Friday, April 5, 2013

Spring Breakers (2013) directed by Harmony Korine

I spend a lot of time in the cinema.  On a good week I'll go and see maybe three or four new films, spending hours upon hours in dark rooms watching unspeakably awful semi-fascist rubbish.  My pale skin aches for sunlight and I've developed a vitamin D deficiency that has stunted my growth and drained the colour from my hair, leaving it a corpse-like grey.  Why am I telling you this?  I saw Spring Breakers last night and I can't get it out of my head.  I went home from the screening and bought two tickets to see it again tonight, at midnight.  This film is transcendent; a foaming, neon-dappled cocktail of blood, tits, amphetamines and gloriously, trashy, amazing pop music.  Harmony Korine may as well have jabbed a spike of adrenaline straight into my softly beating heart.  

It's the story of four young girls, Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine).  They're so desperate to escape the drudgery of everyday life they rob a restaurant and hightail it down to the biggest party in the world; spring break in Florida. Here they become entangled with bizarre drug dealer Alien (James Franco).  To say any more would be a sin.  

I loved every single frame from start to finish, the film immediately entering my personal pantheon of great films.  It sinuously unwinds, montages bleeding into one another, past and present colliding in a hypnotic, druggy haze; showing us a world so ephemeral that in the height of its excess it literally begins to melt. I can't wait to see it all over again tonight.  I'll write more about it below (with a few spoilers), so if you haven't seen it stop here, and get on it already.   


Spring Breakers is out today nationwide - go go GO!

Part of what makes Harmony Korine such an interesting director is that he refuses to judge whatever is in front of his camera.  In the vast majority of films (and for that matter fiction in general), there's an unspoken karmic force dictating the narrative.  This unconsciously morality is shot right through the best of films: drugs are evil, fucking is evil, drunkenness is evil, violence is evil: engage in any of this behaviour and you'll find yourself smacked down by capricious gods.  Spring Breakers sheds this puritanical, Christian straitjacket, while it may have stoked tabloid fires by casting Disney pop princesses as crazed, bikini-clad party animals, it's far more subversive in suggesting that getting drunk, having lots of sex, taking a shitload of drugs and dancing around in your pants to loud, trashy dance music is... wait for it... fucking fun.

The film opens with a head explodingly intense onslaught of hedonism.  The phrase Girls Gone Wild barely begins to describe it.  To a booming, Skrillex soundtrack we see perfect, idealised youth blissfully revelling at the party at the centre of the universe.  For much the film this party never seems to end, an sun-bleached avalanche of beer bongs, blunts and bikinis.   It's a sensory overload, Korine cranks the colour saturation up to the limits of tolerance, the crystal clear HD photography creating a hyper-realism; my favourite image being the girls dancing in front of a golden, glistening ocean.  While this excess is shocking in its intensity, there's no suggestion anywhere in the film that it's at all immoral.  This is the genius of Spring Breakers, it's curious rather than judgmental, wanting to explore what spring breaks means rather than dismissing it as dumb kids letting their hair down.

Korine goes so far as to suggest that spring break is a genuinely mystical experience for those participating in it.  A trippy voiceover throughout the film repeats a mantra "Spring break.  Spring Break.  Spring Break forever." The spirituality running right through Spring Breakers is seen most clearly in Selena Gomez's character, the aptly named 'Faith'.  She's introduced at a bizarre, 'extreme cool' Christian evening.  The preacher is tattooed, bleached, muscled and prone to shouting things like "Jesus is awesome!".  As the group sits., clapping, singing and smiling the dopey, unselfconscious smile of the saved she half-heartedly joins in, clearly not getting the spiritual experience she craves.  Later, when drunk, slightly stoned and lying half submerged in a pool she dreamily mumbles about spring break being "the most sacred place on earth", at first it sounds utterly ridiculous, but on reflection, why  the hell not?  

