Just add guns: Objections to SPRING BREAKERS
Herewith, not a review – but a long, frustrated, critical piece about the latest offspring from enfant terrible, Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine (writer of Kids, which affected me greatly back in its day, and director of Gummo which I am sure I have seen but don’t remember) has clearly taken heed of Godard’s edict that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.
In fairly typical Korinian fashion he has, of course, upped the ante to four girls and a sh*tload of weaponry, adding a gold-toothed, rapping James Franco, plenty of shaking booty and an appropriately brain-jangling soundtrack.
The story goes: Four lovely young ladies head off with the rest of their college-attending peers for the Spring Break holiday, a pilgrimage of sorts which consists of partying hard, escaping reality and maybe even “finding oneself” amidst the frat-boy drinking, bong-smoking and soft-porn fraternising that typifies this apparent staple of the American university experience.
The problem is the girls don’t have enough money initially, so within moments of the film’s opening our purported heroines are committing armed robbery (it still counts as “armed” even if the guns are fake) with a great deal of shouting and posturing. “Just act like you’re in a movie and don’t be scared” they tell one another, in a voiceover that echoes throughout the scene. (Echoed VOs are a motif of this film – whether to constantly remind the audience of the irony we’re watching or just for effect, it’s not clear.)
Soon the universally slim, bronzed and long-haired femmes fatales are lolling about their beachside condo, riding scooters to the liquor store in nothing but bikinis and hi-top sneakers, and warbling Britney Spears songs into the darkness. No sooner do they fall foul of the law than they encounter Franco’s immensely entertaining white boy gangsta monikered ‘Alien’, his character surely modelled on Gary Oldman’s star turn in True Romance: accent, corn-rows and metallic grin all present and accounted for.
Nevermind the plot. It’s moderately engrossing but mainly just there to provide something on which to hang the wild, desperate grotesquerie that is Korine’s latest piece of “shock”.
What’s interesting about Spring Breakers (and not all in a positive way, though there are some marvellously cinematic bits slotted in around clips of beer-drenched breasts and gurning youths) is imagining what Korine’s point was in creating it, and how far we can say “It’s soft-porn, but that’s OK because it’s just showing how Spring Break really is” rather than “Even so, isn’t having four young women (and the countless others who appear in allegedly documentary footage of real Spring Break shenanigans) appearing in various states of bikini-ness in every scene nonetheless exploitative?”.
My gut reaction is that the film is one of the purest examples of the objectification of women I’ve seen in a long time. You may argue that every Hollywood rom-com does the same, and given all the mainstream stars are svelte, tanned beauties, there is some truth in this. Perhaps you will say that Korine’s integrity is that he doesn’t pretend to be coy or respectful – he gives it to us full-frontal, so to speak, and tells it like it is. (But I don’t buy that there is any “truth” to wearing bikinis to court, let alone to the county jail.)
However, please do not tell me that because the girls exert all the control in the story (shooting, shouting, enticing then denying male sexual advances) that they are not at the same time being gazed upon as sexual creatures throughout the two hour running time.
The male gaze is the elephant on this film set, and because of the blatant ogling that is invited, it serves to undermine any higher purpose the story might have.
For starters: even when the girls are hanging out on their own, they smoke bong hits and behave like girls do when boys are watching, which is to say, simultaneously overtly sexual and coquettish. There are myriad scenes reminiscent of soft-porn, from the dialogue (“Seeing all this money makes my pussy wet” one groans – to her friend) to the underwater camerawork in the threesome pool scenes. You could easily shoot the exterior of a swimming pool with three intertwined bodies embracing, and we’d know what was going on. But here the photography gets up close in a pervy way, dipping under and above the waves, both in bikini-clad scenes of wistful chat (of the “I wish we could stay here forever” variety) and later when Alien can’t believe how lucky he is to have these sexy, confident blondes in his world. (Wanting to orally rape him with a loaded gun, no less. Sheesh – modern love…)
Despite being aesthetically artful, the film is at the same time a try-hard melange of body fetishisation, male fantasy (a fellow critic likened it to the game Grand Theft Auto) and the disingenuous empowerment of women. The fact that two of the young actresses, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, have made their names in the tween sphere seems to suggest an overt desire to corrupt or have them “grow up” (notaby, Gomez’s good little Christian girl, unimaginatively named Faith, leaves the story before things get really hardcore. Ironically, considering the film mocks Christianity in that really unoriginal way that many 90s films did, she turns out to be the only one with any strength of character).
But hey, putting aside one’s feminist objections, it’s not all bad. Where Korine shows real auteurist flair is in much of the scenic photography, the depiction of the parties (say what you like about the morality of the goings-on, the fun is palpable and almost infectious) and in a couple of scenes that meld pop music with ludicrous action. A stand-out moment which almost redeems the whole film has Alien at his white grand piano out by the pool, gazing across the ocean as he plays Britney Spears’ (rather lovely) downbeat song “Everytime” (you know – the one with Stephen Dorff in the video) while the girls dance and twirl around in swimsuits and balaclavas, waving AK-47s. It is completely ridiculous, irresponsible and even clichéd, and yet rather beautiful (if you like that song, which I do).
It’s an invidious task to speculate about what such a filmmaker is trying to prove, but there are a few clues. It’s been said that Spring Breakers eschews judgement, just as Kids portrayed very young people doing drugs and having sex without feeling like a moralistic story. Korine himself has said the idea for Spring Breakers was borne of a vision of young bikini-clad women wearing ski masks and robbing fat tourists on a beach. From there he added a gold-toothed rapper and more guns.
it’s possible, however, he is making a scathing statement about the Spring Break institution, and if so this is where analysis of his film moves from outrage to something more like curiosity.
Consider the enticing trailer. Consider the target audience (complete with R18 rating – a red rag to any young bull). Consider the use of Skrillex’s music as the soundtrack to young lives (oh, so that’s what dub-step is). The kids who flock to this movie (or download it illegally) will be as titillated as any audience (titillation is an inevitable offshoot of the movie’s soft-porn qualities). And then they’ll hear the repetitive voiceover — Franco’s slightly southern twang saying “Spring break…spring break forever”; they’ll hear the girls talking about “finding ourselves” and working out who they’re going to be, and then going on to not really find themselves at all (except in big trouble). The audience will be bombarded time and again by jiggling asses and slippery bosoms (note: the male physique is not offered up thus). The violence gets well and truly silly, but no one seems to learn any great lessons, except that at the end you get to drive home the sports car.
Will they realise this is a mockery? Is it Spring Break that is being damned? Or should we extend the judgement to director/writer/visionary Korine for perpetuating everything that’s distasteful about the event?
Usually it’s easy to say when a film is deplorable and advise against seeing it. Here, however, everyone must be their own judge.