Spring Breakers: A Visceral Joyride Into Nothingness
Spring Breakers left me conflicted more than any film in recent memory. As an aesthetic encounter, the film is suitably impressive – packed with gorgeously lurid, neon-tinted visuals and a narrative that liquefies past and present into a gooily immersive experience.
Spring Breakers is undoubtedly a sensational formal achievement, especially for Harmony Korine who previously traded in a trash-art aesthetic that was growing increasingly tired (excepting Mister Lonely), but the film itself seems to insistently resist or subvert interpretation to the point where it becomes frustratingly vacuous as if emptiness is an end in and of itself
Plot-wise Spring Breakers is minor. Four girls rob a diner to fund their spring break shenanigans. They get to spring break, party quite a bit before getting arrested for being around drugs. A plastic gangster named Alien pennies up their fine and gets the girls out of jail, inviting them under his wing. A couple more things happen in the final act but it is clear Korine is using the narrative as a coat hanger for his more aesthetic concerns and in that regard there is plenty of memorable imagery here. A sensational single shot robbery sequence; two startlingly surreal set-pieces featuring Britney Spears songs; and plenty of striking pop art images of girls in day-glo bikinis with pink balaclavas boasting a 'my little pony' patch.
Spring Breakers is an alluring film, it is easy to be taken away by the phantasmagorical affectual experience but part of me resisted, unsure Korine had any real motive in mind with this film. If I was to ask what the point of Spring Breakers is I am sure some of its fans would say that by simply asking that question I am missing the point. If I was to say that all 4 of the female protagonists in the film are so blandly sketched that apart from the one called 'Faith' – who is religious – they all felt like the same person, a fan would argue that the hollowness of characterisation is by design and meant to act as a commentary on modern youth in America.
Andrew O'Hehir nailed it on the head when he asked,
“Is making something that is pointless and incoherent as an aesthetic choice somehow superior to doing so because you don’t know better? In practice, is there any difference?”
That statement sums up my concern with Spring Breakers and Korine's wider body of work. Deep contradictions reside at the heart of Spring Breakers that are clearly by design. Korine's camera has a discomforting lecherous quality to it, one writer described it as a giant tongue and that is a perfect metaphor. Not only in the opening 'hell is a party with booze and dubstep' sequence but continuously throughout the film the camera drops to glimpse the girl's breasts or bums. At one point it randomly settles on one of the girl's crotches for an unseemly amount of time. What is Korine trying to achieve here? There is no reflexivity or self-awareness to these techniques but rather it simply seems to be trying to recontextualise a 'girls gone wild' or mtv aesthetic into a more traditionally art-house setting. Again this aesthetic choice never steps up into satire or self-aware commentary but rather it simply 'is'. Korine seems to be saying 'hey, if you like leering at young girls then look on! I'm not judging you.” Sure if you choose to intellectualise these formal strategies you could come up with something but Korine is loathe to place any trace of this type of interpretation within his text. He seems determined to only allow these readings to be placed “onto” his films.
Some may place his approach in the artistic lineage of legends such as Marcel Duchamp but Korine's work isn't nearly as subversive as something like Duchamp's 'Fountain'. When Duchamp placed a urinal in an art gallery a hundred years ago and called it art he gave birth to a whole new way of perceiving artworks. His use of readymade objects in a re-contextualised space was groundbreaking. In Spring Breakers (and to a degree Trash Humpers) Korine is trying something similar except he is consciously crafting the object.
In many ways it's an incredibly clever conceit that has worked for him well in the past. Spring Breakers is not as difficult to work with as Trash Humpers but it serves the same function. These are films that allow certain high-minded audiences a way to intellectually engage with the intrinsic pleasures of “trash” art. We may not usually watch and enjoy Jackass, Girls Gone Wild or any number of lurid, kinetic music videos but reframing those formal tactics into an art-house shell gives many viewers the rare opportunity to access those pleasures in a way that subverts their usual critical facilities.
Korine's cinema is vacuous but also simultaneously pretentious to an absurd degree – whispering a postmodern hollowness that demands to be treated as art. It's art as faux-art. All surface and no substance which some are interpreting as the point. The point is there is no point.
Well, I do but that don't make you deep. Sure when Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery a hundred years ago and called it art he was confronting and disassembling an entire culture but in 2013 the world is different. I think a truly skilful filmmaker should be able to do much more than merely rehash low-culture's images into a high-culture framework. That is not enough to make a substantial film Harmony.
Spring Breakers is an easy film to be swept up in but at its core it is no more thematically rich than last year's interminable “party” film Project X. It's as if Terrence Malick and Jean-Luc Godard had a bastard child determined to create an exploitation piece with art-house pretensions. This is undoubtedly exciting cinema but ultimately not much more than a superficial experiment in post-modern aesthetics. Imagine a McDonalds cheeseburger were served up in a fine dining context. Sure I like cheeseburgers but don't ask me to reflect on the experience of eating one as if there is a rich or complex array of flavourful characteristics and don't you dare try to trick me by fancying up the environment I'm eating in. Don't be fooled by Korine's trickster nature. Spring Breakers may be a ride to watch but it adds up to nothing and must be approached with caution.