Today, Kevin Pearson takes a look at Harmony Korine’s latest film, “Spring Breakers,” a look at the cultural decay that affects our youth, and examines how well Korine meets his goal. Read on to learn more!
Harmony Korine is updating the decadent life of youth. It was almost 20 years ago that he co-wrote the breakthrough film, Kids. At the time, the shock of seeing teenagers happily drink, do drugs and commit felony sexual crimes at leisure was enough to shock a portion of American life. Now Korine is at the helm and giving the world Spring Breakers, a charged look at what havoc bored teenage girls can cause when inspired to enjoy the wrong things at any cost. The update arguably has the youth committing worse crimes, but more pointedly, they are succumbing to an existential boredom and yearning to fulfill their idea of what goes hand in hand for enjoyment and debauchery in the American sense. Too bad the result for Korine is more an update in cultural clichés for what interests today’s generation.
The premise could be a joke, but it is not: four girls escape a humdrum college life to find paradise in Florida during spring break. The urban bleakness and decay of St. Petersburg is sublime enough to make them realize, “dreams can come true.” What they initially find is the idea of freedom and an endless amount of fun. For the four girls, their idea of fun comes with a hitch: to procure financial funds to even go on spring break, three of them take part in an armed robbery. It is simple means to just get enough money to do something they feel is owed to them. In the film, the phrase of it being their “right” to enjoy spring break is spread around. The fourth girl is Faith and she is more identifiable in trying to lead a good life (by belonging to a church group), so the cliché of her name serves its major purpose. However, she identifies with part of the rationale and joins in.
Upon arrival to Florida, the film is barraged by clips of partying. It’s the exuberance of being in a party zone and indulging fully. The thematic contrast is Faith begins to call back home to grandma and lie to her about the idea of what kind of peace she is finding in Florida. While trying to make it seem like an innocent trip, the images of her partying betray what she is saying. At this point she is happy to live the consequences of a double life when it comes to her grandma. The limitation is that this simple contrast is all the editing is concerned about. What Faith is saying to her grandma is dubbed over a barrage of party imagery. A two second editing idea is not really expanded upon. The only other consistent image present is the Florida skyline and the sun beautifully melting away in a sunset. An idea of natural harmony could be adapted since they appear when Faith seems to be most enthusiastic about the inner harmony Florida is providing her, but the film keeps her early characterization to what is fit to print back to grandma. Still, most annoyingly, the idea of making a character calling back to a grandma to show she is innocent is too tired of a subplot to trot out.
Innocent indulgence ends when the girls go to jail and get bailed out by a character named Alien. He saw them before, heard of their mishap and saw a chance to pounce on attractive tourists. At first his demeanor is kind to the girls, but he wants them to be excited so he’s enthusiastic about showing off his gangster lifestyle. The method is to tour them around his house and show off his collection of weapons and anything which can be prescribed to a gangster lifestyle. Obviously since Faith had no doing in the armed robbery, she is alarmed by Alien and the people around him. Inside she is stricken and lashes out by complaining to the other girls. Alien senses something is wrong and tries to softball her, but Faith wants out. The emotional payoff is seeing her personally twist and freak out on her friends. Indication for what it means is that she got in over her head and isn’t ready for the connection partying can have to violence. Her friends are more accepting.
The major transition happens when Alien challenges the remaining girls to succumb to his lifestyle. At first it gets another girl to reconsider everything and leave, but the remaining girls throw his world for a twist. They begin to threaten him with violence and an ongoing grudge with a rival gangster gets the girls to challenge Alien in uncomfortable ways. Instead of just talk the talk, they want to go full out with an assault and murder spree against his rival. It’s now more about their thrill. Alien goes along but it seems obvious he is uncomfortable. However, the consistent style is the editing of the two leftover girls talking about how their dreams are coming true and the imagery contrasting urban decay with pictures of natural beauty. I guess the update is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and these girls have now crossed over to a different level of savagery than what simple robbery can imply. If they can find idealism in something truly horrific the same way Faith could find it in just being able to party a little bit, it’s a comment.
