[Click Here to read Part 1]
I have to admit that, when we first began receiving press releases about Skrillex being recruited to help score a new Harmony Korine project, I couldn’t help but feel a bit skeptical. Historically, Harmony has looked toward more unorthodox/underground sources for his film music, throwing sludge and black metal acts like Sleep and Burzum on the soundtrack (Gummo), or hiring pioneering, psych and experimental free form music legends like J. Spaceman (Spacemen 3, Spiritualized) and Sun City Girls to collaborate on a score together (Mister Lonely). Whether it was straight up doom and aggression that he was looking for, or beautiful blankets of ethereal sound, the musicians employed tended to be ones that are capable of conveying very distinct emotional results. And, while it’s worked well in the past, those weren’t the emotions that the filmmaker was looking to evoke this time around.
My own personal confusion with the decision to bring Skrillex on for the project, stemmed from my own inability to connect to his music. Anyone that has read my Skrillex live review trilogy (“The Skrilling Fields”) will know that, after 15,000 words or so, my ultimate conclusion was simply that, I didn’t really have anything against the guy, but he was just producing basic pop music that I didn’t find all that interesting. Of course, the rest of the content in those reviews was peppered with stories about me nearly getting into a fist fight, suburban teens trying to puff rock with crackheads, and emotional “dance crying,” but the absurdity in those tales rested on the fact that, whatever was triggering these kids to go apeshit, worked about as well on me as a fucking dog whistle. This was a fascinating scene that I could report on as an outsider, but not one that I could actually feel or internalize for myself. I became a casual observer to a swarm of gangly felines chasing lights in circles, spun out of their gourds on a tweaky catnip high. Korine wanted to simulate that environment, which is respectable enough of an undertaking, but, after doing my own first hand research, that was an environment which I had already discovered that I didn’t respond to. Now, through sheer ignorance and doubt, I not only didn’t recognize that the director was actually just hoping to extract the pure emotion that those Skrillex fans felt, but that he would actually be able to translate that elation to me through a goddam film.
The ability to generate such engaging results cannot strictly be attributed to Spring Breakers‘ jaw dropping visual components, it also relates to how they interact with the soundtrack. The music plays an integral role in this film and affects every aspect from the pacing and transitions to the energy and tone. Pairing the electronic producer with Cliff Martinez resulted in a score that has it’s own life force and became an entity unto itself. It often mirrored the mesmerizing, impressionistic aesthetics, and even regularly operated as a conduit, allowing them to wholly penetrate the audiences receptive fields. Korine clearly understood what he was doing, even if the rest of us may not have. But, in defense of everyone like myself who felt even the slightest bit of hesitation, or didn’t entirely understand the magnitude/power of what the filmmaker was constructing, I’m not convinced that anything like this film has ever quite existed in this form before.
Casting & Characters
Speculation about the motivations behind the casting choices has also been prevalent among anyone that’s even moderately familiar with Harmony Korine‘s career up until this point. What really amuses me is that, instead of having any questions of intent resolved, now that the final product has been made widely available, the debate and conjecture are thriving more than ever. “Is the director just trying to be provocative again and hoping to make a mockery out of Hollywood?” “Is this some kind of joke?” “What were these girls trying to prove anyway, that they are ‘grown up’?!” For a filmmaker that’s known for casting “actors” through such unorthodox means as discovering them through a Sally Jesse Raphael episode about paint huffers, the idea to recruit Hollywood pop-starlets and A-list actors seemed a bit left field. Selena Gomez and Harmony Korine share a very limited overlap in their fan bases. For those of us that have long respected and found a connection to Harmony‘s work, the only real question was about if this “stunt” was going to weaken the final product. I mean, they shouldn’t be in a Korine film, right? They don’t belong in that world… right? “I wonder what he’s up to. What’s he building in there?” But the truth of the matter is that this isn’t a fucking stunt and that the casting was absolutely perfect.
From his directorial debut with Gummo, through his employment of hidden cameras in films like Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine has always demonstrated an interest and focus on simply cultivating environments that would have the potential to come to life, breath, and grow on their own. Set up the pieces. See how they react. Capture it on film. What dynamics could be created by the cross pollination of specific elements… the interaction between certain personality types? How would they gel together, repel, or ricochet off of each other? What new energy could be created through these mergers? The sheer fact that these girls are even deciding to work with Harmony feeds into the films energy, by paralleling the whole concept of their characters moving beyond their own comfort zones and previous restrictions. On the other hand, the young, vibrant, free-spirited, spring break backdrop is the type of world that they might very likely have more of a connection to than the director. This isn’t about Harmony trying to exploit these actresses; I believe that he has a great deal of respect for every one of them as colleagues on this project. However, I also don’t believe that he’s overly concerning himself about that potential for them to come across as being exploited either, because there is nothing that he has more respect for than the actual project and no greater concern than staying true to his vision. Any concern for potential casualties has to be secondary, at best. [Korine, himself, was said to have been stabbed by a crew member on the last day of shooting for Gummo.] So why did he cast the people that he did? The most basic and honest answer is that they were placed in those roles because they belonged in them. These girls were the perfect choices and the director was dead set on making it the best film that it could possibly be, in the purest sense. I’m very enthusiastic to be able to report that he actually managed to accomplish that with flying neon, day-glo colors.
