There is an ephemeral quality to the films of Harmony Korine, the sense of fleeting, unguarded moments, captured perhaps by happenstance, and arranged so loosely as to seem almost plotless. Like snapshots thrown into a shoebox, pulled out and reassembled whenever nostalgia strikes, they portray the general arc of their characters’ lives without ever fully explaining or contextualizing their vexing assemblage of frequently arresting images. Korine has explained that it is characters and images which remain most vividly with him after watching a film, eclipsing the particulars of narrative and resolution; his goal as a filmmaker, accordingly, is to create works which capitalize upon what he considers the most visceral and unique elements of cinema, eschewing everything that one would find in a Syd Field book or at a Robert McKee seminar. It is unsurprising that Korine found a champion and an ally in the notoriously eccentric Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who showed similar disregard for both convention and the distinction between fictive and documentary filmmaking.
To this end, the use of lesser known and non-professional actors has always been a great asset to Korine’s vision, getting staggering early performances from the likes of Ewen Bremner and Chloe Sevigny, casting teens he saw sniffing paint on Sally Jesse Raphael, and giving bizarre cameos to near-forgotten performance artists such as Tom Mullica. It was by no means a path to box office gold, but it did yield one unimpeachable masterpiece (the Dogme 95-certified schizophrenia parable Julien Donkey-Boy) on top of his confounding, nihilistic, yet, ultimately, oddly touching debut Gummo. It was easy — especially for the mainstream — to dismiss Korine as, by turns, pretentious, lazy, or untalented; a derelict, skateboarding drug-addict who got lucky through his friendship and subsequent working relationship with avowed chronicler of misguided youth (and accused pervert and filth-merchant) Larry Clark (Korine wrote the script to Kids when he was only eighteen). The allegiance both legitimized and stigmatized the young filmmaker. Those who disapproved of Clark’s voyeuristic slices of young life — the films themselves a logical progression from Clark’s decades as a photojournalist — were unlikely to find anything to celebrate in Korine’s work, and even those who tolerated the transgressions and perversions of films like Kids, Bully, and Ken Park (also scripted by Korine) were likely to be put off by the blatant bull-baiting and grotesquerie on the surface of a Harmony Korine film.
What followed this early notoriety was nearly a decade of inactivity, with Korine’s “directed by” credit only showing up on a Sonic Youth music video and a television special for his friend David Blaine. When he did return, in 2007, it was with Mister Lonely, a vexing misfire of a film, possessed of few of the immediate signifiers of his previous work. There were professional actors — Samantha Morton, Diego Luna, James Fox, Anita Pallenberg, Denis Lavant — and noted filmmakers — Leos Carax joins Werner Herzog, who had previously acted in Julien Donkey-Boy — in a film that was more whimsical than provocative, even as it explored the darker sides of identity and self-worth. In it, Diego Luna played a downtrodden Michael Jackson impersonator who is tempted by Samantha Morton’s Marilyn Monroe to follow her to a proverbial Island of Misfit Toys, populated only by fellow impersonators. Charlie Chaplin, the Pope, Madonna, and Sammy Davis Jr. mingle with Abraham Lincoln, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Three Stooges on an idyllic Scottish commune where the days are spent tending to the livestock and putting on stage productions which almost no one outside of the performers will see. For those who admired but were frustrated by Korine’s contrarian oeuvre, Mister Lonely promised a successful transplant of his subversive humor and empathy to a more palatable narrative; instead, it was a frequently beautiful but misguided trifle, an inconsistent and meandering film that couldn’t strike the proper balance between sentiment and incongruity.
Whether in conscious revolt or mere satiation of whim, Korine followed Mister Lonely with Trash Humpers, a film which completely defies any sense of critical assessment. Taking the found artifact aesthetic of his earlier work to its logical conclusion, Trash Humpers was shot and edited entirely on VHS and contains no plot whatsoever; it is eighty minutes of men and women in grotesque masks — resembling something in between a senior citizen and a burn victim — committing random acts of vandalism and utter strangeness, the most frequent of which is, as the title makes clear, grinding on bags, piles, and cans of trash. Trash Humpers presents itself as the most disturbing garage sale find of all time (short of a snuff film), a video diary of the after-hours shenanigans of a cadre of mentally handicapped hooligans — imagine buying a camcorder and finding this inside. (Korine had, in fact, originally intended to leave unmarked VHS copies of the film in various locales, with no other promotion or distribution, until this was deemed unfeasible.) There is no way to talk about Trash Humpers without sounding ridiculous, which is kind of the point. Taking Stanley Kubrick’s axiom that a film “should be more like music than fiction, it should be a progression of moods and feelings,” one step further, Korine’s films are meant to do no more than exist and make the audience feel; no where is this more evident than in Trash Humpers, wherein the thought of critically discussing or disseminating the film is not only futile, but downright laughable, even as it may function as a springboard to an individual’s personal exploration of a theme.
