CHILDREN OF PARADISE: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Notice: The following review contains spoilers.

“Everyone’s miserable here because everyone sees the same things,” laments Faith (Selena Gomez) in Harmony Korine’s new film, Spring Breakers (2013). She and her friends (portrayed by Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine), are in dire need of a change-of-scenery from their drab lives as students in a small town. The girls see the prospect of escaping to another place for spring break as their ticket out. After robbing a local eatery for cash, the dream becomes a reality as the girls make their escape to St. Petersburg, Florida for the “trip of a lifetime.” There, they meet a local gangster-cum-rapper, Alien (played by James Franco) who after bailing them out of jail, leads them into an underworld of drugs, sex, and violence. This, is more or less the perceived synopsis to Korine’s film, and it is somewhat accurate; that is, if you like to watch your movies in a painfully literal fashion.

I am familiar with a good lot of the film’s reviews, most of which are negative, or at the very least, critical of Korine’s cinematic voice. I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, his rise to fame came with the script for Kids (1995), a sobering and startlingly visceral film about the AIDS  epidemic of the 1980’s amongst New York City’s youth. Then came Gummo (1997), a strange and disturbing portrait of the quirky residents of Xenia, Ohio in the wake of a devastating disaster. Suffice it to say, if you’re looking to Korine for your run-of-the-mill action flick or romantic comedy, you are more than likely setting yourself up for disappointment (or a full-blown panic attack).

Like some of his earlier films, Spring Breakers is ripe with scenes and imagery of youth engaging in self-evacuating, hedonistic, and often destructive behavior; some of which for younger audiences might be uncomfortably familiar. The film opens with a montage of what has become the procrustean spring break standard: bikini-clad co-eds ecstatically handling (and using) beer bongs, complete with a dubstep ballad by Skrillex, rocket popsicles, and lots of impromptu flashing set against a sunny, beach backdrop. While it is noticeable that the aim here is to exaggerate such excesses, the creeping suspicion that such imagery might not be so far off from reality is unavoidable. Korine does such a good job of capturing the essence of contempo-spring break culture, that it becomes difficult to differentiate the film from an episode of MTV Spring Break. 

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Paul McCarthy, WGG Test (2003)

Despite appearances, Korine’s Spring Breakers functions on a plane outside of social constructs and identity politics. The repetitive, dream-like cinematography (a la Benoît Debie of Gaspar Noé acclaim) and use of pensive musical scores emphasizes this by providing an uncanny juxtaposition to the vapid imagery on screen. Some of us might recall a similarly disquieting video piece by artist Paul McCarthy entitled, WGG Test (2003) depicting a yacht party gone wrong. In it, several bikini-clad girls emphatically hack at a man’s limbs with an ax, obscuring the camera lens with blood. The nightmarish gore is interlaced with short clips of the various women laughing, dancing enthusiastically, and enjoying champagne from plastic cups. What is in fact most disturbing about McCarthy’s piece is not found in its literal display of violence, but rather the uncompromising indifference of the characters performing them. Here, WGG Test can be understood as the frightening apex of the influence of media, excess consumption, and desensitization; the detritus of symptoms born out of an imperfect capitalist society. For McCarthy (and I would argue Korine as well) this commentary on the pernicious effects of such symptoms, however “shocking,” is not entirely the picture of alterity.

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My sentiments could not have been echoed more perfectly than on the night of my first viewing of the film (I’ve now seen it three times, all of my own volition.) As the film progressed, many of the ostensibly darker moments within it were met with eruptions of laughter from the audience. When perceived against the violence on screen, the displaced laughter produced a surreal effect. I am inclined to view the audiences’ reaction as emblematic of an attempt to explicate through example. Picture the scene set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime” wherein Alien and his trio of girls–faces concealed by pink ski masks– hold unsuspecting vacationers at gunpoint and trash their motels for money. At one point, a  man’s face is brutally bashed with the blunt end of a gun; all of this, portrayed in slow motion, producing a strange kind of poignancy. In that moment, the audiences’  interlocution to Korine’s output of vacuous and violent pop-simulacra became his way of pointing to the outside; the ultimate affirmation of intentionality.

Spring Breakers plays at Consolidated Theatres Ward 16. For showtimes, CLICK HERE.

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ARTiculations is a blog on culture and the arts by Carolyn Mirante for FLUX Hawaii. Carolyn is a Honolulu-based art critic and Owner/Director of the Gallery of Hawaii Artists (GoHA), an alternative exhibition space dedicated to the contemporary arts in Hawai’ i. 

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