A legitimately bad film is never memorable. It might last as a random remembrance, but not much more. I saw the trailer for “Spring Breakers” and chuckled to myself. Sexualized violence has been over-cooked for some time now. In fact, it’s become a staple of American culture as anyone with a television can attest. Was this another banger film with a bunch of bikini-clad, tween-stars? Another played out pubescent, Grand Theft Auto fantasy for a Friday night sales event geared at oversexed frat-rappers?
Then I remembered this is Harmony Korine and he’s been effing with our heads since “KIDS.”
I saw “Kids” at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge in 1995. It shook me. It was as if Suburbia and Manhattan had become one. The regret, the drugs and the unprotected sex were all the same. My friends and I sat in silence on the sidewalk for what seemed like an eternity. We were trying to process the bomb Korine had just dropped on us. Was this abject nihilism or just a bunch of kids having fun? Whatever it was, it was a little too close to home.
The opening sequences of “Spring Breakers” starts with a bevy of dirty-footed, bleach-blonde “Britneys” in a college dorm dreaming about spring break in between bong hits and lines of coke. Flashes of of a History professor pontificating about the evils of war and racism crash into a scene of giggling college-girls slapping each other’s asses. Double-back to a Swaggart-like tent-revival scene with a frosted-hair minister trying WAY to hard to make religion cool: “Are you jacked up on Jesus?” blurs into a lost highway with Gomez’s Disney profile puffing anxiously on a cigarette. As viewers, we’re also waiting to be delivered from this hell of mundanity. A slideshow of uncomfortably-quiet shots of an empty college campus that resembles prison pits itself against a Spring Break montage that would give “Girls Gone Wild” a run for its money complete with piss-yellow beer, sun-glazed eyes, naked tits and enough neon bikinis and sardine-packed college kids to elicit a guffaw. Then comes a retreating sigh as the beautiful, crimson-dripped sunset cascades before our eyes.
But aren’t these the girls I couldn’t stand at college? Dumb-headed miscreants who thought doing a keg stand was some kind of rite of passage, walking around campus with cuddly backpacks searching out coke and frat dudes? Or are they just Britney-clones teetering on obscurity, force-fed pop music and Ritalin and anything they wanted by reticent, overworked parents? Better yet, are they rebels without a cause trying to escape a meager existence like the rest of us? I feel confused. At times, I’m not sure if I should applaud them or hate them. They’re on a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca. Spring break is a neon final destination. The mantra “this is the furthest anyone has been from home” saddens and excites you. Sheltered existence storms madly to the promised land cloaked in self-actualization: “I feel like we’ve found ourselves here…it’s like its never gonna end.”
As the viewer, you also feel like it’s never going to end.
The obsession of going on Spring Break starts to permeate your brain in the form of narrative, girl mantra so repetitive, you start to question if you can take much more of it yourself. Maybe you need a trip to Florida. Dub-step on acid isn’t sounding so bad, especially if the bubble-gum mantras don’t stop. You’re confused, and Korine isn’t about to give you an answer.
So you allow your piqued curiosity to badger you into hanging in in there. Every new scene commencing with a gunshot and a bong-hit, your senses are overloaded. Just a bunch of sexy, college girls with squirt guns obsessed with having fun, right? Is this the American joke that’s on us?
“Just f#cking pretend like it’s a video game. Act like you’re in a movie or sumthin’. You can’t be scared of shit. You have to be hard,” says one girl to another.
During a Nikki Minaj-song sequence, a stolen, run-down El Camino is our viewfinder and our film dolly. We see innocent people getting robbed by the girls, but only as outsiders. It’s just a video game. It’s only a movie.
And it’s off to neon paradise we go.
Enter James Franco as “Alien,” detestable right down to his last intagible tattoo. Franco’s Spring Break rap scene is the conglomerate of every bad mixtape ever dropped. The crowd is covered in beer as they mouth his lyrics. “I’m a hustlah. I’m also a rapper. You can check it out on youtube.” “I’m blowin’ up,” Alien tells the girls upon bailing them out. Suddenly, he is their self-appointed, ghetto-messiah. He is also every lousy, twenty-year old rapper wanna-be on twitter aka “Riff Raff”, who Franco researched for his part.