Spring Breakers isn’t serious about its allusions. Harmony Korine is more stylized than Larry Charles (director of Kids) and likes to play fiddle more with abstracting the reality of the scene, but both still believe in a first person-documentary adherence to personalizing extreme situations and forcing the audience to get as close to collectively breathing the same air the characters are. There is no Sydney Lumet rule of the close up shot being a major pay off moment late into the film. The filmmaking decision is simple: stay as close to the character’s actions and their reactions to everything. Since filmmakers have always been obsessed with finding ways to cut out plot and delve into the bowels of what a powerful personal experience on film can feel like and how it should be filmed, we should accept (in the digital-handheld world) every technical trick is now available. There is no Robert Bresson today who has all the imagination and is limited by his generation’s lack of technical innovation. The question now is what aesthetic choices is Korine making in Spring Breakers?
For me, the choices and vision of Spring Breakers is depressing. Charles already maxed out the potential of the documentary candidness of youth debauchery with later films like Bully. Whatever felt could be deemed exploitive in Kids and its repetitiveness with documenting bad behavior was more honestly rendered sad and depressing with the true story in Bully. Spring Breakers, however, loses any potential interesting hook line and flings itself into absurdity with a third act that sees youthful girls with no experience at operating guns, taking out a number of armed men, and riding off into the sunset. I guarantee irony and skepticism is implied in finale. Early in the film, the characters tell themselves they need to see real life gunplay situations as “video games”. As a joke, Korine could be saying the girls got their unlikely talent from video games – or it could be mocking the idea. The problem is that the style and tone throughout the film is sincere about rationalizing absurd characters as (at least) sincere in what they say and mean in their moments of saying them. Of course, the problem is that the characters are all over the place. Like every character in Dr. Strangelove over acting and their craziness being a reflection of the nervous system of the American government at the time, these girls could be their own version of today’s youth being tightly wound and ping-balling off every imagined ordeal. It is farce masquerading as realism to imply their childlike idea of what serious aspirations and ideas should be. In staying true to comedic perspective, the characters at least fail in every regard.
The problem with this idea is that it’s still a rationalization. Spring Breakers has no real inventive filmmaking idea to string together the realism or unlike Dr. Strangelove, no different way to heighten the level of implied craziness which could possibly criticize a cultural phenomenon. The film is a developed montage of imagery and clips our society is already berated with. The result is an attempt at repackaging something people already know. What felt new with Kids quickly became exhausted because our society has eaten the idea whole. Original ideas have better wall-space life in the art world and can allow a painter ability to make a career out of. What Kids accomplished (at the time) was interesting in its own tunnel vision way, but it was also easy to see little future beyond the film. The French Shock Cinema movement in the 90s feels like a similar victim and only has one real talent left in Gaspar Noe. What Harmony Korine is trying to add the American counterpart isn’t much.
Postscript: No real comment on the actors or acting. It’s easy execution of clichés and exaggerated generics. Since the material they are performing is darker, the illusion could be what they are doing is more dramatic or interesting. It is not. Just a series of mimicries that are easy to duplicate.
Kevin Pearson takes a look at the film career of James Agree, which has been potent. A series of reissues mark a flurry of new excitement surrounding Agee’s work. Take it away Kevin.
If you’re a James Agee aficionado like me, the past few months have been exciting. Not only was the original prose for what would later be expanded and molded to become his masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, finally published (entitled Cotton Tenants: Three Families), but so was his unique travel guide, Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island. It’s all pleasant and expected news as the writing life of a writer generally extends past their earthly existence. The only sadness is that since Agee died in 1955, these two publications may be the last things able to be unearthed.
