The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Best Independent Films of 2013


Maintaining a blog keeps getting more and more difficult. With teaching and more academic writing – books, articles, chapters, conference papers, and lectures – it’s been an even harder struggle this past year. I’m one of the four editors of a new book series on screenwriting for Palgrave. Two books – Ian Macdonald’s Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea and Eva Novrup Redvall’s Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing – were published recently. Both are highly recommended. Kathryn Millard’s Screenwriting in a Digital Era, on which I served as editor, will be out in early March, hopefully in time for the SCMS conference in Seattle.

My colleague, Kelley Conway, and I organized the annual Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) conference in Madison in late August, the first time it has been held in this country. David Bordwell wrote a detailed blog about it. I was too busy worrying that everything would go smoothly. It did. Scholars and practitioners attended from all over the world, including large contingents from Australia and New Zealand, the UK, as well as Finland. Jon Raymond, Larry Gross, and Kristin Thompson gave great keynotes, along with Jill Nelmes who conducted a keynote workshop on research possibilities within the field. Putting on the conference was well worth the effort – it was a terrific event. I look forward to attending the next one in Potsdam, Germany, October 16-18, 2014. It is being organized by Kerstin Stutterheim. The deadline for submissions has been extended until January 25.  In any event,  I hope to see you there.

I also showed my own films and lectured on the films of Andy Warhol in Seattle, Portland, and Eugene this past fall. A special shout-out goes to Vanessa Renwick, a great filmmaker, for all her help. Her short film, Britton, South Dakota (2003) is one of my favorite avant-garde films of all time. I’ve seen it at least 10 times. You owe it to yourself to buy her compilation video, which you can order through her website, The Oregon Department of Kick Ass.

I’m scheduled to be in Boulder for a Guy Maddin Symposium in early March. Maddin will also be in Madison for screenings in February, so I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to both events.

My best film list always comes out in February, but last year it came out much later than I wanted, so I’m trying to make up for it by posting it very early (at least for me) this year. I feel much more optimistic about the state of indie cinema this year. As a matter of fact I thought it was truly great year in terms of quality, even with the entire industry in transition.

A number of films that appear on my list were shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April, though it’s taken me months to write about them, mainly because I needed to have a chance to view them a second time. Joe Swanberg, Frank V. Ross, Dan Sallitt, and Andrew Bujalski all attended the festival with their films. The first three filmmakers generously had special sessions with our advanced production students.

I try very hard to see the films in theaters. There is something I still love about the big screen and seeing a film with an audience. To me, streaming has its limitations. Amazon Instant and iTunes have been screening some indie films at the same time they are released theatrically. That’s how I saw Drinking Buddies. Factory 25 has only released some of its great indie library of films that way. Call me a contrarian, but I still like owning the DVD or Blu-ray.  

I have seen many of the films that make other people’s lists. I managed to view such titles as: Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Upstream Color, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Prince Avalanche, Stories We Tell, This is Martin Bonner, Mud, and Museum Hours, among others. My favorite documentary was Leviathan. I was grateful for a chance to see it in a theater at the Wisconsin Film Festival. By the way, I highly recommend Scott MacDonald’s new book, American Ethnographic and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn from University of California Press.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2013:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1.   Spring Breakers  (Harmony Korine)
2.   Frances Ha  (Noah Baumbach)
3.   Computer Chess  (Andrew Bujalski)
4 .  The Unspeakable Act  (Dan Sallitt)
5.   Drinking Buddies  (Joe Swanberg)
6.   Sun Don’t Shine  (Amy Seimetz)
7.   Tiger Tale in Blue  (Frank V. Ross)
8.   Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (David Lowery)
9.   I Used to Be Darker  (Matt Porterfield)
10. All the Light in the Sky  (Joe Swanberg)

Spring Breakers knocked my socks off. I love that the coeds drive all of 38 miles from Sarasota up (not down) to St. Pete. They claim to be in search of themselves and something different, yet they are already in a warm climate. Spring break turns out to be only more of the same, only on a grander scale. And James Franco, please give that man a statue. When he fixates on Selena Gomez, am I the only one who thought she cried real tears because she was having flashbacks?

As far as influence, this seems to be the year of Joe Swanberg. He has connections, in one way or another, to eight of the ten films on the above list. No one has ever had two films on this list in a single year. That’s pretty impressive. For the record, Joe’s favorite film of the year was Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue.

