Saturday, March 30, 2013

movie review: 'spring breakers'

Last summer in about June, I wrote 'Last Call', a short story that was published in this anthology. 

I wrote that story when I was unemployed, amidst a listless haze of bizarre art films, channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, and the discography of Ke$ha. It's a story of a girl named Natalie who goes to a nightclub and experiences a bloody, terrifying surrealist nightmare, complete with drugs, alcohol, and far, far worse. It's not an easy story to read - I know this - and the common responses from people who have read it are 'I didn't get it' and 'it's really dark and disturbing'.

Yeah, it is. It's dark, and disturbing, and since it's partially based on truth, it's more than a little personal. It's the kind of story I had to write, if only to finally put to bed some of the darker memories of my past. But while I was writing it and trying to get inside the head of my protagonist and everyone she encounters, I felt a sick jolt of realization: that there's something deeply, perversely wrong with my generation. It's not something that can entirely be explained, even though I'll try in this review. And while many have pointed the finger at us for being the progenitors of it all, we were not the only forces shaping it. After all, we're all shaped by culture in some way, and it's very rare that we're the ones creating the culture that shapes us.

And the fact that Spring Breakers, the new Harmony Korine film starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, is able to so aptly cast, vivisect, and place that wrongness on display... It is incredible and more than a little terrifying. It's one of the best goddamn films of the year, and deserves to be held up the heavens as a cultural touchstone of my generation. And yeah, I know that's a damning indictment but I don't fucking care, it's an indictment that needs to be made. It's an indictment I've made and I'm willing to include myself as one being indicted. 

It's 'Last Call', except where I optimistically saw a painful way out, Harmony Korine has a much bleaker, bloodier view.

At this point, before going into this film, I need to discuss Harmony Korine and transgressive art (or you can all go read the semi-essay I wrote on the subject). Harmony Korine was discovered by Larry Clark, a fellow transgressive filmmaker, and he contributed to the writing and directing of several films that have a rather bleak reputation. He helped write Ken Park, for instance, a shockingly unpleasant and turgid exploration of the disgusting chaff in small-town America. His film before Spring Breakers was Trash Humpers, an even more disgusting film shot entirely on VHS tapes in which the title aptly and literally sums up the movie. Believe me, it's not an easy film to sit through.

Now I've spewed a lot of vitriol against Harmony Korine in the past, and frankly, he's deserved the majority of it. As I've said in the past, there needs to be room for transgression in art, but there also needs to be a way to make that transgression have a point or meaning or intent beyond shoving the worst of humanity under a camera for voyeuristic, bacchanalian pleasure. If anything, that's where I've tended to find issue with Harmony Korine's work - he's a transgressive filmmaker, but his messages are poorly articulated and shot through with horrendous ugliness. He's a filmmaker who aspires to use images to shock, but beyond the shock, he's had little to say and what he does have to say, he says it without clear purpose. I wouldn't quite call it tragedy porn, but with the continuous blurring of the line between pornography and art, he's definitely sitting in the blur.

Indeed, when you watch Spring Breakers, it's kind of hard not to notice the pornography-esque elements. The sleazy, cheap hotels, the unflinching closeups that don't cut away, the demented dutch angles, the garish lighting, the proliferation of T&A in plain, uncompromising shots. There's a reason for that kind of post-Jersey-Shore cinematography and direction during the spring break sequence, because as the film continues, these shots that might have seemed so titillating at the beginning lose something of their spark and feel slightly hollow. It's cheap, it's debauched, it feels plastic and all the more meaningless...

But that's the point. That's the point of casting a host of former Disney starlets as our heroines (a metaphor Korine has already acknowledged), a group who seem to revel in being the vapid party girls but are really hiding something beneath it all. That's the point of James Franco, who might seem like a pick-up artist predator beneath his white-rapper/drug-dealer sleaze but conveys the vulnerability of hidden depths behind the bad tattoos and grills, depths that come from half-remembered good ideas yet a lack of will or intelligence to fully express them. That's the point of saturating the entire film with the cheapest, most plastic of pop and hip-hop and EDM, by filling the film with Skrillex and Gucci Maine and Nicki Minaj and Britney Spears. It's the point of every whispered 'Spring break... forever...', a sense that by intoning the words that they might pass along some vestige of meaning - even if that meaning is token, hollow, and only covering the horrifying truths beneath it.

And there's no irony here. Not a single Ke$ha song to reassure the audience it's all a winking joke and it's all going to be okay. There's no parody or cutaways to show something more pleasurable and less bitter truth. Note I say truth, because far too much of the first act of Spring Breakers feels way too close to the reality. It's shown in the giggling and general vapidity of our heroines, and most especially in Selena Gomez' character Faith. Gomez' performance feels terrifyingly real, as she plays the reluctant girl who doesn't quite involve herself in the same insanity as the rest, the girl who is trying to find religion and finding it token and hollow and cheap. She's struggling for meaning, and she sees the parties of spring break as a chance to break free of the monotony of modern culture. But she's also more of the good girl, the smart girl that has most of her life together, and thus it's no surprise that when James Franco's Alien enters the picture, she heads home. The colour washes out in these transitory shots of her on the bus, symbolic of her return to the monotony of regular life, no meaning found. This happens again when Rachel Korine's character encounters the nastier side of Alien's drug-dealing world, and the colours feel just as lifeless as the bus takes her home.

