In certain ways, many ways, Britney Spears, that former (or current?) Princess of Pop is everything you need to know about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. She was once a good girl, but, seemingly bored by that persona, dipped into a little bit of a wild and crazy lifestyle. (Remember Britney and Kevin Chaotic?) That descent, as insane as it was, granted her some media power in a way. She was, maybe unintentionally, controlling every viewer’s eyes. But, she was able to resurrect herself in a way, and that could speak for the careers of the four attractive stars of the film. There seems to be, however, a song to every part of the film. The film itself is, as described by its writer/director, “a violent pop song”. And, sort of like many of the people in this film, you will be hard pressed to find a more intoxicating experience at the movie theater this year. For better or worse.
Tired of the boring community college environment they’re stuck in and begging to get out of what they could easily call a social jail cell, four girls plan to fulfill one of the most American rites of passage ever: head down to Florida for Spring Break. Lacking the necessary funds to plan this getaway, three of them rob a restaurant. And, from there, it’s smooth sailing. Or drinking. And bong hitting. And coke sniffing. (You name it, they probably did it.) This is until they are, inevitably, arrested, only later to be bailed out by a strange benefactor: a narcissistic gangster rapper (in the most literal terms) named Alien.
Many of the sequences are, honestly, not to my taste. They play like a slightly more artful (barely) montage from Girls Gone Wild, but it makes sense. These scenes of women being drenched in beer and twerking (I think?) are the film’s establishing shots. And what a film they establish.
Can a film be both moralistic and yet morally ambiguous? If not, the film is, interestingly enough, a recipe thrown together in the most fascinating way, with elements seemingly contradicting one another and yet working cohesively as a whole nonetheless. (That recipe will, undoubtedly, get you drunk.) For all of the immoral, irresponsible, often terrifying things that the four stars partake in, the film empowers them with agency. Korine, who is previously known for art house experiments like Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and Mister Lonely, judges the generation, but not the individuals, it seems. By giving the characters agency in what they’re doing, sometimes offering them a chance at redemption, albeit in a snarky and sarcastic and heavy handed way, these girls represent an odd look at an ambivalent generation, but one that, if they wanted to, could exploit their power. Korine is intentionally grabbing the audience’s attention by portraying these real acts, but the ambiguity with which the material is sometimes served, or perhaps inconsistency, surprisingly gives a great amount of freedom to the viewer to decide how terrible or how bizarrely admirable these characters are.
I should go back: the four actresses in question are the main show, the main attraction. I mentioned in a previous post how fascinated I was by the film, primarily by its actresses and how they subverted their image for this film, and the subsequent exploitation of this to bring in audiences. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are former Disney Princesses and Ashley Benson is on the ABC Family teen soap Pretty Little Liars. The outlier of the group is Rachel Korine, the wife of the director, who is no stranger to subversion of persona; she was in Trash Humpers, though she is the least well known of the four. But, the four actresses are cunning in a way.
Gomez, utilizing her cherubic, good girl nature best, plays Faith, the most moralistic of the group. But her flaw is in her judgment of her friends’ character, and she seems perfectly willing to engage in some of the lewd acts depicted in the film as long as her friends are there. Yet the ideological crisis in the film presents something interesting. It is she who says that seeing the same people, the same campus, etc. is maddening. So, the most moralistic and the most bored is therefore the most likely to rebel, in a way. The bathroom where they contemplate Spring Break has the same color palette as the jail cell they end up in later. This urge and rebellion seems more extreme than the other girls, because they are already prone to such behavior, whereas Faith is not. If there were a Spears song to describe her character, it might be “(You Drive Me) Crazy”. Contextually, it obviously doesn’t make sense alone, but if the song is talking about the allure of being bad and the excitement of being too deep in a situation, then it works. But, Gomez, like the song, knows her limits. Her alternately coquettishness and naïve tendencies heighten some of the films ambiguity. When watching the film, you are, like she is, unsure if she’s really having a good time. Unsure if she should be being chastised for what she should be doing, after the numerous, pseudo-sincere phone messages she leaves on her grandmother’s phone, that repeat over and over like a song.
Vanessa Hudgens sort of subverted her image in Sucker Punch, a film that really shares a lot in common with its feminist spin, but, unlike Spring Breakers, fails miserably. Hudgens is given something to do, which is important. Not being thrown by the wayside, her furious, sexy and powerful character is scary, along with Ashley Benson. The two of them, especially, are easily able to channel their agency and submissiveness whenever they feel it necessary to use one or the other. They are, at once, “Overprotected” and “Toxic”, finally getting their desire in their ability to let loose and make their own choices and also being poisonously powerful. “Toxic” works not only for the two of them, but also Franco’s Alien. Between them (as well as Rachel Korine) is a frightening and electric dynamic, where power continuously shifts again and again. This is especially evident in one particular scene, one I shan’t describe beyond saying that it could give Killer Joe a run for its money.
Speaking of money, much of the strongest statements from the film, however thrown against the wall it may sometimes feel, is about the American Dream. Franco’s Alien is the epitome of how that phrase has evolved over the last several decades and how it has more fittingly become an American Nightmare. With Franco’s brilliantly narcissistic transformation into someone who seems to have everything, he attracts the girls in an obvious way. He runs the “Circus”; however often power may go back and forth between he and his “soul mates”, he’s the de facto ring leader. Franco’s accent may sound sort of goofy in the trailers, but within the context of the film, it works startlingly well. He has “shorts of ever color”, his bed is covered in guns and money, and the girls all want him. They are attracted to his status and the control he has over materialistic goods. The girls’ responses are, in a way, frightening; not only do they want those things (which is unsurprising), it’s shocking to see what lengths they’ll go to in order to retain that status. Then again, these are the girls that robbed money to go on vacation. They need the immediacy of pleasure, the instantaneousness of gratification. And that says a lot about the world we live in, considering people get pissed when Google Chrome is running slowly.
It is beneficial that the film does not have much dialogue, for it would pretty much undermine most of the performances and turning them into something less serious and less believable. But the dialogue that is in the film is used judiciously and sparingly, much of it being repeated over and over again. The comparison has already been made dozens of times, but it does have a connection to Terrence Malick’s dream like narration… that is, if the philosophy he were pushing ended up being kind of half assed and snarky. Here again, the film embodies the generation it depicts. There are lies told in the voice over that masquerade as epiphanies and changes, but we all know that there is barely an ounce of regret in there. And that’s what’s terrifying about it. How real it all seems, all that apathy and ambivalence.
In the narration, though, the faked innocence of the phone calls is eventually paired up with rhymes that Alien recites. These rhymes sound like deadly rewrites of typical nursery poems, corrupting the youthfulness of what was once pure.
Spring Breakers feels throughout like a horror film. It obviously was not going to be the fun, raucous adventure that the campaign is pushing so hard, but I was not expecting how scary it would be. Not only in what the characters were doing, but the attitude that they took with each activity. Seeing the film with an audience full of tweens managed to add a weird new way of looking at the film. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but their reactions are what scared me. I had been interested as to what the audience response would be, but I wasn’t expecting what I got. There was a lot of guffawing and laughing involved, and during some of the most critical and unsettling scenes. Granted, there were a few moments in which Franco’s outlandish portrayal was funny (intentionally so), but other moments where violence was committed or something disturbing was being said or shown on screen, the audience laughed. This is, I guess, the film’s biggest success. It recreates, almost perfectly, how these kinds of people act when shown various scenes of truly questionable and upsetting scenes. The girls themselves think that much of what they do is a joke or a game or something to laugh at. “Pretend it’s a videogame,” is what one girl says before robbing the chicken joint. And not only do that do that with gusto and aplomb, the audience responds to it exactly how the characters do; as if it isn’t serious. It’s just a videogame.