Tim Sutton’s Pavilion and Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, which won the Director’s Award at Sundance last January, are two films that easily could be on my list. Jill is a former student, so I don’t claim to be objective, but Quentin Tarantino had her film on his list, and I totally understand why. Jill takes more risks in her debut feature that most other directors would take in a career.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2012,” “The Best Indie Films of 2011,” “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009,” and “The Best Indie Films of 2008.

Note: A special thanks to Michael Trevis, along with Peter Sengstock, for helping me to maintain this blog. I also owe a great debt to the programming of Jim Healy and Mike King at the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival.

Posted 10 January, 2014

Spring Breakers


Harmony Korine has tried really hard to be America’s most vilified filmmaker. He wrote Kids (1995) for Larry Clark at age nineteen, which made $7 million at the box office and gave him credentials within the industry. With $1 million from Fine Line, his own debut feature, Gummo (1997), turned his hometown of Nashville (masquerading as southern Ohio) into what most people thought was a fictional freak show. Critics were not amused. Janet Maslin declared it the worst film of the year in the month of October, and even J. Hoberman had only derogatory things to say. Pitched to the youth crowd, the film grossed only slightly more than a tenth of its budget. Julian donkey-boy (1999), Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2010) didn’t fare much better at the box office. Until now, Korine has been more interested in creating individual scenes, so it’s no wonder that his films garnered fans but not a wide audience. In a sense, Spring Breakers was probably do or die for Korine career-wise, so it’s truly amazing that he has managed to create a major hit with his exploitation fantasy of young college women gone bonkers.

I doubt that Korine has first-hand experience with the American college ritual known as “spring break.” He was instead associated with street culture and the graffiti art scene that sprang from Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery on the Lower East Side of New York City. Underneath the trippy and colorful opening credits of Spring Breakers, we hear sounds of the ocean, gulls, and squeals of young kids enjoying the surf. This is followed by a prolepsis. In slow motion, we see gyrating bodies of college students with arms raised victoriously in the air. Young women shake their asses at the camera and expose their bare boobs, doused in beer, while the young men use cans and bottles of the same liquid to simulate peeing into the open mouths of coeds beneath them. College guys grab their crotches like rappers, a group of women suck on rainbow popsicles suggestively, while a number of both men and women stick out and wiggle their tongues, or flash us the middle finger as they jump in the air ecstatically.

The film cuts to black, after which we see two college women, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson) smoking bongs with two guys, while a third woman with streaks of pink in her hair, Cotty (Rachel Korine), lies passed out on the couch. Following this, we see typical images of students on a small southern college campus. Brit and Candy sit in a darkened lecture hall, where Candy draws a pictures of a penis and simulates oral sex, while tuning out the professor’s lessons about civil rights and the black freedom struggle. Meanwhile Faith (Selena Gomez), sits cross-legged in a born-again Christian group presided over by a guy, who claims to be crazy for Jesus. A couple of believers later warn Faith to stay away from her friends, especially Brit and Candy, but Faith counters that she’s known them ever since grade school. Our four female protagonists are bored with college. In their minds – and this is a hilarious conceit – going on spring break will be a transformative event that will somehow forever change their lives. It will be, but in ways they can hardly anticipate.

The women actually don’t have enough cash to go on spring vacation, but that doesn’t stop them. Three of them – Cotty, Brit, and Candy– rob the car of one of their professors. In order to jack up their adrenaline, they scream, “Just fucking pretend you’re in a video game, act like you’re in a movie or something.” Brit and Candy rob the local Chicken Shack, while Cotty watches from the getaway car. Dressed in black ski masks and carrying a small sledgehammer and squirt guns that look like the real thing, the two women violently smash plates and terrorize the patrons (the black ones fork over their wallets, while being careful to show no visible reaction). After setting the vehicle on fire, the three return to the dorm with wads of dough. Faith is initially shocked, but seeing all the money excites the women sexually. Cut to a shot of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida, and then shots of the four of them inside a bus of rabid partygoers.

Spring break is one endless party after another, as the four coeds join in the fun, which includes getting drunk and high with the anonymous throngs of college kids that fill the motel rooms, balconies, swimming pool, and sandy beach. Everyone partakes of the bongs that get passed around, snort lines of cocaine, and act generally obnoxious. Faith’s phone call to her Grandma bears no resemblance to the images we see on the screen: excessive drinking, drug taking, girl on girl smooching, and grinding flesh. Instead, Faith describes spring break as “the most spiritual place she’s ever been” – magical and beautiful, and full of new friends from all over. She wants to come back next year and even hopes her grandmother can join her. “It feels as if the world is perfect,” Faith tells her, “like it’s never going to end.”

