(Spring Breakers is now available via Lionsgate on DVD + Digital UltraViolet, Blu-ray + Digital UltraViolet, and at Amazon Instant. It world premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Annapurna Pictures and A24 Films. It opened in NY and LA on Friday, March 15, 2013, and was released nationwide on Friday, March 22nd. Visit the film’s official website to learn more.)
This month—March 2013—marks a disquieting 10-year anniversary for the United States of America. No, not the invasion of Iraq. Back in mid-March of ‘03, there was another invasion of a country by the good ol’ US of A that left its own smeary historical stain—albeit of the pop-cultural variety. The invaded country was Mexico, the armed forces were Hollywood, and the operation was called The Real Cancun. For years, I have proudly declared The Real Cancun to be one of the most important cinematic landmarks of the first decade of the 21st century, and as I type these words in 2013, I stand firmly behind that statement.
To my eyes, The Real Cancun is a brilliant treatise on the disturbing impact of White American Privilege, as well as the perhaps definitive example of Spring Break Culture run horrifically amok. That its production happened concurrent with our invasion of Iraq? Well, that only further sealed its legendary fate. Beyond that, not only was this the first time MTV’s The Real World had branched out into the multiplex feature-film realm (I’m pretty positive it was also their last), but there was another, perhaps more disturbing development that shook up the previously stable Bunim/Murray Productions formula. Compared to the early years of The Real World, where the subjects’ lives were treated as actual drama and with sincerity, in The Real Cancun, the editing was used to make flat-out fun of its subjects. Rather than producing content that chronicled the heartbreak of a tragic, inspiring regular hero like Pedro from The Real World: San Francisco, MTV headed in the direction of current shock-pop shows like Jersey Shore in order to chart straight-laced Alan’s quest to “see some boobies!”
I have written the above in order to provide some sort of context when it comes to my own reaction to Spring Breakers. For in a basic sense, it’s hard to deny my overriding feeling that The Real Cancun said everything there is to say about this subject already, and not only did it do that, but it did it ten years ago. But as Spring Breakers is a Harmony Korine film, one must also acknowledge that making an emphatic statement about any one thing in particular is not how Korine operates—certainly not in this case—which makes watching and writing about it such a fun challenge.
First off, while it sounds well and good in theory to say that one should judge a movie solely based on what happens inside the frame, in the case of Spring Breakers, it’s impossible not to appreciate it from a larger pop-cultural vantage point. Whatever one thinks of the content contained within, the fact remains: there are few living souls on the planet who could have pulled off a similar coup. I truly believe that the casting and selling and distributing of Spring Breakers in its finished form is comparable to one of Jean-Claude and Cristo’s more ambitious ventures. Though it cannot be denied that James Franco’s enthusiastic involvement played a very useful role in the subversive casting process, someone had to have the foresight to trust that Franco was the best sidekick for the job. And that someone was Harmony Korine.
Wisely, most folks—whether yaysayers or naysayers—don’t appear to be accusing Korine of selling out by making this superficially wild leap from the art house to the multiplex. Since the very beginning of his career, Korine’s writing and visual artwork and movies have been obsessed with pop culture. And as he himself has sincerely professed along the way, he has always wanted his work to catch mainstream fire. Of course, an experiment like Trash Humpers (flat-out brilliant, methinks) certainly wasn’t going to be the one to do it, but if you compare these films, they actually have many crucial similarities. Casting and shooting format aside, both Trash Humpers and Spring Breakers are strongly anti-narrative at their core, and in each case, Korine has his characters repeat mantra-like repetitions to cast a dreamlike spell, which adds an interesting contrast to the harsh visual reality unfolding on screen. The surface of Spring Breakers is much glossier, to be sure, and its cast is more screamingly recognizable, but in filmmaking spirit, these movies are kin.
In her somewhat gushing review, Manohla Dargis gets at the something that makes ‘reviewing’ a movie like Spring Breakers such a strange task:
“That Mr. Korine appears to be having it both (or many) ways may seem like a cop-out, but only if you believe that the role of the artist is to be a didact or a scold. Mr. Korine, on the other hand, embraces the role of court jester, the fool whose transgressive laughter carries corrosive truth.”
This is an important distinction to make, for it is exactly why so many people are both a) thrilled by Spring Breakers, and b) repulsed by it. For the reality is that Harmony Korine’s core approach to his art is to express himself in a way where many divergent ideas and sensations are being expressed at once, as some sort of projectile hurl. It’s never a case of intellect over emotion, or political over personal, or comedy instead of drama. Of course, in the most extreme cases, this can result in viewer whiplash, as he or she is forced to process yet another image or moment that tips the scales even further off balance. Spring Breakers is like a giant, exploding water balloon of gleefully jarring contradictions.
The beginning of this movie is like being on a roller coaster where you don’t realize until you’re already unexpectedly thundering downward that you got on the ride at the top of the hill. Set to Skrillex’s most recognizable hit, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” Korine goes there right away as the song releases its atomic blast. We watch in slow-motion as meatheads pound beers while sun-browned topless females jiggle their boobs as if their jiggling is the only thing that will keep the music blasting through the speakers. Yes, spring break has arrived.
