Harmony Korine, 2009 | Charles Ferguson, 2010
There were moments in grunge-poet Harmony Korine’s faux-found-footage poke in the eye, TRASH HUMPERS, where one wondered if he was deliberately inciting viewers to walkout of his film, and a goodly number obliged. Trash Humpers provoked more walkouts of any film in the festival. Hopefully those who stayed were meaningfully stirred, although if the comments I overheard in the foyer are any indication, the style of the film held more interest than its intellectual content, which is a pity given that Trash Humpers is veritably bursting at the seams with socio-political rage.
In this respect, Korine’s film shares something of the philosophic intent found in the work of Ulrich Seidl, Bruno Dumont, Sharunas Bartas, Michael Haneke, David Lynch, and bad-boy auteurs such as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe. It’s easy to miss (or dismiss) the underlying rage the fuels the work of these filmmakers by getting caught up in diverting discussions over accusations of misanthropy or didacticism. For example, the ‘sermonising’ that Haneke is often accused of doesn’t alter the fact that his films are sincere meditations on moral and political paralysis. Trash Humpers is no different, although Korine’s approach is decidedly less rarefied, a million miles away from Haneke’s so-called ‘glacial reserve’.
There is considerably more seriousness of intent to Trash Humpers than its wilfully slapdash and self-consciously confrontational surfaces suggest. Cinephiles may sense the influence of early Werner Herzog, particularly Even Dwarfs Start Small and (especially) the implicit horror of Land of Silence and Darkness, which Korine uses to comment on societal deafness, blindness and mute apathy. I’m tempted to suggest that there are echoes of South Park, Beavis and Butthead, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, A Clockwork Orange, the music of The Residents, and the stick-figure animations of Phil Mulloy in Trash Humpers, but only because Korine’s film expresses the same critical contempt for the pornographic misanthropy of the social and economic plunder of our times, and an equal concern for the resulting psychosocial corrosion. Throughout the film we pass neon crosses advertising business as usual in God’s many and varied hiding places, while the distant hum of long-haul trucks grinding inexorably along the veins of the country provide a low background drone, like an ominous chord sounding from a broken organ in the church of mammon.
It goes without saying that Trash Humpers stands in stark contrast to the specious tropes of mainstream commercial cinema. Where ‘movies’ lull us into reassuring slumber, Korine’s new film attempts to shake us awake. An artist with considerable intelligence and passion, Korine is obviously concerned about the state of the world, firstly and most pertinently as an American disturbed by the expansionist policies and internal despair of his own country, but also as a global citizen coming to terms with unprecedented avarice. Indeed, if one thing characterised the festival for me this year, it was the stunned and incredulous response to the greatest act of larceny the world has known.
The global economic crisis (a term that implicates everyone in the financial collapse, thereby justifying the fact that the world’s most vulnerable will again shoulder the burden of the unregulated actions of a relative handful of venal individuals and organisations) was the subject of Charles Ferguson’s exceptional INSIDE JOB. This film set the tone of the festival for me, to the extent that the innocent mention of Lehman Brothers in Frederick Wiseman’s La Dance was enough to send ripples of unintended meaning throughout Wiseman’s film and nearly every other film in the festival.
Watching Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s insightful documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America (a film about the politicisation of Daniel Ellsberg, a one-time aide to Robert McNamara whose acts of conscience contributed to the end of the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon’s contemptuous presidency), I was reminded that well-chosen documentaries have long been indispensable festival fare. I’ll never forget the impact of Allan Francovich’s On Company Business back in 1981, a dense 3-hour exposé on the activities of the CIA that played no small part in shaking me out of my slumber. At that time, one could reasonably expect such films to reappear on television, but such hopes vanished by the late-80s. Today, even with the Internet and the excellent Maori TV, the festival remains an important platform for films that foster awareness, understanding and engagement with the world. Alas, interest in films with political content seems to have withered. Francovich’s lengthy study attracted a sizeable audience to the Civic 30 years ago, whereas the turnout for Inside Job was conspicuously thin. Could it be that I was one of the few Aucklanders who didn’t know all there is to know about the events that led to the banking collapse? I guess so.
Perhaps people chose not to see the film because they already knew (as I did) that this was yet another documentary about white-collar greed. We all know that when it comes to money, greed goes with the territory. Some of us might even envy those sharp enough to work the system and come out a winner, even if it is tinged with mendacity – haven’t we all bent the truth to serve our own ends once or twice? Even if those guys went too far (we might think to ourselves), the powers-that-be won’t allow the financial system to collapse, will they? Anyway, doesn’t the film clash with a French comedy?
Yes, well, those guys certainly did go too far, in fact it was a surprise to discover that the scam involved sums in the region of 600 trillion dollars, a lot when you consider that the global GDP is only 54 trillion. Despite the fact that deregulation of the financial sector was responsible for the meltdown, many are still convinced by such ideologies. What’s more, despite the magnitude of the crisis, no one has yet been held accountable, and many of those who sanctioned the scam are now advising Barack Obama – at his request!
In terms of bank robberies, there has never been one quite like it. As the title suggests, the film is the ultimate heist movie, and like a good post-modern heist movie, the master criminals get away. The layers of collusion, corrupted ethics, and outright conflicts of interest are mapped out with great clarity and precision, as are the principles of ‘derivatives’ and ‘credit default swaps’, a system where corporations made huge profits by insuring themselves against the inevitable failure of their own financial products.
Inside Job is slickly made, but it's mercifully free of the irritating Errol Morris style of audience-engagement employed in Collapse. I can’t say whether director Chris Smith succeeded in his intention of getting the audience inside the head of Michael Ruppert, whose ideas and predictions about peak oil and the slippery slope he warns we are on are the basis of his film. Ruppert is such a curious figure, it’s hard to tell if Smith is sympathetic towards him or not. Did Smith set out to portray Ruppert as a socially estranged blow-hard with conspiracist tendencies? It’s hard to say, and in any event it hardly matters because Ruppert manages to convey his ideas regardless, some of which are hard to argue against. But he is an unsettling presence, and the sense of danger beneath the surface of the man nearly undermines his argument. There’s little to recommend Collapse on an aesthetic or formal level, but it might make an interesting double bill with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader