TIFF: SPRING BREAKERS

john cribbs

And every time I try to fly

I fall without my wings

I feel so small

I guess I need you baby...

The blessing and curse of writing about films I saw six months ago that are just now coming out is that I get to experience the reactions people have to a movie I've had half a year to think about. And I have to say that while it was obvious back in September that the marketing for Spring Breakers would be centered around the "Disney actresses behaving badly!" angle, I'm surprised how many critics have based their reviews on the film's alleged "wall-to-wall sex and violence." Anyone expecting the kind of "I can't believe I'm actually seeing this" rush we all got when a giant, sweaty Jesse Spano ripped away that curtain and yanked her top off 20 years ago is likely to be disappointed. Even though the young actresses with the wholesome images and x number of former Jonas Brother boyfriends spend all of Spring Breakers popping out of two-pieces while swearing, smashing, doing drugs, having sex and indulging in crimes that make their "tits feel bigger," the film so shrewdly locks onto that inexplicably hedonistic spring break mentality that nothing they're doing ever really feels wrong. Not that what they do in this film isn't absolutely wrong, but Harmony Korine's obsessive penchant for aberrations, both confrontational and unassuming,* is well attuned to accessing this phenomenon, this thing that happens once a year where responsible young adults devolve into a collective of well-tanned, thrill-seeking, hard-drinking, sex-crazed, self-indulgent American barbarians, this post-winter, pre-summer pestilence of glorious grinding flesh. Which isn't to say his reputation as a button-pushing arthouse brat married to this mass depravity, exploitative by its very nature, results in something abounding with controversy: if anything, the two neutralize each other and re-route the movie so severely that there's hardly any giddiness to the rampant excess. Harmony Korine is no Paul Verhoeven, and he's certainly no Russ Meyer - there's an art to cinematic trashiness that even the Joe Eszterhases of Hollywood understand: you can't just have characters acting out, whether it's Jeanne Moreau poisoning the livestock in Mademoiselle or Joan Crawford decapitating Lee Majors for William Castle, without creating a clear sense of their outlaw attitude: what they do can't just feel guiltily fun - it has to be unequivocally unethical. William Friedkin nailed it with previous TIFF entry Killer Joe, and while High School Musical Girl getting James Franco to fellate a gun is a more successful piece of camp involving an Oscar nominee than High School Musical Boy getting pissed on by Nicole Kidman in fellow TIFF 12 screening The Paperboy, Korine never sends things sailing over the fences of good taste; for all its debauchery, his movie is practically, kind of shockingly, safe.

Not that I'm faulting the movie for that: I'm just saying that what people have been coming away with seems more like what the film's publicity department fed them rather than an actual understanding of what Korine is interested in. Not that I'd ever presume to know exactly what Korine is interested in, or how serious he regards his own integrity. That he employed some serious stunt casting is undeniable (and is already turning out to be a sound business decision; whether or not it launches him into the mainstream and he ends up directing the next Chipmunks movie or something, I never thought I'd see Harmony Korine profiled in Entertainment Weekly) but then this is the guy who plucked some glue-sniffing kid from a daytime talk show to play the lead in his feature film, and convinced Werner Herzog to act in movies.** That none of the girls who make up Spring Breakers' entourage of troubleseekers do anything memorably awful enough to either shed the actresses' PG-rated images*** or put them on the Drew Barrymore innocence/corruption/doe-eyed America's sweetheart career fast track is partly due to the director's inability and/or unwillingness to flesh out his fleshed-out heroines. His muse isn't one of the characters so much as their passion for the bacchanal that is spring break. For smelly, disheveled guys like me and Harmony Korine, spring break is a mere concept, a tv show, almost magical in its scale as well as its fleetingness. It's a last stop for dutiful and ambitious college kids on their road to maturity: the accepted discipline is you grind, puke and debauch yourself for a week, then you pack up and get back on schedule to becoming a responsible adult. But what if it lasted forever? What if spring break wasn't so much a place and time as it was an attitude that became a lifestyle that became a religion? After all it's not the towers of beer kegs and swimsuit-targeting squirt guns that set the quartet off on their heedless mission: in order to get money for the trip, they violently rob a chicken shack - the heist indicates that the spring break state of mind is something already seeded inside the girls, the crime itself their own rite of passage into the sun-drenched maelstrom. The spring break mindset   ; the opening shots of tanned bodies writhing in slow motion like one unstoppable zaftig organism could have easily led to some kind of antholopological study of spring break maniacs. The lead characters aren't "breakers" on a break, they're breaking a record for how long they can make the party last.

