“Spring Breakers”: Harmony Korine’s Intoxicating Vision Of The American Dream
Korine’s misunderstood tale of debauchery exposes, and revels in, unbridled capitalist excess
In Spring Breakers, the American Dream is envisioned as a hazy, neon-lit, Floridian fantasia where lost souls embrace the allure of excess and the culture of hustling at all costs. Harmony Korine’s 2013 modern classic takes on the meaning of entrepreneurship and capitalism in an intoxicating way that only the Gummo director could muster, and it’s precisely his penchant for sun-soaked debauchery, radiantly shot on 35mm film by Benoît Debie, that makes the film so unforgettable and addictive.
Starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens of Disney Channel fame, as well as James Franco and Gucci Mane, the film is quite meta in its examination of American pop and celebrity culture, especially as it relates to youth and the experience of growing up. Gomez and Hudgens, along with Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine comprise the central quartet of college girls stricken with wanderlust — the four characters are seemingly representative of different personality types, or components of the human ego.
James Franco’s Alien, a St. Petersburg rapper and gangster who takes the spring breakers under his wing, is the personification of unfettered capitalism. Garish in appearance and unapologetic in his personality, Alien explains to the girls at one point in the movie, “This a dream y’all. This the American dream… that’s it, I did it. Most my brothers and sisters… they dead. They got murdered. I’m the last one standing. I’m as bad as they is. This is my dream. I made it come true. This is the fuckin’ American dream.” Alien is just as pure a capitalist as any Wall St. banker, and is just as savage in his efforts to get ahead. But he’s also more noble, in that he embraces the sinful, and has clearly come to terms with the human suffering that comes in the wake of his success and excess. “Some people? They wanna do the right thing? I like doing the wrong thing! Everyone’s always tellin’ me, ‘yo, you gotta change…’ I’m about stacking change ya’ll!”
With the borderline sociopathic and hyper-consumerist Alien, Korine perfectly personifies American capitalism, and visualizes the belligerent and unforgiving reality of the American Dream. Never one to be subtle, Korine ratchets up the insanity and makes his point in a blatant, but not entirely un-nuanced manner: what makes Spring Breakers so pleasurable and fun is that it refuses to outright condemn its ridiculous characters, or even the very spirit of capitalism that it’s so clearly pointing out. Instead, Korine dives head first into the debauchery and wallows in the excess for the film’s entire runtime, rarely ever letting up. To watch and enjoy Spring Breakers is an experience sinful in-an-of-itself, and as Korine oscillates between critiquing hedonism and celebrating it, many viewers have reported a somewhat icky feeling following the film, feeling they’ve experienced something out of their moral comfort zone.
It’s this feat which makes Spring Breakers such a stunning cinematic achievement, despite masquerading as a shallow raunch-fest. Upon its initial release, the film was met with more derision and misunderstanding than the appreciation it deserved, as many viewers unaware of Korine’s style/sense of humor probably just saw the film as an indulgent, exploitative mess. Knowing Korine’s comedic sensibilities leads one to conclude this mismarketing was less of a misstep than it was an artistic decision, and he probably relished in the apoplectic fury that the film triggered in the more puritanical audience members.
Still as unapologetic as he was after being caught rifling through Meryl Streep’s purse red handed backstage on David Letterman as a 20-something year old, Korine has no problem with his art being severely misunderstood and misinterpreted. He’s always been more than comfortable to sit back and watch the critics and audience alike try to make heads or tails of his work’s meaning, and try to determine exactly where the auteur himself stands on the moral issues called into question by his work.
It’s precisely this attitude which makes his work so fascinating, and his habit of embracing seedier characters and environments keeps his work unpredictable and thought-provoking. Depending on your own personal tastes, Spring Breakers is either an acid-trip to heaven or a slog through hell, and Korine has no interest in dumbing down his unfiltered vision of the cut-throat, blood-soaked American Dream, regardless of what side of that line you may fall.