All of this sounds pretty hard to watch, and it's the sort of film that would make many people sick with the rancid debauchery on display - except this is Harmony Korine, and he's not looking to just make porn or the latest entry in Girls Gone Wild. Like with Trash Humpers, he's the sort of filmmaker who has a lot - in some cases way too much - empathy for his characters. He tried to make excuses for the utterly terrible things that happened in Trash Humpers, but that film lacked characters the audience could empathize with, so the empathy comes across as voyeuristic and leering. Spring Breakers is different: the girls and Franco are not solely punchlines or symbols to point accusatory fingers at my generation. They're people who are refusing to acknowledge the sick joke they're a part of, that they might only barely understand but which is lurking at the edge of their minds throughout the entire film. And those in my generation... yeah, we can empathize with that.

And speaking of sick jokes, Spring Breakers might be the biggest, harshest, most vehement evisceration of 'gangsta culture' that I've ever seen. Not only does it cast said culture in the truthful sleazy light, it also doesn't hesitate to show just how grim and mirthless that entire side of the industry is. It's the sort of film where Eminem's Encore, a record made when Eminem was on dangerous amounts of painkillers in order to function through his pain, could have been played unironically and it wouldn't have felt out of place. But Spring Breakers takes aim at something far more precious to gangsta culture and rips to shreds: its precious delusions of masculinity. It takes that macho infatuation with guns and strippers and drugs and brutally bends it over the table, particularly in one scene featuring Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, James Franco, and two guns. Our wannabe gangsta predator is not only viciously degraded, but revealed as living the same hollow, token lie the girls were hunting for, a lie that he's aware of and only barely able to articulate. And the scenes of his protests and gradual admission of his fear of going after a man who used to be his best friend are genuinely haunting.

And here's where we get to the meat of this movie, what it means and why I found it such a deeply, deeply affecting film. Because Spring Breakers is making a point about my generation, a point that I've skirted around for a bit but now need to discuss. It's an analogous point to the one Rick Alverson and Tim Heidecker put forward in their superb movie The Comedy. It's the point, the truth, that many won't be able to see behind the debauchery and the T&A and the plastic artifice, and even though Harmony Korine is trying his damnedest to get it across, too many people won't get it - or won't admit it to themselves.

It's the lack of purpose in my generation, and the creeping numbness that comes with it.

It's the feeling of being told we're special and that we can achieve anything and everything - and then watching as the world collectively blew that dream apart, leaving too many of us without options. It's being told that we were going to go out and do great things and that we could find happiness - and then watching at every turn as whatever happiness, whatever purpose we're hunting for is blown away. 

Through no fault of our own, we watched the economy collapse, and it's only now that a few of us have had the sick realization that we're going to be the ones stuck picking up the pieces. We're the ones who sought every escape, whether through drenching it in irony or slathering it in artifice, if only because we're trying to escape the terrible fact that all of the dreams society promised us are either lies or non-existent. We've watched pop stars like Britney and Miley and Demi and Lindsey lose their minds in the emptiness of pop stardom - and yet so many crave that hollow feeling because it's something to feel. Spring break in this movie is considered an escape, a chance to feel something, which is why Korine fills his scenes with bucolic happiness and gratuitous scenes of partying and T&A... and yet as it continues, the feeling leeches away, and even the debauchery begins to feel token and trivial.

You all realize why so many of my generation smoke, do drugs, and binge drink, right, even though it's been hammered into our heads time and time again that it's wrong and could seriously screw up our lives in the long term? Because speaking from someone in that generation, it's not fun. It's not the sort of happiness that sticks and means something and can actually pierce that numbness, that lack of feeling, that dehumanization. Some have blamed it on the music and the video games - hell, the inciting incident of the film is triggered amongst shouts of 'Treat it all like a TV show, or a video game!'. But like this movie shows, it's more than that - it's a product of a culture that spent countless money and lives empowering its youth but couldn't back it up, where honesty was shoved away and replaced with platitudes. 

There aren't platitudes in Spring Breakers - it's just crippling, horrifying reality. It shows Selena Gomez' character trying to find solace in religion (a symbol of past institutions that once provided comfort) and failing, so she goes with her friends to the debauchery of spring break, only for reality to come crashing down on her. She eventually goes home, unfulfilled, unsatisfied. Rachel Korine's character leaves later, but she does leave, when the very real pain of her 'new life' comes back. It's the two that stay and their gangsta errant knight - Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and James Franco - that reveal the dark truth, what's beneath the numbness and aching for something real. 

