Saturday, January 18, 2014

There's a rumor in St. Petersburg


93 minutes of sound and fury signifying about 60 minutes of actual plot.  But between a heroic performance by James Franco, some inspired (let's say) physical acting by Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, and fine cinematography, Spring Breakers is a more than worthwhile diversion, if you don't mind your hysterically socially conservative polemics delivered via a quasi-poetic, slightly-over-par gangster film.

2012 (them)/2013 (us)
Written and directed by Harmony Korine
With James Franco (Alien), Selena Gomez (Faith), Vanessa Hudgens (The Blonde One), Ashley Benson (The Other Blonde One), Rachel Korine (The One With Pink Hair), and Gucci Mane (Archie)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Hey: I don't want anybody to feel cheated.

It's one of the most talked about films of the year, so there's not a lot left to say about Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine's shrill propaganda film about the dangers of being sketchily written by a forty year old man in order to fill the empty character slots in a shrill propaganda film.

But I just watched it and I didn't watch Inside Llewyn Davis yet, so Spring Breakers gets reviewed.  How about I say this: it's still nowhere near as psychotically hateful as the film it shares massive amounts of DNA with, Frances Ha.  (It not only detests young people as a class and as a concept, but stars the director's wife, Rachel, in a role that, much like Greta Gerwig's, is largely unnecessary.)

I'll also say this: when it's not pursuing its vilely puritanical themes, and often even when it is, it's one of the year's better romances.

Yes it is.

The story is spare to say the least but better films have been made with less.  Three college girls intuit that their studies are a complete waste of time and money and that they only have a few years before adulthood in the 21st century renders their existence a living death.  Thus, following Harmony Korine's tenth viewing of comedy classic Airheads and fiftieth viewing of the opening of Pulp Fiction, they rob a restaurant with realistic squirt guns in order to pay for history's most awesomely photographed spring break vacation.

If it seems like I'm inferring somewhat from the film, I have to, insofar as the three young women are entirely interchangeable and their motivations, while transparent, appear to arise entirely from their age and gender.  This is by design, because according to statistics I learned in Spring Breakers, three out of four young women are borderline sociopaths. 

The bad girls take with them the fourth, their friend Faith.  She is a brunette with her natural hair color, and hence not to the same degree a degenerate slut.  She represents, I take it, the last vestige of innocence and good judgment possessed by today's young people.  This is suggested by the fact that she is churchgoing, and then demonstrated when shehaving been arrested along with her friends for partying just too damn hardjust leaves, instead of accepting the rescue and friendship of a local businessman named (yes!) Alien, whom were this a silent comedy would be credited "A Drug Dealer."

This all takes a solid forty minutes, which a less generous person than I might suggest is about thirty minutes too long.  But time is a tractable thing in Spring Breakers.  Korine establishes in his first act a penchant for placing scenes slightly out of chronological order (to represent his characters' disorganized minds), and for repeating them (for emphasis and for perspective), and for repeating lines of dialogue in voiceover during subsequent and preceding scenes (for ironic counterpoint, and to create an atmosphere of doom).  Korine also introduces us early on to slow motion (the better to wallow in our characters' vileness) and footage of people partying, disconnected from our characters either by space or time (to express the sad universality of their shallow ethos).  Entirely coincidentally, these highly effective filmmaking techniques also help pad Spring Breakers out to feature length.

You know, it used to be okay to make a movie that was 70 minutes long and was basically nothing but exploitation.  I think those movies had a name.

Yep, while Spring Breakers is good throughout, it's managing this on pure cinema for over a third of its running time.  The colors are gorgeousthe shot of the criminal trio standing in a rainstorm borrowed from the end of Evil Dead 2013, while preparing to pop their robbery cherry, is a favorite.  And I really love the tracking shot as The Blonde One and The Other Blonde One carry out the robbery.  Our perspective is fixed from the passenger side of the car as The One With Pink Hair wheels around to the front of the restaurant.  This techniquesequentializing discrete actions inside a structure by moving the camera from window to window in a long takeis not exactly groundbreaking.  Neither is its voyeuristic conceit.  It's certainly not as thrilling and complex here as in, for example, the unlikely movie-within-a-movie that opens the De Palma super-classic Blow Out with a bang.  But I love it all the same because it is a lot more difficult and a damned sight more mesmerizing than the prosaic alternatives a less artful director might have chosen.  And we should by no means neglect those wonderful opening credits.

[Insert Peter Gabriel joke #4615]

The point is, Harmony Korine made a really attractive film here, tits notwithstanding (I take it back; they very much withstand) and that much is evident from frame one.  Even the handheld didn't bother me very much.  That's kind of wonderful.

However, it doesn't get to the level of anything like good in terms of narrative until our man Alien arrives.  This is possibly because Alien, being a man, after all, is our main character in this story about four women.  And you know?  Thank God he is, because Alien is a character (in all senses of the term).  The thing is, I'm not entirely sure he was supposed to be.

Doesn't this look more like the protagonist of the movie you wanted to see?  No?  Why?

There was legitimate talk about James Franco getting another Oscar nomination for the role.  Time has rendered that a dream deferred, but maybe if he'd eaten a box of Krispy Kremes every day for a month like Christian Bale, he too could have been graced with the honor, because it is equally a transformative role.  The accent; the cornrows; the grill; the slime; the stupidity; and most importantly the pitch-perfect note he hits that allows him to be viscerally disgusting and viscerally human at the same time.