Alien promises and delivers an alternate universe that’s comedic and horrific all at once. We think he has the controller, but does he really? Video games can change on a dime. Games end abruptly. “Spring Break forever!” Alien screeches. It’s the same mind-numbing mantra as the girls. Franco commands the role of Alien with extraordinary precision. James Franco, the wolf, discards his sheep’s clothes. Endearingly, Alien plays Britney Spears at the piano for the machine-gun strapped girls in bubble-gum pink. The scene is not much unlike the tap shoe scene in “Gummo.” It makes sense in the context that it is experienced. It’s endearing and absurd. It’s Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.” Two tragically comical parties have glued themselves to one another. We revel in the union, while ingesting its absurdity. It’s perverse beauty and it’s right in your face. Flashes of Alien’s grill laughing pour over his narrative about his “G” status, boasts about his ghetto-empire, his kool-aid and his Calvin Klein “Escape”. “I got Scarface on repeat…constant y’all.” “Best movie,” one girl responds.” Soon, Alien learns that life imitates the movies more than he realizes as the girls flip the script. It’s player two’s turn. Pass the controller.
Now if the Hills had Eyes, dueling banjos AND grills, it would be Alien’s twin homies, straight off a Gummo test reel. Incidentally, Korine cast the real-life ATL twins, who, much like their characters, sleep in the same bed in an Atlanta high rise, have sex with the same girl and profess to share the same thoughts. When asked about the ATL twins, Korine said:
They’re incredible, they’re pure scumbags of the highest magnitude. Real generate bastards who just revel in filth and they’re amazing because of it. There’s just no filter, they’re turned up all the time double penetrating anything that breathes. They’re rare because they are like the American id, they are the pathological subconscious, they are the dregs, they came out fully formed and it’s very rare that you meet characters as pure and extreme as them. [Quote]
Several times I had to remind myself that this was Korine. He does this. He is the Beckett of my generation. It’s “Trash Humpers.” There is something larger at play here. Everything, right down to the neon colors of the girls bikinis is over-the-top. Pink ski-masks, Franco’s ice grill, bad poetry and hood empire, his eternal self-aggrandizement and laughable Camaro with neon-orange rims. Peering through a weed cloud and ammo smoke, all one sees are caricatures. You know it won’t last long. You just hope you can hang in there long enough for the game to end.
Yet these personas did not arise out of nowhere. Pressured into religion from early childhood, these girls are the hyperbolic poster-children for what a reticent generation of apologetic hippies never wanted in their children. Kids old enough to watch this film and come out scratching their heads are who this movie is about: Twenty-somethings who’s parents prayed for religious, yuppie types but instead got rebelling, adderall-spun brats fueled by video games, reality television and bad rap, who get chauffeured back and forth to therapy sessions. The minute they get a taste of freedom, they don’t know what to do with themselves.
In the end, “Spring Breakers” represents everything Americans are obsessed with but can’t talk about: guns, drugs, sex, and unchecked freedom, all commercially endorsed by the producers of MTV reality shows and the popular energy drink-of-the-week. Yet in reality, Alien’s just a sad orphan who’s real name is “Al”. The girls just wanna have fun, but when one gets nicked by a bullet, she falls apart and runs home crying. Drugs eventually wear off and even video games get redundant after a while. People get scared, especially when the odds are stacked against them. Thugs easily turn to into babies. Rappers rap about lives they don’t live. Bikini girls wanna-be “hard” but they can’t stop crying.
Harmony Korine is an expert at not drawing lines. Absurd realism and duality are his weapons of choice and he wields them like an expert swordsman. Americans, however, love squeaky-clean lines, resolved plots and redemption. But in between phoning grandma or having sex with a random stranger, life is very grey. After Korine swings the pendulum back in forth in front of your face, you’re forced to reckon with the uncomfortable grey where you have to find your own answers.
After the movie, I visited the ladies room. Two college girls (one toting a book) were at the sink nervously chuckling. “Did you see that girl in the background? She was SO fat!” Girl 2) “Haha. Did you know James Franco doesn’t even look like that in real life?” Girl 1) “I don’t know why Selena was even in this movie…wtf?”
When asked about the possible confusion of “Spring Breakers” being a “guns ‘n’ girls” movie or a social commentary, Korine said:
“It’s good because I wanted to make a movie that worked on two levels simultaneously. So like, if you wanted to watch it and only get that broad surface appeal then that’s fine, and then if you were more open to experiencing it in a deeper way then that’s also OK.” [Quote]
And that’s the only thing that Harmony Korine wants to say to you.