Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)

When I first started seeing the marketing images for Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, I was wondering exactly what James Franco was doing jumping into the seedy pool of the celebratory ritual that is the "spring break film" or really any youth oriented sexualized exploitation. Franco definitely doesn't seem to want to play by anyone else' rules, but so far, he seems to be relatively thoughtful in choosing his roles, and it just didn't fit. Was this maybe some kind of attempt to give the middle finger to some perceived image of him as someone who wasn't willing to go against the grain of "political correctness"? I wasn't sure. It wouldn't completely shock me, as Franco has resisted almost all attempts to corner him as anything other than an actor who can carry a film.

Then, I realized it was a Harmony Korine film, and the state of confusion only deepened. I've seen Kids and Trash Humpers. Nothing in the marketing made any sense in connection with what I understood of Harmony Korine's films. Did he just get tired of languishing in relative obscurity and decide he was going to go for the big money? His films have almost always been in complete opposition to what the trailer and marketing were suggesting. He has no trouble dealing with tough, controversial material, presenting things with complexity and even when he's not at his best, he's still never produced anything that any amount of consideration can call exploitation. I had to hope there was something else going on here.

Luckily for all of us, there is.
The marketing for the film is deeply unfortunate in that it does suggest this is going to be some kind celebration of the blindly bovine ritual of Spring Break. On the other hand, having seen the film, I'm not exactly sure how one could pull out thirty seconds to two minutes from the film and not have it look that way. Korine is playing with satire here, and he's doing it with a completely straight face, the entire time. There's no winking at the audience. There's no knowing nod to let you know this is all just one insane, liquor drenched joke. He seems to think we're all smart enough to figure that out on our own. I almost always try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but not this time. There's just too much there and the film is too dense to really address without getting into spoilers of some kind. It's just too dense to get across in a two or three minute trailer. I'll give a more general review of the film first, and get into more detail in a section that will be marked for spoilers after.

Our heroines arriving at Spring Break!
Superficially, Spring Breakers is about four college freshman (Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson, Selina Gomez) who decide they need to do anything they can to get to Florida for Spring Break in order to escape their mundane lives. Anything means anything, so they manage to get their hands on enough money to get them there. When they do get there, it's anything but mundane. That's the shortest version of the story. That's not what the film is actually about though. It seems as if Korine threw all of today's mainstream popular youth culture into a blender, distilled it to it's essence and then followed it to it's furthest logical conclusion. In it's own crazy, neon drenched way, Spring Breakers is about the messages being sold to our youth and our culture as a whole, when no one else is stepping in. It's about media, capitalism, materialism, consumption, sexism, exploitation, liberation, violence and so much more. All of the emotional content of the film is derived from reacting to the characters actions. The characters themselves aren't self aware enough to even deal with whether they have feelings, other than a hunger for more, much less to know that they're feeling anything. Interestingly, as far as this Spring Break is concerned, when you feel something, and you become aware of it, you're out, one way or the other. It boils down to being about the idea that too many people are being hollowed out by the combination of all of these things. What's left are swirling black holes where the promise of a humanity of some kind once resided, consuming everything and everyone in their radius. He's done all of that, and also succeeded in making an art film. It's kind of astonishing and is going to be beyond the limits of most casual moviegoers tolerance. 

There's the fantasy of Spring Break, and then there's the reality. The fantasy actually opens the film and is interspersed throughout. It's all sun and beautiful people, on the beach in various states of undress, engaged in some of the most nonsense forms of behavior one can imagine. Breasts and booze fly freely, and often collide. The reality, from the films perspective, is something else altogether. It's as alcohol fueled and as obsessed with skin and sexuality, but it's much, much dirtier, grimier, funkier, downright weird, and somewhat dangerous. It's a haze of booze, skin, drugs, the degradation of anyone willing to participate in their own degradation, and the exploration of taboo. The people may be physically attractive, but nothing else is.

Everything in the first act is from the point of view of Faith, Candy, Britt and Cotty, the Spring Breakers of the title. Everything in their homes and college is presented in colorless, drab, monotonous scenes, down to the dialog, half of which is put to dream like montages showing the characters going about their lives, not so differently than many other college students. With the exception of a classroom and a scene in which faith (Selina Gomez) attends a kind of new age youth outreach church service (itself an empty redundancy), there isn't anything resembling a figure of authority through the entire movie. Korine is making a point about the institutionalization of the experience of youth, and Spring Break is presented as more or less another institution. There's a hint of darkness underneath the surface, a few quick scenes suggesting there may be something else driving at least a few of these characters than a wish to escape monotony. Most of it doesn't have the feel of any kind of conventional narrative, but it does a great job of conveying the almost instinctual nature of these characters motivation. They're being driven by things they haven't even stopped to consider.