It's why Franco sings a certain song to the girls while they wear pink ski masks and dance around with guns - his expressions of love are entirely sincere, and he uses a disposable plastic pop ballad because that's all he knows that he can place meaning in. It's why every scene where Benson and Hudgens' characters re-enact their opening heist comes across as far too real and revealing, showing the hidden, deep-seated rage behind plastic vapidity and numbness. It's also why when they leave spring break, the colour palette doesn't fade out - for after their final, gory act, they did achieve some kind of purpose. And the fact that purpose comes through trauma, loss, and horrendous consequences speaks volumes about what our generation might have to do to break through the unfeeling, hollow numbness and lack of purpose that afflicts it. To shatter plastic chains and expose something that we'd never dare show - and the fact that Harmony Korine uses Disney starlets in the role shows he's willing to let the metaphor come full circle. 

This is not just a good movie, or a great movie. It's an important movie, and not just for my generation either - people who are responsible for shaping the culture need to see this and wake the fuck up. I think parents need to see this, and be willing to look past the insanity to see the root cause beneath it. Unfortunately, I don't think that's likely to happen, because most people aren't going to 'get' this movie. I've read articles like this where Spring Breakers 'reinforces rape culture'... yeah, that's bullshit, mostly because the film casts any forcibly attempted sexual overtones in the most unpleasant of fashions and then features a systematic gutting of the masculine power fantasy. In other words, this is the movie that Sucker Punch wanted to be, but didn't have the real chops and cinematic daring to back up. This is a controversial film, and I can tell you that most people who don't understand this movie - or refuse to acknowledge its reality - are going to despise it. They're going to see the artifice and twisted lurid tone and the debauchery and not look beneath it. They'll write it off as exploitation trash or a Girls Gone Wild spoof.

They're wrong. Just because people don't get it doesn't mean this movie doesn't have a damning indictment - and a cry for help - to make. It's putting the truth on the screen with uncompromising, near-pornographic intensity, and for once in his life, Harmony Korine has something to say about it. He has empathy for what my generation is facing - it comes across in every shot and every line of the script longing for something, anything, to give purpose beyond the dross society has provided - and he wants to make a point. There's no irony, there's no winking, there's no insincerity - it's terrifyingly honest and sincere, even if everyone else doesn't want to open their eyes and acknowledge it.

And as somebody who has lived parts of this, felt some of that numbing miasma... yeah, this film gets it. It's similar to what I wrote in 'Last Call', where there were glimpses of escape. Spring Breakers' escape isn't nearly so optimistic.

And the truly scary thing is that enough of my generation will get this movie and understand it - and then be tempted to make 'Spring break... forever...' all too real.

I can see it. Too many of us are desperate and on the breaking point. Really, it's only a matter of time.


  1. What do you think of Fritz the Cat? I feel it said much the same thing but more applied to the 60's/70's. The whole idea of a hollow generation is pretty much present throughout history, I think this is just the latest incarnation.

  2. The hollow generation idea has been worked over many a time, but the message and impetus for that idea has evolved at the same time. In decades like the 80s and 90s, the youth growing up in that generation had options and freedoms and plenty of opportunities (for the most part - there were lulls in the economy and dry spells, but nothing quite like ours). They were told they could do and achieve anything - and for them that reached the age of majority during Reagan or Clinton, they often achieved plenty.

    No, the touchstone commentary on Gen X is less 'Spring Breakers' and more 'Reality Bites' or along the same veins, 'RENT'. I'm willing to buy it more in the 60s and 70s, most because of the collapse of the hippie movement and the general unpleasantness that was throughout the 70s. And while 'Fritz the Cat' works as cultural commentary, it's not quite as pointed and direct as 'Spring Breakers', and it doesn't quite feel as poignant - if anything, 'Quadrophenia' feels much more potent as an examination of the 'hollow generation' ideal in the 70s.

  3. Well, there was a lot of religious symbolism too...

  4. Growing up in this time I've seen the ones who appeared as a saint fall into deep turmoil the ones who were so called the "good kids" go down a road were no escape is possible, the teens who could have went to Harvard spent that one night at the wrong party with the wrong people and are stuck in an endless struggle of addiction, or the ones who go for a break and never return. The world is dangerous and the world is what we make it. It's what this generation does with it...
    When I watched Spring Breakers I wasn't just amazed by the glorious aesthetic feel to each scene, (not to mention I was only in eight grade also I still am in high school) but the movie shakes the core to my soul, making me question my life and the life of the people I surround myself with. I could easily feel a connection with this film knowing family who went down dangerous paths and Spring Breakers left me wondering would I end down this road as well? But even worse when I seen this film I had a satisfaction to take part in a world where spring break did last forever.
    I believe this film stands for a powerful meaning that has the power to make people finally look around and she that the world isn't just black and white, there's a range of colors, words, style, and voices all around us. But we easily shut ourselves away from the hard inevitabl truth of our youth myself included.
    The world is what we make with it, it's what our generation does with it.
    So best film I have ever seen