I saw a Harmony Korine movie at an AMC multiplex. I did! The one on 34th St. across from Penn Station. On a Saturday night, and with a sizable opening weekend crowd that was mostly teenagers, though I’d estimate about eight of them walked out during the film. They played some ads for Coca-Cola and a preview for the new Michael Bay movie about weight lifting and then they screened the new film by the guy who made Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy and Trash Humpers, which is called Spring Breakers.
Daniel Yacavone once called Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey “the most remarkable smuggling of the abstract/experimental into the cinematic mainstream,” although the way people are talking about Spring Breakers you feel like he’d have to amend that superlative. The Monday morning quarterbacking I saw today among Korine diehards today could pretty much be summed up as, “LOL at all these kids who thought they were going to see a vapid teen party flick and instead they found themselves enmeshed in” —gasp, oh look away! look away!— “A NON-LINEAR NARRATIVE.”
I was excited to see Spring Breakers. Radical art being smuggled into the mainstream— that is, like, my thing. That is so up my critical alley it’s not even fair. I believe in the radical possibility of film (I do! I do! I do!) to change the way we perceive the world, to invite us to identify with viewpoints that might seem foreign to us in daily life, to challenge everything safe and unquestioned that we hold dear. So I will admit that as I sat in that theater a big part of me was just smug about the seemingly subversive fact that I am seeing a Harmony Korine movie at an AMC multiplex. Dude’s really found a way to stick it to the man, eh?
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Spring Breakers is a bad film. I once had this professor who’d say the only films that he thought were truly bad are the ones you can’t think to say a word about afterwards. The remake of Planet of the Apes, by his measure, was a bad film. I can’t call Spring Breakers a bad film because since I walked out of that theater two days ago I have been talking and reading about it incessantly.
But what I would like to challenge is this critical narrative that we’ve successfully ground up the antibiotics and snuck them into the dog’s peanut butter, that we’ve Trojan Horsed some piece of radical, subversive, ~*illuminating*~ art into the mainstream and that the only choice is either to shake our heads disappointedly at the ones who “didn’t get it” or feel triumphant about the ones whose sad, artless lives went from black-and-white to color and who vowed to minor in Cinema Studies the second they saw the Titties-and-Skrillex montage (“truly the Odessa Steps of the new millennium” —someone, probably) and thus we have won (ARTSY PEOPLE: 1; PHILISTINES: ZERO). I want to challenge all of that because I really don’t think the ideas at work in Spring Breakers are much more enlightening or interesting (not even to say radical) than that new Michael Bay movie about weightlifting. Or even, like, that Coke commercial.
“You see a woman and she’s really curvy and you’re attracted to that, and some guys see a woman and she’s like a straight line, and they’re attracted to that. I’m just attracted to what’s in Spring Breakers.”
—Harmony Korine, “pop poet”
I think some people want to read Spring Breakers as a critique of racial and gender politics in 21st century America, but trust me on this one, joke’s on you if you’re reading that into the film, because that is not the film Harmony Korine made. Korine’s movies are not critiques of anything; they’re gloriously, unapologetically lurid celebrations of the surface of things. My former internet colleague Calum Marsh (seriously are you reading his stuff at Film.com, he has been tearing it up over there recently) totally gets it: Spring Breakers is not as ironic as you think.
So it’s a fool’s errand to read it as some sort of biting critique of contemporary society, but to accept what’s on the surface is to accept a film that alienates, objectifies and commodifies women and people of color for the flimsy sake of “art, man.” The world it celebrates is, just like the real, non-cinematic world, depressingly racist and sexist, but that because it is not critiquing or saying anything halfway intelligent about those facts, there is no catharsis. No place for the anger and disgust that these images prompt in those who can’t just brush them aside. And when critics ignore those factors and blithely throw their hands up and say, “Well, maybe I don’t get it, but I like it!” (I SEE U, TRAVERS), they’re continuing to propagate the myth that “art film” is this elitist clubhouse closed to any spoilsport who dares articulate the larger cultural forces that prevent them from blithely enjoying a movie like this. Trust me, we don’t hate fun. We believe in the American Dream. WE WANT SHORTS IN ALL THE COLORS TOO.
So let’s not laugh at the kids who don’t get it, Who-Is-Paul-McCartney-Dot-Tumblr-Dot-Com style. Let’s not be naive enough to believe that they’ll all grow up, take that Film Studies 101 Class Where You Watch Breathless and then will suddenly think, “OH, I AM FINALLY EDUCATED ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND SPRING BREAKERS. WHAT I WAS SEEING THERE WAS A NON-LINEAR NARRATIVE.” (For one thing, this assumption greatly underestimates the average American teenagers’ likelihood to have already seen Memento?) Or maybe they will take that class and it will give them the critical license to say with confidence that they were right the first time, that the movie’s point of view was pretty boring and repetitive and trite, and then they will add, “Plus anything that is allegedly formally innovative about this movie is something Malick was doing way better and more poetically in the 70s.”
I think that Korine is a talented filmmaker in the way he conjures atmosphere. I think Benoit Debie is one of the most exciting working cinematographers. I am not trying to say that I found nothing here to think about, to be entertained by, even in some ways, to enjoy (I am not going to act like the Britney Spears montage was not grotesque/sublime/something I will Youtube in the future). But I do want to question what people find so subversive or rebellious or “intellectual” about this reductive ogglefest in arthouse’s clothes. I want to ask you to think about what you think radical art looks like to you in 2013, and how (or if!) it is at all different from what mainstream “pop” art looks like to you. Which is a really long-winded way of saying: Meet the art boss. Same as the old boss with the combover and the (“ironic”) Penthouse subscription and the self-satisfied air that everything he’s doing is New and Edgy and Never Been Done Before, ‘cept he knows Werner Herzog so I guess he’s cool.