People fond of European and World cinema often accuse Hollywood of churning out safe, derivative crap whilst turning a blind eye to the fact that the vocabulary of art house film has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. Indeed, if you have seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad then you are unlikely to be surprised by anything that appears in your local art house cinema. The truth of the matter is that cinema is an expensive medium and the conservative forces that compel American filmmakers to produce violently misogynistic popcorn movies are the same as the ones compelling ambitious non-American directors to produce beautifully shot stories of middle-class alienation filled with extended silences and psychological ambiguities. Given how many promising talents are crushed by the gears of these mature economic systems, it is always something of a delight when a director manages to follow their own path and find their own means of expression. Harmony Korine is just that kind of director.
Korine’s latest and most widely marketed work opens with a montage that is both completely out of character and utterly in keeping with the director’s favoured themes. The scene is one of oppressive revelry as American students drink, dance and grind up against each other in the Florida sunshine. Shot through a slightly greenish filter, the scene is gorgeously bright and yet oddly murky, as though someone had decided to open the Arc of the Covenant at the bottom of a garden pond. Korine is best known for such quirky portraits of impoverished dysfunction as Gummo and Trash Humpers but he was also the writer behind Larry Clark’s Kids and Ken Park. The sensibility that unites all of these films is that contentment (and even transcendence) is most likely not going to be found in all the usual places; churches, stable relationships, middle-aged men walking through fields of grass whilst talking in voices filled with hushed awe. Happiness is where you find it and chances are that the place you eventually find it is going to seem incredibly ugly and bleak to anyone who isn’t you. We see this in the squalid threesome at the end of Ken Park, we see this in the psychotic performance art of the Trash Humpers and we see it in the dub-step, boobies and beer bongs of Spring Breakers’ opening montage, which is best described as Ibiza Uncovered with better dentistry.
From the light of the Florida beaches, we are transported to a darkened lecture theatre where a group of female students roll their eyes and yearn for vacation. I speak of the main characters as a ‘group’ as while Korine does go out of his way to stress the differences between the characters, the four main protagonists assume that because they dress alike, talk alike, and attend the same parties, they are basically the same kind of person. This assumption of identity and profound spiritual kinship is echoed in the way that Korine uses the male gaze to reduce all female students to a collection of bikini-clad anatomical components, the way that character names are only loosely affixed to certain actresses and the way that the protagonists keep expressing their unity by singing along to the music of Britney Spears as though a shared set of pop culture references actually says anything about who you are as a person.
The group comprises four female students who claim to have been best friends since kindergarten. At the centre of the group are the nihilistically hedonistic Candy and Brit (Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson) who hit upon the idea of holding up a fast food joint in order to scrape together enough money to go away on spring break. Needing access to a car, they enlist the help of their friend Cotty (Rachel Korine) who serves as their getaway driver. We never see very much of what happens during the robbery as Korine keeps his camera inside the getaway car as Cotty drives around the outside of the restaurant. Brilliantly, Korine allows us to see Candy and Brit through the windows screaming at patrons and sticking guns in their faces but because Cotty is on the outside of the restaurant, she is detached from the real violence in much the same way as Faith, who is even more detached from the crime by virtue of not being present at the scene. However, while Korine makes it abundantly clear that Candy and Brit are the real instigators of the crime, the four girls feel as though they are all in it together and so the differences between the characters sit neatly in the background of the film generating tension as every camera angle and line of dialogue celebrates the group’s unity of character and purpose.
These tensions begin to manifest themselves when a particularly rowdy party lands the group in jail. Mindful of the money brought in by spring breakers, the local judge decided that the girls can either pay a fine or spend a few days in county, at which point local rapper Alien (James Franco) steps in and bails the group out. Reportedly based on the real-world rappers Riff Raff and Dangeruss, Alien is a magnificently ambiguous creation who exudes charisma, sex appeal, violence and cartoon smell lines in equal measure. Aside from being the catalyst that lures the group into further criminality, Alien also serves to highlight the very real tensions that exist within the group: Horrified by her night in the cells and obviously disgusted by Alien’s white trash gangster aesthetic, Faith breaks down in tears and snivels about wanting to go home. Despite all the hugging, kissing and speeches about buying a house together and living this life forever, Faith has no interest in the world Alien promises… as with the film’s opening sequence, one set of images can inspire very different reactions in what, contrary to their protestations, are very different people. Alien sees the criminal underworld as a natural continuation of the transgressive behaviour common to spring break and while Candy and Brit understand and respond to Alien’s promise of better drugs, better sex, better parties and more fun, Faith is completely lost and so must return home. Brilliantly, Korine exposes these in-group tensions by having the group respond to Faith’s breakdown with discretely rolling-eyes and half-hearted expressions of understanding.
Alien not only introduces the remaining women to the Florida underworld, he also encourages them to don a uniform of bikinis and Pussy Riot-style coloured balaclavas in order to become part of his criminal gang. Initially, all three women respond positively to Alien’s thug-life but when Alien’s rival opens fire on the group and injures Cotty, she too has to return home. Again, the women may dress the same, act the same and respond positively to many similar things but they are not the same people. Naturally, this raises the question of how it is that we are supposed to know people if not through the way they speak, the way they dress and the things they think? When Alien finally beds Brit and Candy, he calls them his soulmates, but what does this actually mean? Can people ever actually know each other when their responses to shared events can be so totally different and so utterly hidden?
The film’s final act finds Alien teaming up with Brit and Candy to seek bloody retribution for the wounding of Cotty. However, when Alien is shot dead in the opening seconds of what becomes a massive gunfight, a final tension is laid bare. One that existed not between people who like to party and people bored of bourgeois life, nor between people who like the trappings of criminality and the real dangers of crime. The tension exposed in the film’s final scenes is one that existed between the people who like the idea of being criminals and the people with a real talent for anti-social behaviour. Alien slept in a bed surrounded by machineguns and swords but when the time came to actually use those weapons, he simply wasn’t good enough. The final images of the film are of Brit and Candy killing dozens of armed men and then driving home in a Lamborghini… they have arrived, they have found their place in the world and, just like that opening sequence and Alien himself, they are a magnificently ambivalent creation; Ugly and yet striking, violent and yet tranquil, damning and yet utterly transcendent, they radiate success and happiness but their real thoughts and feelings remain utterly inaccessible even to each other.
The most striking thing about Spring Breakers is that while it follows Korine’s interest in the psychological and moral ambiguities of happiness, it replaces the drab and impoverished squalor of Korine’s earlier films with neon-drenched images of wealth, empowerment and sexuality. However, while the more photogenic elements of the film allowed it to receive an unexpectedly wide release, Korine’s refusal to embrace mainstream ideas about plot and character goes a good way to explaining why all of the YouTube comments for the trailers are drenched in venom. Spring Breakers may look like a music video stapled to a Girls Gone Wild DVD but the themes and techniques it deploys are alien to both the sentimental conservatism of the American mainstream and the emotional elusiveness of an increasingly formulaic art house scene. Korine may not be the only director to seek alienation and transcendence outside of these two monolithic cultural traditions but he is a director who is unafraid to repurpose old tools in an effort to build more relevant and compelling films and that makes him someone to watch.