The Surface Value of Spring Breaker

by Paddy Johnson on September 7, 2012 · 5 comments TIFF

Spring Breakers. Photo: Movieweb

At least twenty minutes of today’s press conference for director Harmony Korine’s Spring Breaker were dedicated to unearthing whether James Franco’s character Alien was based on the rapper Riff Raff. According to Korine, he had originally planned to have Riff Raff perform with Franco in a scene early on in the movie, but decided against it. That mystery had to be solved at least three separate times, though, because reporters weren’t hearing what they wanted.

The movie itself has created a fair amount of excitement, thanks in no small part to its cast of participants: Korine, a director perhaps best known for creating the screenplay for Kids; Franco, an Oscar nominee and host; and Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, minor nobility in the Disney empire. Knowing the girls’ background will presumably make the film a little more provocative; it’s a story that begins when three college students, desperate to escape to Florida for spring break, hold up a Chicken Shack to finance their trip. Joined by their childhood friend Faith (Gomez), a Christian, the four embark on a journey that consists of drinking, finding things that look like cocks to smoke weed out of, endless scenes of girls making out with each other, and some fucking around with guns.

If this doesn’t sound like much of a storyline, that’s because it’s not. The plot has the four girls land in jail for a night, to be bailed out by a creepy rapper named Alien. Alien and his friends freak Faith out, so she heads home. Another girl, Candy (played by Hudgens), leaves after she’s shot in the arm. The remaining two girls stay on and prove themselves exceptionally good with machine guns.  Somehow, all of this takes 92 minutes to tell.

“I didn’t want to make a movie with too many words,” Korine told the press, as he explained that the movie was not an expose on Spring Break. “I wanted to make a film that was more like a feeling…This movie is about surfaces.”

Korine and Franco spent a good deal of time talking about the aesthetics of feeling and surface in the film, which, insofar as I could tell, was just a fancy way of saying Korine is influenced by David Salle and Andy Warhol. Spring Breakers is visually defined by a patchwork of Salle-eque dream sequences that focus on the girls’ asses, crowds of kids partying, and swimming pools, all behind the flat gloss Warhol gave any image he touched.

And like both of those artists, Korine is a master at selling his work. “I wanted to tell a story from the inside out,” the director said at one point, making a few of the more repetitive scenes seem palatable.

At least in hindsight. There were a few memorable scenes in this movie—watching the girls put on pink ski masks and crowd around Franco as he sung Britney Spears’s “Every Time” was certainly one—but it’s not quite enough to pull the film together.  Much like listening to reporters endlessly repeat the same celebrity-seeking question, after the fifth time Faith tells us spring break is for self-discovery, you’re tired of being subjected to that world.


José Raposo September 15, 2012 at 7:40 am

Presenting Korine’s films in terms of a linear storyline is not exactly productive.

Paddy Johnson September 16, 2012 at 2:23 am

Why do you that? The movie has a linear matricide so why wouldn’t I present that?

Weak narrative structure isn’t always an issue for me but in this case it didn’t help the movie. I mean, it’s supposed to be genre satire but James Franco is the only one who really develops that and it only happens occasionally. My problem with this movie is the basic premise that meaningless aesthetic content can create a movie that says anything at all. I get that he wants to make a movie that’s all surface but to do that you’d have to assume that there’s all kinds of aesthetic content that’s meaningless and weaving a movie from that cloth might somehow have meaning. But it doesn’t. The only thing it tells us is that the filmmaker doesn’t have any actual ideas.

José Raposo September 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Filmmakers words are not godspell (and that’s certainly even more true in a film festival context). One thing is to read what Nicholas Ray, Bergman or Haneke have to say about their own films, other thing is taking Korine’s words as something like a definite conceptual framework. I wouldn’t use the concept of surface, that’s obviously asking for trouble. If a final conclusion is that someone doesn’t have any actual ideas, I’d say that something went wrong along the way.

Korine’s film may present a linear structure, but that doesn’t make him a story teller. He’s a director about ideas, raising questions from an uncomfortable point of view. I have the feeling that you’re thinking about a model of artist whose coherence is something like a staple, but for me that’s clearly flawed when writing/thinking about Korine.

Paddy Johnson September 17, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I’m not thinking about a model of artist for whom coherence is a staple. That clearly wasn’t the point of this movie and I’ve tried to be clear that that’s not what I was looking for.

I’m telling you that since there were no ideas tabled in the film past the obvious truth that spring break culture can be rather vacuous, I can only conclude that none were presented.

And that’s why that film was not easy to sit through. There was no uncomfortable point of view because one was barely presented. I spent four and a half hours watching Einstein on the Beach this weekend, the quintessential non-narrative play and wasn’t once bored. That’s because it deemed to present an idea or two along the way. This movie was less than half that, and it was excruciating to sit through. That’s what vacuity is and I just don’t believe I’m any smarter for being subjected to it. What I am, is tired.

David Livingston March 25, 2013 at 9:51 am

Franco’s role is a direct

ripoff of Gary Oldman’s role in the film True Romance.

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