It doesn’t take long for the four women to get arrested by the police who cart them off to jail in their skimpy bikinis. Facing a huge fine or additional jail time, the women are bailed out by a demented white rapper named Alien (James Franco), who sports silver teeth, corn-rows, tattoos all over his body, and talks like he’s a gangsta. We see him and his sidekick (Russell Curry, aka Dangeruss) perform his hit song “Hangin’ with da dopeboys!” for the spring breakers earlier, but he and his twin skinhead associates (who likewise have silver teeth) also run a huge drug operation. Alien takes to these pretty young women, especially Faith, but Alien clearly freaks her out. “This is not what I signed up for,” Faith says tearfully, once Alien makes her play pool in a smoky room with a bunch of black thugs. As she cries, she tells the others, “We don’t know these people and I don’t know this guy and I just want to go home.” Remembering her bible study lesson that Jesus provides a way out when faced with temptation, Faith abruptly abandons her spring romp, and, to our surprise, exits the movie.

Faith is right about one thing: Alien is one crazy dude. As he tells them when they are released on bail, “Truth be told, I ain’t from this planet, y’all.” In his mansion, he brags to the women about having gobs of money, an arsenal of weapons, and a house filled to the brim with material possessions. “Look at my shit” he keeps repeating, as if it’s a mantra. He claims to be living the American Dream, and driving around town in his white sports convertible with sexy coeds clad in bikinis is, for him, its fulfillment. To Alien, life suddenly feels like a dream. At magic hour one evening, the three women, dressed in pink ski masks, demand that he play them something sweet and uplifting. He responds, “Oh, y’all want to see my sensitive side.” He sings a song by Britney Spears, whom he describes as “a little-known pop star,” and “one of the greatest singers of all time, and an angel if there ever was one on this earth.” While the women pirouette and dance with raised assault weapons, Alien does a rendition of “Everytime” on a white piano at water’s edge.

But Alien’s blissful fantasy, like spring break, is a temporary bacchanal that can’t last. Indeed, it turns out that Alien and his gals become engaged in a drug and race war with a black criminal named Big Arch (played by rapper, Gucci Mane). We know from Chris Fuller’s Korine-inspired Loren Cass (2009) that St. Petersburg has a history of racial tension. It was the scene of race riots in 1996, when Fuller was growing up there. The narrator of Fuller’s film intones: “St. Petersburg – a dirty, dirty town, by a dirty, dirty sea because the soul of the railroad is the chain gang.” This side of St. Petersburg is not much in evidence to the spring breakers who temporarily flock there, but the town is apparently too small to accommodate both Alien and his former childhood friend and mentor, Big Arch, who tells his associates: “He’s taking food out of my baby’s mouth. My baby’s hungry. My baby needs to eat. My baby’s starving. And we’re going to do something about it.”

True to his character’s name, James Franco’s performance is out of this world. In pushing his character to such an extreme, he toys with psychodrama, in ways that recall Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant (1992) or Nicholas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss (1989). Franco’s portryal of Alien teeters on the verge on caricature, but it’s the rapper’s vulnerability that makes him such an endearing character. The four college women, especially Selena Gomez, are great as well. John Waters wrote about Spring Breakers: “The best sexploitation film of the year has Disney tween starlets hilariously undulating, snorting cocaine, and going to jail in bikinis. What more could a serious filmgoer possibly want?” Yet Korine takes an exploitation film that displays women’s bodies and inflects it with a decidedly feminist twist. Spring Breakers may be a barrage of glitz and allusions to pop culture, but it has substance, as well as a cockeyed sense of humor. It’s totally fitting that the last image of the movie is upside down.

Spring Breakers goes well beyond being a play on genre. The film’s fragmented and elliptical style eschews linearity in favor of collage. Korine’s play on time mixes future, present, and past – fantasy and memory and dream – into his own version of drug time and a subjective mental state, as shots and snippets of dialogue repeat, images destabilize and contort into amorphous swirls of grainy color, time shifts, moods change, and our sense of reality gets confused and threatens to break down. Thanks to Benoît Debie’s awesome cinematography, the film is so awash in psychedelic and fluorescent colors that watching Spring Breakers really feels as if someone slipped you a hallucinogen.

Posted 1 January, 2014

Best Independent Films of 2012

My best film list always appears in February, but I’m late this year, mainly because, even though I saw a streamed version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, I wanted to see it again in 35 mm. It played at our Cinematheque only last Friday. Yet, that issue aside, it’s been a hard year for me to keep up with the blog. Due to time constraints, I’ve been forced to be more selective in my coverage. As a general rule, I don’t write about films unless I’m enthusiastic about them and have an opportunity to view them at least twice.

