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Breakers

Jacob Sewell as Bunny Boy holding up a dead cat in Gummo (1997).

Jacob Sewell as Bunny Boy holding up a dead cat in Gummo (1997).

Ok. Spring Breakers. Ever since Gummo (1997), I've thought of Harmony Korine as a kind of American Id, if you'll permit the loose Freud-ish. Although Korine's work can be offensive, it's difficult to deny various fictional truths when, say, ruined children abuse a cat carcass until the eyeballs fall out. The banality of the low frequency violence soaks the scenes with wincing dread, as if all the characters were self-abusing cutters. He combines painful weakness, nothing-hood, suicidal feelings and sadness, with a ferocious and steely willfulness. You may want to turn away, as I do and often, but Korine's films are still a boatload better than the Jackass series, though in a stupid way the two bear some similarities.

Why is Korine better? It's difficult to say, but it might be his tenderness, weakness and care. I don't want to make too much out of some sort of "kindness behind the cruelty" because Korine is an artistic nutterbutter, but it is true that he rolls within a certain framework of provocation and intimacy that opens the characters to us. Korine knows repugnance and guides us through it without resorting too often to base male fuck-all or a twisty bitchy whore life. It's a skill and talent, certainly, but not always one we want to be close to. This is a type of American crap that I can't stand to be around most of the time, and I'm not exactly a Korine fan, but I also know that Korine opens a gap of freaky reality, like a frightening mirror image that reveals a perverse truth. After seeing Spring Breakers, I told a friend of mine that hanging with Korine must be a little like eating wet Doritos while you piss in a back alley - which, if I'm honest, says very little and doesn't come close to what it must be like to hang out with Korine. And yet piss and wet Doritos do somehow get at a similarly disgusting Korinian reality. 

Jacob Reynolds as Solomon in Gummo (1997).

Jacob Reynolds as Solomon in Gummo (1997).

The interesting thing is that Spring Breakers does not revere repugnance in the way Korine's other films do. The spaghetti-in-the-bathtub scene in Gummo is nothing if not a celebration of disgust combined with a childish and appealing sense of freedom. This is why Korine is good. The boy, Solomon, does what he wants, and his mom encourages it. She also does what she wants. Korine understands the appeal of this in his bones. I think it's perhaps a uniquely American phenomenon, though I could be wrong about that. Even Solomon's giant glass of milk with spaghetti makes me retch. And then there's the chocolate bar "dessert" in the dirty bath water. Yuck. This is partly why reviewers sometimes use phrases like "unwatchable, pretentious freak show" and "pointless gross-out" with Korine's films. 

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Spring Breakers is taudry, as it should be, but Korine also attempts a strong loss of innocence theme, which inserts a Disney quality that he's unsuited for. Perhaps there was an agreement with Disney over just how raunchy things could get for Selena Gomez, herself a Disney creation. Whatever the reason, Spring Breakers is definitely not vintage Harmony Korine and, unfortunately, it's not as interesting. He's a weak moralist. I had the impression that if James Franco had not been in the film, it would have been absolutely terrible. Franco is great in his role. "I got gold bullets!" He sucks whole scenes into his personae. On the down side, the film has long, overlong shots of the girls in the pool dreaming about "spring break forever." I suspect Korine was going for a dreamy quality, but what he got instead is something closer to the bordom you have on the third or fourth day of a beach vacation that you're not enjoying much. Tired. Too much sun. Lethargic. The food is bad. Your hotel smells weird. 

Pussy Riot protesters. Sergey Ponomarev/AP

Pussy Riot protesters. Sergey Ponomarev/AP

And yet I also liked Korine's discipline, if you can call it that. The film does not resort to overt sexual violence. What a relief. It only gets very violent at the end, and, even then, it's a cartoonish shootout, which is a slight step back from what could have been. Sexual violence and just plain violence are present, certainly, and there is tension and fear, but it's not displayed in a gory, pornographic way, aside from bullet holes. Perhaps this is where Korine is at his best. This guided tour of spring breakers makes for an OK film, but it's not the right set-up for the end; or, rather, the end isn't right for the stories leading up to it. It's as though Korine or his producers decided they needed a Tarantino ending. Sexy ladies in pink ski masks with machine guns. It's a great look, but the shootout action doesn't suit the film at all. (Side note: This appears to be an intentional reference to Pussy Riot.) I would have much rather seen a better, more banal crap-joy ending. A Korinian celebration of disgust would have been nice. 

Which brings me to another encounter with Anthony Lane. He starts his review swimmingly with this line: "Now all the youth of Tampa are on fire." A beautiful, poetic line. Great line. But I'm starting to get the impression that Lane, who is British, doesn't understand American culture very well, at least not the crap-joy that comes for asserted freedoms, like New Hampshire's motto, "Live free or die." (I'd be curious to know what he thinks about that motto.) In this review, as well as in others, Lane shows an unfortunate tendency to take flippy American crass fuckfest pop culture as if it were solely superficial. It is superficial, of course, but in a specific way that Jackass or other types of American entertainment, like reality shows, are not. A contradiction? Yes. But for anyone who can see this superficiality and know it, the contradiction inherent in faux-deep, faux-realism films is what sets them apart and makes them matter.

Lane comes close to understanding this, but never quite gets there. At the end of the review he seems aware that he's missed something when he flatly and defensively states that only two "sorts" of viewers could possibly like such a film: "real revellers, randy for sensation, out of their heads" or "coffee drinking Ph.D.s... too lost inside their heads to break for spring." Cute language here, but empty. The same when Lane talks about Franco: "You have to admire any actor who thinks that careers should, you know, career..." Again, cute nothings in your ear. But what really indicates Lane's dim appreciation of this brand of Americana is what he says he likes about the film. He writes that "a shot of the youngsters in a darkened lecture hall at school... speaks volumes." I'll admit that this campus scene was an interesting choice for Korine, but it hardly spoke volumes. It's difficult to dismiss the sense that Lane is grasping at straws. Here we return to the idea that this is crap-joy American superficiality. This is what makes these films even watchable in the way that Jackass plainly isn't, at least not for me. Lane is correct that Korine loses his "claim to moral distance." Morality is a mistake for this film. Korine should not have been claimed it in the first place. But Lane misses the point that what is good about Spring Breakers is precisely what is amoral, immoral, fucking stupid and ridiculous. That's why we see films by Harmony Korine. And I hope he returns to himself in whatever he does next.