When they actually reach Florida, everything becomes louder, brighter, and even more out of context than it was before. Every color pops off of the screen like a scream in a deserted church. Everyone is beautiful and either smiling or engaged in some form of physical/carnal pleasure to a point that they seem to have lost themselves completely. Our protagonists ride scooters through empty streets, zig-zagging, laughing and attracting attention. The cinematography is as close to perfect as can be done. Everything is either gorgeous or helps convey the dingy, gross feel of the environment the girls are inhabiting from one moment to the next.

All of it is set to the pulsating pounding soundtrack put together by Skrillex, the reigning champion of the world of dubstep. The only point the frenzy slows down at all shows the girls end up sitting outside a restaurant, and belting out a rendition of Britney Spears "Hit Me Baby One More Time," before Cotty, Candy and Britt take Faith through the particulars of how they acquired enough money to make it to Spring Break. Faith seems to be the only one with any sense of self awareness, and is somewhat disturbed by what she hears. At one point after though, there's a voice over of Faith's character, ostensibly calling her grandmother back home, which plays through scenes of the girls playing on the beach, cocaine being snorted off of nubile flesh in dingy hotel rooms, the girls in a crowd cheering on two other girls who are headed toward having sex on one of those dingy hotel room floors, everyone is nearly drowning in alcohol. All the while, Faith waxes poetic telling of how "this is actually a really spiritual place," "everyone is so warm and nice," and "everyone is just like us." The effect is disturbing, titillating, sad, horrifying and ridiculous from second to second. It's also quite interesting in that Faith is the only character to show any self awareness, and in this particular scene, she's lying to her grandmother ("We're not drinking"), lying to herself, but at the same time there's a sense that she also believes what she's saying. It's a particularly effective scene because of just how conflicted and complicated it is, with just the voice over and the montage of images. It's as if Faith's self awareness is the exact thing that helps her to create the thing she needs in order to follow whatever it is that is driving these girls. From the standpoint of pure cinema, it's an inspired scene because of just how well it communicates that combination of complex ideas with such simplicity. 

If anyone had any doubt that the film was embracing a satirical approach, it should have gone out the window with the arrival of James Franco's character, Alien. A rapper, drug dealer, and all around hustler, Alien is so far over the top in almost every scene that the seriousness which one should take the thrust of the actual narrative should become very clear, which is to say, it's not to be taken very seriously at all. Spring Breakers is not a film to take literally. What Korine and the film have to say about Alien, the life he lives and the girls involvement in it, is what's actually to be taken seriously. It's over the top alright, but Franco imbues Alien with a combination of charisma, cluelessness and the drive of a shark that smells blood in the water to make him one of the most memorable characters since Daniel Day Lewis played Daniel Plainview. This is Franco's milkshake moment, and in one particular scene, he so hyperactively inhabits the character for a monologue that lays out Korine's argument against everything about materialist gangster culture, it's simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. James Franco gives what is definitely going to be one of 2013's best performances in what is guaranteed to be one of the years best characters. Franco's career will be marked by pre-Alien and post Alien. Don't be 'spishish, whatever else you may think of him, Franco proves he's the real deal in this performance as an actor to be taken seriously and Movie Star caliber leading man. All you have to do is look at his sheeyit.

That scene does take one of the films most interesting turns as well, that can't be at all discussed without breaking some of it's power for those who haven't seen it. It's powerful enough to be worth discussing though, and it'll be in the spoilers section. 

It's no accident that Faith, is the first to decide she wants to get off this ride and after a deeply creepy encounter with Franco's Alien, she boards a bus to head for the safety of college and home. Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine, the directors real life wife) and Britt (Ashley Benson) are all left in the care of Alien, whose motives are suspicious, at best. They are down for the ride as they're taken off the institutionalized path of Spring Break and into Alien's life and compound. It's at this point, when the only character with a solid sense of conscience or self awareness leaves the story, that things begin to go beyond the kind of mindless indulgence and hedonism of what we normally characterize as Spring Break and some real pathos begins to show through. Alien's world is full of dangers the privileged children of Spring Break will normally avoid at all costs. His underestimation of the entire situation leads to the films finale.

By the end, Spring Breakers becomes a bullet through the heart of the dream that there is any way to stop what has come to pass for what Korine sees as the nihilism of consumption driven modern popular youth culture. Even Alien, who fancies himself a shark, gets swallowed up by the black hole of insatiable self indulgence and consumption the protagonists are the perfectly drawn metaphors for and engines of. The essence of who he is gets consumed the minute he shows any kind of self awareness. Then it's metabolized and reformed, like everything else entering the focus of our protagonists. Harmony Korine may have just made the first film to seriously comment on the fact that what passes for popular youth culture today is really more or less the encouragement or creation of sociopaths and probably cultural suicide. The film is disgusting, disturbing, harrowing, enticing, engaging, in your face, with often gorgeous photography and best of all, brilliant.


