Astute Observations: Morality and TRASH HUMPERS

Will Schiffelbein

May 30th, 2010

Editor's Note: "Astute Observations" is intended to be a bi-weekly editorial where the critical eye toward cinema is relatively abandoned in favor of an entirely analytical approach. Rather than speak about whether or not a film is good or bad, this article hopes to examine what the film is actually saying rather than how well it says it. The pictures examined will range from contemporary films to classics; from 1914 to 2010. Your thoughts, comments, opinions, and arguments are encouraged.

Harmony Korine is a filmmaker whose persona and past work are wrought with controversy. A simple glance at his filmography will explain the divisive critical opinions toward his work. For example, here's a quote from the New York Times with regard to GUMMO...

"October is early, but not too early to acknowledge Harmony Korine's 'Gummo' as the worst film of the year. No conceivable competition will match the sourness, cynicism and pretension of Mr. Korine's debut feature."

His latest feature, TRASH HUMPERS follows in the same vein has his previous work- it seeks to subvert the conventions of cinema. It doesn't have a narrative. It lacks characters with distinct traits. It follows three deviants, whose age is somewhat of a mystery, as they perform acts reserved for psychotics and sociopaths. The three are nameless throughout and lack any dialogue, save for a few phrases uttered repeatedly during the film.

Unique to TRASH HUMPERS is the method in which Korine explores the themes he has raised. Rather than putting forth a distinct argument, the director chooses to beg questions of his audience. Given the appropriate attention, TRASH HUMPERS evokes postulation to the nth degree. Even if you're not a fan of the movie, hopefully you can at least acknowledge what the filmmaker is attempting to accomplish here. So please, bear with me as I attempt to dissect the hypotheses put forth.

Perhaps the first question raised by Korine is the extent to which contemporary society is responsible for the actions of these characters. Over the course of the past forty years, with the rise and eventual dominance of post-modernism, moral relativism has become the prominent ethical code. It's most recognizable form is that of cultural relativism, which suggests that it is amoral to impose the same expectations on third world countries that are placed on industrialized nations. However, Korine is more concerned with traditional moral relativism, a philosophical structure that asks, "What gives you the right to say what is just and unjust for someone else to do?" It accepts the concept that individuals are free to manufacture their own morality; under moral relativist thought, there is no arbitrary moral truth.

This current trend leaves society in a rut. If there is no objective moral truth, how can order be maintained? Without the societal equivalent to ego- laws, the societal equivalent to id- anarchy, would reign. Thus, Korine asks whether or not our moral relativist stance toward amoral behavior has actually led to people acting like these TRASH HUMPERS.

At first glance, it would appear as though Korine is actually reinforcing moral relativism. However, I would argue that upon closer inspection there is something more at work here. He isn't the juvenile Chomskyian that critics often make him out to be. Rather, TRASH HUMPERS almost asserts the necessity of objective moral structure. I disagree with our colleagues over at The Playlist when the author of the review, Frank Rutledge, wrote...

"While 'Mister Lonely' was full of loveable outcasts who dressed as their favorite celebrities, this is full of some of the most vile people on the planet and yet…by the end of it Korine will have you considering accepting who they are."

I believe that we are supposed to deplore these people. It's too easy to say that TRASH HUMPERS is a platform for Korine to espouse his radical postmodern thoughts. While he's definitely far outside the mainstream, I don't think he's one to assert something like that, he's simply too smart for it. Instead, TRASH HUMPERS disregards the postmodernists. That morality could ever be obsolete is poppycock at best.

As always, I find myself coming back to Freud. Good ole Sigmund contends that the human psyche consists of three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. All three exist in symbiosis; none can exist without the other. In fact, when the three are out of balance man cannot function.

As I mentioned previously, anarchy is the societal equivalent to id. It's the realization of the pleasure principle, where men seek to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. However, these actions are not conducive to living in groups. Thus, the ego comes into play. The ego is the rational side of men. Though men wish to loot, pillage, and rape all in their path, they realize that this lifestyle cannot exist in tandem with progress, civilization, and society. This is the realization of Kant's categorical imperative, that men cannot perform an action that they can't universalize.

Now, the superego is what Korine is ultimately concerned with. Here, the morality principle comes into play. Men shouldn't rape and murder, not because were all men to do this there would be chaos, but because these actions are wrong. The fact that these actions are meant to disgust, to induce grimaces, would seem that Korine's intention lies in the affirmation of arbitrary moral truths. Here's where I find issue with another review. Scott Tobias of The AV Club wrote a fantastic review, where he concluded with...

"A monologue about the benefits of living headless offers a flicker of comedic life, but Trash Humpers is Korine the performance artist pleading for attention. Look away."

An insightful scene near the finale of the film features one of the Humpers coping with their chosen lifestyle. The character, if you can even call it that, is sitting alone; they are bereft of company and love. In this scene, the particular Humper begs for guidance from an unknown entity. Be it God, the weltgesit, or humanity itself, there comes no response. They live in a world of pure id; a world sans consequences.

Through these actions, the Humpers are able to experience something that is genuinely unfathomable in contemporary society. Because of their actions, their indiscriminate violence and savagery, they are able to distance themselves from society and return to the state of nature. Through this, the Humpers are able to touch the eternal. Society and modernity distances man from his roots through technology and community.

And yet, this distance from the state of nature is what defines man as human; it's these actions that separate mankind from the world of beasts. Even the appearance of the Humpers makes them more akin to animals than humans, as their faces are disfigured beyond recognition. The ubiquitous revelry in pleasure destroys the humanity within them, and Korine begs for us to be disgusted by them.

Man is a social creature. He seeks accompaniment and companionship. Rather than a "monologue about the benefits of living headless," TRASH HUMPERS is more a critique of living in an acephalous fashion. It's an affirmation of morality rather than a rejection of it.

"The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame." -Oscar Wilde

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