I’m haunted by a million thoughts, feelings, and hopes for what kind of artist James Agee could have been. If any writer had a measure of immense talent and potential and failed to live up to either, Agee certainly belongs. He extended himself a million ways through journalism, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that he could never fully concentrate on one outlet. One of Agee’s main interest and arguably most doomed to fail was his fascination with writing about and making film. Like many novelists and writers at the time, Agee took advantage of the Hollywood boom of the 30s and 40s and banked on jobs which were more guaranteed pay days than almost anything a writer was going to put out (even amongst established novelists at the time). The grudging difference is that unlike most of those writers, Agee dedicated himself to film out of passion.
First, Agee transitioned by doing so in the easiest way. Having committed the bulk of his career to journalism, Agee found himself furiously writing film reviews. At the time, film journalism was an open market. You were likely to see a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance musical be reviewed by a dance critic or anyone else. More importantly, there wasn’t a ledger guideline in how to format reviews. Agee took heed of this openness and developed a quasi -diary format for his pieces. He didn’t care if he touched every production detail able to be reviewed. The concern of his reviews was the running dialogue and how he mixed a personal experience in watching a film with an objective review. Before Citizen Kane became fodder for academics who rightly understood its historical genre implications, Agee wisely positioned the film as an American take on techniques established in German Expressionism during the 1920s. It’s not the most exhaustive thing to say about the film, but if you’re writing a front-line review and have no literature to help you establish parameters, there is more truth to looking at the film that way than any other. Agee got that essential truth correct.
The ability to write about film got Agee start admiring certain directors. Most famously, his infatuation for John Huston spanned a number of reviews. In the filmmaker, the writer saw a champion of something more in film, “Huston’s pictures are not acts of …benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty.” The admiration transitioned into a relationship when the two began to work together. If a chemical reaction was going to lift Agee into moviemaking, it would be through this. While Agee did experiment with a documentary short prior, writing the screenplay for John Huston’s The African Queen was his foray into major motion picture work. The travel adventure, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, follows in the vein of realism much like Huston’s previous effort, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The other major writing feature was The Night of the Hunter which became more famous for Robert Mitchum’s performance than anything. Do I consider these scripts to be major works by Agee? Not necessarily. Both are adaptations of novels and both, for me, had varying successes with two different directors. Being directed by Huston, The African Queen played more into Agee’s attraction to naturalism in writing. If you consider one of the bends of his career in film criticism, there is a heavy dose of him being attracted to films which could extend themselves past genre conveniences. Most notably, he would mockingly write about some films and say only a few paragraphs were necessary to really evaluate their genre stock existence. It’s well known the American genre films were influential for French New Wave cinema, but for Agee, he was a man already pedigreed in other arts related to language and was interested in different ways film could evolve.
Both films were made in the 1950s and Agee’s life exhausted itself by 1955. Whatever promise he would have to transition into film was going to be cut short. Similar to the playwright Bernard Shaw (known now as George Bernard Shaw), interest came too late. During the sunset of his life, Shaw admitted he wished he had the chance to devote himself to film instead of theater. Agee has no formal comment on the subject and his passion may have been too varied and fleeting for him to really comment or know whether or not he would have been all in with film. The other basic problem is both writers grew up in an age that yet had no basis in watching film or movies every day. One of the better comments about why all the New Waves (i.e., young filmmakers revolting against studio norms) happened around 1960s or 70s in numerous countries is that was the first generation of younger people who came of age during heyday of movies in their respective countries and were first able to make films themselves. It was the first generation of people who knew film inside-out and wanted to put their own stamp not only on what changes they were interested in making, but also reflect on what their history with cinema was. Generational difference was difficult for the likes of Agee and Shaw.
Problem is the story mostly ends there. The legacy of James Agee in film is mostly comprised of an excellent critical career (available in the book, Agee on Film), a few shorts plus two scripts for major features. The task I like to daydream is what kind of filmmaker he would have been if better timing and facilities were available. First, I would have seen Agee extend out of John Huston’s realism. If he had been fortunate enough to come out of the 1960s, John Cassavetes could have been a kindred spirit in comparison. For independent American cinema, Cassavetes saw a documentary-grit approach to storytelling less as a genre choice (opposite of French New Wave) and more of a sightline in how to depict the harshness of American life. Agee also was less interested in plot invention or playing up other fanciful methods to allude to problems in his story and was more about extending out the depths of personal grief in poetic, but densely realistic and harsh ways.
