Sordid and sexy, beautifully shot in candy-cane colours, with a pretty cast of ex-Disney starlets, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers could be the date movie of the summer, depending on your date. It might transform the rest of your evening into a drug-fuelled sexual extravaganza. Just make sure neither you nor your sweetheart require character development or a believable plot.
Korine first came to prominence in 1995 with Kids, which he wrote for director Larry Clark while still a teenager. Its hero, a 16-year-old with AIDS, has a thing for deflowering virgins, thus giving them the disease the first time they have sex. Savaged by most as immoral, some critics saw it as an honest portrait of modern youth. This immoral-vs-honest debate continues to define the reaction to Korine’s films.
Two years after Kids, Korine made his directorial debut with Gummo. Called the “worst movie of the year” by the New York Times but lauded by Werner Herzog, Gummo was the movie that made Korine’s reputation. That was until his latest exploration of American white trash culture movie hit cinemas in the US two weeks ago. Spring Breakers is by far Harmony Korine’s most conventional film. It will be also be his first big commercial success. It has already made well over $10m, twice what it cost to produce. Gummo only made $116,000 in the theatres.
Using the visual language of Girls Gone Wild, gangster rap videos, and softcore lesbian porn, Spring Breakers tells the story of four college girls who want to go on vacation but don’t have the money. The solution: they steal a professor’s car and, brandishing a toy gun, brutally rob a drive-thru restaurant. Once in Florida, our heroes enjoy the traditional Spring Break activities of beer, bong hits, cocaine and cunnilingus. It is all so much fun they get arrested. Dragged to county lockup in their bikinis, they are told to pay a fine or spend three days in jail. Fortunately they are bailed out by Alien, a gangster/rapper/drug dealer, played by James Franco. Two of them find him a bit hardcore and head home but Franco falls in love with the other two, just as soon as they force him to fellate a loaded pistol.
Despite the new additions of mainstream actors and settings, Spring Breakers, like Korine’s earlier films, combines documentary techniques (real people, real locations, improvisation, episodic rather than narrative storytelling) with lurid subject matter. Korine gives the impression he is merely documenting worlds the rest of us are too fearful to explore. Pushing against this documentary aesthetic is the implausibility of the subject matter. In Spring Breakers, as in Gummo, his taste for the sordid pushes the story way beyond the plausible. Perhaps I have lived a mollycoddled life but I doubt even the most hardcore college girls would rob a chicken shack to pay for a vacation. Borrowing from Daddy or working as a stripper seem more sensible options. I do know a girl who tried to rob a bank with a toy gun but she did it to buy heroin, not to go to Florida so guys could pour beer all over her breasts. Unlike the girls in Spring Breakers, she got caught and went to jail.
Korine’s tragic flaw is his taste for surface over feeling. In his movies, it is not enough to drown a cat, or shoot up a mansion, it has to seem everyday, meaningless, trivial. We never empathise, we never get inside his characters. One can imagine a movie which explores the motivations and pleasures of young women showing their bodies and titillating crowds of men. Spring Breakers is not even interested in that question.
For me the most disturbing—and revealing—scene in Korine’s oeuvre is in Gummo. A drunken white boy and a black dwarf sit on a couch. Korine himself plays the white boy, his arm around the handsome dwarf. The dialogue seems improvised as Korine—pawing the dwarf, pressuring him for sex—whines irritatingly that his mother, a lesbian midwife, didn’t love him. The dwarf becomes more and more uncomfortable. He can’t walk away while the camera is rolling as that would be unprofessional. He doesn’t want to offend his director but nor does he want this skeevy guy’s hands all over him. Korine pours beer over his own head and acts the fool, but the essence of the scene is a very creepy power play. Korine’s message seems to be, “I’m the director, I can do whatever I want to you.” Watching that scene again made me realise there is something very middle class about Harmony Korine. “Transgression” is a bourgeois concept. Gangsters like to think of themselves as sophisticates. It is only the middle class that get a thrill from shocking mummy and daddy.