Days of Being Wild
I was split on whether or not to see Spring Breakers. My feelings on Harmony Korine's work are decidedly ambivalent, and even the films, or aspects of films, that I admire, I do so with certain, strong reservations. I'm glad that I bit the bullet: it's some kind of masterpiece, a term I try to resist using whenever possible. But to say that it's Korine's masterpiece (i.e., the best entry in his filmography) is, while true, of course, a rather severe understatement. Even though Spring Breakers is no doubt of a piece, thematically and conceptually, with his other efforts, the new film's formal and poetic coherence is downright startling coming from the same director who once made Gummo. This is--as James Franco's indelible Alien might enthusiastically gush--some next-level shit.
From its opening images, Spring Breakers establishes its aesthetic terrain as within the over-heated dream life of American popular culture (that is, youth culture, or youth-driven culture). Benoit Debie's superlative camerawork foreshadows the textures, colors, and shape(s) of things to come--or rather, that have come, or are coming, at once. Because the narrative is highly elliptical, all things (thoughts, experiences, sights, sounds) seem to be occurring atemporally within the same moment. Only that moment, which one character repeatedly wishes could "last forever," can't. Instead, it is viscerally ruptured, scattered into loosely congruous fragments and echoes that call to mind, at the same time, Egoyan, van Sant, and even the later films of Malick. The assorted voices disembodiedly populating the soundtrack coalesce into a peculiarly poeticized collective unconscious, much as in The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life--and the "poetry," as such, isn't much worse either.
The structure of the film suggests, too, the seductive, perpetually reiterated loop of images, sounds, and negligibly contextualized bits of "narrative" that constitute the pop-cultural continuum, as it stands now. The problem, implies Korine's film (which has, somewhat misleadingly, been characterized as "amoral" and "non-judgmental"), is that a dangerous and disingenuous disconnect exists within this powerful, omnipresent loop, between the litany of signifiers relating to gun violence, sexual debasement, the performance of gendered and racialized social roles, etc. and the "IRL" application of these potent themes. This is not as simple a diagnosis as "life imitating art" or the reverse, but rather the more slippery dilemma of how to interpret and reconcile the profoundly mixed messages sharing space within the pop data-stream. Korine deliberately pushes the "real-life" analogues to this range of signs to nightmarish extremes, while simultaneously turning up the stylistic heat to its eye- and ear-popping, (revealingly) hypnotic boiling point.
This strategy also functions as an acidic parody of the alarmist "worst-generation-ever," decline-of-Western-civilization rhetoric, confirming its worst fears in absurdist fashion. The look of the film stands in for the subjectivity of its characters, awash in a sweaty, Floridian glow and throbbing with a pulse dictated by adrenaline, hormones, and unwise combinations of intoxicants. But the trajectory of the narrative, re-assembled as a linear story, reflects the most lurid, nutso fantasies of those inclined to cook up worst-case scenarios--and who, like everybody else, has been aggressively inundated with the same variably legible sex-and-violence stream. That said, the fact that the pieces of story scattered across Spring Breakers are not strung together in a clear straight line, but as the cracked shards of a mirror, is, finally, very much the point: the pleasures of the dream life cannot be neatly separated from its ugly underbelly, nor, at this point, can the lives we live from the cultural kool-aid we imbibe.