Harmony Korine’s latest has received a fair deal of critical fanfare. To be honest, it was the sole factor that eventually persuaded me to give it a look; I’m not an enormous fan of his oeuvre, but fair play to those who find his work rewarding and challenging. I probably should have trusted my better instincts, as this deconstruction of a youth culture transfixed and tranquilised by sex, drugs, and gun culture surprises only with quite how bereft it is of substance.
To be highly cynical for a moment, Korine’s decision to manufacture this critique through the medium of four actresses (including his missus, 13 years his junior) clad, at best, in bikinis for the duration seems like your classic opportunistic method of making an artistic statement. It’s about something really significant, you know. It just happens that the means of communicating this message requires prodigious amounts of ripe young flesh to be bared.
The plot, such as it is, involves four empty-headed college girls (one of whom, Faith, Selena Gomez, is troubled by an unwholesomely religious home life) out to have some fun for spring break. Which it seems is when copious quantities of college kids gather on sun kissed Florida beaches for all manner of misbehaviour, indulgence and carnality. Three of them (Vanessa Hudgens’ Candy, Ashley Benson’s Brit and Mrs Rachel Korine’s Cotty,) get together the necessaries for the jaunt by robbing a local eating establishment, displaying the vigour of ones brought up on a diet of Tarantino movies. Once they've reached their destination they have a jolly good time, accompanied by alternately thumping dance anthems (at their party parlours) and dreamy Cliff Martinez ambience (for post-raving dalliances). Much of the latter is accompanied by Faith’s slightly touched, idealised version of their jaunt; in itself this seems an attempt to homage the folksy charm of Malick’s Badlands. Then the quartet end up in the slammer, after a particularly hard night on the disco biscuits (actually, I’m not sure we see them indulging those), and are bailed out by self-styled white gangsta Alien (James Franco, enjoying himself immensely; there’s absolutely no way an audience could appreciate the actor’s performances as much as he himself does).
At which point Korine, after a mind-numbingly dull first half hour, at least has someone animated to secure our attention. Franco, no doubt improvising like a maniac, pronounces his peace-loving, gun-toting agenda with a rhetoric that quickly grows tiresome (there’s only so much of him exclaiming “Look at my shit” one can take, however ironically conceived). Of course he watches Scarface on repeat. Ever since New Jack City the film has been a meta-reference of a meta-reference. And a Britney Spears song is the very definition of “inspiring”. It’s not really all that clever, y’all. It isn’t long before Faith heads home, because “I have a really bad feeling about this”. If only Gomez had such prescience before signing on to Korine’s mentally challenged minorpiece.
Korine, “cleverly” using genre cliches, ensures that Alien is engaged in some sort of turf war with a former best pal (Big Arch, Gucci Mane). Alien’s, and the girls’, American Dream turns nasty, after which Cotty too heads home. Left with his two best “bitches” Alien elects to take revenge on Arch, at which point the ruthlessness proficiency of Candy and Brit, first seen during the robbery, manifests itself. This is the bit where the characters, unable to define themselves outside the fictional worlds of the idols they imitate, embrace the life of the movie-movie third act. Do you see?
The most arresting aspect of Spring Breakers is Benoît Debie’s photography. His work on the underrated Mel Gibson starrer (not many of those around these days) Get the Gringo was also highly distinctive. Here he infuses the environment with an eye-popping wash of primary colours, emphasising the disconnected blanket of unreality that informs these girls. The visuals deserve unqualified praise, but serve to emphasise that Korine has no engine beneath the hood. A pointed rebuke of corrupting influences on the youth of today and their gradual descent into sociopathic abandon? He’s only revisiting a much-explored topic that each aging generation fixates on (we can’t understand the new kids on the block, each successive new generation is worse than the last), whether to venerate (Bonnie and Clyde). If he’d explored this through something a little less obvious, and a lot more focussed, he might have been on to something. But fixating on rap culture and gun fetishisation is faintly “Oh, really. Again?” But, since we know he’s such a profound artist, we can be confident that the decision to adorn his bikini babes in ski masks and Uzis was a purely ironic act.
There might be something worthwhile to be said about the saturation fetishisation of the kick-ass female in contemporary culture, a consequence of the influences of both Cameron, Whedon and Tarantino on the film and television landscape. They’ve worked hard to reconfigure baser male traits and propensities have into a normalised and celebrated depiction of the female. There’s a perverse message of empowerment whereby it is seen as an advance to embrace masculine impulses and violent tendencies. It’s a self-congratulatory, masturbatory act on the part of such stylists; a way to impress the chicks. Maybe there’s a slight sense that Korine is tilting at such deranged glamorisation, but not nearly enough to consider it a treatise.
At least Korine’s film is mercifully brief, and yet it still feels longer than it is due to the slipshod construction. It has the air of something he formulated on the back of napkin and then laboured (not hard enough) to make some kind of sense from in the editing suite (there are endless montages, far beyond the point where it suggest a master plan). None of the girls make much impression, aside from for obvious reasons (but don’t you see, that’s the point; oh, how clever you are Harmony!) Franco is Franco; the campaign for Oscar recognition didn’t take, but I suspect that’s more because most people are heartily sick of the sight of the ubiquitous cheesemonger (I’m beginning to suspect there are several James Francos, all engaging in the same wretched performance art for our unedification). Hats off to the advertising department, though; they turned this thing into a hit. So Korine’s ruse worked (in his words, to “do the most radical work, but put it out in the most commercial way”). He succeeded in “infiltrating the mainstream” (what a daring darling guerrilla you are, Mr Korine). If only he’d hoodwinked us into seeing something of any merit.