28 March 2013


Full disclosure: my feelings towards director Harmony Korine (without, admittedly, having seen every last one of his features) are largely hostile. I'm not terribly much a fan of filmmakers who are outright provocateurs to begin with, but where as your Lars von Trier or your Michael Haneke at least have unmistakable talent and a kind of refined European worldview that gives even their slimiest works a veneer of intellectual distance, Korine strikes me as sort of a brat, doing snotty things just because fuck you. So when I first heard tell of his new project, Spring Breakers, in which Disney Channel idols Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens shed their wholesome image as slutty, amoral substance abusers alongside Ashley Benson, of teen thriller series Pretty Little Liars, and the director's fantastically mis-cast wife, Rachel Korine, I was not "dubious" so much as I was instantly and utterly repulsed.

Shorter: no, I did not go into Spring Breakers with an open mind. Tragically, even we film bloggers are but humans, given to being controlled by our passions and biases. On the internet! It is truly unbelievable.

Spring Breakers is about a cluster of college girls, Faith (Gomez) and the other three (Hudgens, Benson, Korine) - look, if the script and directing isn't going to make any serious, concerted attempt to differentiate between them, fucked if I'm going to - who want so badly to go to Florida for spring break. Tragically, they are short of cash, so without telling Faith until later, the other three hold up a diner with very realistic squirt guns. From there, it's off to several days of drinking so much beer, and smoking so much pot, and snorting so much cocaine, and crossing paths with the charismatically disgusting Alien (James Franco, in an extraordinarily committed performance that gets wearying long before the movie ends), who makes the charming gesture of paying the fines after the four girls end up being a little too rowdy and ending up in jail for it. This, of course, hides a Darker Purpose; Faith keys into it fairly quickly, but the other three either don't notice or more likely don't care, and thus end up as the pawns in Alien's sordid little drug empire.

For a simple scenario, Spring Breakers has a surprisingly large amount to unpack, so let's start with the snarky, low-hanging fruit: this is essentially Slut-Shaming: The Movie. For all the chatter about how much Korine is celebrating the institution of spring break vs. condemning and satirising it, there's really very little doubt that he actively hates his characters, taking every possible moment to insult and mock them. Several times, we hear the content of a voicemail left for a parent or grandparent, in which one of the girls (usually Faith) speaks with glowing, innocent phrases about the uplifiting, exciting world they have entered, all beautiful and holy and magical, while the imagery underneath is filled with chaotically edited shots of alcohol splashing off of naked breasts, illegal acts being performed by the dozens, and generally animalistic behavior that's at a 180° from the breathless promises of "I want to come here with you next year, Grandma", or whatever. It is slick, nihilistic irony of the most self-satisfied and unattractive sort, and it is merely the the most obvious expression of the film's totally functionary view of its female characters, named or unnamed, clothed or unclothed. From at least the moment of that diner robbery, Spring Breakers adopts a tone of moral panic different from something like Reefer Madness only in that Spring Breakers is an exceedingly well-crafted movie and Reefer Madness is a dizzy mass of sheer incompetence.

And if it were as simple as all that, how easy life would be. But like I said, there's a lot to unpack here, for Korine is far too smart not to have anticipated that someone like me would come up with an argument like that, and he laces Spring Breakers with some kind of solution: it's not just a movie recoiling in terror at expressions of female sexuality by exaggerating them to the point of an absurd crime thriller, it's a parody of that tendency in a male-dominated media landscape! This is the same out Korine built into the ugly, pointless Trash Humpers, his last feature - the "I meant to do that" defense, and the hell of it is, he absolutely did mean to do that, there's no doubt about it. But frankly, that kind of post-modern bet-hedging is at least as tiresome as open misogyny and shallow gawking at half-naked women, and considerably more nihilistic: it's all but admitting that the point of making the movie isn't to get at any emotion or even intellectual conceit, but simply to bait people (the whole point of casting Hudgens, Gomez, and Benson in the first place). Frankly, I'm not even a little bit sorry that I just don't give a shit.

(It's also pretty unfortunately race-baiting, with every African-American character some manner of an interchangable thug, and the seedy, devilish Alien adopting the tackiest stereotypical elements of African-American life and proudly noting that he was the only white kid on the street where he grew up. And this is something Korine does not seem to have noticed, which makes it awfully easy to slam the movie with it. Boo! Bad, racist movie!)