More of my attention this year went toward other pursuits. My book, The Black Hole of the Camera: the Films of Andy Warhol, was published by the University of California Press in April. As a result, I’ve been screening films and lecturing more than usual. I gave two conference papers, a couple of presentations at the Brakhage Symposium in Boulder, a keynote in Sydney, and screenings and talks in Milwaukee, Boston, and Houston in the fall. I’m also co-organizing, with my colleague Kelley Conway, an international conference on screenwriting. The 2013 SRN Screenwriting Conference will take place in Madison (August 20–22) and will feature 70 scholars from around the world.

On one level, I could complain that independent cinema seems to have fallen off a cliff. Although there are more films being made than ever before, getting them distributed has become even more difficult than in past years. Many people, especially those living outside major cities, don’t seem to want to leave their houses. People want their media when they want it, so streaming has become the preferred means of distribution, relegating DVDs to the latest casualty of the digital revolution.

The situation for indie cinema is a lot like in the 1960s. Now that there’s less prospect of there being a pot of gold out there for the grabbing, independent filmmakers, in some ways, are making the films they really want to make. I applaud that impulse. Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham are now considered mainstream. You can make fun of mumblecore all you want, but it had an undeniable impact. By all accounts, 2013 promises to be a great year for independent cinema. Andrew Bujalski, Richard Linklater, Matthew Porterfield, David Lowery, Shane Carruth, Harmony Korine, and Jeff Nichols, among others, all have new films.

Most top ten lists are based on a film having a theatrical release. Using that criterion, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue count for this year rather than last. The same goes for Tim Sutton’s Pavilion. I’m starting to feel that the line has become extremely blurry. I wrote about Bad Fever and Green ages ago. Chris Smith’s The Pool, which was listed in my 2008 poll, only recently made it out on DVD.

I’ve seen many of the films that made other more eclectic lists: Holy Motors, Amour, Cosmopolis, Tabu, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, The Kid with the Bike, In Another Country, and so forth. I also saw some wonderful avant-garde films, including several programs of Phil Solomon’s work, as well as programs by Vanessa Renwick and Stacey Steers during the past year. I also saw Chris Sullivan’s terrific animated feature, Consuming Spirits, but regret that I’ve only seen this new version once, and haven’t had the opportunity to write about it. I also try to follow what’s screening in museums and galleries. By far, the most impressive piece I saw was Eve Sussman’s self-generating and ever changing whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, made in collaboration with the Rufus Corporation. I found the interplay between the computer program and what appears on the screen to be utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the work with the film’s actor, Jeff Wood, who spoke at the screening I attended in Houston.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2012:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  2. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  3. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
  4. Starlet (Sean Baker)
  5. The Dish & the Spoon (Alison Bagnall)
  6. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
  7. Bad Fever (Dustin Defa)
  8. Green (Sophia Takal)
  9. Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
  10. For Ellen (So Yong Kim)

I found the sheer ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild to be totally impressive. It’s worth noting that Sean Baker has now made three strong films in a row, as has So Yong Kim. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet convinces me that she has emerged as a major American indie filmmaker. Loktev has indicated that the film was incredibly hard to shoot. To anyone who has ever made one, that’s pretty obvious. In terms of performance, I found the chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander in The Dish & the Spoon and between Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson in Starlet to be pretty riveting.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2011,” “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009,” and “The Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 28 February, 2013

Best Independent Films of 2010

I’ve posted my “best film” list for the past three years now in February rather than December like other critics and bloggers. The reason is simple. Because I’m based in the Midwest, I always want to be sure I’ve seen all the major indie films that might be worthy of consideration. As I keep complaining, despite my best efforts, that’s not an easy task these days. So it takes me a bit longer to catch up with all the films I want to see. That said, as it turns out, I could have posted this earlier because none of the additional films I watched ended up making the list.

Some “best film” lists have strict rules. One blog limits indie films to budgets of under $1 million. The budgets on my list vary a great deal, but most of them (with the exception of Life During Wartime, Greenberg and Winter’s Bone) are pretty miniscule. On the other hand, there are many films made for a pittance that I wouldn’t consider independent – they’re really industry calling cards. I have little personal interest in such films. Another list insists that a film play at least three times. That might work in New York City, but here we’re often lucky if a film like Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica plays even once. It did in January at our Cinematheque, and I was grateful for an opportunity to see it. To my great surprise, Trash Humpers played for a week. The two other people at the screening I attended left after ten minutes. At least people had a chance to see the film, but that’s often not the case, which continues to be the major problem for alternative cinema.

