Interview: Harmony Korine on Trash Humpers, Manhattan’s Appetite for Double Down Sandwiches, and the Time He Met Shaquille O’Neal
Posted on Saturday, May 1st, 2010 by Hunter Stephenson
Summer is fast approaching and Harmony Korine—the polarizing Nashville-based filmmaker irresponsible for directing Gummo and scribing Kids—has returned to combat the season’s flabbier atrocities. For everyone’s information, Korine believes his latest movie, Trash Humpers, should not be referred to in the press or elsewhere as “a movie” or “a film.” I think I see his point. I mean, after all Humpers doesn’t contain a shirtless Vince Vaughn tripping over models in Ibiza or Egyptian robot rockets penetrating a CGI brick wall that turns into sand. But since the not-a-movie is receiving a theatrical release this summer, I asked him to elaborate. Korine said Humpers might as well be projected into a toilet bowl or mailed anonymously to a closeted politician. And then he said something profound about granny’s undergarments and snickered like an asthmatic hick with dementia.
It’s the same asthmatic snicker heard in Trash Humpers, a sound horrifying enough to make “a grown man jump from a ledge,” as Korine comments below. Directed and edited to approximate a found VHS from hell, Humpers stars Korine and pals as three elderly degenerates with poor dermatology and a recreational interest in dumpster fornication and murder. Any semblance to narrative exhibited in his past works, including 2007’s Mister Lonely about a Michael Jackson impersonator, has been blown up like cherry bombed synapses. Humpers is a canvas for Korine’s obsession with disorienting repetition, inbred culture, and dysfunctional imagery. He wants to imprint the viewer’s brain with new moods, however terrible or tedious. And Humpers seems meant to occasionally alienate and punish the viewer, not for preferring popcorn to art or vice versa, but for believing there’s sense in making sense of anything.
Hunter Stephenson: Have you visited your tax man?
Harmony Korine: Have I what? Did I visit the tax man?
Taxes were due this week.
Harmony Korine: Oh jesus. What do you have to do for that? My wife usually takes care of those things, so I’ll check with her.
Moving on. Watching Trash Humpers, I began to think about the film’s use of everyday street lights and how street lights appeal to your aesthetic as a filmmaker. Do the characters in the film see street lights as tiny performance stages for their humping?
Harmony Korine: It’s hard to say what they think, but I have always loved street lights and especially the ones around [Nashville]. They have a theatrical element, but I don’t know if they are more like stages or if it’s a natural spotlight, a natural suburban Broadway. You know what I mean? Yeah. These characters are drawn to that light.
It’s like government-sanctioned limelight…
Harmony Korine: Yeah. Exactly. I would never speak for the characters in the movie, but I feel like, I assume that’s what they feel. I’ve always liked street lights, and I’ve always photographed them. I probably have a collection of two to three thousand photographs of them, just around the city, mainly at night. Street lights, and also electro, electrons—what are they called? Electracords? Electrical, telephone lines…
Harmony Korine: Power lines. Yeah. So, I’ve always had a personal collection of those. At night, I always walked around with a dong, with my dog, in these alley ways, because it would get very dark, and dingy. And these lights, I don’t know what they use—they are like 1,000 watt lightbulbs—and they are just so strong that they would cast this glow over these trash bins. And the trash bins would begin to take on human forms, the trash bins would begin to resemble people. Almost like a war zone. Where some of the bins would be hunched over like they had been beaten up. Or molested. It was weird, some of the trash bins seemed to have personalities under this light. They were, like, crawling out of the light.
One of the main differences, to me, with Trash Humpers was the sense that you wanted the viewer to turn the film off. The film is currently showing in theatres, but on home video it will probably test viewers’ patience more than Gummo, and especially Mister Lonely, which is closer to a traditional feature…
Harmony Korine: I guess the best way to answer that is to say maybe this isn’t even a movie. I didn’t even want this to be viewed—or I didn’t even conceive this—in traditional cinematic terms. This is more like an artifact. I don’t know—this is going for something else. It’s not really meant to be watched like a film. I would be fine if it was projected into a toilet bowl. It makes no difference to me. This is something that is more, like, unearthed, a found object, something that’s drenched in blood. Or tossed in your granny‘s panty drawer. Something that you’d imagine a convict burying in the ass of a mule.
Speaking of convicts, is it true you considered placing a rawer version of Trash Humpers into the mail boxes of police stations? Anonymously.
Harmony Korine: Yeah. We were going to send them to judges, police officers, politicians, whore houses. Ballet studios, podiatrists. Lesbian charity workers.
Harmony Korine: Cracker Barrel would be terrific. People who make Gatorade. But a lot of law enforcement. I wasn’t going to put the whole movie. Probably just put certain scenes on certain door steps. And see what happens.
Trash Humpers was originally a short film called Mac and Plak or…?
