Until recently, Harmony Korine has been the underdog of a fiercely independent film-as-provocation subculture of American cinema, along with filmmakers like Vincent Gallo and Larry Clark. A skater, painter, author and photographer, his films have been decidedly on the experimental and performance art end of the spectrum – apart perhaps, from the very verité Kids, which he wrote when he was 19.
Thereafter followed four resolutely non-commercial features: Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy, Mister Lonely, and Trashhumpers (about degenerate oldies who hump trash); all lo-fi films set in low-income enclaves, about low-brow things like fucking, skating, drinking, drugs and casual violence.
And then Spring Breakers happened: his fifth feature, his first commercial success, and about as different aesthetically to his previous work as Chaplin’s Great Dictator is to Die Hard. At first glance, you’d be hard pressed to see Korine in this film, for all the slick, high-def visuals, production values, and the big-name stars (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, James Franco). “Yeah, I can see that,” the writer-director demurs.
Spring Breakers a candy-coloured cultural nightmare, in which bikini-clad babes cruise the streets of Miami on scooters in slow-motion, straight out of a rap video; jacked up on coke, brandishing machetes and fake guns, they rob a diner like it’s part of a video game; bare-breasted, they jiggle under-phallic yard-glasses waiting to be showered on.
“There’s elements of the visual style of rap videos that are kind of sifted through – like a cultural mash-up, or an impressionistic reinterpretation of those things, of that culture,” says Korine. “It’s a meshing and a melding and a blending and a kind of mutating of all of those things.”
Korine’s entry point was his passion for the trap and drill subgenres of rap (he worked with Skrillex on the soundtrack, and cast one of his all-time favourite rappers, Gucci Mane – “I just called him in prison and asked him to do it.”).
“You know I never wanted to make a movie about spring break,” says the writer-director. “It’s almost more representative of this idea, and of this thing that’s more fleeting. And then the film becomes something more of a crime story – about the underworld; the gangster culture, gangster mysticism. All that stuff – beach noir: the coke houses, the guns, the shoot-outs; the menace and pathology under the palm trees at night. The rotting yachts, the dirty swimming pools, the Glocks and the spinning rims and the cocaine and the baking soda...”
This violence and consumerism, he says, “is something that’s completely linked to American culture; it’s part of the fabric here, it’s part of the mythology [of America].”
In this respect, Korine follows in the footsteps of Brian De Palma’s American nightmare Scarface (explicitly referenced in the film), in which Cuban immigrant-on-the-make and wannabe gangster Tony Montana, assessing ‘80s Florida, says: “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the women.”
But while Spring Breakers features another Tony, in the form of white-boy rapper, dealer and wannabe gangster Alien (James Franco), the action belongs to the four party-hard girls who arrive on his patch of turf for spring break. In the real world and in the movie world, some terrible violence would befall these girls; but in Korine’s world, they cut through the scene like a razor through butter, moving with a sinister kind of amorality; untouchable, unreal. What does it say about the American dream that these girls are the ultimate predators?
But Korine is reluctant to engage in deep analysis, insisting that his film “is not an indictment or an essay”. “I don’t ask myself any questions. I just make movies, make things, mind my own business, play basketball, eat tacos. I do what I want to do. I entertain myself. I just don’t want to know anything about why I do anything.”
BY DEE JEFFERSON
Spring Breakers is in cinemas now.