The American independent cinema that came to form in the 1990s seems to carry fewer and fewer visionaries untainted by the magnetic promises of Hollywood success. Some directors have “used the system” to shell out sequels and remakes in exchange for passion projects, while others have said goodbye to independent production altogether. Love or hate his movies (assuming that watching them falls into either experiential category), Harmony Korine is an uncompromising enfant terrible and a connoisseur of gutter Americana, the likes of which are increasingly rare. Sure, ever since he became famous as a result of the publicity around his Kids screenplay, his personality has largely exceeded any attention it may have generated towards his filmmaking. But that’s part of the point.
I won’t go so far as to call Korine’s public persona an “act,” but (genuine or calculated, as if it can’t be both) Korine notably and consistently performs a character that is unique and familiar: a person obsessed with superficial pleasures, who exercises instinct over contemplation, and who lives in a perpetual state of kinetic energy combined with a hazy experience of reality, yet at the same time acutely and perceptively finding aesthetic value in the lowest rungs of American culture. This latter aspect makes Korine an artist, but it’s the combination that makes him an enigma.
It’s striking that Korine’s most mainstream work, Spring Breakers, is also one of his most ambiguous. Does the film force a generation built on the exchange of immediate pleasure, automatic celebrity, constant self-promotion, and habitual consumption to look at itself through a funhouse mirror, or is it a movie that unabashedly capitalizes on the hedonism it depicts? Is the joke on the demographic represented in the film who might unwittingly stumble into a work by Harmony Korine, or is it on the arthouse cultural elites who can only stomach a film like Spring Breakers by justifying it as an act of subversion? Is there a joke here at all?
The Unreal Realities of Harmony Korine
While Kids (thanks to Larry Clark’s naturalistic, faux-improvisatory filmmaking style) was received as a work of stark realism and an urgent cautionary tale in 1995, Korine’s work as director has neither been conceived nor received as attempting to directly reflect some sort of social reality that went heretofore unmentioned. Korine uses detailed world-building techniques to great effect – the insular celebrity-impersonating colony in Mister Lonely, the decrepit pubescent hellscape of Gummo – alongside whatever the newest style of “realism” is – Dogme 95 handheld video work in julien donkey boy, “found footage” for Trash Humpers. But he doesn’t use any of these tools to convey a consistent or immediate notion of social relevance as a justification for realism – we don’t necessarily “learn” about contemporary youth or elderly vandals by watching these films. Harmony Korine’s work as a writer/director seeks to depict communities and subcultures that don’t actually exist.
Thus, what Korine’s films “mean,” or what the director might be attempting to “say,” becomes a strikingly difficult task once the pretense of verisimilitude expected from realism is gone. Trash Humpers exemplified Korine’s ambivalence at its most extreme because of the many questions it generates. Why, if the film is of the “found footage” genre, was there little effort to make these characters seem like convincing old people in their dance and movements? What are we supposed to make of a “document” whose fabrications are immediately clear?
Korine’s films share an incredibly consistent worldview, but it’s a world that only exists in the deep recesses of a mind that sees evocative beauty (or, at least, pseudo-narrative value) in dirty bath water.
Can Spring Break Last Forever?
Spring Breakers is a departure from Korine’s prior work in two important ways. First, unlike the esoteric communities depicted in his past films, the culture represented in Spring Breakers is highly legible, even if exaggerated. Not only does the film utilize stereotypes about college spring break that ring at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has ever watched MTV or knows who Joe Francis is, but it’s a dubstep remix of the Hollywood spring break beach genre: the film’s narrative of a quartet of morally flexible college girls on a spring vacation in Florida seems lifted straight from Hollywood’s first-ever Spring Break movie, Where The Boys Are.
Second, in distinction from Korine’s typical and limited arthouse crowd, a demographic resembling the characters in this film are aware of Spring Breakers and have actually shown up to see it. Korine’s incorporation of movie stars and former Disney household names are also to credit for this unprecedented awareness of what is, at its core, still a very strange film distinctly along the lines of what we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker.