Another consideration is the structural oddities in Agee’s work. The poetry in Let Us Praise Famous Men is a key component. There are also lists of varying elements of daily life about the Cotton tenants in the story. The book has personal story about the people, but backs it up with so much poetry, documented lists, and photography to make it much more of a rounded picture. For this, there has to be European consideration to similar filmmaker traits. Alan Resnais is excellent in making structural works which will get down to the gritty details of life in poetic fashion (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), but considering Agee praised Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films by calling the first part a “corpse”, Resnais may be too dry. Francesco Rosi has more humanitarian interests in his structural essays while I’m sure Agee could have been excited by Federico Fellini’s later filmmaking flair but also willing be to disregard some of his fancier storytelling ideas. The ideas are endless to what keyholes in filmmakers could have fit.
I imagine most fans of James Agee stick mostly to his criticism. It’s the most fulfilled thing he ever did in film and amongst critics; his work is still standout for a profession that has some excellent voices and thoughts. It’s a depressing though to delve too deep into his script work because the major feeling is how one always is left wanting more. In the existence of time, Agee’s place with film is too short.
Kevin Pearson, the latest addition to the Culture Fusion review crew, is a movie fanatic with the kind of in-depth knowledge of movies that would frighten Roger Ebert (were he still amongst us). There are few people who’s insight into movies I respect more, which is why I’m thrilled he’s decided to contribute a regular look at movies. Today, he takes a look at director Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths.”
When The New Republic’s film critic, Stanley Kauffmann, was overseeing the terrain of 1972, he happily admitted the offbeat comedy, Pocket Money, (notably written by Terrance Malick) was his favorite film of the year. He didn’t wash the film in any other acclaim. From my disposition, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is my favorite movie of 2012. Instead of stop comment as short as Kauffmann did when he made his remark in passing during a review for another film, I think McDonagh’s work has some relevant updates on the relationship between violence and comedy.
The simple story of a struggling writer (played by Colin Farrell) trying to come up with screenplay ideas for his titled script, “Seven Psychopaths,” becomes fodder for metaphysical mishaps when his friend (played by Sam Rockwell) unexpectedly gets him mixed up in mob action, meeting potential candidates for psychopathic inspiration, and finding other ways for the script to begin writing itself with Farrell orbiting around a host of crazy characters and situations. Also making things more convoluted is when Farrell begins pawning stories he hears as his own and finds them unexpectedly having truths to people around him.
Scene to scene explanation of the story involves too many highs and extremes to canvas in any word limited review. Probably, that’s the point. At the beginning, Farrell’s character, a loathing alcoholic, proudly announces he wants his film to be about psychopaths but have an antagonistic relationship to playing up the violence. The continuing feud between him and Rockwell’s character is how depraved and isolated Rockwell is in any logical bearings and wants the film to be over violent. Rockwell continually tries to be sensible and fails in most regards. Throughout the film, the two flex the extent of a friendship by bouncing antics off of each other and riding the other to be better versions of their selves.
One of the ways in which Rockwell’s character digs an emotional foothold into the story is through his friendship with Christopher Walken’s character. The two scheme to kidnap dogs from people and return them to collect reward money, but at the heart of their misdeeds is a genuine love for each other. While background for Walken’s character is eventually elaborated through a simple story that the film later reveals to be about him, the characterization begins by depicting his loyalty and sense of romance to his ailing wife. She is hospital bound to a cancer ward. Seven Psychopaths isn’t meek in trying to play up the music and the sympathy card. In Walken’s own way, he’s a disheartened psychopath, too. The film collects personal anecdotes to tally up the whole of his behavior.
