Friday, November 15, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers (2013) - dir. Harmony Korine

I've returned from the wilderness, did you miss me?

I'm totally worth the wait.

December is but a stones throw away, the end is nigh, and 2013 is coming to a close. And man it's been as good a year as any in our celluloid world. In my absence I've seen a litany of fantastic films which have accomplished the impossible by staying in my head more than two weeks. Unfortunately I won't be able to review these gems individually, meaning I shall have to wait until my upcoming 'Year in Review' piece to highlight them all, however I thought it best to herald my return with a treatise on my favorite film of the year, as I did for my pick of 2012 Zero Dark Thirty. The acid trip of a masterpiece, Spring Breakers. Buckle up and keep your feet on the ground for this one.

For most of you, and the greater critical community at large, Spring Breakers can be seen with equal parts derision as exaltation. Just one look at the specs and this film seemed to be inviting such a response like a lightning rod. Director Harmony Korine has rightfully earned notoriety as the provocateur of Hollywood, with his films living on in infamy for their explicit content and continuous controversy. To further muddy the waters the cast features former Disney Channel starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, and if Miley Cyrus has proved anything it is that career evolution is a tricky thing. Watching the trailer, I initially was one those who dismissed it out right. Millennials, Skrillex, beer bongs and James Franco a lá Jaws, this movie was just squaring itself up to be hated. However as the Village Voice, the New York Times and Richard Roeper have noted, don't judge a film by its hot pink g-string.

All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. - Jean-Luc Godard

The plot is standard crime fare, four broke girls in a dull college course are desperate to make the annual pilgrimage that is spring break, but are nonetheless broke. They include the sexually charged Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), the vivacious Cotty (Rachel Korine) and the virginal Faith (Selena Gomez). To fast track their road to partydom, Brit, Candy and Cotty rob a local chicken shop, and the group finally bus down to what can only be described as Schoolies on acid. Beer flows not with a trickle but as a torrential flood and along with the breasts and blow all life seems to be to sucked into a hedonistic orgy of the senses. It's intense to say the least. As much as this debauchery may repel some, I found that through the character of Faith the film managed to keep its core emotional and reflective. Interspersed throughout this scene are her Terrence Malick-esque musings on the experiences she otherwise would not have had owing to her repressed and overtly introverted life at home.

"We met people who are just like us. People the same as us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. We see things different now. More colors, more love, more understanding."

However in one of many tonal 180s this movie takes, the girls are arrested on drug charges, only to be bailed out and accosted by an utterly transfixing character Alien as played by James Franco. The narrative changes from MTV Spring Break to Scarface, as Alien drags the girls into a neon underworld of crime which serves to both fracture the girls group and create a horrifying and immediate sense of danger.

For subtext it is clear from the start that this film is taking aim at the poisonous allure and illusion that is the modern American Dream. In a particularly arresting scene, Alien stands over the girls in his mansion, surrounded by guns upon guns, dollar bills and copious amounts of drugs. "This is my shit" he drones over and over with hypnotic gesture, "this is a dream, the American dream". For Alien. life's pursuit lies in our vices and materialistic desires, being drugs, sex and money. For the group, this becomes their undoing. Faith is torn from the girls for her personality ultimately rejects these vices. Cotty as well, whilst initially taking part in Alien's crime sprees, comes to experience the consequences firsthand and is herself traumatized by the experience. It is not insignificant that Korine's directing style for this film comes off as a massive fever dream. Clearly taking a page from Gaspar Noé's film Enter the Void, the color palette is vibrant and eye popping, as though all of Florida is lit by black lights. We see the film as though under this impermeable haze, a drug induced fugue state. This has me come to my ultimate realization, Spring Breakers take on the American dream, as espoused by Alien, is as he says just a dream. It is no surprise that when Faith and Cotty leave that their coloring goes from vibrant neon to cold and sensible, as though exiting this fervid Wonderland. The allure of crime, drugs, sex and money isn't a realistic pursuit, and like spring break itself one ultimately has to wake up.

Furthermore the movie paints American culture with a decidedly nihilistic brush. For these girls, college is a hum drum pursuit, reminding me of Piper Laurie's character in The Hustler who went to college for no reason more than she had nothing to do Tuesdays and Thursdays. All other priorities bow before the need to go on spring break, itself touted as an almost mythic experience, feeding into a growing detachment between the characters and the reality around them. When robbing the store Candy encourages the girls to "Pretend it's a video game, like you're in a fucking movie.", as though there will be no consequences. Pop culture also permeates the movie, perhaps to send up the excess of American culture which shamelessly pairs violence and sex with innocence and purity, ergo the many references to My Little Pony, Britney Spears and other vestiges of American youth culture.

I dare not tread to deeply into the argument as to whether this film is empowering or degrading towards women, as it is sure to galvanize all kinds of responses. However there was one underlying notion from this movie that I was really entranced by, that is the fine line tread between just portraying misogyny and actually being misogynistic. For the first part of the film, we are shown men in many situations of dominance over women, or more accurately almost all men in this part of the film are portrayed as neanderthals sexually infatuated with all other females. This is especially poignant in the opening montage, which features among many things bare breasts, girls sucking phallic like popsicles, and a line of men standing over women pouring beer onto their bodies as though the can was an extension of their manhood. Most worryingly there is a scene wherein Cotty (oblivious to the fact) is being harassed by drunken frat boy, and when the scene abruptly ends I was left with the impression that she may have been raped. For many, and myself included, this is uncomfortable as it clearly shows women in a degrading and overtly sexual manner, as with our protagonists. But for those of us that know and have been a part of this culture, I now interpret it as more of a hyperbolic send up of the spring break culture, which unfortunately is inherently misogynistic and truly has issues with rape and degradation.

However after Alien is introduced to the plot, the question of dominance is thrown on its head. For a start he is shown as exploiting sexuality to get what he wants, namely the girls. This is shown in a frightening scene between Faith and Alien, where he creepily caresses her and tries to manipulate her into staying. It was subtly a case of him trying to shame her into staying, playing on her insecurities and weaknesses to his gain. However in the most telling scene, Brit and Candy turn the tables on this would be male dominator. Brandishing loaded pistols, the girls themselves exploit his sexual obsession over them to their advantage. Pinning him to the ground, they taunt him with the notion that they had exploited their sexuality in order to manipulate him into a place of submission. And in a graphic move the girls, echoing the actions of men earlier in the film, use the guns as phallic symbols of their domination over their would be controller, and by forcing him to submit to them are able to establish themselves as controllers of the situation. It's a very tenuous interpretation I know and I'm bound to piss off a few people, but my response as always is...

This film is my pick of the year 2013 largely as it surprised me. It doesn't have the grandeur of Gravity, or the earnestness of Before Midnight. However for something I normally would have dismissed outright, it proved itself as a deep and reflective little trip of a movie. It incorporates the styles of numerous film makers, the avant gardism of Godard, poingancy of Mamet, the introspection of Malick and visual beauty of Noé, but it blended all these together into something truly unique and exceptional. Harmony Korine has said that this movie was made in order to relive the experiences he missed out on during his college years, skipping the rampant hedonism and life experiences for skateboarding. In a sense that is how I watched this, to relive the schoolies experience I had, and dream about the furthest extents we all could pursue our own vices and desires. Call it what you like, Scarface meets Britney Spears, Disney coke dream, a travesty, a masterpiece. But you can't deny that it ain't memorable. 9/10


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