It's not an idea for everybody. Two of the four girls return to the real world when it becomes clear that a never-ending party is a flaming barrel picking up speed as it rolls recklessly on a downhill trajectory over anyone in its way. But just like bad behavior, danger is something that never really feels substantial in the movie. Before the chicken shack robbery one of them says "Just fuckin' pretend it's a video game - act like you're in a movie or something," and that's precisely how it plays out: we follow it from an exterior tracking shot, completely removed from the violence inside. Korine's team of Erholungen become invincible spring break soldiers, because to acknowledge the rules of the real world would be to completely negate the warped reality of spring break. When one of their number receives a flesh wound in a drive-by she leaves the movie, shuffling off back to the dismal banality of life away from sunny FLA. Call it dishonorable discharge, AWOL, even KIA - the call of duty to preserve the sanctity of spring break is unquestionably a militant one (after all weren't the U.S. Army and Marines, like Coca-Cola and Gillette, always major sponsors of MTV's Spring Break coverage?) The spring break mentality takes no prisoners: the girls' summerwear are essentially uniforms, they even wear them inapropos of a nocturnal assault on a drug dealer's kingdom, their approach filmed like Wild Bunch in Bikini Bottoms (I doubt Ernest Borgnine's butt would have benefited from a close-up) - and has no sympathy for the weak. The One From the Ramona Movie, whose image I assume to be the chastest of the actresses selected for this movie, plays a character who prays silently, doesn't participate in the robbery and ultimately can't be convinced that going off with Franco's gangster is a step in the right moral direction - she's also summarily dismissed from the proceedings. By the end of the film, the "casualty" rate has gotten so high (50% decimation) and the war for paradisiacal rapture so depraved that Franco's Alien, treated at first like some kind of spring break mascot, is unceremoniously cast away as the girls make their way to the movie's climatic massacre. Instead of turning the guns on their fellow revelers, which would have been the over-the-top Sal-esque direction reviews of the film have erroneously alluded to, the remaining Erholungen descend like switsuited Valkyries on those who've tarnished the free spirit of spring break by bringing real danger to what despite its depraved nature must never transgress beyond innocuous fun.

Nobody does spring break alone - it's one of those anomalies where the chaos is engaged by a collective mind, and the characters' communal immersion into it translates to the shared experience of viewing the film. Anything that goes, we go along with it, our minds trained by years of countless Daytona Beach coverage on TV settling upon some comfortable middle ground between condemning and condoning what we see. Call this reluctant acceptance shameful, call it ignorant - it is absolutely 100% American, and everything that draws out and connects everyone in a Hot for Teacher-like sense of spontaneous rapture. Appropiately Korine voices his co-ed crew as a committee rather than individuals, a smart approach since it saves Korine from having to write too much dialogue or develop his female protagonists beyond their fanaticism - as the collective breaks down the movie gets quieter, settling into a Dolce Vita-esque post-party lull that even the explosion of gunfire can't disrupt. The result is intimate and phantasmagorical, thanks in no small part to Benot Debie, the cameraman who helped pull off incredible (and trippy) technical feats in Gaspar No's Irreversible and Enter the Void: the St. Petersburg nights are pulsing with energy and seductive possibilities, while the days are heavy and muted, just waiting for it to be night again. There's never any question that this is the dream, that after landing on these shores there's no going back; "spring break forever" becomes a mantra, the girls disciples to its gold-grilled, ultimately-matryred missionary, the lyrics to "Everytime" a hymn in which the affirmation "I guess I need you baby" is a testimonial from Korine's spring breakers to the freedom and fun of the Florida sun.

