Re-enter the Void
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Harmony Korine, U.S., A24
Upon exiting an opening-weekend, multiplex screening of Harmony Korineâ€™s Spring Breakers, I overheard a late-thirty-something dude in a fedora exclaim to his friend, â€śIt was so genuine. So unironic.â€ť My gratitude to him for crystallizing for me the target audience for 40-year-old Korineâ€™s millennial-MTV-culture snapshot cum gonzo dream ride. Moments earlier, those in the audience who better reflected the demographic seen in the film were occasionally giggling, texting, and mocking, and when the closing credits began to roll, some sarcastically applauded (with one girl loudly proclaiming Selena Gomez deserves a supporting Oscar, while bursting into laughter). Two proper responses, perhapsâ€”with the younger, a casual, perhaps befuddled and flippant engagement with a film that resembles schlock but positions itself as art; meanwhile, the older, more discriminating responders had been indoctrinated in the media-approved Korine narrative. Surely Korine also believes heâ€™s created an unironic film, a heartfelt testament to the youthful spirit that still pulsates beneath a culture of excess. And surely fedora guy would tell us his hat is worn unironically tooâ€”he just likes the look of it.
Thereâ€™s no evidence that Korine is aiming for irony with Spring Breakersâ€”contemporary, media-driven culture is so self-reflexive that itâ€™s hard to tell the difference between earnestness and satire anymore. That ambiguity of meaning fuels Korineâ€™s film. Spring Breakers is not particularly subversive, save for the publicistâ€™s-dream presence of former Disney princesses turned bikini-clad, gun-toting revelers who say things like â€śmoney makes my pussy wet.â€ť Thereâ€™s already been a Brooks Barnes New York Times Arts section article about Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) shedding the shackles of a career in the Mouse House, along with Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars, from the Disney-owned ABC Family network. What the article misses, as do those who see a simplistic good-evil split between â€śindieâ€ť and â€śstudio,â€ť is that Korine is just as much a brand as Disneyâ€”just substitute Shock for Wholesomeness, enfant terrible for infantile.
Aside from the good-girls-gone-bad angle of its conceit (according to Korine, heâ€™s playing with â€śpop mythologyâ€ť), the film is conceptually, and even visually, rather tame. Nevertheless, many criticsâ€”whether weâ€™re young or desperately want to seem youngâ€”are giddy over the film, applauding it for being â€śhallucinatory,â€ť â€śvisionaryâ€ť or â€śsurreal.â€ť Watching the film, I couldnâ€™t help but feel a disconnect between the Korine of our collective wishes (the one whoâ€™s our stylish ambassador to self-destructive youth culture) and the Korine onscreenâ€”the one with the purposely impoverished aesthetic who reifies rather than imaginatively reappropriates that culture in a different, though equally preening, register.
Opening with a perfunctory (intentionally?) hyper-speed montage of sweating female crotches, beer-soaked breasts, and suckled popsicles, Spring Breakers attempts to plunge the viewer into the weird new America, where the young, beautiful, and horny ache to get out from behind their devices and just, like, connect. Thus for its four female college-age protagonistsâ€”vaguely inhabited by Gomez, Hudgens, Benson, and Rachel Korine, the directorâ€™s wifeâ€”the prospect of a spring getaway is more than just party nirvana, itâ€™s a lofty, even spiritual goal. The girlsâ€™ mix of directionless aspiration and lethargy is evoked in disconnected scenes: they exchange notes during a class discussion on the Civil Rights movement (â€śI WANT PENISâ€ť surrounded by a heart shape, and â€śSPRING BREAK, BITCHâ€ť scrawled over a doodle of an erection), do handstands in grubby dorm hallways, sensually blow pot smoke into each otherâ€™s mouths, and seemingly improvise meandering dialogue while sprawled across a bathroom floor, one of them casually aiming her fingers in the air like a gun. Save Gomezâ€™s pointedly named Faith, a good girl first seen at a church group preaching about temptation and youth safety, the young womenâ€™s sexual appetites seem knotted up with an underlying death drive. Soon, wielding sledgehammers and water pistols filled with alcohol, they rob a fast-food chicken restaurant to fund their trip to Florida (a silly spectacle safely filmed from the window of the getaway car). â€śPretend itâ€™s a video gameâ€”act like youâ€™re in a movie or somethinâ€™,â€ť one of them says in prepping for the occasion, a line stated again over the soundtrackâ€”one of many aural repetitions throughout the filmâ€”telegraphing not only the filmâ€™s themes but also its apparent aesthetic mission statement. As Korine stated in an interview: â€śI wanted it to work in a very physical way, in a way that was more like a video game or a piece of electronic music. In other words, something thatâ€™s just beyond simple articulation.â€ť
The perspective of Spring Breakers feels a bit too omniscient and scattered for it to truly evoke a video game, and itâ€™s a bit too visually pedestrian to be the abstract mash-up that Korine, and its fans, seem to want it to be. If the film is at all â€śbeyond simple articulationâ€ť that might be because it has nothing much to say, it just wants to feel. The most daring aspect of the film is that it largely seems to refrain from judging the puerile, sensational, misogynistic, and violent culture that it dramatizes, preferring instead to locate its presumed hidden poetry. Fair enough: for these kids-run-amok, this journey constitutes a search for meaning as much as a cross-country road trip or a walk in the desert. (In case we miss that point, thereâ€™s always a breathy voice-over around the next corner telling us what a â€śspiritualâ€ť journey this is, or that â€śitâ€™s like paradise here.â€ť) Yet when a film so intensely immerses itself into the debris of contemporary culture, one mightâ€”and shouldâ€”expect something more than mere aggressive mindlessness.
