Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine)
I never saw any of Harmony Korine’s movies during his cultural heyday — that would be pretty much equivalent to the amount of time it took the juvenile-delinquency exploitation pic Kids, which he scripted, to lose its place in the public consciousness. The real essence of that strange period of time was all in the worried news reports about that film anyway, which were the logical fruition of Korine’s vision if not director Larry Clark’s. Now that he’s made his own movies about bacon on the wall and trash humping, the real essence of Korine is in stuff like the ridiculous “Ask Me Anything” session he spent with Reddit users last year. Cryptic, juvenile, a hilarious act of baiting and trolling — that’s high art.
Seeing Spring Breakers as being wholly divorced from Korine’s outside shenanigans is easier than you might think. What’s hard is fully appreciating how it will look outside the specific context of this time and place, America 2010-14, when Skrillex was popular and Jersey Shore ruled the non-airwaves. Rarely has a film so inherently nonverbal and minimalistic tried to say so much about so little. And what is Korine’s chronicle of a pack of wild youngsters robbing a fast food place and living it up south of Jacksonville? An affectionately vapid love letter to the abandon and numb dumb of adolescence? A cautionary tale of things spiraling out of control from a simple yearning to get away? Or is it all just flashy, out-of-touch bullshit eye candy? If I tell you it’s less insightful than the more measured but also more robustly satirical The Bling Ring, does that mean anything? What if at the end of it, Spring Breakers amounts to little more than a highly cinematic experiment capturing a weird little subset of humanity? What if the fact that it can mean any number of things means not that it’s empty but that it’s valuable?
Truthfully, it’s hard to know what to make of such an odd picture — tangentially realized, with liberal use of hazy photography, constant repetition (including musical), and a sort of vague, glazed-over zombie drugginess. It might take me a year to unpack just what I got from all of this. Up until the girls get busted for underage antics and James Franco shows up in the courtroom to bail them out, it works tremendously well as a surreal tone poem, and it’s a welcome feature of Korine’s apparent non-consciousness of all things that it didn’t seem to be a scold — the characters aren’t really that distinctive, but the strange aesthetic journey of their big hedonism trip is quite striking to behold. In other words, it looks and sounds amazing and is less interested in moralizing than it documenting — both rationally and emotionally.
When we bring in the plot — wherein local moronic gangster Alien (Franco) attempts to train the girls as his wards and both creeps them out and is ultimately usurped by at least half of them — it’s a bit of a buzzkill, especially in regard to the vague stuff about Alien’s gangster rivals, but then again it hits hard and jolts back into action at three crucial points: a truly spectacular sequence that has Alien showing off his “stuff” while two of the women coo and aah until turning the tables on him rapidly, as stunning a moment as the corresponding gun scene in The Bling Ring; the piano rendition of the Britney Spears song, because why not, it transcends irony and cultural condescension and becomes truly unnerving and poetic; and the closing Dogville hat tip,which is a small triumph of impeccable irony: violence against violence. The movie’s an absolute pleasure to look at and get swept up in, and part of that is marveling at its sheer stupid audacity.
But again, What Does It Mean? As a Korine head trip, it has its limits. I’m not sure I get the “slamming the American dream” stuff that so many others have written about — it sounds like a bit of a rote idea to me, and requires the film not to be on the side of the (by the last scene) two remaining spreakers. I think it is; up to the finale, their actions — however immoral (the robbery) and impulsive — are mostly benign. When they kill people, of course, things change, but this clinches the film’s status as a deadpan satire. Of what? Maybe of the general Reefer Madness-like alarmism of exploitation cinema: of course if young women decide to be “bad girls” and have the sex and smoke the weed and whatnot They Will Soon Be Killers, lock up your daughters, etc.
But more pertinently, and to that last point: it’s kind of a cathartic moment, defined in microcosm by that handgun-fellatio sequence, wherein female characters are permitted a Taxi Driver revenge on the world at large. Completely wrongheaded, and yet as an answer to the casual violence of American movies in general — much of it violence against women — it seems sickeningly appropriate (and horribly satisfying as an ending, especially with Ellie Goulding’s tremendous “Lights” blasting just after). And if you don’t buy that the film is satire, if you think Korine is just indulging a spring break boner (which is an understandable interpretation, and there isn’t necessarily anything awful about him doing that), I point you to the moment when Alien says “Scarface on repeat” five or six times. That bit is so obviously silly that Korine almost gives the game away. For the most part, it’s to the film’s credit that it leaves itself so open-ended. But there is something infinitely humorous in not just what it shows us and what it does with it but the fact that it seemingly inadvertently gets us all thinking and talking about it all. I’m reminded of Albert Brooks’ line in Broadcast News: “You blew the load off nookie.” So kids like to blow off steam, spend too much money, get too drunk and too high and have casual sex when they’re left unchecked — dust off those thinkpiece notes and stop the presses, right?