If Korine is presenting spring break as a truly transformative, spiritual experience then the high priest at centre of it all is the outstandingly weird Alien.  He's aptly named, a fantastically interesting and compelling character who bails out our girls from prison and goes on to defy our expectations about him every time he's on screen.  As a fan of James Franco (a francophile?) I was in hog's heaven, this is a very talented actor cutting loose, flying close to the sun and surviving.  Alien's openly materialistic, extreme lifestyle is the pinnacle of spring break culture; as excitedly talks us through his possessions he displays a childish glee that's impossible to dislike.  I tried to edit down this quote but every single part of it is brilliant:
"This is the fuckin' American dream. This is my fuckin' dream, y'all! All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit! I got... I got SHORTS! Every fuckin' color. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin' VAM-pires. I got Scarface. On repeat. SCARFACE ON REPEAT. Constant, y'all! I got Escape! Calvin Klein Escape! Mix it up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice? I SMELL NICE! That ain't a fuckin' bed; that's a fuckin' art piece. My fuckin' spaceship! U.S.S. Enterprise on this shit. I go to different planets on this motherfucker! Me and my fuckin' Franklins here, we take off. TAKE OFF! Look at my shit. Look at my shit! I got my blue Kool-Aid. I got my fuckin' NUN-CHUCKS. I got shurikens; I got different flavors. I got them sais. Look at that shit, I got sais! I got blades! Look at my sheeyit! This ain't nuttin', I got ROOMS of this shit! I got my dark tannin' oil... lay out by the pool, put on my dark tanning oil... I got machine guns... Look at this, look at this motherfucker here! Look at this motherfucker! Huh? A fucking army up in this shit!" - Alien
Alien is totally tasteless and not particularly smart, but nonetheless loveable.  He stands as great spiritual counterpoint to the young, hip preacher from the beginning of the film.  Whereas the preacher has pretensions of cool, putting on an act to get the kids to like him, Alien just acts naturally.  It's interesting to note that throughout the film Alien never once lies or misleads the girls, he is 100% honest about who and what he is, fearlessly baring his soul to the girls.  It's easy to look down your nose at Alien, he's crass, tasteless and not particularly smart, yet for all that he lives in a beachfront mansion, surrounded by beautiful women who he loves and who love him return.  As Sam Elliott said in The Big Lebowski: "Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there."  Alien fits this to a tee.  He's the living embodiment of spring break; a man going a million miles an hour who's set implacably in opposition to the limp, boring blandness of the outside world.

The best scene to illustrate this contrast is when Faith explains to Alien that she wants to go home.  Alien is attracted, or to be more precise, interested in Faith - she has a touch more depth than her friends, a deep spiritual longing that Alien picks up on, a longing he knows he can fulfil.  In this scene Faith stands at a crossroads, torn between the obvious magnetic shamanism of Alien and the leap into the unknown he represents, or her safe and sterile college church group.  Disappointingly, yet I guess understandably, she chooses the safe, well-trodden boring path.  In the next shot she's ripped from the dynamic world of the film, trapped on a desaturated, plain looking bus back home.  You made a bad decision Faith.

In interview, Korine has talked about the four girls of the film comprising one entity, an idea that makes an awful lot of sense.  Faith aside, Candy, Brit and Cotty don't really have distinguishing features, functioning as a single being intent on hedonism of every stripe.  They're vicious, sadistic and self-centred; but also impossibly compelling. Donning Pussy Riot balaclavas they tear through Florida holidaymakers in an orgiastic, slow motion crime montage set, brilliantly, to Britney Spears' Everytime.

Like the sex and drugs, the violence here is intensely liberating, again because Korine neither condones nor condemns it.  In this regard the film is truly punk.  There is a disarming conservatism in film to revel in the catharsis of violence but in the end stuffing the genie back into the bottle, revealing the revolutionaries as hypocrites, as flawed as what they replaced (thinking specifically of The Dark Knight Rises).  At the end of Spring Breakers, Brit and Candy speed off into the sunset in a stolen Lamborghini, having gotten away with everything.  This is such a powerful ending that the censorship board in Germany required an addendum be placed at the end of the film assuring the audience that they were eventually judged criminally insane, leading to the memorable credit "written by Harmony Korine, except for that shitty addition at the end".

Their victory is their fulfilment of the American Dream, achieved by being cruel, ruthless and sadistic.  It sounds pretty noble on the face of it; dragging yourself up from poverty and through capitalism, making something of yourself.  Spring Breakers exposes this nobility as propaganda, the powerful in the film and in reality both achieve their position through exploitation, violence and cruelty, and both suffer no consequences whatsoever.  It sounds like an impossibly sick injustice, yet, if you hang out in a City of London pub on a Friday evening, you'll see the same vicious, sharklike grimaces writ large across the faces of the braying hedge fund managers slithering in for the evening as you do across the gangsters populating Spring Breakers.

Korine recognises that it's hypocritical to criticise spring break, a phenomenon that's inevitable manifestation of consumerism, which is itself a natural symptom of capitalism.  If capitalism can be seen as a religion, with the free market in place of an inscrutable god, then spring break is the Bacchanalian celebration of its fruits, the young revelling in their position as the dead centre of the universe.  Harmony Korine has created a compelling modern spirituality where excess rules, everything is sensual, violence is sexy and where you can construct a carefree temporary identity from dance music, bodily fluids, violence and narcotics. It exposes the hypocrisy of living a limp and liberal quasi-Christian life while espousing and enjoying the easy pleasure of the Western way of life. Spring Breakers is a fantastically important film, a pop art masterpiece that functions as a flawless mirror of our culture, neither warping nor distorting, merely reflecting.

An enormous thank-you to Ruth at 71A Church of London for the preview.

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