Up until very recently, an individual’s memories — that is to say the physical record of their life, their home movies and photographs — were largely tethered to the technology at hand when they were created. Home movies of the 1950s and 1960s maintain a unique character due to the 8mm film and cameras on which they were shot; the soft edges, the dust, the blown out lights, these all had the unintended effect of creating an instant nostalgia, at first paralleling and then ultimately informing the hazy, incomplete, impressionistic nature of the recollections in our mind. The flat, desaturated VHS look of the 1980s and early 1990s had a similar effect, although now that so much from the VHS generation has been reintroduced via the internet and YouTube in particular, we find that the intangible sense of nostalgia and the application thereof to be very different than that of earlier 8mm films. Now that these and any other number of filmic textures are only an Instagram filter away — and now, especially, that digital storage allows us virtually limitless means and ease to document nearly every detail of our lives, no matter how trivial — we find that not only are we more in control of what we document, and therefore what we remember, but also how we document it. Gone too is a great deal of the personal nature of self documentation, as it becomes commodified and enhanced as to be palatable for mass consumption. Accuracy becomes secondary to presentation, as we lock ourselves in a feedback loop not unlike that described by Douglas Hofstadter in his book I Am a Strange Loop — our snapshots are no longer souvenirs of our experiences; instead, we find ourselves increasingly living our lives merely to create content. It’s been said that all the world’s a stage, but lately it’s beginning to look more like a closed set.
As the layman becomes involved in the presentation of his own memories in addition to their mere capture — and this is where the intuitive marriage of the iPhone and Instagram has staked its near-ubiquitous claim — artifice begins to wrest the reigns from content, using surface adumbration to heighten (or supplant) the objective realization of the subjective experience of that which is being presented. Oliver Stone usually gets the lion’s share of the credit for the mixed-media or collage approach to filmmaking that he pioneered (to mimic realism) in JFK and (to heighten, if not completely eschew realism) in Natural Born Killers. It is Harmony Korine, however, who best understood and exemplified the innate connection between the texture of a film and an audience’s reaction to it. As a visual stylist, Korine is acutely underrated, owing perhaps to his great affection for the low fidelity images and sounds of consumer analog formats such as VHS and cassette tapes. One need look no further than the process responsible for Julien Donkey-Boy‘s uniquely grainy images (during which the footage was transferred from 8mm video tape, to 8mm film, to 35mm via optical printing) to understand that the look of a Harmony Korine film is neither an accident nor an afterthought. “There is beauty in all shit,” Korine has said, and his loving appropriation of any and all cinematic means to convey the subjective realism of his characters is integral to his ability to engender sympathy for what are largely damaged, if not irredeemable, individuals on the outskirts of both society and morality.
I mention all of this because context is useful in understanding Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s latest film and a singular achievement in both the artform and the business of American cinema. The idea of a Harmony Korine film being in wide release is novel enough; opening in the top ten is downright historic. Of course, it is doubtful that the film would be making such sizable waves without its bevy of Disney-approved tween icons. By recruiting Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, and Ashley Benson to join his wife Rachel Korine on a trip through his characteristic world of unbridled id, Korine invokes not Herzog, but Jean-Luc Godard, the earlier cinematic maverick who, at the height of the French New Wave, enlisted international sex symbol Brigitte Bardot as an accomplice in his continuing anarchic assault on the standards of both cinema and society (in a film called, appropriately enough, Contempt). It’s not merely a question of bigger stars attracting bigger box office; Korine understands the meta-narrative that his casting creates, the one in which his film’s mere existence is a commentary on image (both real and perceived), celebrity, and society’s sanitized celebration of debauchery without concern for the consequences.
Hudgens, Gomez, Benson, and Korine play a quartet of college students who have known each other since kindergarten. Candy (Hudgens), Cotty (Korine), and Brit (Benson) are hard partiers with a penchant for drugs and drink; Faith (Gomez), however, has stayed true to her name, living a good, Christian life, but the monotony of small town life has been dragging her down. “Everything’s the same and everyone’s just sad,” she observes of her surroundings. Thus, desperate for a change of pace, Faith agrees to accompany her friends down to Florida for spring break. There’s only one problem: they can scarcely afford even a single night’s hotel room fee. Resolved to escape the drudgery of their hometown, even if just for a week, Candy and Brit hatch a plan to hold up a local restaurant, the Chicken Shack, in order to fund their trip. They enlist Cotty as the getaway driver, who steals the keys to her professor’s El Camino. Afterwards, with a few thousand dollars in cash and a huge adrenaline rush, they pack up and take the bus down to Florida.
Once there, the four girls quickly ingratiate themselves with the young, nubile bodies in various states of undress who people the beaches and resorts, turning wide swaths of the Florida coast into a a massive, debauched bacchanal, where public degradation is the norm and there’s no such thing as a bad decision. The girls party on the beach, rent scooters, drink to excess, snort coke off of an unconscious woman’s exposed breasts, and sing Britney Spears songs in liquor store parking lots until the wee morning hours. But their revelry comes to an abrupt halt when the police raid a party they’re attending. Luckily, bikinis don’t have pockets, so they can’t be charged with possession of illegal drugs; they can, however, be held in jail overnight and heavily fined. This would be the inauspicious end of the ride were it not for Alien (James Franco), a corn-rowed guardian angel, drug dealer, would-be rapper, and straight-up hustler who sees the girls in court while he’s there to post bail for his friends and business associates, colloquially known as The Dope Boys (played by professional sleazebags the ATL Twins). Alien takes a liking to the scantily clad coeds and puts up the cash for their release as well; “Everyone can use a little bailing out once in a while,” he insists, and that he’s nothing more than a “gangsta with a heart of gold.”