I'm inclined to write the whole thing, but then the really rough part comes along: this is astonishingly well-made. Superficially, it's gorgeous: Korine and cinematographer BenoƮt Debie coat the film in a blanket of day-glo colors that almost levitate off the screen, simultaneously underlining the degree of high-energy fun that spring break represents to the characters while also suggesting the artificiality and shrillness that the movie ultimately reveals youth culture to be. The film utilises non-continuity editing, colliding moments and statements in an emotional throughline that has only a meager relationship to chronology, after the fashion of Terrence Malick. It is, in short, a cunning movie, one that communicates its message through a variety of methods, from the ironic counterpoint of sound and image already noted - which is done again when Alien sings a Britney Spears ballad, musically lovely as it is lyrically inane, over images of violent crime - to the tiniest details of how scenes are blocked. It is the perfect version of itself, really. The part of me that urgently, ideologically cares more about how films tell their stories than the content of the stories they tell finds all of this transfixing, and wants me to praise it as a impeccably constructed fantasia on youth culture, all the more cutting as a satire because it is so superficially handsome. The part of me that has a brain and a heart finds this all irredeemably toxic, and great artistry in service of that doesn't make it any less nasty or hateful, and sometimes you have to go with your morality, not your aesthetics.



McAlisterGrant said...

Great review—I am endlessly fascinated by the tension between your progressive ethical values as a person and your passionately formalist ideology as an artistic critic. I would be interested in seeing you do a piece (or series of reviews) about Morally Reprehensible Cinematic Masterpieces as a broader phenomenon (e.g. Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will), if ever such a project struck your fancy.

kevin said...

Oh, good. All of my social media feeds have been brimming over with people—very smart people whose taste I generally respect—going gaga over this film. I was beginning to feel like I was taking crazy pills for thinking Spring Breakers looked like a trashy smear of pop-nihilism. This review explains exactly what I found so offputting about the whole concept, so I'm going to happily avoid this, secure in the knowledge that it would just be wasting my time.

Tim said...

McAlister- I still feel bad about punting on Zero Dark Thirty back in December, and I think I've been looking for someplace to plant my Morally Upright Progressive flag.

I've thought about reviewing those two movies, by themselves, many times. A whole series of it would just make me grumpy, but I'd say at this point that if this blog and I still exist when Birth of a Nation turns 100, I will absolutely review it then.

Kevin- There's this weird thing where intellectuals have to like Harmony Korine. I truly do not understand where it comes from, but it seems like the more media theory education somebody has - thus, usually, the better taste - the more they're taken with him. I find it, personally, much more aggravating than anything in the movies themselves.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I cannot wait to get back to work on Monday and hear my students' reactions to seeing this over spring break. I will probably waste 20 minutes of class time asking them about it, but it will be worth it to hear their reactions on what you touch on here and in your piece for Film Experience: did they feel duped.

The day before spring break last week I heard a lot of them talking about how they couldn't wait to see it, so it will be interesting to see what they have to say about the film itself versus the film they thought they were going to see.

Tim said...

YOU MUST CHECK BACK IN. Or at least put something on your own blog about it. I find this film's reception endlessly fascinating.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Will do.

Brian said...

Normally I'm fairly on board with your takes on films, or at the least I'm in understanding disagreement, but I think you have near totally misread Spring Breakers.

Korine treats his characters with almost no contempt here, and frankly I think you're projecting your own hate for their vacuousness onto what the film portrays. Franco's performance as Alien pretty much singularly dispels this idea that these are characters to be ridiculed: Al's a contentious mix of old fashioned capitalism, thuggery and genuine tenderness. He's caring and loving towards the girls, and when he says that he loves them it comes off as having genuine care for Brit and Candy. In general, Korine is interested in looking for the humanity lying under the dark edges of society. His reputation as a purveyor of shock feels like a misinterpretation of his interest in the grotesque and totally ignores the rather frank sentimentality apparent in his films, including this one.

The superficial voiceovers given by the girls are drawn in ironic contrast to their behavior, but there's no reason to believe that this isn't their spiritual journey they talk about. They're seeking some form of meaningful existence away from their small town lives, something Korine can surely relate to, and in their hedonistic spring break pursuits they've found it. When Faith laments that she wish she could freeze time in this moment forever, it's a genuine sentiment only mocked by the other two girls who realize how fruitless it is. Spring break is an escape from the painful doldrums of small town life, and those faced with mindless repetition can easily find escape through anything exciting. Korine's depiction of spring break is that of pure excess and stimulation, how could a small town college ever compare?

The film's racial elements are where I started to take some umbrage, in particular with the climactic action. However, as was pointed out to me, Faith's departure from Saint P is set off by the creepy white guy with dreads that isn't Franco, and her, frankly fantastic, scene with Alien takes place in a room with all Black people present. This is one area where Korine has either not thought out the implications or ignored those implications completely. It is here where the film loses me a bit, and as a result I can't fully embrace it.

Finally, I have to approach the idea of "moral panic" as you present it. I find it incredibly hard to believe that someone with Korine's past, history of drug problems and friends with ODB just to start, is trying to make this a tale of moral panic. Whether or not the film functions this way is ultimately a subjective claim, but I saw both the disgust and beauty with the excess from his eye here. It seems incredibly reductive to try and make this a movie that moralizes.

(Also you used here instead of hear in the fourth paragraph.)

Brian said...

yikes, i wrote a lot in response.

Ajay said...

What a deliciously appropriate tittle for this review.