During interviews for the film, Martin McDonagh did say he wanted the film to be different from other films in today’s landscape of easy violence in movies. Right now, most American films interested in violence and its relationship to irreverent humor all descend from the altar of Quentin Tarantino. With movies like Pulp Fiction, Tarantino pried violence away from mostly being the cause and effect result of extremely tense moments to an element of everyday reality for some extreme characters. You can be a gangster who just got done with the ordeal of an accidentally killing a man in the back of your car and grimace more over the cleaning issues of a blood sprayed car than anything else. The comedy of complaining who is more to fault and what body parts the guilty party should clean has its inherent comedy in contrasting sanity with insanity.
The problem is with this innovation came duplication and instead of violence being aged to a fine wine of any sophistication, filmmakers began to compliment every imaginable situation with its greatest violent possibility. Ability to be judicial also ended because filmmakers in America were blessed with the rating of PG-13 and knowledge the rating board would approve most things under the content sun when it came to violence. Sexual content was another matter, but copycats of Tarantino could live happily knowing they were able to show most things and expand their audience reach. The normalization of this commodity also made Tarantino’s original effect of a violent statement almost obsolete. The audience no longer churns and stands back at humor and violence. One still should appreciate Pulp Fiction because it is well written and acted, but comparable to Hitchcock and his original idea of shocking suspense, the effect could only be short lived.
Seven Psychopaths exists thanks to this history. To make a comment, the film purposely plays up the comedic faults of the characters and whirls generalizations and stereotypes into a frenzy. Also stretching itself out of Tarantino, the film revolves around conservation and interaction between characters. Tarantino did tap into something uniquely humane by basing his vision of violence in domestic ways through violent characters because it better reflects how people interact, but Seven Psychopaths is a more honest projection of our desire to carry on friendships. There is an intangible love between Rockwell and Farrell that spans as many narcissistic and insane ideas of problematic friendships people may see or experience every day. The film just so happens to mesh the whirling madness of a friendship with a number of violence clichés in movies.
It also avoids some previous problems by other filmmakers. Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was intended to be satire of action films, but its cast two action stars in the roles instead of more recognizable dramatic actors who would have been out of place trying to ham up action clichés. Sam Rockwell will never be confused for an action star (well, same would have been said for Bruce Willis pre-Die Hard, too) but the build-up to his idea of the perfect shoot out is pitch perfect comedy for our time. Like I said, Farrell wants the film to be anti-climactic about violent outcomes, but Rockwell continues to badger him about the necessity of violence in his script. In trying to help out Farrell, he acts out his idea of what a perfect gun fight would look like. The film graciously provides depiction of what his shootout looks like and it’s filled with enough over-the-top craziness. The film also captures fair amount of Rockwell’s inspired performance of it.
In interviews, Martin McDonagh said he wrote Seven Psychopaths at the same time as In Bruges but made the latter first since it required less technical knowhow as regards to filmmaking and production. Transitioning from theater, there needed to be a professional development in film before McDonagh could exploit tricks of the action trade in this story. He also said the film was written specifically with Sam Rockwell in mind. All the actors (Farrell included) are better actors at comedy than anything else, but Rockwell is one of the better comedic actors in recent years and it’s easy to say he has the standout performance. The film takes advantages of his talent with playing neuroticism and extending out reaction to people/things in scenes a little longer and with more detailed nuance. Many actors can play neurotic and play up neurotic characteristics well enough, but Rockwell knows how to operate in the spaces between the actions and how to delay the payoff funny reaction. Emma Thompson once said screen acting was the ability to master the look of concentration on film. Rockwell is able to find a way to concentrate while in a state of neuroticism and make it feel both fluent with the character and detailed enough to be relatively realistic (well, for as much realism as a comedy can grant).
Seemingly at ease with a slower process, Martin McDonagh has admitted his next intended feature film is written and pre-planned for a number of production details, but like Seven Psychopaths, he will wait a few years before formally moving forward with it. As a fan more than anything else, I’m hoping the next four years pass by and when they do, not too much time feels lapsed to make the waiting process feel cumbersome on any level. More Martin McDonagh is needed for our everyday cinema.