Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Go See Alex

In a continuing effort to diversify the content on this blog, I am bringing in my second guest columnist.  This man goes by the name of Alex Ramsdell.  Mr. Ramsdell has pursued a variety of musical projects and other writing endeavors and has even helped me edit some of my own fiction. I'll be running his stuff (hopefully) every Tuesday. That way, you can all come here to get your fix of some real high cultural stuff once you've regained your self-esteem after the drain of Monday.  Sound good?

So, I step aside and give you Alex Ramsdell:

Who's Gonna Pick It Up?
A Review of Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers

Alex Ramsdell

1. Alex Ramsdell is an auto-autodidact in the discipline of critical theory, specifically class politics and ideological violence (e.g. Automotive GPS units).  Among his most favorite phenomena are Malcom in the Middle, visual illusions, "but, like"s, and Rasheed Wallace (Wall of Sheed).  

2. In a scene that might very well be Harmony Korine’s most revolting/beautiful moment, Gummo’s Solomon washes himself with an idle thoroughness in a bathtub full of brown water.  His town has just been struck by a tornado and he is spitting water through a ring made with two fingers and generally lurking with his eyes just above the surface like a commando in a swamp.  Then his mother maneuvers, seemingly without thought, through a corridor jammed with various belongings—buckets, dressers, clothes, boots—to bring him a plate of spaghetti and strawberry milk for dinner.  Solomon gorges himself while his mother shampoos his hair into the shape of a spike.  He says one word, “spaghetti” during the whole scene and then drops a bar of melted chocolate into the murk, fishes it out, and stuffs it into his mouth without blinking an eye.  The procession is disgusting, of course, but it is also rich with a kind of compassion that has only grown more pronounced in Korine’s films since, a sense of connection emanating from place.  The locations are grimy, wayside, and generally undesirable.  The actors, often untrained, are people Korine has met and enlisted for their rare talents.  They inhabit the locations as if they lived there.  This is what independent film used to be, before films like Crash and Little Miss Sunshine cluttered up the form and changed its content, which was the ultimate integration between personality and environment.  There is much a sense of fragmentation as there is of community. 

In his new film, Trash Humpers, Korine brings trash, ordinarily the stuff of the background, to the forefront. By doing so, he allows the film to organize itself around this displacement.  Meandering through suburban Nashville, the film documents the lives of three grotesque self-identified freaks and their friends as they feed on the inversion of American expectations.  While Gummo was a liberal exploration of a town’s idiosyncrasies, sometimes amusing and at other times deviant, Trash Humpers is a menacing carnival of horrors, mitigated only by a perverse and destructive sense of humor.  Suburban Tennessee becomes a grim playground where the notion of freedom is really the right to consume anything one wants, meaning that the boundaries of human and garbage, of use and vandalism, are joyfully obliterated: plastic garbage bins and trees are humped, branches are treated to fellatio, baby dolls are smashed, and local friends are celebrated, decapitated and suffocated.  Nature, plastic, people and liquor alike become vehicles for sensuous escape.  The wayfaring poet, whose life hasn't produced much but an awareness of consumer-culture and a trash-themed poem, is the crowning irony of the film.  When his severed head is revealed to us, it doesn’t convey shock so much as the depth of our anti-heroes’ lust for diversion.  Already having begun to make sense of their values, we see the poet as a victim of the trash humpers’ pathological equation—the poet is trash as well.  This is the film’s chief success: the perverted logic becomes palpable enough that we, for a moment, identify with our grotesque selves. 

While Trash Humpers manages to rise above mere inanity and self-indulgence on account of its far-out dedication to the unthinkable, its main flaw is a serious one: Korine never puts his characters in check.  The goopy-faced leader of the three, played by Korine himself, declares while driving through the neighborhood: “I can smell the pain of all these people…I could never understand why one would choose that way of life”.  The irony is not exactly funny, nor is it powerful (as in the film’s opening when he skillfully and vividly fellates the leafy branch of a tree) because “normal” society is excluded from representation. 

The world in Gummo coheres because there is a sense that the characters are not deviations from society but the whole of it.  Trash Humpers, on the other hand, operates and falls apart by exclusion: our main characters smash stuff by the highway, sexualize their neighbors’ property, and murder their friends, but without any repercussion from police or the greater society whose laws and values they so openly transgress.  Their equally freakish community is just as self-isolating.  There is one scene that stands out as a near exception to this dramatic deficiency: toward the end of the film our female protagonist absconds with a baby and takes it for a mournful walk beneath the Nashville streetlights.  This woman’s longing to be a mother, a “normal” desire that undermines the trash humpers’ communal code, approaches an internal tension.  But it’s too late.  The cleverness has already lost its disorienting charm and the film begins to drag.  We are well aware that Korine, his wife, and his friends are the ones humping everything.  The perversion, which began in stellar fashion, turns on us, consuming our patience.

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