Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Spring Breakers (2013)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Season Finale!*

**WARNING: There are spoilers for the film within this post. So, read at your own risk.**

I honestly have no idea where to even start with this movie.

Writer/director Harmony Korine is one of American cinema's most famous provocateurs (probably second only to John Waters). He wrote the infamous Kids, then directed such features as Gummo, Trash Humpers, and Mister Lonely. Before Spring Breakers, I didn't have very much familiarity with his works, outside of their reputations. And this one has a doozy of a hook: four girls - two of them played by former Disney stars - go on spring break after raising the money through robbing a local fast food restaurant, party, land in jail, and are bailed out by a rapper/drug dealer/gangster named Alien, who's played by a chameleonic James Franco. Things only get wilder from there.

Despite it's trashy logline, there's a lot to unpack here. In my brief review of the film, I compared it to FX's American Horror Story: like that television show, the film works better as a whole in the moment, and any further consideration of the mechanics involved show foundational flaws that cause the whole thing to fall apart. 

For example: none of the four girls get much in the way of characterization. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the goody-two-shoes Christian girl (in case her name was too subtle) who gets frequent voice-over phone calls to her grandmother explaining how wonderful "this place" is and how she finally feels like she can find herself here. Brit and Candy (Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens, respectively) are evil - one girl even says as much in warning Faith - and planned the entire robbery, and quickly take to Alien and his illicit ways. Cotty (Rachel Korine) is there to round out the numbers, as far as I can tell. Of these four, Faith gets the most shading: the way Gomez plays her (and Korine writes her), she comes off as a typical early-twentysomething with a (presumably) sheltered life, rhapsodizing about how magical being in a new location is, marveling at being bad without ever really indulging her dark side, and being kind-of racist (I can't be the only one who noticed how hypocritical she is in her post-prision scene at the predominantly-black party; she "doesn't feel comfortable" with strangers talking to her and touching her there, but she seemed more than okay with it amongst the much whiter crowds at the beach). 

To put all of that another way, the things that go right with this film go so absurdly right that they cover up anything that's not working. And those things that do go right do so through Korine's sheer audacity of putting these things onscreen, crafting an Electric Daisy-inspired portrait of Day-Glo nihilism and bugfuck bacchanalia.

Of course, that audacity wouldn't be nearly as effective if it weren't for two key elements that are the movie's strongest: Franco's deeply bizarre performance and BenoƮt Debie's gorgeous cinematography.

Let's talk about Franco first. There's been no shortage of publicity about everything that Franco has been up to these past few years, acting, writing, directing, getting degrees from a number of colleges, and basically turning himself into a living art thesis. But the way that he completely disappears into this strange character is nothing short of stunning. Alien is, if you will, alien in several ways: he's "not from this planet, y'all," in that he's truly unlike anything else that's been put on the screen this year. He's a leering, self-aggrandizing, vaguely-threatening, secretly-insecure weirdo who's managed to become wealthy completely through being himself. When he yells to the girls, "look at my shit!," it's more than just started-from-the-bottom braggadocio - Franco sells it as a man who's truly proud of what he's done,  with no self-awareness for how ridiculous it all is, a true believer in his gangster code. And Franco is a true believer in Alien, and plays him with drawling conviction that's unexpectedly astonishing (and, though the Academy will never bite, at least worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination).

"Look at my shit!"

For evidence of this, just look at the scene in which Candy and Brit, the only girls left, try to emasculate Alien. The two girls have made it no secret that they have a complete disregard for responsibility and consequence, and have likely always been willing to do whatever they have to in their thirst for power. As Alien's accomplices/lovers, they decide to show him who's boss, pointing his own (loaded) guns at him and forcing him to get down on his bed. There's a brief flash of fear on his face...

...before he then begins to, ahem, perform fellatio on the silencers. It's a patently ridiculous move, the sort of thing that would only happen in some terrible Z-grade movie. And yet, in keeping with the character, Franco plays it as something completely organic. Of course Alien would blow the barrel of a loaded gun. What else would expect?

However, I've now gone on for over 800 words about this film without even discussing the cinematography, and, after all, this is a Best Shot post. And like many films from this series so far, there's no shortage of options; however, this may be the most unlikely film to earn that praise. Debie certainly deserves Oscar consideration for his work here (again, the Academy wouldn't deign to), filling the screen with neon colors that, combined with Cliff Martinez and Skrillex's (yes, really) score, give the film the feeling of being on MDMA, a woozy hyper-reality of straight-from-the-brain-stem visual pleasure. A simple walk down the pier looks like the entrance to a glowstick-waving rave...

...and the restaurant robbery is bathed in late-night-debauchery hues of flickering neon and cold blues. 

The above was almost my choice for Best Shot, for the framing and depth of the image, but what really makes it work is how the magnificent mise en scene mixes with Korine's inspired use of pop music. This sequence is scored - diagetically, apparently - with the use of Nicki Minaj's hit "Moment 4 Life," the song's chorus - "I wish I could have this moment for life, in this moment I just feel so alive" - is exactly how Brit, Candy, and Cotty are feeling as they tear off in the stolen El Camino. Is it too on-the-nose? Probably. But it also feels believable - of course this is what a twentysomething girl would put on the radio of the car she stole from her professor (I doubt he would listen to Nicki, but then again, what do I know?). Korine seems to make a point, throughout the film, of calling out the immaturity of these characters as they revel in their "badassery."

However, for my Best Shot, I turn to what may be the most incredible moment of cinema I have seen all year - certainly the most audacious. Sitting at a white outdoor piano, overlooking an oceanside sunset, Alien indulges Brit, Candy, and Cotty in a display of his sensitive side by playing Britney Spears' stripped-down ballad "Everytime." The sequence becomes a montage alternating between the girls - donning pink ski masks (with unicorns on them!) - dancing with assault weapons and the whole gang robbing various places/events, including an arcade and a wedding. It's simultaneously absurd, jarring, and strangely moving, a piece of pure gaga art that only someone as outlandishly daring as Korine could construct:

My choice for Best Shot: there's something oddly hypnotic about it, and I love the warm evening colors.

I don't know where to end with this movie, either. There's no succinct way to conclude my scattered thoughts. All I've got to say is, this is a film that only works if you're willing to buy what Korine is selling. Spring Breakers defies conventional criticism. Spring break forever, bitches.

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