(Now, Korine's main goal was, I believe, to depict what happens when white people are friends with black people, becausemight as well mention it hereSpring Breakers is a blithely racist film.  The descent into hell may begin with a bunch of picturesque mainly-white people, but our ladies enter the walls of Dis itself only at the invitation of Alien, Evil Wigger.  And if there's a devil in this hell it's Archie, Alien's former best friend and current rival for control of the mean streets ofif I correctly translated his jiveSt. Petersburg.  Also Archie, as a discerning black man of means, has found the only BMI>25 women in Korine's whole universe.)

We'll largely discount the semi-rapey scene between Alien and Faith, who really doesn't matter except maybe in Korine's imagination (and because without her this movie is yet another twenty-five minutes shorter).  In any event, if this scene is about anything other than furthering Korine's Parade of Horribles, it's Alien's awkwardness, andyesloneliness.  So does Spring Breakers transform, through the magic of ACTING!, from a visually stunning banality into an actual movie that humans, rather than film formalists, might want to watch.

The bad girls, of course, stay with Alienand I'm too hard on Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, whose actual character names are Candy and Brit, though Korine doesn't care.  They manage to conjure multiple dimensions by being convincingly atavistic in all three modes: sexually hedonistic, chemically hedonistic, and violent.  And, on deep reflection, they experience the most submerged of character journeys: since we're supposed to find either irony or stupidity in the repeated refrain that the girls are out to find themselves in such spiritually corrosive anarchy, it's a little surprising that they actually do.  Indeed, leaving aside your preconceptions, you may not be sure who exactly is corrupting whom in this movie.

Together, the foursome do crimes, make out, and sing songs.  Alien learns to respect women when Candy and Brit make him fellate his own loaded handguns.  Respect being the cornerstone of any good relationship, Alien naturally falls in love with all of them, and they are certainly affectionate.  It's believable in this crazy neon dreamworld, and I daresay even oddly movingthe scene where Alien serenades his reverse-harem with Britney Spears' "Everytime" over a montage of their robbery spree has become rightly famous, because 1)the cut to the piano out by the pool is just hilarious and 2)the sequence is beautiful.  Oh, I think it's supposed to be Saying Something about vapidity, in a tiresomely provoking way (that's been the bread and butter of this flailing Gen X writer-director since he too was, shall we say, a kid); but allow me to make my point in another way.
This part froze halfway through due to a defect in my disc from Netflix, and I am certain this is because the previous renter had burned a blue laser hole in it from re-use.  I thus had to watch it in shitty Youtube version; but I got the gist and more.  Three cheers for the 21st century after all!

The end result is a story trying to escape from a screed, and gloriouslyI don't hesitate to say miraculouslyit does.  Someone gets hurt, and we may care; the final sequence is a roaring rampage of revenge, and we may be thrilled.  It's all the better that the last act seems to come from a movie where people live by codes of honor and actions have meaning, rather than one that is principally concerned with shrieking its disgust for the nihilistic emptiness of callow youth.  The action climax may be laughably badly conceived by the characters, and (frankly) just as shockingly illogically staged by Korine, but give it credit where it's due, it is emotionally resonant in the way any cognitively normal viewer would demandthat is, it is both easily felt and it looks cool.

And with this in mind, what I can't help feeling is that the whole thing would have been better if it had been done straight.  Or at least, straighter, with its ideology more sidelined for its characters and plot.  Alien has Scarface on a loop; perhaps Harmony Korine could have benefited from a couple rewatches himself.

Try as it awkwardly and tritely might with throwaway lines and Korine's clear-as-day program, Spring Breakers is not quite the missing third of the American Nightmare 2013 triptych formed in its other two parts by Marty Scorsese's searing satire The Wolf of Wall Street and Mikey Bay's dark Marxist comedy Pain & Gain.  For one, it was technically made in 2012.  For another, it's egregiously right-wing, if populist in its bent rather than intended for lizard people (such as was, e.g., the POW! BIFF! TAKERS! political content of The Dark Knight Rises).

I can say that like those superior films, Korine has tapped into the emerging belief that while being rich is the only thing worth being in America, crime alone can gain those riches; this alone doesn't make it economically sophisticated, any more than Baz Luhrman's paean to overreaching love The Great Gatsby was, but it does give it currency.

And Spring Breakers is a closer cousin to Gatsby 2013 than might first be apparentnot least in the also rightly-famous "LOOK AT MAH SHIT" scene that directly, amusingly and (this once for Korine) cunningly references the Fitzgerald novel.  It's also because, like poor James Gatz, the man who was once just plain Al had to reinvent himself for the ways of women and the world, though I suppose Alien meets the less painful end.

I like Spring Breakers a lot more now than I did when I started reviewing it.  For whatever else it is or isn't, Spring Breakers does present a doomed romance about terrible, fucked-up humans.  And I like those.  Especially when they're prettythe movie I mean, not the humans.  But, sure, even if Korine shoots Hudgens', Benson's, and his own spouse's asses like they were the villainous kaiju in a Godzilla film, they cannot help but remain awful nice.

Score: 7/10

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