and wigs put on by the doppelgängers serve the opposite function: they allow any person to become noticeable by embodying celebrities others immediately recognize—to stand out from the crowd by providing images the crowd feeds on.

Yet the rationale behind the disguises appears to be the same. The humpers and the doppelgängers can only be themselves when they are the characters they play, characters which, incidentally, they never break. There’s a delightfully ironic scene when Marilyn Monroe tells her husband Charlie Chaplin that he reminds her more of Adolf Hitler than the iconic English actor, and another eye-opening exchange between Diego Luna and his friend-manager where the latter tells Luna/Michael he cannot return to anonymity: “you cannot be whoever you like—you are Michael Jackson.”

Different in style and substance as they may be, I think this is where Korine’s Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers land on similar ground: in their mutual fight to reassert one’s individuality in the face of a homogenizing society ready to chastise any variations from its permitted norms. To be sure, arguing Korine seeks to humanize his aloof doppelgängers or the vandals ransacking US suburbia is a bit of a stretch. Both features are unmistakably proud to present surreal, cruddy-looking and nightmarish worlds populated by characters one may find difficult—if not outright impossible—to identify or empathize with. But to deride the idiotic humpers or the deluded impersonators as little more than a pseudo-intellectual fraud of an indie-hipster provocateur would not only play into Korine’s hands, but also validate his critique of the world against which his characters rebel—a universe where outliers are readily dismissed as system errors.

At their most absurd peaks, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers are a testament of the healing powers of surrealism, a reminder of the need to fashion alternative paths to those laid out for us. Can a bunch of sky-diving nuns and masked psychos help in the process? Hardly, but there’s no harm in letting Korine guide us through the schizophrenic cinematic universe, and see for ourselves. After all, as father Herzog contemplates half way through Mister Lonely, shades on, head resting on a clenched fist, “a little faith can take us a long, long way.” 

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