Not unlike the roles that they play, each actor has their own reasons for being drawn to this film. In fact, much of the realism displayed in the scenes is assisted by the fact that the actresses appear to reflect aspects of their real life personalities through their characters. Some who are publicly hating on Spring Breakers –many of which have never even seen it— express their disgust by attacking the young stars for being poor “role models” and setting negative examples for their impressionable fan bases, as they attempt to prove that they can shed their wholesome, family friendly roots. Such attacks are not only dismissive of the integrity and broader intentions behind the film, but of the actors as distinct individuals with their own individual motivations, as well. Based on a couple of interview clips that I’ve come across, Vanessa Hudgens (24) does seem to possess some amount of interest in utilizing the film as a vessel to present another side of herself outside of the High School Musical character that she’s primarily known for portraying. Hudgens comes across as very outgoing and open to new experiences (waterfall repelling, etc), which translates easily into her role as Candy, one of the more aggressive and reckless girls in the group. Both Candy and Benson‘s character seem, pretty much, open for anything. Having already come out the other end of a nudity scandal (it turns out that she’s been naked before), and being 4 years Selena Gomez‘s senior, are 2 possible factors that provide Vanessa with a slightly different approach to her character, and a slightly different perspective about where she’s currently at in both her life and career.
Selena feels completely natural as Faith, because she represents the more innocent, church going figure in the film, who’s seeking a spiritual, life-changing experience, above all else. Her discomfort is both legitimate and in character. Although Gomez‘s mother/manager (apparently, a huge/long-time Korine fan) actually encouraged her to pursue the role, one would have to imagine that Selena has been somewhat “protected” in her career, ever since her early days as a cast member on Barney and Friends. By leaving her and the other girls dressed in bikinis, while throwing them into the middle of real life, drunken, spring break crowds full of non-actors, strip clubs, and genuinely sketchy environments, that discomfort really comes out in the film. Being Harmony‘s wife, Rachel takes on a role that provides a balance between the personality types, uniting the two extremes. Out of the 5 central figures, James Franco is the only one that really seems to disappear entirely into his role but, for that specific character, it’s definitely a highly affective and necessary approach that benefits the film tremendously, by creating some fascinating new dynamics.
I feel that it’s absurd to read comments about Alien being a complete “rip off” of Riff Raff, and how the rapper/reality star should sue for having his image “stolen,” for a few reasons. The first reason is that Riff Raff is actually friends with Korine and was even offered a spot in the film, but was unable to take it–this had something to do with scheduling and/or a missed email. The second is that Alien is more of a composite character — even the name is a like a nod to Lil Wayne [one of the girls actually has a Weezy poster on her wall in the film]. There’s one standout scene where the character is flaunting all of his material possessions to the girls –assault weapons, various colors of shorts, Calvin Klein Escape, etc.– that seems to be directly inspired by Riff Raff‘s, now infamous, Brazillian video. And when Alien says, “Everybody’s always tellin me, ‘yo, you gotta change.’ I’m about stacking change!” it’s almost identical to when Riff Raff was on the From G’s To Gents reunion episode and explaining to host, Fonzworth Bentley, that he didn’t fault him for kicking him off of the reality show so early, by admitting, “I wasn’t trying to change, I was trying to stack change.” Franco‘s character also has cornrows, brightly colored gear, etc., but what it comes down to is not only that Riff Raff is in support of the film, but also that many of Alien‘s actual personal characteristics were drawn from a Florida trap rapper by the name of Dangeruss, who even had one of his songs used and made an appearance in the movie. From my understanding, an even bigger misconception is that Riff Raff was originally asked to play James Franco‘s role in the film.
The reason that all of this information is even relevant is because Alien is so much more unpredictable, dark, and disturbing than Riff Raff. I appreciate Riff‘s comical persona, but there’s simply no way that I could ever imagine him successfully pulling off this role the way that James Franco was able to. The word on the street is that the actor actually worked on perfecting it for a full year prior to shooting and remained in character throughout the entire filming of the movie. During a recent Letterman appearance, Selena Gomez confessed that she didn’t really have a chance to get a glimpse of Franco‘s true personality until they began doing press junkets for the film together, adding, “luckily my character was creeped out by him, because I genuinely was at first.” During an interview with Complex, Dangeruss admitted that he had yet to see the final cut of the movie, but made comments about feeling that he should have probably just played the role himself, if they really wanted authenticity. One problem with that logic is that someone like James Franco was necessary in such a pivotal role to really provide more dimensionality to the character and to be able to flourish within such an improv encouraged format. Even the drug dealer/rapper/straight hustler has more sides to his character than might be expected and Franco nails every little subtlety spot on. Any commendation that he receives for this one is, unquestionably, well deserved.