Undoubtedly, my favorite sequence involves a Britney Spears song, a white grand piano, and guns. Not only for the sheer fact that it is deeply disconcerting, but also because it casts a spell over you, as does the entire film. As terrible as the images may be, it’s intoxicating. But, I would disagree with Korine as to his assertion that the film is like a violent pop song. While it has hooks, verses, and a chorus that take the form of repeating images, sounds, and words, it feels more like one solid composition that covers the expansiveness of an album. It’s a symphony of violence, debauchery, morality, immorality, and insanity. And its soundtrack, provided by the likes of dubstep king Skrillex, Drive maestro Cliff Martinez, and co-star rapper Gucci Mane, is the popular sadism in sonic form.
The films insanity is further shown in the gorgeous and dizzying cinematography from Gasper Noe’s DP Benoit Debie, who worked on the celluloid LSD trip that was Enter the Void. The film’s neon and candy colored visuals create a false sense of security, juxtaposing the perceived innocence of the girls (actresses and characters) against their harsh and hyper-real world. It looks gorgeous, easily lulling the viewer.
Korine dissects the American Nightmare, the loss of innocence, the immediacy of pleasure, etc. Aside from that, Spring Breakers is the horror film it never knew it could be, reflecting a society and a demographic that is all too real. And despite the moralistic ambiguities and grey areas, the film is nonetheless a sublimely made tale, almost like a documentary. If there were one song to describe how Korine, a known provocateur, might sing to articulate how successful his film is in portraying these things, it would definitely be “Oops! I Did It Again”.
I’m excited for Spring Breakers.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I would like to expand on why I’m so fascinated with the film and why I’m excited for it.
– I’m familiar with director Harmony Korine’s work more out of reputation than anything else. I haven’t seen his previous work, except for the Larry Clark directed Kids. So, this being a major departure for him intrigues me. It’d be like Lars von Trier doing a mainstream action movie or something.
– I’m a big fan of the “fever dream narrative”; films whose stories float by with loose connection and cohesion and seem to sometimes only make sense via “dream logic”. Yeah, I didn’t use to be (I blame an unfortunate viewing of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), but I’ve become sort of infatuated with that kind of style, which certainly can be found in the works of David Lynch and even Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, anyone?)
– I’m excited to see young actresses Ashley Benson (whom, I will admit, I’d never heard of), Vanessa Hudgens, and Selena Gomez prove themselves on the screen to be legitimate actresses. Actresses that can carry a film and provide depth and nuance to their characters. Because, let’s face it (concerning at least two of them) how much merit is there really in some of that Disney stuff.
– Jumping off of that, I’m extremely fascinated as to how these girls will not only prove themselves as good actresses, but how they will thus subvert their candy coated kiddie public image and perception. It’s one thing to transition from Disney star into adult roles, like Anne Hathaway and Brokeback Mountain; it’s something else entirely if you’re transitioning into adult roles by starring in a film by the guy who directed Trash Humpers. But, I think this subversion will add to public discussion regarding how long Disney actors can maintain a certain image and what kind of effect that has when they, in essence, grow up. What will happen to their fan base? How will they be perceived after? (I also like that these actresses are doing it voluntarily and with full knowledge of that as opposed to, like, pole dancing at the Kid’s Choice Awards.) These characters, Korine has said, are as aggressive, if not more so, than men who would be in the same position, so, again, there’s some fascinating gender stereotype stuff going on in this film.
– James Franco saying “y’all” and wearing cornrows. ‘Nuff said.
– It’s a look into something I will never participate in. (I’m a prude.)
– The dissection of the American dream, privilege, and desire for immediacy in contemporary culture. I’m a sucker for social commentary.
– All that neon.
– The audience reaction.
