By: Danny Marroquin
“You know James Joyce? Ulysses? Um, I was just kind of inspired because I used to know Snoop Dogg a long time ago. And it was a play that he was starring in. He was starring in the theatrical version of that story. That’s where I got the idea from.”
–Harmony Korine Explaining “Gummo” to David Letterman (1997)
It seems that even at the age of 18, with the completion of the script for Kids, Harmony Korine had his own ideas for what a film could look like. In 1997 he told David Letterman that “we started with DW Griffith, and now who knows where the hell we are.” By this he means that the way films package their plots, their saccharine love stories and predictable conclusions, have reached a stale place. Korine believes there should be a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. He wants to throw disturbing and beautiful images at the audience from all angles and see what happens, this would perhaps qualify him as a Dadaist or jester. Like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Gummo” was a day in the life of regular people, his damaged irreparably in some ways by a tornado that hit the small Ohio town where the film was set. “Gummo” contained strong images, which ranged from dead cats to hilarious pederasts. A girl with Downs Syndrome looks into the camera and expresses her concerns, while elsewhere an African-American dwarf gets hit on by a sad lonely boy who is pouring beer on himself, which is Korine’s director’s cameo.
When I watched this movie in high school and college I was upset and offended that some New York artist descended into America’s midwestern decay and had himself a big white trash bash. Watching “Gummo” a few weeks ago, it still seemed like he’d partied pretty hard with the trash of our great land. But this time, I noticed the tone seemed more sympathetic than exploitative. It occurred to me that these really are Harmony’s people. In having given them camera time, he has somewhat recognized their dignity as human beings. This must be what Korine means when he talks about knowing himself enough to where he can make a movie like “Spring Breakers,” with Uzis, grenades, gun fellatio, beer-funneling college students, and still be “on the side of righteousness.” Here girls dream up debauched goals in a room where a Busch beer box is stapled to the wall. This plain, trashy image is transfixing, a reminder that film can work a weird kind of alchemy on its audience.
It is here I want to mention that there was a preview before”Spring Breakers” for a Michael Bay directed movie where Mark Wahlberg and The Rock are struggling weight lifters who want something better. They have an epiphany: the way to get it is to crush some skulls and cars, and kidnap Tony Shalhoub. The irony of course is that a lot of people who complain about these kinds of movies will walk out of Korine’s take on the genre not appreciating or realizing that he is trying to liberate them from that kind of thinking.
And I don’t doubt many will walk out of “Spring Breakers” not knowing what to make of it. Seeing it denies them the titillating pleasure of cynicism. It gives them the recognizable images of sex and violence, but the camera is anthropologically fascinated and wary of these elements in the way a more conventional film can’t afford to be. Korine excels at throwing out bleak images, but with a vitality and weirdness that renders it bleak no more. Part of the fun in watching a Korine film is seeing what cultural artifacts he will dredge up. To a glue sniffing survivor, he’ll give a film poster’s defining image, and to Britney Spears, who has been verbally insulted by seemingly every journalist and American on the planet, Korine gives her ballad “Everytime” a dance sequence, a Florida sunset and a be-grilled James Franco on piano. This strange alchemy is textbook Korine. By virtue of the film’s pop culture vocabulary, it achieves a greater poignance, seen and felt in each uniquely composed frame. With a sly grin, Korine tells interviewers he is a “patriot, hiding in the trees,” and that he’s on the side of righteousness. And the more “Spring Breakers” lingers in my mind, the more I’m tempted to believe him.
Like “Gummo,” images are thrown at us like little hand grenades from the cheap seats. Unlike “Gummo,” “Spring Breakers” runs along a standard plot. Four girls need money to go on spring break so they can have fun. One, named Faith (Selena Gomez), wants to go so she can discover herself, see exciting places, and meet great new people. All of this, by the way, is the naive premise behind college, Cancun and Study Abroad programs. However, as her church friends warn, she will not be going with safe company.
Once at St. Pete’s Faith experiences cuddly camaraderie, drunkenness, and sun. Amid images of breasts, pot-smoking from baby dolls, and girls writhing on carpets, as future young professionals toss beer on them, we hear youthful voice overs: “This is such a spiritual place; I’m meeting so many new people.” But these young hedonists are soon arrested. In a turn of events, they are bailed out by a young man who is aptly judged by Faith to be “weird.” Alien, as James Franco shouts into his mic, is from “another planet y’all.” He has achieved the dream, working as a rapper and drug dealer. He’s made of money, look at his teeth. He changed his name from Al, a lower class boy with parents who were drug addicts, to Alien. He ushers the girls further into the underworld. When Faith encounters her first sweaty tough guy party, impressively cast with the hardest looking black gangsters you can imagine, Faith decides she’s uncomfortable and wants to go home. She gets on a bus and the film is simply done with her. Korine’s musical mind takes note of Faith’s, and by extension morality’s, departure from the story with a soft ambient tune. It is a stark contrast compared to the addictive party music heard everywhere else. Whatever happens on screen, every element adjusts itself to fit the event. Korine calls it liquid filming.
