Harmony Korine typified the mid-1990’s boom of alterna-American indie, with his name attached to both Larry Clark’s Kids, in a writer capacity, and Gummo, the then 20-something wunderkind-of-sorts’ directorial debut. Inspired by, although refreshingly apart from the typical non-mainstream independent scene that swept across the States in the wake of Soderbergh, Smith and Spike, Korine’s output was era-defining, and a work of inspiration. The Face and i-D magazine dedicated lavish cover shoots and extensive space for interviews, and lo, a new hero of the American cinema was born. Kind of. The Harmony Korine story deviates from the path of tradition at an early juncture, with that all-important second album proving somewhat illusive. 1999 and Julien Donkey-Boy is the closest the director has come to producing a work memorable for the right reasons, but even that was damned by the majority upon release, even if it has grown in stature in the intervening juncture, while the years between that film and Spring Breakers are marked by a number of interesting niche features (typified most remarkably perhaps by 2009’s Trash Humpers) and a couple of abandoned projects, the most notable of which, Fight Harm, saw a bold Korine provoke strangers in to administering beatings to his self, while famed illusionist David Blaine filmed it.
But alas, Spring Breakers is very much that often cited, yet rarely truer beast; a return to form. Not since Gummo has the work of Harmony Korine seemed so relevant or effectively provocative, and not since Kids has a work by the filmmaker appeared to be so downright urgent. Fixed somewhere between the satirical and the expository, Spring Breakers looks to sources as wide and varied as Paul Schrader’s unique brand of faith-positing Neo-noir, the Disney factory and the early days of MTV for inspiration, in a tale which echoes and reflects the modern American in a manner that somehow manages to be explicit *and* meaningful at the same time.
It’s not a subtle film. Early on, and as a youth pastor that resembles television’s Hawaiian celebrity bail bondsman Dog The Bounty Hunter (portrayed by actual professional wrestler Jeff Jarrett) encourages his flock to get “Jacked up on Jesus”, Korine cuts to between his four leads (one of whom goes by the name of Faith) as three of them get swept up in all manner of debasement, making the level of symbolism quite clear. He’s working in straight lines for the most part, and heightened ones at that. First-world-woes are the order of the day, as the four privileged and attractive middle-class university students mourn a lack of funds, all the while declaring their lives to be unsatisfying and tawdry, when it’s anything but. As Spring Break looms the girls hatch a plan to acquire enough financial support to fund a week-long mid-term break. The melodramatic longing for said break gives an early indication as to the primary stylistic overture employed by Korine, as repetition kicks in, with the same scene and audio clips looped to effect.
As a stylistic exercise in general there is much to admire about Spring Breakers. Neons drive the colour palette, be it in the lighting of the picture or the costumes worn by the four central protagonists. The films opening act robbery sequence is shot with a laudable detachment, with the audience gifted the opportunity to witness events from outside of the relevant situation, from the passenger seat of a car systematically passing by each stage of the act externally. As the camera slowly glides around the surface of the space, glimpsing moments via windows and doorways, and silently at that, the tension ramps up a notch, and brings to mind latter-day Michael Mann, such is the combination of the lifelike camerawork and the natural lighting. Prior to that sequence the film opens on the wide open space of a beach catering for the Spring Break crowd, and projected with an ever increasing sense of the ridiculous. What begins with dancing closes on nudity and substance abuse, turns in to a mirror for a society at it’s worst, with the glittering teeth of Miss and Mr. America the ideal canvas for said reflection. With an emphasis on mid-riffs and assorted personal matter, the heightened and farcicality of the life aspired towards is made clear.
While the aforementioned four leads are the main focus of the movie, James Franco’s Alien, a self-styled “Cosmic Playboy” if the tattoos are to be believed, is an enormous creation, all zen-rolling and dime-store philosophising. It’s the earlier WWF-fusion preacher that makes for the greatest critique of Alien, with the comparison acting as statement on both. Comforting words and hyperbole don’t fix a situation, with the err and the emphasis instead one balancing precariously between acceptable and creepy. That Franco, an actor who has featured in a number of blockbuster features (including the billion dollar franchise that is the Spider-Man series) is arguably only the third most relevant name in terms of the current popular culture lexicon is notable, given the relative credentials of his co-stars here. Sandwiched between Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, alumni of the House Of Mouse and as famous (if not moreso) for their off-screen personas than turns in High School Musical or Wizards Of Waverly Place, Franco is relegated to third place in the Twittersphere and Tumblr-scape. That Korine’s film remains so anti-commercial and uncompromising in spite of the A-list attachments is incredible.
What is perhaps most fascinating about Spring Breakers is that it is a 40-year old that is presenting a very particularly section of youth culture. It’s nostalgia driven, but not in a problematic way, with the landmark faux-beach-side coverage of MTV’s legendary Spring Break broadcasts providing the overriding stylistic front. The bright and the bold of young Hollywood is undergoing a particularly interesting change of direction at the moment, with the stars of youth-fare such as the Twilight Saga and the High School Musical series quite literally acting out of their prescribed areas, in films as anti-mainstream as David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. While the cynical amongst us may deem this transition to be a little too forced and purposeful, but when the results are as engaging as films like this it seems like an odd, if not contextually worthy given the tone of Spring Breakers, first world woe to bemoan.