- Let me explain. I think this film might have a Magic Mike effect. By that, I mean that the film will completely subvert its marketing campaign. Its ads will show one thing and the film will be something else entirely. And while it will make a lot of money (this is undoubtedly Korine’s biggest film to date), I imagine will garner very, very polarizing reactions from the audience it is being aimed at: teens like those featured in the film (I fall into that demo). I’m not saying that the reaction will be bad, exactly, but I know I will hear peers complain about it. I heard them complain about Magic Mike, that it didn’t have enough guys in it and that it was boring. You may think I am underestimating this age group, but if they can remake Project X and call it 21 and Over, there’s something of an indicator there (it’s not really a remake, I’m just being snarky). Despite the fact that the demographic is pretty easily entertained, they like what they’re comfortable with. They don’t like the unexpected, unless it somehow panders to something they’re familiar with.
- For example, Christopher Nolan has two films that work with this: His Dark Knight Trilogy (let’s talk about the second one) and Inception. The Dark Knight isn’t your average superhero film or your action film because it’s reliant on story and the sociopolitical subtext and the gritty realism and character analysis. But, it still contains some fantastic action set pieces. Inception on the other hand is, while very thrilling and exciting, narratively unorthodox. Throwing that curveball in terms of the way the story is told and the amount of attention that needs to be paid thus was polarizing for some. Confusing, heady, etc. Even the last film of his Dark Knight Trilogy garnered complaints because a) too much talking/slow pace and b) not enough Batman. So, even the most successful films and directors can encounter kind of arbitrary criticism because it’s something that the audience isn’t as familiar with.
- The same could be said of Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE. The contemplative and almost dialogue free thriller starring Ryan Gosling encountered some pretty odd press when a woman in Michigan sued over the film’s misleading trailer. And this is an adult.
- The film, Korine has said, is like “a violent pop song” or an “internet video” with “very little dialogue”. With its loose story and structure and claims of little dialogue, what will fans think of the film? It’s garnered a lot of praise at TIFF and SXSW. But will audiences accept this filmmaker and this film? Selena Gomez says in an EPK, “There’s the movie that we’re making and there’s the movie that the media thinks we’re making.” Damn straight.
- My friends have mistaken me: I’ve talked about this film a lot since the first production still appeared ages ago (was it last year?). I’ve talked about how the guy who did this also did a film called Gummo. I’ve talked about the fact that, while it’s a departure from style, it’s still the same guy. That’s been perceived as me determined that they dislike this film and/or do not go see it. On the contrary, they can go see it. I encourage my friends to see new things. But, like the warning label on a container with arsenic or cyanide, I’m at least trying to prepare them. Granted, I suppose the best tactic isn’t saying “you’re going to hate this film”, but I think I actually started off by saying, “This film isn’t what it appears to be, so don’t go in expecting what’s advertised”. No. I’d rather have them go in knowing what they’re going to see and dislike it, or maybe even like it, than go in just going by the trailers and coming out pissed. It hurts my soul when my friends slam my favorite films. I love when my friends expand their cinematic horizons, open their minds, and see something radically different from what they normally see. But, I don’t love it when their reactions are the stuff of knee jerk immediacy. My point being: Give it a chance, but know what you’re getting into.
- That said, I have to hand it to Korine and his producers for one of the smartest marketing schemes since… Magic Mike. But it might be even smarter because it isn’t only the stars of the film that have mass appeal, but the subject matter (even though I personally find that a tad concerning). It claims to be as bawdy and raunchy as some of the elemental stuff in Animal House, Project X (groans), Road Trip, and a long line of films about irresponsible teens. But what this film has is a weird look at the repercussions (or not) of that irresponsibility; what these kinds of people will do for pleasure and paradise; and forgetting it all once it’s over.
So, that took a long time. I’m pretty psyched for the film. I’ll have to go back to investigate more of Korine’s work beforehand, but “this is what life is all about, y’all!”
Cinema forever, y’all!