Harmony Korine: No, no, no, that’s different. That’s totally different. See what happened was, Mac and Plak are the Wonder Twins Deactivated was a play I wrote when I was 18, and it was about conjoined twins and I wanted Harrison Ford to play one of the twins on his knees. And I guess, at that time, it was very difficult to get him the script, the play. Basically, there was a scene where the twins are in a doctor’s office, and they hate each other, and they want to cut loose. So, one of them takes a plastic carving knife and starts… So, it’s a story and I never got it off the ground. And I had really high aspirations for Mac and Plak. They call one of the twins Plak because he was born with a fully grown tooth that was covered in plaque. And the other one, his real name was Roger but he turned his name into Mac because his favorite car is a Camaro, and Mac spelled backwards is C-A-M. They hated each other. [laughs]
There was this great scene where they are about to get split in half—they’re getting this appendage removed—and one of them goes, “I can tell you’re nervous,” and the other one goes, “How?” And the other one says, “Some of your butterflies just flew into my stomach.” Can you imagine? You’re so close to someone you can feel their butterflies fly into your stomach? That’s something I had written almost 20 years ago, but the only thing it has in common with Trash Humpers is the scene when the two guys put a play on in the basement, and some of those lines and monologues are taken from the play Mac and Plak.
I remember the scenes. There’s a line where one of them mentions North Carolina.
Harmony Korine: They mention North Carolina because there’s a reference to a woman named Tuwana, who was a maid for Chang and Eng, who were the original Siamese twins (above pic). And they were obsessed with their maid because I think she had the largest feet in the universe for a woman, at the time. She was a black lady with a hunchback. And she took care of their kids—I think they had something like 27 kids between them.
While we’re on the subject of a black person, a black lady with large feet: who would you most like to cast in a film: Michael Clarke Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, or George Foreman. George Foreman present day.
Harmony Korine: Oh, Shaquille O’Neal. Definitely. Because Shaq has great presence, and I always try to watch any film that Shaq is in. In some ways, I feel like Shaq is the African-American version of Alec Guinness. Except for more tangible physical skills. Shaq is going on his 20th season, Alec Guinness is still speaking from the grave, he spoke something like 16 languages.
I don’t know if you saw, but Shaq recently had an art exhibit in New York City.
Harmony Korine: Shaq had an exhibit? I might have read about that, but how was the work?
Some of it was very sexually charged. Apparently, he explained why taking a photo of the Statue of Liberty is art. Because of the size. I think you would be surprised.
Harmony Korine: Yeah. [laughs] I like him. I met him once. I was with my brother who is a sports writer and Shaq kept saying his biggest influence was Jackson the Polack. Apparently Charles Barkley is also into…painting.
And Manute Bol.
Harmony Korine: I think Manute Bol is just into trying to get gold-plated kneecaps. It’s absurd.
What is it about VHS and the VCR that makes the format the ideal gateway into the Trash Humpers’ psyche?
Harmony Korine: The thing is, I wanted to make a movie that was cyclical, that you could imagine being passed around. I imagined it fitting into a pillow case. You know? VHS is the first kind of camera that I had. And when I was taking photos, this movie actually originated as a series of photographs of my assistant, who I would dress up late at night, and he would [wear a mask and] resemble a burn victim. And we would go around to alley ways and he would fornicate trash, and so I would photograph him, and the images would turn out very crude. And I would use only the absolute worst technology possible, whatever was the worst I would use it. When I looked at the pictures there was something exciting about it, and the light was exciting and eerie, and I decided if I made a film, the closest to that look—that sense of hazy analog video—was VHS. It just seemed right.
I use to live on this street when I was a kid where there was an old person retirement home, and all of the old people would listen to that band Herman’s Hermits and they would wear white nursing shoes. And they would throw away stacks of VHS tapes, and I would go through the trash and take them. There was never anything good. There was a lot of [recorded] Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse, or something. But there were hundreds of tapes of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and tapes of CNN from the ’80s. I could tell they were obsessed with [Ted Turner's old flame] Jane Fonda. And On Golden Pond. The tapes were never sinister, but I imagined: what happens if I found a tape like Trash Humpers?
What do you think of shooting in high-def? I mean, high-def porn, you can see every ass pimple…
Harmony Korine: High-def reminds me of leprosy. I think everyone who uses high-def should suffer from leprosy. It’s basically—all of the lepers congregate under the umbrella of high-def. If you want to go swimming in the pores of a newscaster, now you can, and you can join that club. Let me put it that way.