Mondays said...

What a bunch of pretentious sniveling little emos you pc lefties are:)

And you're ultimately just as racist as the hicks you think you're so much better than. You just mask it by being paternalistic and patronizing.

Tim said...

Brian- Typo fixed, thanks.

I appreciate the very well thought-out counterpoint, but I'm just not seeing it. If Faith were the protagonist of the movie, I'd agree with a lot of what you say, but she gets ushered off so early that we're only left with three characters who have consistently been presented without any depth of characterisation at all - how far into the film is it that we're even given their names? - and I truly don't see where any of them have the same kind of spiritual growth or rejection of small-town mores that Faith expresses.

As for the theme of using hedonism to get out of stultifying small-town life, that easily could be in there somewhere, but Korine simply doesn't do the work of establishing that their college town *is* stultifying; other than the church scene (which is clearly not meant to be representative of the other three), there's not much we see of the "normal" life. Anyway, the scene where Faith goes back on a bus reads, to me, as unambiguously the right choice, and it suggests that her town is more of a haven than a prison, and that's as close to a character arc as we get: a darkly ironic Dorothy-in-Oz journey where the characters individually learn that home was best all along.

But I also see zero tenderness in any moment of this movie, so like you said, it's all ultimately subjective.

Ajay- What can I say, I've had AD on the brain.

Tim said...

Mondays- I am 100% sure that Harmony Korine is the opposite of the sort of person you think that I think of as being a "hick". Which doesn't make Spring Breakers any less racist. Also, I have no idea what part of anything that anybody's said here reads as "paternalistic".

David Greenwood said...

Mondays - "What a bunch of pretentious sniveling little emos you pc lefties are :) "

Nice smiley. Are you just joshing us or something?

KingKubrick said...

@ Monday,

Classic trolling. Yawn.

Anyhoo, I really dislike Korine for the reasons Tim gets into in the review about him being a pointless provocateur and his movies, while trying to push the envelope, really are hysterical moral screeds in exploitation clothing. I'm going to give this a miss.

Surly Duff said...

Excellent review. I was really hoping you would include your take on this hot mess. I find it astonishing the divide between critics who think this movie is an example of excellent, pointed satire, a scathing commentary of commercialism and sexual exploitation of youth, and those that just find it to be a shallow, empty, vapid mess.

While I can concede it is satire, it does not justify making something so horribly reductive and pointless. Maybe it is just me, but I feel that satire is most effective when it is subtle. Subtlety is more incisive and cutting. The satire in Spring Breakers is sooooo ham-fisted and obvious. The selection of Disney princesses, the juxtaposition of the messages to grandma with shots of sexual acts and drug use, and the girls in bikinis with guns and pink ski masks. Seriously? It lacks any effort. It is just intent to throw breasts and ass in an attempt to pass as a message, I guess. Too much shock and not enough of an effort to make a point to justify so much love from so many viewers.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Alright, Tim, I'm back. Here's what I found out from my students:

1. I asked around, and about 10 students ended up seeing the movie (there's around 80 students in my program). Out of those 10, only three of them found the movie was worth seeing while the others either walked out, complained and asked the manager for admittance into a different movie, or stuck it out until the bitter end so that they could complain to their friends about how stupid the movie was.

2. Okay, so they all felt like the movie was different than what was being advertised. Even the students that kind of liked it, implored their friends on Twitter and Facebook not to wast their time with the movie. The students that really hated it told their friends that it was nothing like what they thought it was going to be, and that they did, indeed, feel duped.

3. "Fucking stupid" was a phrase uttered by a few. Oh, teenagers.

4. When I pressed them why they thought the movie was so stupid, essentially what they said was that it was nothing like the kind of movie they're used to watching. I asked if they thought that was a good thing, despite their hatred of it. They didn't know what to think of that. I tried to get them to see that maybe having a different movie experience -- love or hate the movie itself -- may not be a terrible thing. They agreed somewhat. But they mostly felt like the movie was a big 'ol ball of false advertising, promising them a time at the movies that they were denied after they had paid to see it.

5. The students that liked didn't surprise me at all. They're always talking about movies they watch on Netflix, and they have pretty broad tastes for their age. One of them knew that it was the same director as Gummo. Although, when pressed, they couldn't come up with a good summation of the film or even multiple reasons why they liked it. They just know that they liked the weird trip it took them on.

6. Something I found interesting was their reactions to James Franco's character. Having not seen the film, I don't know if the character was meant to be seen as "cool" by teenagers, but my students found him either funny, disgusting, or just plain stupid. None of them used the word "cool" to describe him.

So, the three students that liked the film seemed to somewhat get what was going on, but the others seemed to be put off immediately by how the movie was something so far away from what the studio was selling them.

Anyway, I thought more students would have seen the film. So I only have limited data to go of. There ya have it.

Tim said...

Thanks for checking back in! Too bad that the sample size isn't larger, but that's about what I'd have expected to hear.