Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)

Transcendence through Debauchery

It's rare that films of extreme excess can draw justifiable comparisons to Terence Malick, but that's the unusual situation we find ourselves in when encountering the fascinating Spring Breakers. With its screeching Skrillex soundtrack, lack of clothing and borderline radioactive cinematography, this may seem like a strange comparison. But Korine's film conjures up a hypnotic mood that I would most compare to the cinematic streams of consciousness Malick offers - indeed, Spring Breakers may be an altogether more mesmeric achievement than Malick's disappointingly frigid To The Wonder.

The audiovisual language of Spring Breakers is rather remarkable - a day-glo fantasy world with a drifting camera will likely remind some of Enter the Void (the two films share a cinematographer in Benoit Debie). The floaty photography and visceral colour palette alone would be enough to warrant praise, especially when accompanied by a moody soundtrack that not only offers Mr. Skrillex (apparently the kids dig him), but also more traditionally filmic contributions by Cliff Martinez and a selection of aptly-chosen mainstream pop music (the film's single-most memorable sequence is scored to a Britney Spears ballad, and wrapped in so many layers of irony it would be all but futile to try and unpack). But it's the editing the propels Spring Breakers towards aesthetic greatness - chopped together with a strong reliance on foreshadowing, echoes and recurrences. Lines of dialogue are repeated like a song chorus, oftentimes presented with a new emphasis or context. Gunshots constantly punctuated the soundtrack, adding extra punch alongside a sense of impending tragedy. Images pop in and out with a strange casualness - sometimes to alert our attention to an important development, oftentimes merely to further cement the film's improbably transcendent mood. The result is a film with a genuine rhythm and vibrancy - it's a film you need to give yourself over to, to get caught up in the hyperreal world it offers you. It's a world where even a dull lecture hall full of glowing laptops is absolutely captivating.

Of course, the mad contradiction at Spring Breakers' core is that this beautiful presentation is utilised to tell a story of excess, debauchery and ugliness. For the first forty-five minutes, the story of four college girls (including Disney veterans Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez) and their crime-funded trip to Florida is very much on the backburner - instead the focus is all about mood. As our scantily-clad characters get consumed by the endless party of spring break, we're intoxicated alongside them. Their feasts of alcohol and cocaine match our gorging on those impossibly gorgeous images on screen - and I'm talking technically here, not just the streams of beautiful people on-screen. If you're looking for narrative, you'll perhaps be disappointed - this is all about atmosphere.

Or at least it is until the girls get arrested, and the film refocuses when they're bailed out by self-appointed gangster Alien (James Franco at his most eccentric). It's not that the film completely loses what makes it so special - there's still much to engage with - it just becomes a little more concerned with a plot of sorts, occasionally to a fault. Alien's feud with a rival gangster, for example, is one where the inevitable conclusion is never in doubt - almost to the point where you wish scenes weren't wasted on it. For a film so theoretically provocative, it is somewhat lacking in genuine surprise. The film's one particularly neat narrative trick is the way it is willing to have the girls leave for good once their moral limit been reached or their thrill seeking side abated. The final scenes therefore take on a sharp focus when only two girls remain, absolutely consumed by the world of unreal violence and carefree indulgence. "Pretend like you're in a videogame or a film" goes one of the film's oft-repeated refrains. Reality is indeed abandoned, and truth and fantasy become inseparably blurred. Even Alien with his shallow ideals achieves an unlikely bliss - moments of pure joy with his 'soulmates'.

The second half also sees the films satirical intentions zone in on their targets. Spring Breakers represents the American Dream gone mad, perhaps best exemplified by a wonderfully ridiculous scene where Alien shows the girls his home alá Cribs. Populated by countless guns, bills and drugs, he also boasts about how Scarface plays on endless repeat (again, repetition being one of the film's core motifs). The insane, drunken parties of spring break are already inherently crazy, but Alien shows what happens when the debauchery goes one improbable step further. The four girls are initially drawn into it, but only two are destined to dive the whole way into this nightmarish dream. Indeed, they even achieve an absurd sort of enlightenment from it all. When they say "this is the most spiritual place we've ever been" on a phone call to their parents, they're only half-joking. Korine is clearly more than a little disgusted at this whole culture, but also allowing his characters achieve some sort of enlightenment in the middle of it all. The director is operating on a peculiar level here - clearly never taking anything too seriously (Franco's performance alone is one of pure, unadulterated pantomime) but there's certainly something a little more resonant underneath the surface.

It may not offer the grandest social commentary ever committed to celluloid (and yes, it is filmed in glorious 35mm), and the scripting can lack elegance. But even if the 'content' leaves you cold, it's quite likely the presentation will bewitch. Spring Breakers is undeniably imperfect, arguably indulging in the same shallowness it so readily critiques. That's beside the point. The journey here is what woos, and ultimately the film's neon soaked wonderland will be remembered long after the satirical core has rotted. And how wonderful that this has accidentally snuck into multiplexes due to a HIgh School Musical star or two!

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