Friday, March 29, 2013

On trying to turn exploitation into art

Spring Breakers is full of energy -- and maybe full of something else as well.
I finally caught up with Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, a propulsive hunk of cinematic energy that has been hailed in more than a few quarters for its willingness to go wickedly against its genre grain.

It's difficult not to see the movie as a kind of perverse trick. The title seems to have been calibrated to lure unsuspecting teens into an entertainment that they think will serve up screenfuls of scantily clad women, wild gross-out humor and outrageously dopey behavior. For better (and sometimes for worse) that's not the film that Korine has made, which is precisely what you'd expect from the director who wrote the screenplay for Kids (1995) and who has directed movies such as Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) and Trash Humpers (2009). If you've seen any of those movies, you know that Korine's work tends to polarize even the most tolerant of viewers.

Werner Herzog praised Gummo at a long-ago Telluride Film Festival. I didn't see Gummo at that festival, but I knew people who had and who were appalled by it. That's understandable. The movie opened with a scene of a boy drowning a cat in a garbage can.

Spring Breakers isn't quite in that mode, and it might be Korine's most accessible movie yet. Glutted with bare-breasted women, the movie begins by indulging itself in collegiate excess, a beach bacchanal that serves as a prologue to a story about four college girls from Kentucky (Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine) who head to Florida for spring break.

Korine turns the girls' Florida romp into an orgiastic riot of shoulder-to-shoulder partying that leaves you feeling woozy, sort of in the same way that an amusement park ride that initially looks like fun can leave you feeling slightly nauseous. The movie more than earns its "R" rating with nudity, cocaine snorting and scenes of sexual abandon.

Just about everyone will notice that two of Korine's actresses are associated with shows that are the antithesis of what he's after here: Gomez (Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place and Hudgens (Disney's High School Musical).

In case we had any doubts about his intentions, Korine quickly injects a shot of malignancy into the party-hardy swells that break over St. Petersburg's packed beaches. To finance their spring break, the girls stage a robbery at a roadside diner.

Their new-found criminality provokes giddy excitement, although Gomez's Faith (a young woman with religious impulses) has reservations about all the bad-girl high jinx.

As Spring Breakers unfolds, it becomes clear that Korine wants to turn his sybaritic romp into a form of contemporary horror. He suggests that a flirtation with danger can turn into a full-scale love affair; it's as if he's presenting his characters with a series of twisted challenges, pushing them to see just how far they're willing to transgress.

As a result, it's difficult to watch Spring Breakers without experiencing a burgeoning sense of unease.

The introduction of hard-core danger starts when the girls hook up with wannabe gangsta (James Franco in a strangely effective turn.) Cornrows and a metallic grill make Franco almost unrecognizable; he's playing a character named Alien, a figure who's both ludicrous and menacing. Alien says he grew up among blacks, and learned a black gangsta style. Alien shrieks with pride at the stuff he's been able to acquire as the result of his drug dealing. He's part menace and part clown, a character who teeters on the edge of self-parody.

Franco's Alien becomes involved with the girls when he bails them out of jail after a drug bust, presumably one of many conducted by the St. Petersburg police during spring break.

As the story develops, Korine allows two of the girls to fall by the wayside. Faith realizes she's out of her depth and heads for home. She starts talking about how uncomfortable she is in the gangsta milieu, giving the movie an infusion of jitters that would be right at home in an after-school-special. Later, another girl is forced into inaction when she's wounded in a drive-by shooting.

Perhaps to keep Spring Breakers from turning into a finger-wagging cautionary tale about the dangers of consorting with thugs, Korine adds a tables-turning finale that's as excessive in gunplay as the early picture scenes are excessive in skin.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that a movie in which the female characters spend most of their time in bikinis begins to feel as if it's less interested in saying something than in standing a variety of archetypes on their ear, and, in the process, doling out punishment to the gangsta world.

Spring Breakers is not without interest, but Korine is able to carry his colossal goof of a movie only so far before he stretches credibility way beyond the breaking point.

Spring Breakers practically bursts with end-of-picture violence. Korine's bloodbath of a finale takes Godard's famous axiom -- all that's needed for a movie is a girl and a gun -- and restates it as, "All you need for a movie is a couple of girls and many guns."

To take pleasure in any of this, you probably have to enjoy watching Korine trample the archetypes of a thousand vapid beach movies. But by the end, I wasn't sure that Korine knew what to do once he and his characters had transgressed. In the end, it's the same old story. When in doubt, break out the heavy artillery and open fire.

Korine hits some wild notes in what amounts to a bona fide oddball of a movie, but for all its willingness to subvert expectation, Spring Breakers, ultimately, is not to be believed -- or, I think, taken as a coherent look at anything.

No, it's not the usual teen tripe, but it's not necessarily anything else, either.

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