Kool Aid & Nunchuks
Spring Breakers may suffer from the high-expectations problem. I tried to temper my excitement going in, but with new pictures of nubile girls in bikinis and slow-motion trailer footage of James Franco with an AK going around the internet every day, it was hard. I so much love the idea that the guy from Kids partnered up with Dicknose Franco to film an over-the-top teeny-bopper panty party of exploited former Mouseketeers that I don’t know that the actual movie could ever hope to live up to it.
The first thing you should know going in is that Spring Breakers is not a movie that progresses much past the initial idea. You know how they repeat “Spring Breeeak” about 15 times in the trailer? The movie is exactly like that, just… more. I didn’t count, but I’d estimate they repeat “Spring Break” about 250 times. To be fair, it sounds really cool the way James Franco says it. Spriiiiing breaaaaak. Spring breeeak, y’all. Spring break fa evaaa. Point being, it’s not a movie you should go into looking for character development. It’s an extended visual joke, a partly satirical celebration of shallowness, materialism, and decadence. It feels more like a visual art installation adapted to a feature rather than a feature in its own right. It can feel like Harmony Korine stuffing newspapers into a feature hat so it’ll fit on Spring Breakers‘ little head, and at times you really notice the newspaper. The characters repeat the same things over and over. The editor must have worn the plastic shell off the button for “gun cocking sound effect.” And I’m pretty sure Spring Breakers breaks the South Park movie’s record for most uses of the word “f*ck.” As I heard someone say on the way out of the theater, “I felt like I was trapped in a music video I didn’t want to be in.”
About 40 minutes in, I was just about fed up with the editing, the repetition – both of shots and of dialog – the lack of real people or personalities… fed up with the stuff that was obviously filler. I was ready to write the whole thing off. But I stuck with it a few more minutes, and was rewarded with the kind of transcendent moment you hope to find in any work. My friend Joe Sinclitico does a comedy bit about Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up,” about how his favorite moment in the song is the part where Tupac just drops all pretense of meter or rhyme and just starts telling everyone in the world to go f*ck themselves. There’s a moment like that in Spring Breakers, that moment when the appeal of a piece and the piece itself become one perfectly indistinguishable sphere. James Franco, teetering on the edge of breaking character completely, just starts talking about how awesome the set is. “Look! At my shit!” He’s got guns! He’s got drugs! He’s got Lamborghinis! LOOK! AT HIS SHIT! He’s got silver teeth! He’s got Scarface playing on a loop! ON A LOOP! He’s got a crazy bed frame, it’s like a work of art! He gets weirdly obsessed with his Kool Aid and his nun chuks.
For me, that moment redeemed the entire movie, which had worn out its welcome after the opening scenes. See, it’s a little hard to take when people talk about Spring Breakers as if it’s this withering critique of the shallowness of American culture, about Harmony Korine as if he’s created this brilliantly developed, finely-crafted allegory of moral decay (and people do talk about it like this, I was there). For one thing, it’s not really developed at all. Lovingly detailed, maybe, but not developed. But I’ve heard it said that obsession is the root of all comedy, and Harmony Korine is nothing if not a collection of weird obsessions. He doesn’t spend much time parsing or intellectualizing them before he spits them back out. There are many f*cks spoken but few given. That’s the beauty of it.
There’s a clip of Harmony Korine on David Letterman back in 1997 when he looked about 12, where he tells David Letterman that he’s working on a novel called A Crack Up at the Race Riots, about a race riot in Florida, where “all the Jews live in the trees, and MC Hammer leads a gang of the blacks against a gang of whites led by Vanilla Ice.” As much as it sounded like Harmony Korine just being provocative at the time, it’s not hard to draw parallels between this plot and the plot (“plot”) of Spring Breakers 16 years later, which sees James Franco as a composite of RiFF RAFF and Kevin Federline* butting heads with a rival gangster played by Gucci Mane. It’s like Korine hasn’t really developed this obsession since then, but the fact that it’s still so present and so powerful in his mind is compelling in its own right. That Harmony Korine doesn’t seem to reflect much on meaning or the psychological underpinnings of his own obsessions is both his greatest asset and biggest weakness.
The main obsession mined in Spring Breakers is frat culture, rap culture, and coed pseudo porn. The movie opens with slow-motion fake tits getting shot with beer and water, leading into a shot of four buff frat dudes holding beer cans as their dicks, “pissing” beer onto eager, arch-backed topless women sitting in front of them in the prone. As Korine turns his eye to his stars, he never tries to disguise the lingering close-ups of their labial mounds, faintly visible beneath their ribbon-thin layer of neoprene, making expressly clear what so much faux-chaste youth programming denies but so obviously fetishizes. That those stars are former Disney Channel babes and a beard brigade of Bieber and Efron exes is just Smirnoff icing on the jizz cake.
It’s funny, genuflecting film festival folk treat Harmony Korine as this brilliant craftsman, like Hitchcock, when for me he’s always seemed more like the Jackass guys, ready and willing to chug horse semen for our entertainment, a true performance artist. I find myself wanting to simultaneously praise his work while denying its deeper meaning.
*Per the Q & A, “Alien” was supposedly based on a Florida rapper character called Dangeruss.
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