Thursday, April 4, 2013

Still processing

When you're not sure whether you liked a movie a lot or a little, but are still processing it two days later, there's your answer.

Spring Breakers is the kind of movie that makes you realize that the mere exercise of grappling with your complex feelings about a movie makes it pretty damn good.

What's turning out to be the most divisive movie of the year so far doesn't have me divided anymore. I'm not going to say it's a masterpiece, but it's a shot of cinematic adrenaline that feels unique at the same time that it feels familiar.

If that sounds like a contradiction, welcome to Harmony Korine's latest film. It's all about contradictions. It's high culture and low culture. It's a critique and a celebration of the pursuit of hedonism. It's a comedy and a horror movie.

My first instinct after the credits started to roll (literally; I turned my phone on right then and there) was to text the following to my friend who had already seen it: "Spring Breakers: the Tree of Life of spring break movies."

I'd say that was an oversimplification, except comparing something to The Tree of Life is never an activity that should be described as simple.

The surface comparison I was making is that both movies have arthouse pretensions ("pretensions" in a value neutral sense) and that both contain a lot of what I called "B-roll" when I talked about The Tree of Life. If you're not familiar with the term "B-roll," it's basically secondary footage that doesn't accomplish anything more than setting the scene or tone. It's really a TV journalism term: If you are interviewing kids on the street about a new viral phenomenon, you might shoot some footage of the outside of their high school, or a street sign, or a skate park, to set the scene of where you're doing the interviews. That's B-roll. Of course, B-roll in an arthouse film would be a lot less strictly functional and mundane. The B-roll I think of in The Tree of Life is stuff like sprinklers watering a lawn, or a curtain blowing lightly in the wind.

My contention was that The Tree of Life had altogether too much B-roll, especially in its second half, when I thought it started to lose focus. Spring Breakers might also have too much, but at least much of the Spring Breakers B-roll contains gyrating bodies, lines of cocaine sniffed off of torsos, and geysers of foamy beer.

Before I get sidetracked forever on a discussion of B-roll, let me use this as a transition to discuss what this movie is doing. The movie is damn near suffused with shots of naked breasts, slow-mo clouds of weed smoke coming out of bongs, and water cascading over bikini-clad bodies. Such unbridled indulgence would be easy to criticize, especially since Korine isn't so straightforward and moralistic as to outright condemn what he's showing us. When you show us lots of boobs without making a direct indictment of what you're doing, you could certainly be accused of exploitation.

Except art is rarely very effective when it tells us exactly what to think. Covering your ass from a moral standpoint rarely makes for provocative or memorable art. Surely, the bacchanalian pursuits documented in Spring Breakers go plenty of places that strip the romanticism from those pursuits, so Korine does indict them on some level. But the line is so fine -- especially with the repeated focus on the bodies of these barely post-teen women, some of whom cut their teeth on Disney productions -- that it's meant to discomfit us.

And discomfit us it does. While titillating us. While making us hate ourselves for that. While indulging in some gonzo iconography that's simultaneously cheeky and profound.

The best way to describe the visual scheme/concepts of Spring Breakers is somewhere between Point Break, Drive, Oliver Stone's Savages (which I actually haven't seen) and any number of Tony Scott's more in-your-face movies (maybe Domino). So there's a contradiction built into the movies I'm comparing it to as well. I say I really like this movie, yet I don't love any of the movies that I'm comparing it to (the ones I've seen, anyway). In fact, I don't even like Domino, and I think the Point Break comparison really has to do with beach bums committing violent crimes while donning masks.

The fact that I've written nearly 800 words, and don't feel like I've started to scratch the surface of Spring Breakers, is another indication of how much I liked it.

But see, until the brilliant last scene of the movie, I wasn't even sure if I liked it. My guess is that's by design. You're supposed to feel a bit queasy, a bit disgusted with what's on display, a bit uncertain whether Korine is driving you off a cliff, a bit uncertain whether that's actually a bad thing.

I've read at least a couple truly excellent reviews of Spring Breakers, and because I'm writing this post under time constraints, I'm not going to try to achieve that level of insight about the film. However, I will refer you to both of them if you're interested: Here's one and here's the other. I'm sure there are plenty of others, and I'm sure there are even some negative reviews that make really convincing arguments.

That's what this processing is all about. It's a film having an internal life inside you as you chew it over for days and even weeks. Even if I have another phase where my affection turns into disdain, I'll know that the movie truly provoked me, which means it's "good" by any measure.


Nick Prigge said...

Yes!!! Thank you! "Tree of Life"! Honest to God, that was one of my foremost thoughts too. It's so.....Malicky. The preponderance of the B-roll footage, as you say, all the images just sort of coalescing and the archetypal characters floating along at the whims of the filmmaker.

Don Handsome said...

Terrific write up.

Even though we discussed many of these thoughts together via our email exchanges, I think the fact that I reread them here and thought about each one again speaks to the lingering power of this film. Its in no way an "easy" film...its a perplexing, uncomfortable, trashy, and expert film, and I'm thankful for it.

Vancetastic said...


Must be a common phenomenon ... I later listened to the Filmpsotting episode in which they discussed it, and they referred to it as "Malickian." (But "Malicky" also works. Actually, I don't know if they used the adjective "Malickian" or if I just used it now.)


Good description. It finally stopped being in the forefront of my thoughts yesterday.