“I’m a commercial filmmaker. I’m a patriot. I hide in trees.”
—Harmony Korine on The Late Show
with David Letterman, 1997
The enfant terrible of American independent cinema is back and here to prove correct at least the first part of the statement above, one that would have to be considered hitherto a fairly empty performative utterance given the aesthetically radical nature of earlier films like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. Coming amid the height of his late, ’90s fame, Korine’s statement at the time was part and parcel of the elaborate public persona that he was constructing through a series of interviews and, most memorably, three virtuosic appearances on Letterman (all available on YouTube). Long before Joaquin Phoenix notoriously used The Late Show as one element in a multi-media art project exploring the vicissitudes of celebrity (resulting in the unavailing I’m Still Here), Korine proved a worthy foil to the talk show form itself. Combining old vaudeville jokes and non sequiturs with detailed descriptions of prospective projects, such as a biopic about Eddie Gaedel—the only little person to ever have an at bat in a major league baseball game—to be played by Tom Cruise on his knees (unfortunately never realized), Korine provoked some of Letterman’s sharpest retorts in recent memory: “This is why they invented childproof caps.” Along with these attempts at late-night Dada, Korine further elevated his notoriety with a romantic relationship with his then muse, Chloë Sevigny, once described in the New Yorker as one of the “coolest girls in the world” by that great scribe of Wall Street-era yuppie hedonism, Jay McInerney. But today, more than a decade removed from the fawning hype of the downtown fashion press of the 1990s, and after a number of drug-addled years down and out in Paris, his films can now be considered on their own terms. The new work, Spring Breakers, allows us to reconsider Korine’s claim back in 1997: What is a “commercial” Harmony Korine film? What would it look like? What would it sound like?
Korine’s pretensions toward the commercial viability of Spring Breakers are most obvious in his bold (some would say stunt) casting of the force-of-creative nature that is James Franco as the corn-rowed drug dealer Alien, along with two former Disney Channel starlets, Selena Gomez (of The Wizards of Waverly Place fame) and Vanessa Hudgens (the High School Musical series) as the titular breakers. The girls are joined by the lesser-known quantities of Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the girls’ desire to escape their monotonous lives at college and abscond to the “Redneck Riviera,” a portion of Florida’s gulf coast that hosts the annual debauchery of spring break. The girls need some cash for the trip so they rob a roadside restaurant, take a booze bus to St. Petersburg, party poolside, get busted for drugs in their hotel room, are bailed out by Alien, and eventually fall into his criminal underworld and go to war with a rival dealer played with palpable authenticity by the Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane.
Much of the thematic politics of the film will be familiar from Korine’s previous work—performativity, abjection, whiteness (and the appropriation of black culture), et cetera. The white trash spectacle that is Korine’s bread-and-butter is certainly still evident in the St. Petersburg environs, but Korine seems to be acknowledging that his previous film, Trash Humpers from 2009, represents the apogee of that particular creative tendency. Following his less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts comeback effort Mister Lonely, Humpers is a pure distillation of Korine’s interests and methodologies, and it plays like an explicit attempt to illustrate one of the key lines from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” Korine finds himself in a current media ecology that is very different from what it was even a few years ago—now that chthonic evil is everywhere apparent. When Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo are two of the most popular shows on television, can a voyeuristic exploration of rural destitution still be considered transgressive? Indeed, it is increasingly difficult for an artist to be “as radical as reality itself,” to invoke an old Leninism. And when octogenarian members of the old guard are inserting Internet cat videos into their narratives, as Godard does in Film socialisme, the multi-format collage technique of a film like Gummo has lost something of its youthful cachet.
In both content and form, then, Spring Breakers represents a departure and a new direction for Korine. He has replaced the stochastic assemblage logic of his early films in favor of something he calls “liquid narrative.” Korine spoke at length in the Toronto International Film Festival press conference for Spring Breakers of a desire to make a film of pure sensation, of very few words, a film that you would feel wash over you like a wave. What Korine seemed to be describing, without specifically citing theorists like Vivian Sobchack or Laura Marks who have written powerfully on these topics, is an approach to cinema that emphasizes an embodied, pre-critical, affective mode of interaction between the spectator and the screen. In this liquid cinema, the visual and sonic flux of the film would work immanently in and around the body of the viewer-perceiver, ontologically prior to the plane of representation.
To achieve this kind of aquatic affect, Korine mostly eschews the multi-format experimentation of his previous work. Except for a few shots during the early beach party sequences that evoke the camcorder-vértité look of MTV’s dance party show, The Grind (defunct MTV shows being an obvious reference point here), and a pixilated sand art effect in a later hotel party scene meant to evoke the euphoria of snorting coke, the film is entirely shot on ravishing 35mm film by Gaspar Noe’s regular cinematographer Benoît Debie. (Noe’s Enter the Void may be the film’s closest visual cousin.) Korine claims that he wanted the film to look like it was “lit by Skittles,” and the result is a kaleidoscopic series of hyper-saturated color swaths—pink, green, blue, orange—all reflecting off the setting sun, the Day-Glo bikinis, and the neon ambience of the St. Petersburg nightlife.
When discussing the aesthetic intention behind his first film, Gummo, Korine would often tell of an impulse to destroy conventional narrative, to have “images coming from everywhere.” With Spring Breakers, the visual language has become more focused, if no less experimental. Rather than a proliferation of image types across the screen, as we’ve seen recently in Richard Kelly’s masterful mess of an epic, Southland Tales, or the digital cornucopia of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, Korine plunges deep into the texture of the analogue image, one that seems to crystallize organically from the milieu as if the sun, salt, and blunt smoke were integral to its indexical composition. Korine’s insistence that Michael Mann’s Miami Vice was the only film he watched by way of preparation for Spring Breakers is a telling admission: it is another ostensibly commercial crime movie that evolves into a gloriously abstract encounter with the experiential elements of light and water.
The liquidity of the film is enhanced by its intricate editing patterns. Spring Breakers could be seen as participating in what Steven Shaviro calls the post-continuitystyle of contemporary cinema. This is a move beyond what David Bordwell refers to as the “intensified continuity” style of Hollywood films that began to emerge in the 1970s. This new style didn’t reject “traditional continuity in the name of fragmentation and incoherence,” in Bordwell’s view, but rather amounts “to an intensification of established techniques.” For Shaviro, however, contemporary cinematic forms, especially the culturally lower exploitation genres, have “exploded” these “conventions of continuity editing” creating a “radical aesthetic regime change.” This new post-continuity style constitutes a procedure whereby “a preoccupation with immediate effects trumps any concern for broader continuity—whether on the immediate shot-by-shot level, or on that of the overall narrative.” The elliptical, recursive structuring of images in Spring Breakers, in which the result of an action will often be glimpsed before the event has taken place through a kind of premonitory trance, privileges the immediate effect/affect of shots at the expense of global narrative considerations.
This post-continuity visual style begins to morph into a full-blown audio-visual fugue state when melded with the film’s extraordinary soundtrack, truly one of the great sonic assaults in recent cinema. The music is by both Cliff Martinez, longtime composer for Steven Soderbergh, and the EDM maven Skrillex. The film evinces a certain shift in musical taste culture in recent years, which even a cursory visit to Pitchfork would confirm, toward electronic dance music and dubstep, here given prominence in the richly rendered mix. Michel Chion refers to the “rendering” of sound as the ability to mold and shape the auditory space of the film as a material substance, and this aspect of sound studies is especially evident in the layered, tactile compositions of Skrillex, which incorporate many elements of the overall sound design such that sound effects and music become one. These beat-driven dance songs are supplemented throughout with Martinez’s ambient and airy score that serves to link the Skrillex songs together, creating a single sonorous continuum, a sound bath that permeates the entire film. The hypnotic affect is enhanced by the peculiarly rote recitation of several choice lines—including the anthemic “spring break forever”—on the voiceover track, further adding to the sunstroked disorientation. The final major influence on the soundtrack, a kind of spectral presence felt throughout the film, is that of Britney Spears. Heard when the girls do an a cappella version of “Baby One More Time” and, spectacularly, during a slow-motion robbery montage set to the song “Everytime,” the music of Ms. Spears is evoked as an unironic, and surprisingly touching, celebration of the pop influence in the lives of the Millennial generation.
Franco’s performance as Alien, complete with gold grillz and a license plate that reads “BALLR,” is where the film taps into the streak of the Herzogian absurd that has run throughout Korine’s work. The scene in which Alien gives an inventory of his waterfront house shows him to be the type of gangster that learned how to live the life from watching MTV Cribs: “I’ve got Scarface on repeat!” Franco is brilliant in this section of the film, performing the role of the materialistic gangster as if it is speech in a dead language, as Fredric Jameson would say. Most likely to be known going forward as the “Look at my shit!” scene, it is sure to rival the “chair wrestling” scene from Gummo as a Korine classic. This sequence then quickly shift tones as it moves into a dangerously charged scenario in which Alien fellates the silencers of two loaded pistols, phallically held to their crotches by Candy (Hudgens) and Brit (Benson). “I just fell in love with y’all,” he says, closing out this disturbing sex scene.
The film ultimately takes on a violent urgency in its last act as the final trio of Alien, Candy, and Brit, with the girls decked out in the striking combination of neon bikini, pink balaclava, and automatic Glock, decide to take out Alien’s rival. Korine notes that the film was made before widespread international attention was paid to Pussy Riot—and their signature headgear—but agrees that it is an “awesome coincidence.” Korine’s films have in some sense always been as interesting sociologically as they are aesthetically, and in this socio-political coincidence Korine seems to be gesturing toward a kind of social critique bubbling under the commercial veneer. The brutally caustic cynicism of the ending totally negates the “morally pink complexion” of the film up to that point. Siegfried Kracauer coins this phrase in The Salaried Masses to refer to the conceptual hue that serves to “cover life with the varnish concealing its far-from-rosy-reality.” While it would clearly be a mistake to read Spring Breakers as an act of radical exposure in the mode of Maoist-period Godard, for example, Korine does leave us with a lingering sense of outrage at the morally bankrupt liberation of desire that comes with spring break. The film suggests that the potential for critique resides in one that is resolutely ethical. Or as Kracauer puts it, “The gloom of unadorned morality would bring as much danger to the prevailing order as a pink that began to flare up immorally.”
Jason LaRivière is a P.h.D student at New York University. He is currently researching the history of video compression technology and the non-standard aesthetics of François Laruelle.