I hesitate to go further along with plot summary. Things get darker. And the tables turn as Alien and the bikini-clad sociopaths go looking for real money outside of the chump change to be found in robbing college spring breakers. This brings Alien to meet with his mentor Archie, played with a major presence by Gucci Mane.
“You taught me everything I know,” Alien tells Archie.”And I taught you how to swim.”
I pull this simultaneously hard and silly-soft quote to show how much fun Korine and company are having here, and that fun is part of the film’s pleasure. This is not to be confused with pointless triviality. It’s a high wire act to be simultaneously entertaining and skeptical. I would challenge the viewer to juxtapose select scenes from the last 30 minutes of “Spring Breakers” with scenes in “Django, Unchained” where a black slave is attacked by dogs and another where “Mandingo wrestlers” beat each other to death to the music of great white actors chewing on Tarantino’s sumptuous dialogue. Contrast these scenes with the ten to fifteen seconds it takes Korine to film a child on Archie’s knee, as he tells the camera that he will have to eliminate his competition because his baby needs to be fed. What are the directors showing us and why and how did they arrive at their own way of doing it? It seems to me that both directors are on a journey of inclusive cinema, and you can’t take your eyes off either’s work. It could be talked about for years.
Perhaps both directors mean well and the difference is in the degrees of subtly. Tarantino seeks to tell you that his African-American protagonist is cool. Korine wants to show you a man’s life, with all the tragic grandeur that apprehension requires. It is not a new story here in Florida either as Korine reminds us by opening “Spring Breakers” on a college campus where the professor lecturing about Reconstruction goes largely ignored by girls drawing penises on their papers and calling for Spring Break. There is a blunt depiction of the cost of fun buried within the campy neons, joyful performances, and inspired composition and editing. That Korine refuses to preach or dwell on the bitter injustices of anything seen here is a signal of his artistic skill. Yet as he plays in this world, the lamenting spirit is ever-present. The balance is so finely sustained we think with grateful joy of party boy Fitzgerald’s great test of a first-rate mind, that it can balance opposing ideas at the same time without exploding. Korine’s vision cuts deeper than movies are usually allowed to cut, and his is a strong consciousness operating it.
That brings us finally to that Joycean sense of sin. Korine is having a devilishly good time, the camera takes in the lights, the sounds, and the real pleasure this is all about, you can see why it catches like fire. But the horror is there too. One version of a robbery looks cool. But later when it is seen from another point of view, it is highly disturbing.
Sociologists can claim that the Spring Break bacchanal is now a part of the dividing energies within every home– there is a pathos in Faith having the strongest relationship with her grandma here. Pessimists will say it’s the rite of passage in America’s competitive culture, and sociopathic in a way we’ve known since at least Bret Easton Ellis, and that we need not be shocked by any of it. Yet Korine depicts it all with a child’s humor and sadness, and at the end with, dare I say, an adult’s sadness. I keep going back to his lost years of crack and heroin addiction. All the time we read of stars and musicians who go through this, but few artistic directors throw themselves so foolishly into the belly of a very harmful beast as Korine has. Trying to make a documentary where he is beat up by people bigger than him, by playing the space cadet on Letterman, by carousing with the Pussy Posse in his 90s heyday. He came to his artistic senses in fragments, and largely in a haze. He also did it by living, he says, only in poor places where he doesn’t have to listen to music where white guys play guitars. Anyone who has heard him talk about minstrel shows, vaudeville or seen “Gummo” knows Korine has a folkloric voice. And if the folk are pushed to get trashed, so will he.
“But I can’t take any of the really fucked-up parts of my life back,” Korine told Grantland. “Because it wouldn’t get me to where I am now. That’s why you really can’t have regrets. Not even one thing. If you wanna be great, I would encourage all that. I would encourage experiencing living life like a criminal.”
His comment would fall more in line with James Joyce or Jerry Lee Lewis’s intimate sense of sin during sin. That sense permeates “Spring Breakers” and gives it its edge. Universally sanctioned nihilism is documented with a steadier hand than Korine has put to any of his other work, which was still thrashing through the criminality. The economy of his dream making here is really impressive, and now the acid of his message has skillfully polluted American multiplexes with “Spring Breakers'” wider release this past weekend.
“His sins became serious, and his sense of sin, ‘that sense of separation and loss,’ brought him to consciousness, from which vantage point he sloughed off all but the vestiges of Christian guilt. He went through a series of violent changes and emerged from them somber and aloof, except with the few friends to whom he exhibited his joy, his candor, his bursting youth; even with these he was a little strange…”
–From Richard Ellman’s “James Joyce”