But this considerably raises the stakes of the ambiguity and ambivalence at the heart of Korine’s work. Spring Breakers never reveals itself to openly act as a social critique, stunt, or whatever, leaving audiences at an impasse or actively in search for meaning. But if we are to take it as a satire about teens and twenty-somethings who can’t imagine being momentarily bored, we have to take Korine’s past work into account: that his characters have largely been works of invention, not documentation, no matter how relevant the work may seem. But exaggeration can sometimes be more productive than straightforward documentation.
That said, what’s most striking about Spring Breakers is not its depiction of hard partying, moral vacuity, and James Franco’s braids, but the film’s absurd amplification of Spring Break itself as an American institution, specifically through the film’s repeated anthem, “Spring Break Forever.”
The stereotype of Spring Break at the college level is an institutional entitlement that sees, in practice, young would-be professionals rewarding their own academic labor with practices of excessive consumption and leisure – not only consumption of alcohol, drugs, and sex, of course, but consumption of “experience” (which Selena Gomez’s Faith expresses through repeated voice-over in the film) in the same vein as the semester abroad. The intent, of course, is for young scholars to rejuvenate their ability and desire to return to academic labor as a result.
However, “Spring Break Forever” is first pronounced by James Franco’s Alien, a drug dealer/rapper whose history we learn nothing about. Alien is someone who isn’t, and may never have been on “spring break” proper. “Spring Break Forever” is essentially a contradiction in terms: if Spring break lasts forever, then it’s not a break from anything (and, yeah, it can’t take place only in the Spring). So “Spring Break Forever” is a fantasy at its root, and fantasy (of sorts) is something that this film trades in excessively.
The starting point of Spring Breakers assumes the holiday itself as an entitlement. Ashley Benson’s Brit, Vanessa Hudgens’s Candy, and Rachel Korine’s Cotty rob a local fast food restaurant to avoid the supposedly unendurable monotony of staying somewhere that “everyone else” isn’t for a week. Thus, the place where Spring Breakers ends seems only natural, especially for a filmmaker known for creating characters who have little problem seeking nihilistic pleasure at the expense of others.
Spring Breakers envisions an eternal holiday through popular notions of gangsterism, routinely portrayed through films and television as an institution of continuous self-preservation that sees death as preferable to returning to “normal” work. (Scarface is more than a token in this film, it’s a reference point.) But the gangster in American myth used to be self-made, the other side of the American dream. “Spring Break Forever” takes on a slightly different connotation: it means living outside normative boundaries of the rules of law and human decency in order to pursue a life of perpetual yet fleeting leisure.
(Warning: spoilers ahead) In the film’s violent video game climax, Brit and Candy, as with the opening of the film, seem entitled to human lives despite the gallingly disproportional nature of their “revenge.” Brit and Candy never peddle drugs or other products that make up the classical equation of gangsterism. “Spring Break Forever” is a practice of taking what others have – not to have or use them in return, but to avoid boredom at all costs. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the death of Alien who, consistent with Richard Brody’s critique, himself appropriated a distinctly racialized culture that, we can assume, was never authentically his own. Spring Breakers presents a subterranean world built on theft and re-mixing of what already exists at the hands of someone else. No wonder Skrillex is all over the soundtrack.
Aisha Harris’s critique on the film’s racial politics is worth reading. But she leaves out one meaningful detail when describing the final shoot-em-up: the calm, ironic voice-over that accompanies the mayhem, in which Brit and Candy talk about all the “nice people” in St. Pete who “are just like us” while shooting anonymous black men. By this point, Faith had long embraced the terminal nature of the holiday by returning home after initially having a profound experience “meeting other people,” before she met people she didn’t want to meet. Brit and Candy’s eternal Spring Break, by contrast, exercises entitlement to all things and all people, but never actually consumes “experience,” because that would be useful only if you’re planning to return from Spring Break.
If these final images existed alone, as Harris describes them, they would certainly be problematic, and probably irredeemable. But with the voice-over, this sequence is made ironic, possibly as a final demonstration of the film’s seeming critique of young entitlement. Does this possibility detract from the weight of the violence displayed? Absolutely not, but it does once again illuminate that meaning and intent in Korine’s work is always maddeningly ambiguous and decidedly unclear.
Author’s note: this final paragraph was added after the publication of this post.