At least the four, expressionless, sensation-starved girls create a space we can project on to; James Francoâ€™s wannabe drug czar Alien (modeled, or perhaps not the actor says, on rapper performance artist Riff Raff), however, seems a dead end. Itâ€™s clear why Francoâ€™s performance has been wildly acclaimed: Korine lavishes attention on him, and his showboating Alien, a self-conscious white appropriator of black culture, fills the intentional void supplied by the women. Heâ€™s the filmâ€™s only actual character. With his cornrows, maddeningly attenuated Southern drawl, and mouth of gleaming gold teeth, he is also its ultimate fetish commodity. At one point, when showing his decked-out house to the young women (whom heâ€™s bailed out of prison and therefore made indebted to him), he simply gleefully names things in his bedroom: tanning oil, nun-chucks, knives, pistols and automatic weapons, and, of course, â€śScarface on repeat!â€ť We spend a lot of time in Alienâ€™s company, heâ€™s a static visual jokeâ€”appropriately, later in the film, Korine has him perched at his gaudy, poolside white piano hitting the same note over and over.
The lack of forward motion in Spring Breakers is clearly intentional, as the film feels increasingly like an arrhythmic, circular song on repeat. Once the three remaining girlsâ€”Faith, freaked out by Alienâ€™s (mostly African-American) criminal world, has headed back homeâ€”are partnered with Alien, the film falls into a monotony of recurring images, sound bridges of pistols recharging, and drawled voice-overs, most prominently Francoâ€™s nearly incantatory â€śSpring breakâ€¦ spring breakâ€¦4-ever!â€ť It all â€śseems like a dream,â€ť as one character instructs us. As shot by BenoĂ®t Debie (the cinematographer of French art-shocker Gaspar NoĂ©â€™s Irreversibleand Enter the Void), the film grows ever more nocturnal. Finally, at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Benson and Hudgens doll up in glow-in-the-dark Pussy Riot gear to exact vengeance on a competing kingpin of Alienâ€™s, played by rapper Gucci Mane. The expected violence that closes Spring Breakersâ€”white girls in ski masks and bikinis blowing away a beach house full of black gangstersâ€”is shot with the same somnambulant disinterest as the rest of the film. Korine politely declines to engage with the racial, sexual, and cultural implications of his climactic images in favor of a purely sensorial treatment. He just wants an invitation to the party.
Korine may think his films are difficult for the average viewer (â€śThereâ€™ll always be a large segment of the audience that canâ€™t deal with my films because I'm attracted to things that are morally and graphically ambiguousâ€ť), but Spring Breakers is remarkably easy, an accessible variation on the reveling in cultural detritus that marked his last feature, Trash Humpers. The film ostensibly turns horrific, yet it never lets go of its surface sheen and erotic appeal. Perhaps for fear that Spring Breakers might seem chastising or moralizingâ€”or ironicâ€”thereâ€™s no whiff of genuine danger here. Itâ€™s like a Gregg Araki movie without politics, or hip-hop without a social conscience. If heâ€™s intended to make a film as ephemeral and gutless as the culture it portrays, then heâ€™s accomplished this regrettably minor ambition.