Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: Spring Breakers

 It was around the ski masks and shotguns ballet to Britney Spears' "Every Time" that I began to really appreciate the twisted brilliance of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. That happens later in the film, to be sure, but up to that point I had appreciated, yet not quite been sure what to make of Korine's first brush with mainstream cinema since Kids* nearly twenty years ago. Audiences were polarized early in 2013 by a movie being sold as titillation but was anything but. Don't get me wrong, there's a great deal of nudity, almost all of it gratuitous, but nothing titillating about it. If anything, the opposite effect is the case. It's not meant to join the realm of Skinemax late night fare, and in tricking audiences into thinking otherwise, Korine pulled a fast one and brought them in to a fancier version of his art house fare.

 For Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez), college life is a drag. The town they live in sucks, and no amount of drugs is going to change that. Faith at least has her Church Youth Group (led by former WWF Women's Champion Jeff Jarrett), but the other girls are obsessed with sex and living the wild life, like you see in movies. They want to go to Florida for spring break, and come hell or high water, that's what they're going to do. The only problem? They don't have enough money, so Candy and Brit decide to hold up a restaurant with toy guns. "Just pretend it's a movie," they tell each other, and with Cotty behind the wheel (of a car they stole from her professor), they get the money. Spring break, here we come!

 And for a little while, Spring Breakers is exactly what you'd think it is: a Bacchanalian celebration of excess. Gratuitous nudity, copious drug use, drinking, all in the open with Korine's (and by extension, our) voyeuristic gaze taking it all in. If you groan at the use of the phrase "phallic imagery," I suggest you watch Spring Breakers to see exactly what people mean when they use it. When I say a character literally fellates a gun like it's a phallus, I mean it. There's no other way to read that scene, but we'll get to that in a bit. One of the negative reviews that sold me on Spring Breakers compared the film to "Terrence Malick making a Girls Gone Wild video," which doesn't sound like a reason to stay away, and it's not far off. The credits sequence alone is a slow motion orgy of booze, boobs, and bros mugging for the camera, set to the cacophonous dub-step of Skrillex. That's just the mood setter.

 Korine gives us spring break as everybody imagines it (think that movie nobody saw, The Real Cancun, from a few years ago, or Piranha 3D), and as he giveth, so too does he taketh away. While the daytime is overblown contrast and bright sunlight, the nights are awash in a flourescent glow, giving way to a pallid, unseemly vibe as the girls continue to party on their own. The bright colors wash away, and everything and everyone looks worn out. Faith grows slightly uncomfortable with the joy Brit and Candy take from robbing the diner, but they're her friends, and spring break is everything she ever dreamed of (or, so she tells her grandma in a narrated letter). Reality just doesn't cut it.

 During a particularly raucous hotel party, things come crashing down and the girls end up in jail. Unable to pay their bail, they face another two days locked up, until an unlikely (and unsavory) savior comes to the rescue - Alien (James Franco), a local drug dealer / rapper / sleazeball. He runs a mid-sized drug operation with the Twins (Thurman and Sidney Sewell) and takes a liking to the girls because they're wild. Maybe even wilder than he counted on. Franco is the tipping point for Spring Breakers, where the debauchery becomes more interesting and less about just drinking and doing drugs, and it's when Korine really begins layering repetition of sound and imagery to create a hallucinatory effect.

 Alien seems to be a big man, but it's not long before we realize it's even more bluster than he's willing to admit. Showing off his house to the girls, with a bed covered in money, one wall covered in ball caps and another with guns and "ninja weapons," Alien reveals just how small time he is when he starts his "look at my shit" speech by saying "I got shorts of every color." He doesn't even take them to see the poolside pearl white piano until later - classic rookie mistake. Franco's Alien as a guy who acts the part but doesn't really want to deal with the consequences of who he is. He's a boy playing a thug, but he can't commit to it. Candy and Brit see through it immediately, which leads to the aforementioned fellating a glock scene, when Alien falls in love with them. They're really in for it, farther than he knew he could go, and it emboldens him. It's a reminder that when Franco isn't being "weird," he can really bring something to a character, and if often unrecognizable behind Alien's facade.

 Faith, on the other hand, sees right away what's going to happen, and she decides to leave. Later, when things get a little too real, Cotty also leaves, and Korine repeats the visual motif of riding away on the bus, right down to the positions the girls take in their seats. For Alien, Brit, and Candy, it's "Spring break... spring break forever," but too much of a good thing is enough for half of the original gang. From here on out, reality no longer applies. Just pretend you're in a movie.

 Korine repeats Franco's line about "spring break forever" over and over for the remainder of the film, punctuating montages and overlapping images that jump forward and backward in time. It's the only way Alien can mentally deal with the reality that his former friend / mentor Big Arch (Gucci Mane) is tired of sharing the drug scene in St. Petersburg, and has decided to end it, violently if necessary. With Brit and Candy egging him on, there seems to be only one way to go, but is Alien ready to go there?

 The final scenes of the film, when Korine turns the "just pretend you're in a movie" mantra into an actuality, works precisely because of the juxtaposition between reality and the fantasy of spring break. Alien wants to believe he can live spring break forever, but the girls really are living in some kind of warped version of reality, where they alone can survive a shootout unscathed and leave town on their own terms, not on some bus. By casting 3/4's of the female leads with former Disney / ABC Family stars, Korine is tapping into some sexualization of teen stars and turning it on its head. The girls are more dangerous than the gangsters, and they are (from the very beginning) as sex crazed as the boys (and men) who flocked to see Spring Breakers.

 Korine's larger point? I'm still mulling that over, because for all of the exploitation on display, it's worth noting that most of the nudity of the lead actresses comes from Kornine's wife. Up until nearly the very end, it's a bait and switch - promising Dirty Disney Girls and then providing flesh from nearly everybody else who steps near the camera - but Spring Breakers leaves one feeling sleazy during most of the partying. It is, to a degree anti-voyeuristic, showing too much, providing a sensory overload, so that when the real movie starts about halfway in, you're beaten down, ready for the dark undercurrent to bubble up. And then, and only then, does Korine let the movie fantasy take over, pushing further away from "reality," until the impossible ending is all but inevitable. There's something admirable about that, especially when you consider that Spring Breakers was marketed as a T&A comedy of sorts. Not too shabby coming from the guy who made Trash Humpers a few years ago.

 * Korine wrote Kids, but is probably (if at all) better known for directing Gummo and Mister Lonely. I'm guessing more of you are aware of Kids than the other two.

No comments: