In Search of Duende: Trash Humpers
Down the long gravel road was nothing but a buzzing power transformer. I’d imagine it to be the tower of Babel—its static hum the combined languages of the human race transcended back to God. We lived in the middle of nowhere and we sometimes ventured up the long gravel road to get hot dogs or go practice religion. I didn’t attend school anymore. Our house had a plaque of a rusty eagle in its tympanum. I stayed home and watched Dinosaurs and swam topless in our cheap swimming pool. The dogs barked up at us. June bugs circled on their backs in the too-blue water.
It was 1991 and I was seven and not allowed to celebrate Halloween anymore. Our neighbors had a daughter with a disability, and the father hauled scrap metal and collected cans. Shiny mounds of metal and unused cars glittered through the thin trees in their yard. My then stepdad stole roughly six thousand dollars from Payless. He was let go and the owner did not prosecute. For a short time, my stepdad was a car salesman and showed up home sometimes in a different ride. Our car’s ceiling upholstery sagged and I would press slowly on it and think of all the pregnant dogs’ smooth teats.
When in school I made paper masks with Crayola markers and construction paper. I drew the aliens I saw on library books my mom would sometimes check out. I liked Halloween. In defiance I gathered my plastic costume and slept under the bed with it, my back flat against the brown carpet, looking through the cut out holes of a smiling, incisored Tiny Toons Babs Bunny.
This was not Lorca’s Spain, but rural West Virginia, Appalachia. Lorca states that “every country is capable of duende.” Of course, duende, that ineffable qualia of art, is most pronounced in the body. I remember the Milton Opry House, hay covering the floor, and stomping wildly with an old drunk man as my stepdad plucked his mandolin.
Almost twenty years later I’d find myself at a screening of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) at West Virginia’s historic Keith Albee for the Appalachian Film Festival. The theater is breathtaking with its ornate plasterwork and gilded “Spanish baroque features.” That night the ceiling’s stars twinkled above a full house—a community hungry for something beyond the famous and infinitely popular hotdog festival. I attended with friends that were like me: white, lower-middle class, and had lived in West Virginia their entire lives.
It didn’t take long. Within ten minutes of the screening people streamed out the theater. Light drifted into the dark room as exit doors opened and closed. The film, notorious for its badness, loomed large. On the screen one “humper” fellatioed a tree branch, another smashed windows, spanked prostitutes, proselytized, jigged and tap danced in the shattered remnants of an old cathode ray television. Is it Art? Horror? Comedy? However, I didn’t budge. The grainy images of Korine and the cast donning grotesque latex masks reminiscent of the ones Ralph Eugene Meatyard used in his indelibly creepy photographs, moved me. The ugly beauty of it. The film served as a conduit to some untouched memories from my past.
Trash Humpers was filmed in Appalachia, specifically in Korine’s hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. The gang of humpers, or what Peter Bradshaw refers to as “hillbilly weirdos,” move boundlessly. The film is a brisk 78 minutes. Shot entirely on VHS, it is a series of lo-fi fragments, vignettes. Korine initially wanted to just leave the tape somewhere, to make it explicitly “found footage.” The film follows the humpers without any overt narrative progression. Beyond just the standard “humping,” humping as fervent as any pubescent teen, their childlike behavior contradicts the geriatric masks they wear. In one scene Momma takes a wheelchair to a car wash, hosing it down wildly for a significantly long amount of time, almost as a kind of torture. In another scene, bordering vaudevillian, a cross-dressing poet in a maid’s uniform recites lines as one humper punctuates his recitation by throwing firecrackers on a parking garage rooftop. And in another, a humper sings “Three Little Devils” as he focuses the camera on a form sprawled in the grass. It is unclear what we are seeing, and it is strangely beautiful. As he circles the form, we realize it is the balls and ass of a deceased man. It’s strange to admit, but these extended shots, for me, resurfaced the “dark sounds” of the particular rural landscape of my childhood. What Lorca regards as the “mystery, the roots that cling to the mire…[that] surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.”
Lorca says, “the duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” Beyond economic deaths, educational deaths, overdose deaths, Appalachia carries a kind of pastoral death: the cratered hillside replaced with slurry ponds and refineries; a discarded refrigerator in a flooded creek; the road cat that followed you one day, later to be found dead by overturned trashcans, her entrails spilling pink into the street. There was a rawness to the images and performances. Darkly funny and perverse, but undeniably familiar.
Meatyard said he used masks as a way to erase the differences between people, that “a mask serves as non-personalizing a person…everyone was connected.” It makes sense to me that these masks were purchased in Lexington, KY, at Woolworths, a five-and-dime store, later demolished into a parking lot.
I should say, like the movie itself, this essay is quite fragmented, reaching back to the very past, to the kinda past, to now.
“The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.”
Early in the film, the humpers engage a boy preacher. He wears a suit and sits on Momma’s lap, the other humper harnessed as the driving horse for this wheelchair chariot. The “religious enthusiasm” that Lorca speaks of, is manifest in the rhetoric of the humpers themselves and the image of the cross, but it is not tinged with strict blasphemy or hope. The grotesque masks evolve: there is tenderness swelling. Though they inflict carnage, there is vulnerability when the forms crouch to shit outdoors, the band aids loose over their veins, or when Momma cradles dolls “suffocated” with plastic. Who is the devil? Are they the devil? Lorca admonishes that duende should not be confused with the devil, but is “descended from the blithe daemon…diminutive as a green almond, that tired of lines and circles fled along the canals to listen to the singing of drunken sailors.” The word duende itself is a word rooted in mythology and goblins. I say, these goblin-humpers are rooted in the painful mythology of Appalachia.
There is an incredibly high concentration of Bible-centric hot spots in Appalachia. The image of the boy preacher is kindred to the boys I witnessed, tiny briefcases. As a girl, I dressed to go “door-to-door,” tracts and Bible in hand. In the front seat adults chatted. I looked out the windows as we touched the far reaches of our county; ripped screen doors, babies crying, televisions loud through the thin walls of trailer parks. A boy preacher reliant on a need and hunger for paradise. “White trash:” the grotesque and should-be-discarded embrace their “trashiness” and fuck it passionately.
Outdoors I ran sticks along chain link. I had eye patches and thick glasses. The girl next door, she was a few years older, would come over. I remember an old wheelchair in their yard. I never saw her mother, but only glimpsed her dad, sometimes hooking snakes from the well, tending wildflowers. Our living room had no furniture in it and when she came over we just laughed and contorted our faces and sang.
One time, she had stayed well into the evening, and she had an accident, the feces spilling onto the brown carpet. Her embarrassment was palpable. Her budding body and long beautiful hair framed her. We left it there. Back then, I couldn’t hold it and the bathroom wasn’t always available, so I knew what it was like to have the grass tickle you. So, we just ignored it, and kept playing. I walked her back home in the dark.
That night, I slept above the crumpled costume, the flimsy mask beneath my bed. I loved my masks. They let me be someone else. I loved to both scare away the dead and to be the devil.