I’m not sure which side you fall on with KFC, but let’s discuss their new Double Down sandwich. This sandwich is currently all over Twitter and the New York press. What is interesting, Harmony, is that I went to a KFC in Manhattan to try one, and there were four tables—unrelated groups of 20somethings—taking photos of this sandwich…
Harmony Korine: Are you serious? [laughs] I haven’t had one, but I actually read about it, and I thought it would be amazing to base a novel on the history of the Double Down. I think Manhattan needs to douche gargle all the Double Down it can. It needs to deep throat the Double Down, to get some more personality. I think as soon as I left, all of the personality in Manhattan was drained out. [laughs] That’s why people are now left to take fucking photos of this ridiculous sandwich. When I saw it—that’s the strange thing—I knew it wasn’t healthy, but damn did it look good. It’s like an aphrodisiac for rednecks.
Would you ever consider making a 3D magic musical with David Blaine?
Harmony Korine: A…3D magic musical? With David? I mean, if the money was right I wouldn’t say no. If David would set himself on fire—he has a good Grace Kelly mimic—so if he would agree to be Grace Kelly and set himself on fire. Maybe. I really don’t know much about 3D. I’m more D than 3. [laughs]
Whose death was more unexpected for you, the death of Justin Pierce or the death of Harold Hunter?
Harmony Korine: They were both. They were both. It’s the kind of thing you never think about. Everyone was living really hard back then, and it’s easy to see how that would happen. They were both very surprising. It wasn’t very good, obviously.
In your press for Trash Humpers, what I’ve found interesting is that you seem to view many interviews like creating art. Especially some of the video interviews. Is this a reaction to the clusterfuck of press artists have to do these days?
Harmony Korine: I feel like it’s a douche gargle. At the same time, everything is one. It’s all the same thing. Does that make sense? I mean, the film, talking to you, it’s no different. It’s all part of the same thing, it’s all part of the same source. I’ve always felt like that. There’s a unified aesthetic, there’s something sensual, something in the air, something tangible. It’s everything and nothing. And I don’t differentiate. I don’t think about things too much, I just do them. If I think about certain things too much, it’s the type of thing that can kill a man. It can make a man jump from a ledge. So, I make and mix things. It’s a collection of moments, books, music, and baseball, and interviews, and fuck sessions—it’s all part of a collection.
I really liked the “DNA Whore Fox” diagram lesson you gave in an interview at SXSW… (See embed above)
Harmony Korine: Thanks. I’ve been doing those [diagrams] a bunch lately. There’s a Girl Scouts office very close by my house, and they have something like 10 chalkboards, and they let me do those on them. I have a lot of fun making them. A genetic diagram, it’s a genetic fox diagram.
You’ve mentioned that you are working on a documentary about lactating Mexican dogs…
Harmony Korine: I wouldn’t really call it a documentary. It’s more of an expose. Maybe that’s the wrong word to. Or an essay about them. It’s a documentation. It’s not a documentary because I don’t have a point of view on the dogs. I just like the way it looks. It’s a documentation of these dogs as they lactate, a special kind of dog you find in Panama and Cuba mainly, and once a year, the women grow these massive teats that lactate and drip milk as they walk. They usually live in parking lots and abandoned warehouses. When you stand up and see them together, the tit milk makes these beautiful Jackson Pollock-like abstractions. The tit milk is like paint. I was turned onto them by a guy I met in a bar who played Robin Hood in the very first human theatrical version.
There’s more info out there on this project than the mainstream comedy you’re also working on. What can you share about that? Is it going to be slapstick, or like a Duck Soup?
Harmony Korine: Yeah. Well maybe there are elements of that, but it’s hard to say what is mainstream. Every time I think I’m making something mainstream, there are people who tell me it’s not. I’ve always—honestly—never thought of myself as an independent director. I’ve always wanted to be a very commercial director, or I had dreams of making these movies into blockbusters. And with each movie, they tell me it’s not that way. I mean, by now I’m used to it, but in the beginning I was very surprised.
Kids was the only movie I remember seeing traded bookbag-to-bookbag after class in the South. And Gummo, I mean, in high school there was a moment where it seemed like everyone was talking about it. It wasn’t only the art club freaks, it was the jocks, preps, and slutty girls.
Harmony Korine: [laughs] That’s great. People always assume I try to make films for a tiny audience, but even with Trash Humpers, I wanted to get the audience that I imagine is buying Hannah Montana tickets. Or whatever that new shit is. Every time I’m surprised that one of my films lacks commercial appeal. Movies are like moods, you know? You feel a certain way at a certain time in your life. With Mister Lonely, I hadn’t made anything in a while, so I felt like making something more classical and composed, and less degraded. It was influenced by my time in Europe, and it was influenced by a cult of fishermen I had been living with. Close to Chile.
Mister Lonely had a religious element to it. What should replace religion in the world?
Harmony Korine: Handcuffs.
Trash Humpers has its NYC premiere, with Harmony Korine scheduled to attend, on May 7th at Cinema Village. For more info on the not-a-film: official site and Twitter. Photo of Harmony Korine by Rachel Korine. Photo of Shaq via VICE. Art work below by Harmony Korine.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and followed on Twitter.