There are a few things worth discussing for those who've either seen the film or for those who've seen the marketing campaign and read the more damning reviews and decided they don't want to see Spring Breakers. One is the issue of exploitation. The other is that there are some specific markers through the film that make it very, very clear that Korine is saying something about culture and popular media on a broad scale, in a satirical way. Getting too specific about those in the more formal review would have spoiled some of the experience of watching the film that I, personally, found most interesting.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the marketing campaign for this film is incredibly unfortunate, and at the same time, I can't possibly see how a traditional marketing campaign could ever have conveyed what this movie is about. In part because of that, it's extremely easy to get the idea that this is an exploitation film wrapped up in an art house package. That would be both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. It's right because the film is in many ways about exploitation. What we're being shown, on screen, during the film is the continuation of an exploitation that started long ago. The exploitation of these kids started as soon as they were old enough to watch television, understand language and begin to understand music. As Faith states it, kindergarten. In a strange way, that's what the film is actually about. If you make the mistake of thinking the film is about Faith, Cotty or Alien, you're dead wrong. They are all supporting characters. This is about Candy and Britt. Candy and Britt are the distilled spirit of exploitation. If that wasn't the case, the film would have ended as soon as Faith, Cotty or Alien's particular parts of the story had. Candy and Britt are driving everything in the film. All of the events in the film take place because they are pushing them forward or they do something. Everyone else are either bystanders or essentially being exploited by them, until they can't be exploited anymore, and then they're gone from the story. From the robbery that supplies the money to get there, right on through the rest of the events in the film.

There's a specific scene in which James Franco's Alien gives a monologue that is surely going to go down in film history with Al Pacino's Tony Montana and Michael Corleone monologues. Directly following that monologue, during which everything absolutely suggests Alien is in charge and he has these two girls in his thrall, that he'll be able to do with him whatever he pleases, the tables turn. The girls, both armed with loaded guns that he'd just been using as a method to attempt to gain sway over them in the form of admiration, are now pointed at him. Having already robbed a small fast food restaurant for the money to get to Spring Break, the two girls have no problem establishing their dominance in that moment. Silencers equipped, they begin sticking them in his mouth, and every word coming out of their mouths is the epitome of male porn fantasy, reversed. They're the ones with the dicks now, and Alien has them in his mouth. There is a very real question about whether or not Alien is going to live through that scene until he begins to willingly fellate those guns. When he begins to participate in this moment of his own exploitation, the tone of the scene changes, and it's clear then that Candy and Britt aren't going to kill him. It's not clear that they weren't going to kill him at all, it's clear that they decided not to when he became a willing participant in his own degradation and humiliation and that he did so joyfully.

It's at that point that he says he thinks he's found his soul mates. Alien becomes essentially drunk on their attentions, which is one of the things common to people who participate in their own exploitation, a specific need being fulfilled by those who are exploiting them. In his case, it's the need to be recognized by someone as bold and brash as he is, that's also as lost in the spectacle of consumption as he is. That's his error though. What he takes as bold and brash isn't. It takes a degree of self awareness to be those things, which neither Candy or Britt possess. Aside from the fact that they're practically one character throughout the entire movie, there isn't a single expression of anything that doesn't involve further consumption or taking something a step further. For them, there is only more, and it's no different than breathing. If there's any recognition of anything other than that, it's that Alien is the one who finally set them free from any boundaries they'd previously had. In doing so, they're the engine for his death.

The minute he admits to being frightened of attempting to kill his former best friend and current arch enemy, Archie (played by Gucci Mane), is the only moment he shows a sense of self awareness, and in that scene, it becomes another kind of dreamy sequence with a montage of him preparing and also sitting with the girls (after having had sex with them in the pool, the only actual sex scene in the film) where there is the consistent repetition of them pointing out that he's scared. To be sure, Archie has already shown himself to be a dangerous character and the implication that Alien, Candy and Britt are going to storm his home to kill him would scare any sane human being. That admission and demonstration of self awareness essentially means that he has to go, so when he's killed by the first person they encounter at Archie's compound, it's really no surprise. Alien was just someone who got caught in the gravitational pull of the exploitative engine that is Candy and Britt, the minute he becomes self aware, that gravitational pull is lessened, like anyone who suddenly becomes aware that they're being exploited, and control is tenuous. In the moment before he's killed, neither of the girls attempts to do anything. A man with a gun is running toward them. They're both armed. They don't react until after Alien is shot. He thought he was going to have some play toys in those girls, until they demonstrated that they had no fear of him or need for him whatsoever, the only thing they all had in common was more, until Alien reached a line he wasn't sure he could cross. That line created the self awareness, which was his undoing.