I liked quite a number of international art films this year: Fish Tank, Everyone Else, Mother, White Material and The Strange Case of Angelica, among others. But again the focus of this blog is American indie cinema, not because of chauvinism, but because that happens to be my main research interest. There are plenty of other Web Sites out there that cover other types of films.

My list surprised even me this time around, which I guess is part of the fun of the exercise. For the record, I’ve seen every film at least twice. In fact, I never write about a film on the basis of a single viewing. No film seemed to benefit more from a second look than Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Trash Humpers, while a polarizing film for audiences, also resonated more on a second viewing. Less than half of the films on the list had brief commercial runs in town (Madison, Wisconsin). Three of them played at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw some excellent films and videos in art galleries and museums in NYC this year. Standouts include: Ryan McNamara’s dance piece, I Thought It Was You, Tommy Hartung’s stop-motion animation The Ascent of Man, and works by Kalup Linzy, Dani Leventhal (all seen at Greater New York at PS 1). I also admired Mika Rottenberg’s Squeeze at Mary Boone in conjunction with Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2010:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie)
  2. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
  3. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
  4. Face (Andy Warhol)
  5. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
  6. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle)
  7. Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham)
  8. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
  9. The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)
  10. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)

There were many extraordinary film performances this year: Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl) , Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Ronnie Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs).

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “Best Indie Films of 2009,” as well as the “Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 23 February, 2011

Trash Humpers

To many critics, Harmony Korine’s last feature Mister Lonely served notice that he had finally mellowed. News that he had gotten married, had a baby, and moved back to his hometown of Nashville was supposed to be the confirmation of this. Mister Lonely, his story about a Michael Jackson impersonator, was completely wacko, but it contained much more plot than usual, had big-name actors, and a much larger budget. In retrospect, Korine now expresses impatience about dealing with the logistics of such productions. His latest film returns to a DIY aesthetic with a vengeance. Shot on VHS, Trash Humpers revels in poor quality images that occasionally breakup, roll and drop out, while depicting a kind of unabashed freak show.

J. Hoberman calls Trash Humpers “a gloriously desultory slap in the face of public taste,” which seems a fair description. The film has the sensibility of a nightmarish carnival. Wearing geriatric masks, three characters – Korine calls them elderly “peeping Toms” – wander through a poor neighborhood of Nashville on crutches and in a wheelchair. They hump trash cans and trees, defecate, masturbate, light firecrackers, and generally wreck havoc by smashing everything in sight, especially old television sets. After destroying a television set and boom box, they tap dance gleefully in a parking lot at night, as a stream of cars pass by.

A young kid in a suit misses every attempt at getting a basketball through the hoop, as the old folks cackle at each failure. After they sing a song about a “Single Girl,” the kid takes a doll, shakes it vigorously and laughs maniacally. He says, “This is how you should do it.” The kid then shouts, “I told you I’d kill it, as he beats a doll with a hammer with such delight and enthusiasm that most viewers might be tempted to call Social Services. Equally disturbing is the scene where the elderly woman, “Momma” (Korine’s wife, Rachel), sits in a wheelchair and instructs the kid on how to put a razor blade in an apple – every parent’s Halloween nightmare.

The Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, make pancakes, as the others chant, “Make it, make it, don’t fake it.” When the twins serve them, Momma claims the food is poison. The old folks then force the twins to eat the pancakes doused in dish soap rather than maple syrup. Eng gives a speech about how nice it would be to live without a head: “Think how much money you would save on shampoos and hats.” He concludes: “And best of all, no one would get dizzy again.” Chang and Eng then tell a brief story about their lives, including Eng’s refusal to be separated by a doctor after Chang died. After Eng expires – his death is conveyed via a sock puppet – Momma yells, “I said make us laugh, motherfucker! That shit was depressing!”

