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.