Alien brings the girls around to his local haunts, introducing himself and his world. Candy, Cotty, and Brit are intrigued and a little turned on by the invitation to hang with the bad boys, but Faith is deeply uncomfortable and urges the girls to take her back home. Without her friends, who graciously and greedily accept Alien’s hospitality, Faith boards the northbound bus, eager to put spring break behind her as quickly as possible. Alien meanwhile takes the other three girls back to his house, where he waxes philosophical about his belongings: “This is the American dream, y’all! Look at my shit! I got rooms full of this shit!” Appealing to their materialistic side is the quickest way to these girls’ hearts, and before long they’ve signed on as henchwomen in Alien’s growing contraband-fueled empire. This draws the ire of Big Archie (Gucci Mane), a childhood friend and mentor to Alien who feels Florida is only big enough for one drug lord.
Sex and drugs may have been the big draw for the girls originally, but it’s money and the sense of power derived from violent behavior that they really develop a taste for, especially Candy and Brit. “Seeing all this money makes my pussy wet,” Candy says after they rob the Chicken Shack, and it is this shallow materialism that motivates just about every bad decision that they, as well as the locals whom they meet, make throughout the film. But Korine isn’t as interested in a facile moral about consumerism as he is in the dissonance between appearance and reality. “The water looks real pretty, but the sharks are lurking,” Alien tells the girls as he begins to indoctrinate them into his world. Korine has spent the majority of his career finding the beauty in the grotesque, in the deviant, in the aberrant; Spring Breakers represents the first time that he has done the reverse, peeling back the layers of the socially sanctioned saturnalia that is spring break and revealing it for the depraved circus that it is.
But this is to put almost too much emphasis on the actual spring break element — despite the title, spring break itself is more like a gateway drug: ill-advised, with relatively little consequence, but which presents no shortage of inroads toward greater temptations with greater repercussions. The robbery at the Chicken Shack establishes that these are innately transgressive people; spring break is merely an excuse to get them down to Alien, where their worst impulses can be indulged and encouraged. On their first night in Florida, while Cotty is inside funneling beer and taking her top off with a score of half naked men, Faith floats languidly in the hotel pool with Candy and Brit and confides with them her wish to freeze time, like a snapshot, and to exist in this idyllic moment forever. As with all of Korine’s films, it is useful to regard what we’re seeing as a memory, a fevered recollection of some strange past time. In his best work, Korine’s fractured storytelling and propensity for impressionistic nonlinear chronology, as well as his belief in the primacy of character over plot, coalesce to create a psychological inventory of his characters, depicting not so much what they are doing but rather how they perceive their actions. In Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine used jump cuts, alternating points of view, and recurring visual motifs to convey the cracked cognition of a schizophrenic. In Spring Breakers, Korine, cinematographer Benoit Debie, and editor Douglas Crise have developed a visual vocabulary that includes hyper-stylized day-glo colors, repeating dialogue, variegated film stock, slow motion, narration distilled from phone calls made by the girls to their parents, and periodic flashes to scenes both preceding and succeeding the depicted action to imply the subjective recall of its protagonists. To call segments of the film unrealistic is to miss the point; everyone embellishes when they recount their exploits.
In a recent interview with GQ, when asked if there was anything he would go back and change about any of his films, Harmony Korine answered, “No, I always think that it was perfect, even with all the mistakes. I never question it. It’s exactly the way it should be. Once it’s done, it’s perfect, and it exists in its own world.” Whether or not Spring Breakers has any “mistakes” is for each viewer to decide; it is certainly, however, “exactly the way it should be,” casting a hypnotic spell on the audience that lingers for days, even weeks after the final credits. There simply is no other film like it. Much credit for this is due to Debie and Crise’s aforementioned contributions, as well as Cliff Martinez’s sinewy compositions (some co-written with dubstep it-boy Skrillex); fundamentally, however, this is a Harmony Korine film through and through. Much like Terrence Malick, who similarly shoots a great deal more than he needs and subsequently spends months “discovering” the film in the editing room, Korine is adept at chiseling away all but the most profound, sagacious images necessary to tell his story, images that are — paradoxically — both ephemeral and essential. Unlike Malick, however, Korine has no overarching treatise, no recondite message about humankind to tender. Korine’s films are visceral, unprecedented, living entities unto themselves; they are an affront to taste, to reason, and to those who would try to draw distinction between high- and low-art. They must be treated as their director treats his characters: their mere existence is cause for celebration. One could say Spring Breakers is Korine’s best film to date, but “best” implies a myriad of assumptions regarding intent and efficacy which are largely anathema to the point; one should instead say, simply, “Spring break forever, bitches.”