Harmony Korine holds our legs for cinema's last keg stand
Spring Breakers has put most critics in one of two moods: 1. “This isn’t critique,” and 2. “Hurray.” The first of these responses takes to task the 40-year-old Korine for not giving the grownups a raw, yet judgmental, report on today’s youth. If Korine had given us asses and white pianos and blood in the name of critique, then this film would matter. Instead, Korine finds beauty in trashy death and orange cars. He offers useless fantasy without apology. To many left-ish critics, this means the film is “uncritical,” a term wielded by secular liberals the way “immoral” is by conservatives.
But in this age of American cinema—call it “Cost-Benefit-Wave” —making a movie whose value can’t be counted, whether by box-office draw or topicality-to-tears ratio, seems far more substantive a choice than shouting “exploitation” in an uncrowded theater. Korine isn’t critiquing; he’s testifying.
The second mood the film aroused in reviewers, “hurray,” sees that Spring Breakers is a cartoon of the contemporary south, by a son of the contemporary south. AA-inflected Christianity hangs with lawless, corporatized fun. White skin takes on geological tones and textures or else turns orange, and black skin gets demonized. There is no defending this palette. But James Franco’s swerving accent, and the unreliable reality it implies, defang the film before it bites. (Franco as “Alien” is one of the boldest, slyest, best performances of the year so far.)
Spring Breakers wears its artifice, its status as Korine’s inspired, ignorant fantasy, on its sleeve. In doing so it asks you to consider not American History but Art History, after ‘90s rap videos and Wong Kar Wai’s gangster films, and before all we see melts into Internet as we see it.
The Internet was where Spring Breakers first lived as a sly, glorious preview and where it will one day fade into an infinity of clips. Already, in the past few weeks it has been spliced into clip after clip after .gif, a fate for which it seems intentionally ready. The Internet is on this film’s mind.
But Spring Breakers’ rich, syrupy lighting, deftly disorienting cuts, and traditionally famous stars let you know the director has two tools the Internet doesn’t: A deep sense of the history of his form, for one, and studio money, for two. Korine is in admiring but gently competitive conversation with the Internet. He knows that the beach tableaus which bookend his film, will be bookended by your watching, on the same machine, pornography that looks alarmingly similar. Korine is not asking an audience, their laptops resting warmly on their stomachs, to choose between porn and film. But his ennobling upward-swooning angles and golden-lit scenes let you know which side he’s on. This is the skilled debater who gives a self-aggrandizing paean to his opponent’s power. According to Korine, Werner Herzog once called him “the last soldier in the army” of cinema. He’s found his battle.