Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)

On its face, Spring Breakers is such a quantum leap forward for Harmony Korine that it is easy to overlook what a logical progression it is for the director. Its recursive editing, not merely repeating actions but occasionally anticipating them, reflect the patterns used to chart the directionless movements of Korine’s prior characters, a loose, non-narrative structure that gradually reveals milieu over plot. His settings tend to alienate before they assimilate, and that certainly holds true for the slow-motion shots of Floridian bacchanal that open the film to the oppressive strains of Skrillex. Like a lenticular “wish you were here” card, the montage starts with innocuous shots of young adults out on the beach before a turn reveals bikini tops flying and phallically positioned beer cans pouring on women’s faces. The allure of spring break is laid bare, though Korine has barely even scratched the surface of the hell he will conjure in St. Pete.

To a group of undergrads chafing with boredom at their small college, however, those images are utopia, a heaven on Earth compared to the suffocating tedium of their surroundings. When Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) mime oral sex to each other during an auditorium class, they stick out not for their licentious behavior but for being the only people in the room not staring blankly at personal screens that merely reflect what the giant screen at the head of the class is showing. Faith (Selena Gomez) is a church girl in a phase of awkward transition for Christian youth outreach, featuring such incongruities as a youth minister (neck tattoo, Ed Hardy-esque crucifix shirt and all) standing backlit before stained-glass windows and using the story of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of mankind to demonstrate just how little awe the word “awesome,” a word originally intended to connote a religious feeling, has lost all of its impact. Even goody two-shoes Faith needs to get away, and spring break seems as freeing to her as it does her more raucous friends.

Perspective is all in Korine’s films, and the early, pre-Florida scenes bear that out in his shot patterns. He surrounds the girls’ complaints of having insufficient funds for a trip with shots of empty halls, classrooms and dining facilities that stress how alone they feel that “everyone” but them has left for a great vacation. (Amusingly, people tend to appear in the background of shots of the leads as they whinge about this on-camera.) So, Brit and Candy decide to hold up a local restaurant, which Korine films in a single take that stays in the getaway car with Cotty (Korine’s wife, Rachel) as she drives around windows to the front. Only later, when Brit and Candy re-enact the hold-up in vivid detail for (and to) an unsettled Faith, does Korine show the same event as they saw it, a music-video-style crash of close-up images as they raise hell to terrify some locals out of their pocket money.

The young women get a thrill from their crime, and their comparisons of it to video games and movies suggest a blurring of fantasy and life that explodes when they reach St. Pete and make the acquaintance of rapper/criminal Alien (James Franco). Cornrowed and be-grilled, Alien certainly calls to mind any number of white poseurs, though his massive, impenetrable Carrera sunglasses make him look like Vic Rattlehead as much as Riff Raff. When Alien tells his new buddies that he grew up the only white kid in an all-black school, presumably they all have to fight the urge to say, “No, really?” But his presence grounds the more abstract commentaries about pop culture that come with the actresses’ casting, moving its ideas about cultural attachment to its heavily-marketed simulacra inside the frame.

Pop culture has always informed Korine’s work, albeit usually of the obscure or obsolete variety; think of the death metal of Gummo, the sublimated obsolescence fetish coded into both structure and format of Trash Humpers, or the vaudeville present in nearly all his movies. Spring Breakers depicts people shaped by the mainstream: Alien’s “Look at my shit” monologue not only references De Palma’s Scarface but inherits its manifesto, the equal pride the dealer takes in owning dark tanning oil and assault rifles translating the winner-take-all interpretation of the American Dream from outsized satiric fiction to a much smaller, even banal scale. Korine’s previous characters, presented through a prism of has-been and never-was influences, come off as freaks, denizens of a cultural Island of Misfit Toys, but these characters play as merely exaggerated from the status quo, not divorced from it.

As such, Spring Breakers situates itself not at the polar opposite of reality but at the fulcrum that balances it and dream. That permits Korine to delve into contours around his jaundiced portrayal of the American Dream without having to arrive at any one message. The film’s sexual imagery bears that out, falling somewhere in-between objectification and empowerment. If Franco commands so much more attention than the group of young women, that is only because he serves as a manifestation of their collective desires. Indeed, the women themselves functions as a hive-mind, one that paradoxically becomes even less individualistic as their numbers thin. For every person who departs the group for whatever reason, a kind of essence transfer maintains their spirit in the rest. Then Korine brings Alien into this folded and refolded steel, using a scene that turns the phallic imagery of firearms on its head in a move that does not reverse the power structure between the women and Alien so much as establish a haphazard equilibrium.

That middle-path, inconclusive approach to sexuality is reflected in the film’s equally unorthodox handling of race. If Alien personifies the girls’ collective desire for a life totally opposite to the ones they have, he also magnifies their subtle appropriations of black culture, as seen in the way they hold guns, or the Lil’ Wayne poster that adorns their dorm wall. And if the actresses’ pre-existing reputations as family-friendly entities becomes a key aspect of their descent into Hell, Franco’s own status as a renaissance man who overconfidently believes he can occupy seemingly any space comfortably is perfect for Alien. A god-awful rapper and (despite his ill-gotten wealth and arsenal) petty thug, Alien is amusingly set against rival Big Arch, played by actual rapper, with actual rap sheet, Gucci Mane. Alien reflects fondly on their childhood friendship, in which he taught Arch how to fish and Arch taught him about the business, though the fact that Alien seems to equate his imparted wisdom with the sort that got him his gaudy pad speaks to a level of white obliviousness shared by the girls who can still escape this world when they so choose.

But do they want to? Richard Brody’s piece on Spring Breakers highlights a particularly gonzo sight in the film’s bloody climax, in which blacklighting creates “a cinematographic version of blackface” by artificially darkening their skin. But where Brody sees the masks they wear as a means to “hide the most drastic effects of the visual blackening to which Korine submits them,” there exists also a further transgressive step that adds a kind of “whiteface” over the pseudo-blackface, muddying the racial identifications as much the sexual ones.

By stepping outside the binaries of contentious thematic material, Korine does not reduce his frequently funny film to mere satiric condescension. Nor does he use his images to be a provocateur; indeed, Spring Breakers is evocative, not provocative, searching for grace notes of expression in its cyclical rhythms. A montage of robberies and shotgun waltzes accompanies a sing-along to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” but the amusing juxtaposition (not to mention the bridging of these Disneyfied good girls losing their innocence to the most infamously disgraced Mouseketeer) matters less than the genuine sense of belonging such a moment conjures. Similarly, reassuring phone calls home, ones filled with breathless talk of finding renewed spiritual meaning on spring break amid shots of revelry or crime, hone in on the earnestness in the actresses’ voices. The fulfillment of their dream, of the Dream, may be toxic, but it gives those who see it through a clear sense of identity. That care for each perspective (including those outside any character) trades chic ambiguity for more considered ambivalence, too many possibilities to interpret instead of too few.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic review, one I could not agree more with. I was particularly taken with: "Spring Breakers is evocative, not provocative, searching for grace notes of expression in its cyclical rhythms."

    That's so well said, and, in my opinion, sums up what the film is all about.

    Nice work here.