When Faith reached that line, meeting Alien and being taken into his world, she left the film as well. The same was true of Cotty. When she came to the line she couldn't cross, continuing to act like all of it was awesome after getting shot in the arm by Archie, she left the film and story. Alien left the story too, he just didn't live. Nothing mattered but Candy and Britt and their need to go more, do more, have more. Candy and Britt had internalized all the other things the other characters were representing to a degree that neither of them even existed anymore. All those two characters are is the distillation of the kind of cycle of exploitation in popular youth culture, which oddly, makes it even more appropriate that the cast is full of Disney girls. In the same way that these girls have to so radically change their images in public perception after having been in the thrall of Disney for so many years, there is no room in the kind of exploitational youth culture Korine is addressing for self awareness or individuality. All things must serve and allow for exploitation.

It's even in the dialog. In the scene following Faith's attendance of a corny and ridiculously uber Christian youth church, she's standing outside talking to two of the other girls who were there. When they ask her whether or not she's going to Florida and she tells them who she's going with, Faith tells them Candy, Cotty and Britt. The two girls then tell her to watch out for Candy and Cotty, that they're "demons." Faith's response is that they're sweet and she's known them since kindergarten, right about the time most kids are being exposed to popular culture now. In the theater, the audience, including me, laughed at that pronouncement, even though there was already a sense that Candy and Britt were of different stuff than the other two girls. I don't mean to say that Harmony Korine is in any way saying these Candy and Britt are demons of the supernatural variety, but he's using the two girls at the youth church to express the idea in the vocabulary they would use. In that metaphor, they are the spirit of exploitation, which is what the film is about and why they are the only two characters to make it through the entire film.

There's been a lot of talk about the fact that there are a number of different points in the film when certain phrases are repeated, beyond the point of redundancy. Most of the other mentions of this lay it off as being something related to the youth of the characters and that in youth, people will repeat things often, almost like mantras. That doesn't ring true to me given the rest of the film and it's metaphor. It makes more sense that the repetition is more in line with that of advertising and commercial culture. It's the way the same fifty songs are played on commercial radio all day, every day, for weeks, until they've been used up and bled dry and disappear (like any of the characters who were no longer able to be of use to Candy and Britt). It's also similar to the way the same commercials will play repeatedly through any single program on commercial television. Any good advertiser knows that nothing is better than repetition. It doesn't even have to be a good commercial, it just has to be one that catches attention, and then it's repeated, over and over and over. The same is true of political communication. Any time a candidate or party hits on a phrase they want to take hold, it gets repeated until it just becomes part of the overall discussion, as if it had always been there. Candy, Britt and Alien are all employing exactly the same technique, they're just doing it to each other and anyone who happens to enter their sphere of influence or gravitational pull. Also, there are a number of general ideas that are consistently repeated throughout just about every form of youth culture. It doesn't matter whether or not they conflict with each other, what the consequences of those ideas are in real life application, they're repeated consistently, because they sell. Korine's use of that same kind of repetition comes off more like a comment on that than it does a comment on the way young people speak to each other or communicate in general.

Outside of Candy and Britt, the other characters are all representations of general populations or demographics found in relation to media in youth culture. Faith, as the single self aware character in the film seems to represent the kind of person who understands the debauchery of Spring Break as exactly what she expresses it to be, "a chance to see something new." And given her name, Faith, it also can't be completely ignored that she's the character who ends up demonstrating faith in something other than the kind of empty consumptive culture the rest of the characters almost completely buy into. When the experience goes beyond the bounds of what she finds acceptable, she makes a decision, and sticks with it.

Cotty, is representative of another kind of person. For her, everything is acceptable until the consequences reach a point she can't accept. In her case, it's that the pain becomes literally too much. It's physical pain, but I don't necessarily think that metaphorically it is only physical pain. The pain and consequences of the kind of emptiness Britt and Candy embody is often emotional and psychological long before there are physical consequences.

And then there's Alien. None of the characters in the film more embodies the culmination of the worst aspects of media culture now than he does. He has swallowed all of it whole, and has done everything he can to attempt to embody it. For it, he pays with his life. And consistent with the metaphor, I do think he is absolutely sincere when he says he's in love with Candy and Britt. Being that they represent the kind of spirit of exploitation in so much media, and how driven he's been to fulfill the ideas it spreads, it makes complete sense. Unfortunately, if that is the case, if one has so completely come to identify themselves through that lens, it will probably last until their death and that will mean that essentially, they will only have lived with some sense of self awareness until they began to attempt to become that avatar.

Alien is representative of all of the people who are going to go see Spring Breakers and think it's a behavioral model they should follow, because it's "cool." In a way, this is a Harmony Korine fairy tale about getting lost in the wilderness of modern media, and those folks are too lost to be able to hear it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments should be respectful. Taking a playful poke at me is one thing (I have after all chosen to put my opinion out there), but trolling and attacking others who are commenting won't be accepted.