Once the shock of that sequence wears off, we find ourselves far from Skuzz Beach, on the campus of an unnamed undergraduate collegiate institution in the heart of Somewhere Random, America. Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are bored-and-frustrated shitless and are desperate to escape to St. Petersburg, Florida, for their first glimpse of true spring breakage. The only problem is that they don’t have the necessary funds to buy bus tickets. Hmm. This obviously sucks. Like, big time.
Korine’s intent of much of this first act is to make us feel just how bored and frustrated these young gals themselves are feeling. Which is fine, but it’s also a tricky thing to pull off, for it calls attention to one of storytelling’s most difficult questions: how does one effectively convey the feeling of boredom-to-the-point-of-frustration without the work itself becoming boring-to-the-point-of-frustrating? Basically, how much down time does one need to present to viewers to get that particular point across? The fact that I’m currently in the late-inning stage of editing my new film very likely warped my perspective here, but my first viewing hunch was that we didn’t need to hang around as long as we were hanging around for Korine to have effectively made his point.
In contrast to just about all of Korine’s work—which has almost always been fiercely idea-based on a second-to-second basis—for these early scenes of downtime, his approach to the material felt vague and, dare I say, Malickian (I’m referring specifically to the scenes of the girls frolicking on the beach and doing handstands in their dorm’s hallway). It came across as if this footage were captured without any sort of specific visual game plan, other than documenting them doing these kinda/sorta nothing things together, with the intention that they’d “find it in the edit.” Which caught me off-guard.
In many ways, that above approach connects directly to the film’s editorial approach. Korine and editor Douglas Crise employ a musical rhythm that is more in keeping with club music than a pop song. Therefore, your patience for club/trance/techno/whatever-they-currently-call-that-shit will likely play a role in your appreciation (or not) of this movie. As someone who feels like a melting vampire whenever he hears this type of music in the daylight, I’m surprised that I myself wasn’t repulsed by the repetitive patterns used throughout. They set an appropriately trance-y tone.
In an early scene, for those viewers who are able to see past the shock value of Vanessa Hudgens miming giving a blowjob and are able to focus on the sound coming from in front of the classroom, the teacher is speaking about African-American history. Of course, these bored daydreamers aren’t paying attention, for their minds are filled with images of a different type of African-American culture. When they (minus Faith, that is) rob a restaurant with squirt guns, they have enough money to catch a bus to Florida, where their dreams come true.
It is impossible not to watch the girls’ transition from hanging-with-fratbags to chillin’-wit’-thugs as a pointed statement on race and how privileged kids can think/act/play hard from their sheltered quads, but when push comes to shove, the pushed get shoved. Faith can handle doing beer bongs and smoking bowls in a bland condo with machismo toolbags who are also in college and on spring break, but when the girls end up at a pool hall in which there are no other Caucasians to be found, she crumbles. Alien (Franco), the local who takes them under their wing, may be white, but his cornrows and gold fronts and slurry style of speech expose him as one of “them.” He’s just as terrifying to Faith as the “real” black guys. But it doesn’t end there. Korine saves his boldest statement for last, when, in the film’s climax, which plays like a candy-colored infusion of Belly and Scarface, our perky White Privileged Tourists literally slaughter the natives before hopping in a car and squealing out of town, back to the comfort of their sterile bulletproof world.
The reality here is that I might be too old for a movie like Spring Breakers. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like these days, so many facets of popular culture mock and critique and take care of the social commentary themselves. They are the entertainment. They are the satire. They are the commentary. Frankly, to me, spring break is like a big barrel of fish that already shot itself long before Korine and his crew rolled into town. And speaking of shooting, I hate to be a prude, but I just don’t connect with guns anymore, even on the silver screen (this is where is where the question of glorification-versus-condemnation comes into play the loudest for me when trying to come to terms with Spring Breakers). Obviously, America is full of guns. Obviously, kids like to get smashed (I myself am a veteran of spring break and senior week and, oh yeah, my entire 20s). Obviously, our culture is seemingly out of control and our media tends to highlight its grossest instincts. And I guess that’s my point. Do we really need to see that anymore? Did we need to see it in the first place?
On the other hand, Harmony Korine is an undeniably talented filmmaker who has aligned himself with an extraordinary cinematographer this time around (Benoit Debie). Debie’s eye-poppingly colorful visual palette, mixed with Skrillex and Cliff Martinez’s score, elevates Spring Breakers at times to a place of pure cine-pop-art. There is imagery and there are moments of pure electricity that you won’t encounter anywhere else on a screen this year (if you aren’t impressed and/or wowed by the sequence set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, apologies to you). On a broader scale, the mere fact that Korine was able to turn this seemingly farfetched project into a finished film and current mini-sensation cannot be denied. It’s a staggering achievement.
What can I say? It’s a fun movie. It’s a dumb movie. I’m conflicted.
— Michael Tully