The dust has now begun to settle in the wake of the release of Spring Breakers, director Harmony Korine’s highly anticipated and now much-debated crime drama about four college co-eds who go on a crime spree during a holiday in Florida. By now, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know a few things about it. You’ve probably seen the numerous promotional photos featuring former tween queens Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens clad in DayGlo, barely-there bikinis, toting semi-automatic guns and wearing pastel balaclavas. You know that James Franco also stars in the film as an over-the-top aspiring rapper and small time drug dealer (loosely based on real life hip hop artist Riff Raff) who introduces the wild young girls to a seedy underworld of drugs, sex, and violence.
It is Korine’s most accessible and most mainstream-esque film to date, thanks to its ex-Disney starlets and a marketing campaign targeted to the Tumblr generation, that features a partnership with Opening Ceremony for a special capsule fashion collection of $80 crop tops, sweat pants, and bikini sets that can be found plastered across the “soft grunge” blogs of teens who idolize the no longer wholesome Gomez and Hudgens.
The general consensus amongst critics is that the movie is a sort of “fever dream,” a cinematic echo of the excesses of reality television, celebrity culture, music video aesthetics and the disorienting, hypnotic thrum of dub step and southern rap. Still, weeks after its debut, there is ongoing debate as to whether Spring Breakers is art or trash, a biting social commentary or a vapid, exploitative, and over-hyped gimmick.
With its lingering, beautifully shot scenes of debauchery, filmed, as Korine described it in one interview, as if they were “lit by Skittles,” it isn’t hard to see why some responses to the film have accused it of glamorizing some of its more problematic elements. Several writers have suggested that the movie has racist undertones, which culminate with (spoiler) the spring breakers massacring a house full of black, stereotypical presented “gangstas.” Others have called out the movie for perpetuating rape culture through a male point of view that objectifies the young scantily-clad female bodies on view throughout most of the loosely-drawn narrative.
And yet, while it’s been blasted for apparently reinforcing negative and harmful -isms, many audiences have praised Spring Breakers as a new cult film that is a satire rather than a celebration of the depraved behavior it displays. When reviewer Kate Arthur suggested on Buzzfeed that the film’s candy coating of girl power was merely camouflage for its own brand of hipster sexism, an overwhelming number of commenters (most of them men) claimed she “missed the point.” Counter-arguments asserted that she wasn’t savvy enough to understand Korine’s subversive, even feminist tack, and that glamorizing violence or promoting harmful stereotypes simply “wasn’t the filmmaker’s intentions.”
But what are Korine’s intentions? With a career spanning twenty years, the middle-aged enfant terrible is known for films like Gummo and Trash Humpers that have been experimental and often a little disturbing. In one interview, he revealed that the impetus for making Spring Breakers was, partly, to create a new visual language, with the aesthetic look of the film being central to its execution, more important than the plot, which at times feels more like a series of vignettes and overlapping ideas than a single narrative. While his past work certainly suggests that Korine at the very least is interested in making his audiences squirm, in pushing the very boundaries of what we deem to be entertainment, I wonder if his so-called intentions go anywhere beyond a desire to provoke.
Whether Spring Breakers is art or trash seems quite besides the point. What Korine’s film seems to be becoming is a cultural artifact that transcends film, a movie that has as much to do with its outside context than it does with the thing itself. The artistry isn’t so much in its story but in its stunt casting — a Hollywood heartthrob as a buffoonish Southern rapper, once virginal pop princesses as highly sexualized sociopaths, and most importantly Korine, in a final genius bit of casting, as the director himself.
The reputations of Franco, Gomez, Hudgens, and most importantly Korine have made Spring Breakers a sort of litmus test, separating those who “get it” from those who don’t, regardless of whether there’s actually anything there to get. Have we built up this film, and indeed Korine, into a phenomenon that it isn’t? Perhaps Spring Breakers isn’t really a commentary, a critique, or a satire at all. At the movie’s climax, Hudgens’ character blankly instructs her friend to pretend the impending bloodbath is like a scene from a movie – it’s one of many scenes that has generated a great deal of discussion. Is the line, flatly delivered, a jab at the gradual desensitizing nature of the sex and violence we see on our television and movie screens? Or it a fleeting moment of lucidity that’s undermined just moments later by the very depictions of violence that it seems to be criticizing? Does it matter?
In an interview with Indiewire last year, Korine admitted that he’s uncomfortable when his “narrative[s], or whatever the fuck ,” become more important to audiences than the images. “Every film is not a stealth move,” Korine insists. “It’s not a game of chess.” Maybe that, in fact, is what Spring Breakers is really trying to say.
Spring Breakers is currently playing at movie theaters around New York City.