Sunday, August 11, 2013


"Look  at my shit!"

The above words are spoken by James Franco as Alien, the standout character in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Alien is standing on his bed,  his silver teeth gleaming,  a menacing black automatic weapon in each hand. He's holding them up Scarface style. "Look at my shit!" He's entertaining some young girls he bailed out of jail. They find him amusing, if a little weird. His bedroom is filled with guns and knives and all the other stuff you'd equate with a white rapper from Florida. But it's not just his arsenal that he wants to boast about; he's equally excited by owning underwear of all colors, and designer t-shirts, and two types of cologne ("So I smell nice! I smell nice, right?") The girls giggle. He giggles, too. By the end of his monologue, which is one of the great acting turns in  Franco's career, he's laughing. Look at my shit, he says. I am living the American dream. What's sad about the scene, as well funny, is that the American dream has become so small.

Keep in mind, that isn't necessarily the message behind Spring Breakers. I'm  not exactly sure what this careening, beautifully realized movie is trying to get at, and I'm leery of looking too closely. Part of the reason is that I suspect Spring Breakers wouldn't hold up under serious scrutiny, for as rich as it is with images and pure cinematic sweep, the movie also feels strangely delicate, the scenes strung together like a handful of rose petals on a wire. Even the beach scenes where hundreds of kids seem to be undulating like a human hive feels fragile; the kids are tanned and exuberant, and they wave drug paraphernalia  around like spiritual totems, but they're so childlike in their happiness that the scenes feel playful, rather than anarchic. Even the sexual posturing that goes on feels less carnal and more like a bunch of kids play acting.

This theme of kids at play gets a workout when four girls who can't afford to go on vacation decide to steal a car and rob a restaurant. The girls (Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgins, Ashley Benson) use squirt guns to hold the customers at bay, and sledgehammers to break up the place, but it's the way they get psyched for the job that resonates throughout the film. "Just pretend you're in a movie," says one of the girls. "Don't be scared of anything."

The first act of the film shows the girls at an unnamed southern university, sitting through Bible lectures (former pro wrestler Jeff Jarrett is great as the school's youth pastor) and dreaming of getting to spring break. There isn't much to these girls. They seem a little dirty and unkempt, and they like to pile on top of each other like kittens.  They touch each other a lot, combing each other's hair, sleeping on each other's laps. The robbery of the restaurant appears to awaken them; once in St Petersburg they talk constantly of how they've found themselves. Faith (Gomez), the most vulnerable and girlish of the quartet, has a touching scene in a hotel swimming pool where she wishes spring break could last forever.

This part of Spring Breakers is well done, and filmed in a kind of dreamy, slow-mo style.  In some ways, it feels like a throwback to the juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s, the good-girls gone bad scenario whipped up into into artsy, modern, foul-mouthed  froth. When the police raid a party, the girls are busted and have to spend a night in jail. Alien, there to bail out two of his cronies, decides to bail out the girls, too.  This is when the film kicks into a new gear. The first act was moody and interesting; the second act is great.

Alien is one of the most mercurial characters in the history of American cinema. We first see him entertaining the spring breakers with his odd stage act, rapping while gigantic inflated aliens hover above him. He raps about bringing the kids into outer space. He throws money around, a cartoon version of a gangsta - rapper. At first, when he tries to win the girls over with his flashy car and his gangster talk, he seems like a typical pimp wannabe on the make.  What redeems him as a character is his absolute belief in himself ("Of course I have money; look at my fucking teeth!") and the fact that, as we eventually learn, he's horribly lonely; his best friend from childhood has cut him off in a kind of simpleton's turf war. But what's most compelling about Alien is the way he loves these girls.  When a couple of them  take his guns and force him into a weird little sex game, he declares them as his soul mates. "I think I just fell in love with y'all," he says when they pull the guns out of his mouth.
Korine has made a career out of upending the expected. From his earliest screenplay for Kids (1995), to more recent features such as Trash Humpers (2009),  he's never been one to give viewers exactly what they want.  Roger Ebert described Korine's Mister Lonely (2007), a film about celebrity impersonators, as "utterly, if pointlessly original." Ebert added that Mister Lonely was "an odd, desperate film, lost in its own audacity, and yet there are passages of surreal beauty and preposterous invention that I have to admire." And so it is with Korine's entire body of work, a messy, at times breathtaking, mix of color and light, with some real sadness underneath what seems to be a bunch of nonsense.  
He's upended expectations again with Spring Breakers, in that he has finally made film that comes dressed for the multiplex. Although it's a beautifully made art film, it's also the sort of film that might appeal to fans of say, Quentin Tarantino.  Korine would deny this, and would blanch at any comparison. Korine said at the time Kids was released that he nothing in common with Tarantino, or any of "the video kids," as he called the generation of filmmakers coming around in the 1990s. Korine was quite full of himself at 19. Now he's 40. He's a veteran. With Spring Breakers, he's taken the trappings of a typical modern "cool" crime film, the sort praised by both hipster filmgoers and critics, and has thrown it into the Korine blender. What spilled out is rather fascinating. In a way, Korine, too, is saying "Look at my shit."  I can show you dozens of nubile young honeys cavorting in the sun.  I can show you guns and violence, and some weird imagery you'll never forget. I put a silver grill in Franco's mouth! You love it, right?
While Korine has paid occasional homage to Werner Herzog in the past,  Spring Breakers reminded me of nothing so much as Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), the classic retelling of the old Charlie Starkweather story, a great film that featured Martin Sheen as the rebel hoodlum, and Sissy Spacek as his vacant female companion. Only in Korine's case, the female is as trigger happy as the male. Badlands has Sheen and Spacek dancing in their woodland hideout to 'Love is Strange,' while Spring Breakers has the girls wearing pink masks and wielding weapons, whirling around Alien's yard in a kind of makeshift ballet, while he plinks out a Britney Spears tune on a white piano.  The era is different, the effect is different, but the scene has the same feel: outlaws finding a moment alone to dance. Much of Badlands was told in Spacek's voice over, and Spring Breakers is heavy with voice overs, usually snatches of phone calls made by the girls to report home. "Having a great time, mom, I really found myself down here."
And finally, like Spacek, the girls in  Spring Break hate their surroundings and want to get away. Spacek wanted to get off the farm and away from her abusive father. The Spring Break girls want to get out of the stultifying atmosphere of their college. An early scene shows them in a darkened lecture hall, the lights from their laptop screen creating a lonely, crypt-like mood: formal education equals a slow death in this world. The girls'  perfect vacation eventually comes apart.  Faith  leaves because she doesn't trust Alien. Another girl leaves when she's shot in the arm by one of Alien's street rivals. That leaves Alien with his two favorites. He turns them into killing machines. Or maybe they were killing machines to begin with.
Of course, there are a few markers to remind us that we're watching a Korine film: Alien has a pair of identical twin henchmen that could have fit into any of Korine's previous movies; there is  the threat of shady older characters trying to seduce young girls ( a Korine theme going back to Kids);  Korine's penchant for masks and hoods and disguises is here; and in what could be viewed as the main theme running through all of Korine's films, there is the dullness of American society at odds with the aimless energy of youth.
Mostly, we get a sense that we are watching a film made by a unique voice in American cinema. Pointlessly original? Perhaps. But in this day and age, as another wave of comic book movies sit ready to pounce on our late summer screens, Korine's work is as new and invigorating to me as Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase was to another era.



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