For those wondering when this article is actually going to start and I'll say something about the actual events of the movie, I don't know if there's anything to point to that does anything more than highlight its obvious virtues. The Jeff Jarrett cameo. James Franco showing off his shorts and singing Britney Spears. Moments like those are inspired but sparse, as if trying to sneak on stage and back off before there's any danger of deeper meaning. Korine's not a great writer but he's conscious of the kind of movie he wants to make, and while it may seem like he gets stuck between not wanting to move into full-blown bootilicious John Stockwell-directing-Into the Blue territory and not reverting to "party's over" moralizing John Stockwell-directing-Crazy/Beautiful territory, the narrative never gets anywhere near a Touristas-style nightmare.**** Some people might think he's preaching against young people who go to far, others that he's just being arty/pervy but I don't think the film strays too far into either region. Korine is a talented artist who's never been able to commit himself to any one role: he's come up short as a social commentator (Kids), a freak show provocateur (Gummo), a Dogma 95 arthouse collagist (Julien Donkey-Boy) and - despite a noble effort- a sensitive portrayer of alternative-lifestyle outsiders (Mister Lonely.) So although the "pretend it's a video game" line feels like it came out of Kids (and even parallels the young killers' pretext for murdering their friend in Kids director Larry Clark's Bully), it's not an attempt to evoke school shootings or diagnose the chicken shack bandits with a raging case of detachment. It's more like jocks gearing up for a big game, or a senior prank. Building up confidence, because the most substantial thing in any Harmony Korine movie is its characters' insubstantiality: just like Mister Lonely, the spring breakers want to maintain a counterculture lifestyle for as long as they can, beyond rationality or feasibility (I guess if you're being kind you could also attach this to something like Trash Humpers.) That's as close to an arc as he allows his characters, the desperate need to hold onto this intangible contentment; maybe not happiness, but something approximating it. When Shane Black interviewed Korine around the time Julien Donkey-Boy was released, Korine expressed a general disinterest in linear storytelling, when what he should have said is that what he lacks in basic storytelling skills he substitutes with a prevailing conduct which his characters tenuously nurture. That said, Spring Breakers is the closest he's come to a straight narrative: it's his True Romance, ultimate euphoria similarly achieved through a flurry of bullets, Franco's dreadlock-sporting wannabe gangster (an excellent creation by director and star, it should be noted) even harking back to Gary Oldman's Drexl. It's a step in the right direction for a filmmaker who so consistently lacks direction. Korine is never going to be as prolific or artistically demanding as his contemporaries and filmmaking forefathers (I've noticed Korine, now in his 40's, has starting talking like Herzog in interviews, suggesting he's attempting to move into guru guerilla filmmaker mode), but if he comes up with a watchable film***** every four or five years I'll be curious to see what he comes up with. Seeing posters for Spring Breakers makes me smile, which is more than I can say for Gummo. Spring break forever, baby.

 

NEXT: John Dies at the End

 

* I still think his best movie would have been Fight Harm, in which Korine provokes people to beat him up but does nothing to actually defend himself. Too bad he was hospitalized before he could record enough footage, it would have been career-defining.

** I blame Korine for the oafish clown-guru persona Herzog has undertaken in Hollywood. Well, maybe I blame the Grizzly Man...it's like 70-30.

*** I'm willing to concede that my complete lack of familiarity with the work and career of any of the actresses from this film may have informed my "so what?" attitude. (Ok I recognized Ashley Benson from the Bring It On series, which may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that she was my favorite. Harmony Korine's wife is on hand in the useless Jennifer Schwalbach "who's that and why is she so much less attractive than the other actresses?" role.)

**** Technically the compromise here would be Blue Crush. I apologize to anyone not familiar enough with the man's work to understand my John Stockwell analogies.

***** I hope this is the first part of a trilogy and that Korine is hitting Mardi Gras next - hell, he can helm a Hangover sequel.

 

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