The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
The artist doesn’t only have two poses in his repertoire: irony or sincerity. Though if you listened to critics you’d think those are the only options. Everywhere you look in the last decade–because it was now about a decade ago that the “hipster” came into prominence, and the prototype quickly became archetype which in turn almost immediately transformed into stereotype–we’ve been debating this thing called irony. But there isn’t a fine line between irony and sincerity, it’s a spectrum. And sometimes the one can be most adequately expressed in the other. Yes, sometimes even the most sincere statement, ironically enough, is an ironic one, and vice versa.
So is Harmony Korine being ironic when in his new insta-cult-classic Spring Breakers he exploits women’s bodies through excessive (by almost any estimation) T&A shots? Sure, but he’s also being sincere. He is looking for poetry in a debased culture. And after all, why can’t there be poetry in gratuitous bare breasts and clapping booties? Why must the portrayal of nude beach revelry composed in retina-burning neons that shine brighter than Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip be inherently less beautiful than a Malickian sunflare through a break in the leaves of a forest’s canopy? Does a color palette that makes everything look like it’s covered in upchucked Skittles have to be inherently ironic? Or, from another angle, is it the best way to sincerely portray this world of excess? Must using Disney princesses who are trying to shed their good girl images to portray Girls Gone Wild girls gone even wilder be either wholly ironic or wholly sincere? Or, to take it further, need it be one or the other when Korine uses real rappers, real strippers, and most importantly real “spring breakers” as bit players and extras? Isn’t there a poetry of surfaces, of colors, of images that can attempt to find beauty in excess as it critiques it? Or that can attempt to find meaning in depravity as it subverts it?
Harmony Korine has mentioned that what he was trying to achieve with this film was a “poetry of surfaces.” He has also mentioned director Terrence Malick as an influence repeatedly (which is why I mentioned that director’s sunflare shots as a counterpoint to Korine earlier). At first glance, it’s hard to see how Spring Breakers has anything to do with something like The Tree of Life (Malick’s most recent film). And yet, the more you look at Korine’s movie, and the more you think about what you’re looking at, the more it becomes possible to see Spring Breakers as a bizarro-world version of Tree of Life warped through Alice’s looking-glass.
One of the main techniques prevalent in both films is a repetitive quality that eschews traditional narrative. In Tree of Life, the repetition approaches revelation, by slowly building some sort of poetic depth. Like a tree, whose roots grow down far below the surface, Malick’s film is one that is actively searching for meaning, going deeper, and growing. Spring Breakers on the other hand wants no such thing, and has no such roots. In contrast to Malick calling his film Tree of Life, with its image of deep roots and substantive growth, Korine’s film is matter-of-factly titled Spring Breakers, and it acts rather as a “mirror to life,” and the image of the mirror as we all know is merely flat surface and repurposed image. Korine’s visual and aural repetitions don’t feel revelatory, but monotonous. If the girls can be said to be “looking for meaning,” it’s only superficially so. They’re as aimless as a grain of sand blowing down the beach. The characters of the four main girls–or at least three of them–have been critiqued for essentially being the same girl, for having no individual personalities, but that’s because they aren’t real, they don’t really have personalities, they aren’t even just girls necessarily (no matter how often Korine wants to show you that they are girls and that they have girl parts), they’re stand-ins for an entire generation. The most overused phrase about The Social Network in 2010 was that it “defined a generation,” but–for better or worse (and I’ll concede that I think mostly the latter, though I’m not convinced Harmony Korine would be as judgmental as I)–I think Spring Breakers defines my generation.
For all the accusations of it being an empty film, Harmony Korine’s masterpiece is filled with everything that typifies my generations’ post-millennial frivolity: from the predominance of celebrity culture to the inescapability of pop culture, from social networking to video games, from hip-hop gangsterism to hopped-up capitalism, from consumerism to fetishization, from cultural excess to moral dearth. If our generation looks morally devoid, maybe it’s because we on some level are? If we look shallow, maybe it’s because we tend to be?
Are we to blame Harmony Korine for glamorizing a culture that we glamorize ourselves on a daily basis? Is he exploiting women any more than any one of us do on a daily basis? Is he playing with race in a more disingenuous way than we do on a daily basis? Is he celebrating the shallow, the superficial, the surface, any more than we do on a daily basis? Is it not possible that the best way to get at our surface-obsession might possibly be to make a film obsessed with surfaces to a fault? Or, if David Edelstein wants to put it his way, then I’ll put it his way: Yes, I think Harmony Korine wants to “have his cheesecake and deconstruct it, too.” Yes, he’s being both ironic and sincere. Yes, the Disney Girls Gone Wild thing is both exploitative and winkingly mocking that exploitative move. Yes, the character Faith (Selena Gomez) does both embody and parody the Afterschool Special simplicity and morality that he won’t allow the viewer access to after the film’s midway point. Yes, James Franco’s virtuoso performance is both enacting and satirizing the ultimate Daniel Day-Lewis-style method acting performance. And yes, Harmony Korine is genuinely trying to get at a poetry of surfaces that finds beauty in the excessive and the debased and the debauched, but as with any pose, the “surface pose” is also just another posture Korine takes on knowingly–he’s also getting at something deeper about our current cultural milieu.
To assume Spring Breakers has no depth, as many critics have argued, is to become too enraptured by the images, to fall into the neat little trap he’s set, and to become as lost in the surface as the titular spring breakers. Maybe in our post-ironic world, where irony has become so pervasive that it is inescapable, the most sincere thing Harmony Korine could say is to remind us that we might just be living in a culture that embodies “spraanng breeaak foreevah” (and to not just say it once, but say it over and over and over until the repetition pushes it beyond irony and sincerity, beyond humor and horror, until it is seen for what it is, the most horrifying and most humorous thing of all: truth).
Spring Breakers is a film written and directed by Harmony Korine. It stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, and James Franco. Four college girls who land in jail after robbing a restaurant in order to fund their spring break vacation find themselves bailed out by a drug and arms dealer who wants them to do some dirty work.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from Spring Breakers, Photography Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures