Floating on the Surface
In the various media preambles I was busy and greedily inhaling to satiate my anticipation for Spring Breakers, one of the phrases that cropped up and stood out was “the poetics of surfaces” (I’ve just done a quick Google search and it seems like it’s a description that a lot of people besides myself have pounced on). I guess maybe it boils down to semantics, but the idea of what surface is and the specific surfaces of Spring Breakers is something that has been a dividing line between those who have enjoyed the film and those have hated it.
Maybe I need to say that I’m a big fan of Korine’s stuff straight off the mark, just to get that out of the way––does that need to be said? Perhaps it does. I’ll also say that having finally watched the film last night (after a year plus of gobbling up whatever SB related internet detritus I could find) I fell into the group of viewers who loved the movie. This was far from a given, despite the affection that I’ve already stated for the director’s previous body of work (whether it be his films, writing or other gorgeous visual art), having been nervous at the warnings of friends and likewise Korine fans who had seen the film before me and expressed their disappointment.
Thankfully I found the film hypnotising and hilarious. There’s also a pulse of sadness and despair pumping from a heart that a lot of press seems to have ignored or not spotted.
And yeah, the surface of the film, the skin of Spring Breakers is an integral part of the work, which would not work––which would barely exist––without it. The majority of negative reviews seem to include the phrase “style over substance”––the surface of the film outweighs what’s supposed to be under it. I guess that a lot of this has to do with the fact that with Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine is opening his work up to a whole load of new eyes unfamiliar with his film making. The surface that he has created with his latest work is made up very knowingly of pieces (Disney stars––and for the record they’re great, especially Vanessa Hudgens who plays her gun obsessed character with an impressive conviction––Britney Spears songs, naked teenagers doing drugs) of a puzzle that the mainstream press wouldn’t be able to resist attempt to solve.
The substance that I presume a lot of people feel is missing are the things that traditionally a film about these characters and staring these performers would be expected to have: linear narrative, traditional character backgrounds, things that would explain, make things simple, easier to swallow, easier to watch. And things that to those familiar with Korine’s work know have been and remain unimportant to his particular brand of cinema, which like surrealism, like the Nouveau Roman to some degree, rely more on mood, the emotional sense of a piece as opposed to the narrative sense.
The jarring moods, simultaneously tugging at my heart strings and my gag reflex, the slow-motion sickness, amped up atmospherics, drugged lo-fi morphing and glossy MTV affectations––these are things that hold Spring Breakers up, and they are done with such a gifted cinematic eye and such deftness that they don’t need anything else to lean on or justify themselves. Beauty is beauty wherever you find it. Things don’t need a reason and things don’t need to make sense.
“Pretend you’re in a video game”, “Pretend you’re in a movie” are some of the mantras that the lead group of Spring Breakers swap with each other––and it points to a fact that Korine knows his new film is almost acting itself, like it’s the noise artist that somehow snagged an invite to the Grammys. And watching him and his work having to navigate the mainstream world in a way that his previous efforts have not (give or take the Letterman appearance in which his films and books were very much second fiddle to his persona as “the wacky guest”, wheeled out just for the laugh factor as opposed to anything else) has been a fascinating part of the ride.
Harmony Korine is an artist grown from the underground operating in the overground environment in an impressive way, and has managed to create a film that on the surface seems almost palatable to the masses and yet has not deviated from the things––the exploratory, beautifully skewed vision––that makes his work so special in the first place.