Film Review: American Iconoclast — Harmony Korine and “Spring Breakers”
This new commercially distributed movie gives writer/director Harmony Korine an opportunity to create a vision of decadence that wallows with cartoon glee in a libidinous, pop culture wonderland.
By Tim Jackson
Since, at the age of 22, writing the screenplay for Larry Clark’s 1995’s Kids and then directing the bogglingly off-center and plotless Gummo two years later, Harmony Korine has become one of film’s quirkiest iconoclasts, a self-proclaimed exploder of American life. Spring Breakers is another battle in his loopy war. It is a film that, as Korine describes it, is “a stick of dynamite thrown into the zeitgeist.” Whether his earlier films are comprehensible, or even enjoyable, is open to debate, but this new commercially distributed movie has given the anarchistic writer/director an opportunity to create a vision of American decay that wallows with cartoon glee in a libidinous, pop culture wonderland.
Spring Breakers features hundreds of partially clad revelers partying amid rivers of liquor and piles of illicit cash and cocaine, an army of adolescent sybarites living large on beaches, in raunchy apartments, and in sprawling gangsta mansions. The cast includes James Franco (as Alien) sporting a major platinum grill and cornrows, three Girls Gone (really) Bad, and one Disney star almost gone bad. While the result may not be dynamite, there are plenty of conspicuous sparks. Korine wants you have fun watching this film and maybe to leave a bit disturbed as well. But as film mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
So what is this cotton candy orgy of bad behavior about? Plot and character development are all but irrelevant. Four bored young ladies, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez) commit a violent robbery to get the cash they need to escape their small town life and attend hedonistic spring break. The plan succeeds: they burn the truck and head to Florida. In voice-overs and in phone calls home, they wax on about the spiritual values of their experience in terms more suitable to the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India. But rather than watching sins cleansed in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, we are given eyefuls of beaches full of gyrating torsos covered in beer, hard bodies guzzling booze in highly imaginative ways, pulchritudinous breasts thrust hither and yon, and magnificent keisters shaking in slow motion. Amid this cheerful, polymorphous perversity a voice is heard: “Hi Grandma. This is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. It such a nice break from reality. So magical. So beautiful.”
Faith, so named for her faith in the Lord, bows out early and thus spares young actress Selena Gomez the worst of the antics. There is a hysterical scene at Alien’s mansion on the beach during sunset. Playing on a white piano, he and the three remaining women sing Brittany Spear’s ballad “Everytime” before donning pink ski masks with unicorn logos and grabbing machine guns. At this point, the movie takes a decidedly violent turn, and the ghosts of character motivation waft out of the window. Scenes worthy of the best Russ Meyer soft-core sex romps arrive. Life, death, and everything in between is done in a bikini.
Korine makes the obvious claim that the movie is about the “poetry of surfaces.” He also argues that “I want them to exist in your mind, in your dreams, and be free. I don’t like judging.” That may sound facile, but there is a bold consistency to what Korine achieves in Spring Breakers, his fifth feature.
His screenwriting debut, Kids, was an unblinking and non-judgmental look at New York City teenagers, promiscuity, and substance abuse. Gummo went a step further in delivering a circus of deviant adolescent personalities. The cast included a young kid in rabbit ears, two paint-sniffing boys (including Jacob Sewell, whom the director discovered on an episode of TV’s The Sally Jessy Raphael Show called “My Child Died From Sniffing Paint”), and from Kids, Chloë Sevigny. For his next film, Julien Donkey Boy, he embraced the minimalist-to-the-max Dogma 95 aesthetic. This minimalist manifesto, dreamed up by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, was an attempt to purify the film process. It contained such decrees as the following:
“Filming must only be done on actual locations and not on sets; no artificial props were to be used; no artificial lights; the camera had to be handheld; sound must never be produced apart from the images on the screen; music must come from an on-screen source.”
The rigor of the demands appealed to Korine, but the story about a schizophrenic named Julian, his pregnant sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), their part-time wrestling brother Chris, and their violent father (played by none other than Werner Herzog), made for a difficult and at times hard to watch film. Korine followed that with Mr. Lonely, a deliriously rambling story that seemed to revolve around a gathering of celebrity impersonators in a Scottish commune rehearsing for some kind of performance. That narrative was juxtaposed with a subplot about a group of nuns who want to jump from a helicopter to test their faith in miracles. The cast included Diego Luna as Michael Jackson, Samantha Morton as Marilyn Monroe, and other notable performers and directors as the Pope, Sammy Davis Jr., the Queen, James Dean, Madonna, Shirley Temple, and the Three Stooges. The helicopter pilot was played by Werner Herzog. The film was incomprehensible, but it was also stunningly beautiful. It seemed as though Korine was evolving a new aesthetic that only he could completely understand.
That effort was followed by the nearly unwatchable Trash Humpers. The nasty little film served up what looked like an assemblage of old VHS tapes filled with what might have been found on the home movies of the family in Chainsaw Massacre. The movie’s demented clan of cretins wore hideous masks and went around, as the title suggests, humping trash cans, eventually committing various atrocities. It was provocative, to be sure, raising questions about why we watch what we watch in our maxed-out visual culture, the ubiquity and impact of trivial (and trivializing) images in an age of omnipresent trash and sexed-out vaudeville. Still, to discuss the film in serious terms left you feeling ridiculous, as though you had been taken in by a film school huckster or a carney rip-off artist. Was Trash Humpers a moronic prank?
Elements of all of these films surface in Spring Breakers: misbehaving teenagers, one-dimensional, sexpot characters, choppy handheld shooting style, upsetting images alternating with beautiful compositions. Korine continues to demand an improvisational, immersive style of acting. He works on the idea for a scene for months or years in advance, but he throws his actors into the scenarios at the last minute, forcing them to live “in the moment.” This spontaneous performance combustion is especially effective for scenes shot amidst the chaos of real kids on a real spring break in Florida.
Much of the film is delivered through a voice-over accompanied by out-of-synch images. The confused visuals are accompanied by a pumped-up electronica soundtrack, much of it provided by rising electronic music star Skrillex. Transitions between shots are often marked by a sound that could either be the cocking of a gun or the loud click of a camera shutter. Sometimes the color is pumped up and solarized, at other times it is drained to a sepia tone. Bodies undulate in slow motion, an ironic contrast to the fast cut crime sequences. Until we meet Alien, the dialogue is mostly heard in voice over, which maximizes the bewildering effect of the film’s impressionistic visual montage. Spring Breakers is about rhythm, energy, and discovery. The narrative moves back and forth in time, leaping from location to location, from one impression to the next.
In other words, with the exception of some riotous and blustery Franco monologues, this is a film that is driven by sensation rather than language. When Alien delivers a diatribe, it is a clown’s version of the speeches in Brian DePalma’s Scarface: “Some people want the right thing. I want the wrong thing,” he announces. “Look. I got shorts in every color, I smell nice. I got gold bullets. Look at my shirt. I’m a gangsta with a heart of gold and I’m all about making money.” At one point, he advises the girls: “Pretend this is a video game. Don’t be scared of anything.”
Korine is fond of quoting director Jean-Luc Godard, whose films are an obvious influence, and who famously said, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” I don’t know if this film even has an ending or if the finale is the figment of a fevered teenage dream. I suspect the director’s intention to “leave a margin of the undefined” won’t matter to viewers who could care less about being reassured that they are watching a satiric “statement” about American decadence and privileged, middle-class white kids. Audiences are there expecting to be titillated by a fun house version of MTV’s Spring Break. And that is what they get. Despite his proclamations of bomb-tossing, Korine just wants Spring Breakers to be entertaining. Mission accomplished.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.