Friday, July 5, 2013


“How the hell do we sell this?” a pen-twirling stuffed suit asks across the boardroom table of my imagination, apropos of Harmony Korine’s flashy nightmare vision of kids these days. The trailers that preceded the late night screening I caught suggested they never quite figured it out: Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, the final Hangover entry, and a post-apocalypse comedy starring the dick-wielding half of Judd Apatow’s stable – i.e. this summer’s raunchfest tentpoles – were apparently AMC’s best attempt at narrowcasting. Not that its promo campaign has promised anything other than nonstop titillation, accented with the vaguely highbrow cred of, say, Vice Magazine, which incidentally mounted a great deal of said promo. Butts are in seats accordingly: the hip iniquity draws desirable demos, while anyone who’s seen Kids or Gummo comes just to wait for the other shoe to drop – if, in fact, it ever does.

Whether it does remains teasingly uncertain. Most write-ups, Jeff Sconce’s excellent analysis included, take for granted that Korine’s indulgence is critical, if not outright satirical, because how could it not be? But I’m not so sure. If Spring Breakers assaults the senses, that’s because its world consists entirely of sensation; no wonder that it shares a cinematographer, Benoît Debie, with Gaspar Noé’s neon epic Enter the Void. But whereas Noé frames flashing lights and throbbing flesh with unambiguously sleazy censure, Korine seems much more ambivalent. Benjamin Halligan observed in his superb piece on the “neo-underground” that Gummo, Korine’s ‘97 paean to hillbilly ennui, is neither entirely freakshow nor plea for social justice, instead subordinating both functions to an impressionistic “stylistic anarchy.”[1] This didn’t stop critics from accusing the film of one or praising it as the other, but it took the keen eyes of my undergrads to see the subtle resonance between the squalid tableaux of Gummo and the star-studded hyper-montage of Spring Breakers.

In other words, to claim Korine comes to bury or to praise is to deny any alternatives. Mimesis in extremis is typically understood to make satire, but the pop vocabulary Spring Breakers enlists – Skrillex’s ham-fisted beats, beer-doused breasts in over-saturated slo-mo – incorporates hyper-acceleration as a formal principle.  Whatever scans as subversion in Spring Breakers by virtue of excess is virtually indistinguishable from the crass mass culture that would be its target. Maybe lumping the film with The Hangover Part III is a cannier move than first suspected.

Anthony Lane gripes that Korine falls prey to the instant gratification he sets out to expose, which is about as predictable a high-brow reaction as I can imagine. Maybe it really is a generational thing. It shouldn’t elude anyone that the final shootout – in which the two most hardened reveler-cum-criminal tarts dispatch a small army of black gangbangers without breaking a nail – strains credibility. But whereas someone whose knowledge of hip-hop peaked in the 90s might read James Franco’s cornrowed wigger clown Alien as an update of Jamie Kennedy’s B-Rad G, it takes being weened on Myspace to place him among Riff Raff, Lil B, and even Das Racist: rappers who reject “the false dichotomy of jokes vs. serious shit,” to quote the latter, and yet are taken no less seriously for it.

Above all, consider the four leads. Their minimally-clothed bodies have decorated advance press and claim the lion’s share of Spring Breakers’ ninety minutes. Consistent with the film’s penchant for having its cake and eating it too: ticket-selling pandering functions also to critique the very same. But a comment I overheard in the men’s room afterwards is instructive. Three young men were working the film out over the bathroom sinks, and one asked the others: “What do you think they meant to do by making the girls not-that-hot?” I laughed, of course – to myself and my urinal – because the judgment was patently ridiculous: two of them former Disney Channel princesses, one of them a Pretty Little Liar, and the other Korine’s wife, these women are without a doubt among this species’ finer specimens. He’s right, though, in that they fail to conform to Hollywood’s tunnel vision of female beauty, especially of the bikinied variety and especially of the supposed-to-be-teenaged variety. Casting fully-grown women as high school seniors has long been the means by which high school sex comedies ogle at the underaged while sidestepping indecency. The heroines of Spring Breakers, on the other hand, look like actual college freshmen. In the place of impossibly leggy supermodel types are averagely petite girls adorned in the implements of Lisa Frank-style infantilized femininity. They evoke less our visual repertoire of screen teen queens – the Molly Ringwalds, Jennifer Love Hewitts, and Emma Stones of the world – than the “barely legal” cottage media industry, from the garish banners garnishing porn aggregators to the lad-mag features delivering soft-core centerfolds to the salivating masses upon a B-lister’s 18th. That Spring Breakers effects the graduation of Vanessa Hudgens and the baby-faced Selena Gomez from children’s television to cultural adulthood emboldens the point. The spring breaking of these pseudo-virginal bodies isn’t dialectical, it’s par for course.

Again we have that nagging accusation of cake-having and -eating. Instead of putting distance between itself and lamentable pornographic conventions, Spring Breakers dives right in. But of course it does. I’ve long suspected that insofar as we’re called upon to judge a cultural problem, satire and social critique make things easy for us. A duller filmmaker might have given Spring Breakers a viewpoint identifiably smarter, or at least more analytical, than its coed bacchanals. Perhaps the black bystanders of Gucci Mane's scenes would’ve been given more to do, beyond looking on in vague incredulity; or, more lazily, Alien and the girls could be made the butts of broad farce. But Korine offers nothing of the sort. Vacuous sensibilities are taken utterly seriously, conveyed with a lyricism that’s been duly compared to Terence Malick. When that means a motif of “Spring break forever!” and its verbal variants chanted monastically in voiceover, Spring Breakers approaches astringent absurdity, which is, I think, why it works and why it’s of a piece with Korine’s cinema of transgression. We’re forced to experience this world as is, only amplified, looped, and polished to an art cinema sheen. There’s no safety valve. Anyone who’s weak to the allure of underage girls, wet t-shirt contests, and Britney Spears’ “Everytime” is openly confronted with that uncomfortable fact. My screening companion wasn’t buying it, but I for one would rejoice in a future where summer tentpoles begin to look more like Spring Breakers, and we stop kidding ourselves about the ethical imperatives of eating cake. 

[1] Benjamin Halligan, “What is the Neo-Underground and What isn’t: A First Consideration of Harmony Korine,” ed.Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider, Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Canon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 150-60.

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