Three women in skimpy underwear bend over on beds with their rear ends raised high in the air, while the old folks slap and feel their asses, all the time grunting and squealing with delight. The women then massage two of the old guy’s crotches while singing “Silent Night.” Someone sings a song about three little devils (“Three little devils jumped over the wall, chopped off their heads, and murdered them all”), as we see a naked and headless corpse in a field. A guy with white hair and a beard, dressed in a cocktail waitress outfit, delivers a poem while the old folks set off fire works. In the next scene, he lies in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. Like the doll earlier, he appears to have been bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Korine has always been interested in scenes rather than entire films. There’s the remarkable one of the young foul-mouthed cowboys robbing, molesting, and gay-baiting the androgynous skateboard hero, Bunny Boy, in Gummo. And when the blue-robed nun falls out of an airplane and flies through the air in Mister Lonely and we hear the incredible whooshing sound of the wind, it offers a visceral jolt that’s not easily forgotten. The episodic Trash Humpers, however, tries hard not to offer much in the way of conventional narrative pleasure, even in individual scenes.

Korine likes to be deliberately offensive. For instance, he includes a bad stand-up comic, who wears a neck brace and has his arm in a sling. He excels at telling very unfunny anti-gay jokes. Korine gives the guy enough rope to hang himself several times over. To mistake either the deranged kid in the suit, lessons on how to slip razor blades into apples, or the bad stand-up comic as speaking for Korine is to miss the point of his provocation. Korine is merely serving up the kind of fantasies that viewers might have of poor Tennessee neighborhoods.

Any interview with Korine, such as the one in Filmmaker with Scott Macaulay, who served as a producer on Gummo, is so tongue-in-cheek that even Korine had to laugh several times. I love it when he describes working together with his nearly blind editor in their underwear because of the intense heat. Korine continues: “He’s 75 percent blind, and we would just take apart the machines and I would always catch him sticking pencils in the VCR to give the footage these glitches.” That’s indicative of Korine’s special brand of vaudeville humor.

Trash Humpers abounds with references to other films and the art world. Besides many of the ones that Macaulay astutely mentions, Trash Humpers will remind viewers of the photographs of Diane Arbus, but even more of those of someone like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an optician living in Lexington, Kentucky, who made creepy images of kids in masks in abandoned buildings and suburban backyards. Korine comes out of skateboard culture, and his work has been part of a Modern Gothic sensibility that has been in vogue in the art world since 9/11. He shares an obsession with death and the grotesque that we find in works by Banks Violette, Matt Greene, Sue de Beer, Olaf Breuning, and the sculptor David Altmejd.

Korine and Rita Ackermann currently have a collaborative exhibition based on Trash Humpers, entitled “Shadow Fux,” at the Swiss Institute in New York City. In an interview about the show, Korine and Ackermann attempt to invert the normal and the abnormal. Korine, for instance, responds: “Yeah, I mean, I married a woman who can swallow fifteen live goldfish in a single gulp. It doesn’t feel like that’s anything strange to me, it feels like there is a poetry to it. All that my neighbour does is steal yard furniture, he just goes around stealing it. He’s a very old man and that’s his hobby.”

As Jerry Saltz explains: “Indeed, almost all art that could be called Gothic has an ironic edge: It’s aware of its position, even the absurdity of its position, yet it persists with sincere tongue in ironical cheek.” Yet despite the film’s ironic stance, moments of genuine feeling manage to surface in Trash Humpers. In one of the later scenes, one of the elderly guys (played by the filmmaker) drives through the neighborhood and comments: “But sometimes when I drive through these streets at night, I could smell the pain of all these people living in here. I could smell how all theses people are just trapped in their lives, their day-to-day lives. They don’t see much.”

In Trash Humpers, the world may be represented as a weird, violent and crazy place, but it’s instructive to note that Korine’s film ends with a tender lullaby.


Last week, Jim Emerson over at “Scanners” had a post on Trash Humpers. Neither Jim nor his dog apparently cared for the film very much. But I was surprised that he thought that the controversy surrounding Netflix’s initial refusal to carry the film might have been a publicity stunt concocted by its distributor, Drag City. Jim writes: “So, maybe there was a bureaucratic snafu. Maybe Drag City made the whole thing up. I don’t know. But unless anyone has any proof (like a verified letter from Netflix outlining reasons for rejection, followed by another letter of acceptance), I guess I will have to remain skeptical.”

Well, I can’t provide legal documentation that would convince him, but I do have a former student, Mitch Bandur, who works at Drag City, and, based on an email I received from him some weeks ago about the incident, I do believe Drag City’s version of events – it wasn’t a publicity stunt at all. The larger issue has to do with the power and control that the bigger companies like Netflix and Amazon are gaining over distribution, especially over tiny distributors. In terms of Netflix, lately I’ve noticed that my “saved” queue (availability “unknown”) is getting to be larger than my regular queue. To me, that points to the simple fact that it’s getting harder and harder to view the indie films I really want to see.

Posted 16 January, 2011

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