Dynamics & Darkness
With the loose, dump all of the chemicals into one beaker and watch them spark, approach employed by Harmony Korine, it provides various opportunities for more candid, authentic reactions to make their way onto the screen. One incredibly strong segment involves the girls being taken to a seedy pool hall around a number of unsavory characters, who, if memory serves me correctly, are the “real deal.” The discomfort with the girls, and with Gomez, specifically, is tangible. This segues into a scene where Franco corners the Wizards of Waverly Place star, touches her face, and makes advances toward her, which results in her crying and pleading to go home. The story behind that extremely powerful moment is that Korine had kept this scene a secret from Gomez until, literally, just a few minutes before they were about shoot it. It’s unnerving as all get out, but it’s also an incredibly authentic moment that allows the viewer to genuinely feel themselves in the scene. This isn’t just the character of Faith acting in a scene is James Franco; this is Selena Gomez in a difficult, unsettling environment, with people that she doesn’t really know, just trying to make her way through it, and it’s all captured on film. The ability to actually feel yourself going through this process with the characters is what any film should be aspiring to accomplish, and the fact that Korine manages to pull that off so effectively, is what places Spring Breakers on a completely different level than at least 90% of anything else that is currently being passed off as cinema.
While sitting in the theater, I was reminded of a moment in time where I was reminded of a completely different moment in time. The setting was Olympia, Wa, and I was hanging out in what was somewhat of a less intense, hippie, environmentally conscious, bicycle riding, two food co-op having, suburban neighborhood, college town, version of a trap house. I was lounging on a shitty couch in a back room where people were blowing glass pipes and there was a large batch of bubble hash in the process of being whipped up. People were smoking tough when a guy showed up with his younger girlfriend and, while I can’t remember if he was there to pick up pounds of cubensis or pounds of weed, either one was available. Now, it’s true that customer wound up telling me some grimy shit about how he used to slam MDMA into his forearm, when she wasn’t around, but it was clear that his girlfriend, who didn’t seem to be completely aware of that side of him, was extremely uncomfortable around us. All of the crazy shit going on that didn’t seem too over-the-top for anyone else in the house, was bugging her the fuck out, and hard. At that point, I began to think back about every time that I ever wound up in an uncomfortable situation like that, myself, when I was younger. These were the type of situations where I would find myself in some sketchy spot with a guy high on crystal meth, polishing a samurai sword, or people that were fucking around with glocks, and I was just waiting –actually, expecting– to be accidentally and/or critically injured. These were typically situations where I had been dragged into a sordid environment among questionable strangers, and I just wanted to get the fuck moving, but wasn’t the one that had driven there and, subsequently, was forced to wait it out. I realized that, to this girl, we were those people and that this was her incredibly “unsafe” scenario where she was expecting a S.W.A.T. team to kick in the door at any moment. We were the people oblivious to the fact that there should be anything particularly worrisome about the environment at all. Nobody else really seemed to notice her discomfort and her own boyfriend didn’t come across as being too interested or concerned with tending to her needs and putting her at ease –he was on a mission. I will admit that, once I became aware of her state of mind, indicated, only somewhat, subtly through her body language, the only response that I had was a detached fascination with it.
That level of discomfort is something that many of us know well, although your perspective is also contingent on what your particular relationship is to each specific situation and/or environment. And the environments and context do play an important role in Spring Breakers, specifically in the manner in which the individual characters connect and react to them. The purpose behind the trip for the girls, in the first place, was to venture into a new environment that could help facilitate new experiences and freedoms for them, but the environments shift and, with them, the experiences and level of freedom that they feel do, as well. Some moments become more claustrophobic, while others are like a free fall. Some characters discover that they have finally found a place where they can thrive, while others realize that they may have swam a little too far away from the shore. These various reactions to their situations and surroundings are magnified even further by the fact that their decisions about whether or not to move into them, and how long to remain in them, are being determined as a collective. However, these are still their decisions and there are no real victims here (well, there ARE victims, but not within the main cast) –there are actually some surprisingly empowering aspects to the female characters in this film. But this isn’t all about the 4 girls either, because there are scenes in this movie where you can feel Alien‘s own discomfort, when he’s outside of his own protective waters and confronted by “Archie,” a rival dealer played by the “Trap God” rapper, Gucci Mane, or even within his own home. Those are moments when the energy shifts, but the truth is that it shifts quite a bit.
The actors were willing to step outside of their comfort zones for this film, in the same respect that the film itself pertains to boldly flinging oneself into the unknown. This is true, both for the characters and for the viewers who are on the ride with them. Of course, this ride has it’s ups and downs; not all of it is just peaking on face-drugs, some of it involves the uneasy crash. There is plenty of dazzling imagery, but sometimes while you’re lost in that daze, one of these darker moments comes in and sobers you up a bit with a stomach punch. Even then, however, it never really stalls; it just touches down slightly and then keeps it moving. In a way, those moments become anchors to the electric body highs… or, maybe it’s more like a balloon weight, since there isn’t always a clear dichotomy separating all of the distinct emotions from one another.
Regardless of how complex they aim to be, most films have designated scenes for designated feelings: “This is the romantic scene where you’re reunited,” “In this one you’ll realize that you’ve always cared and will mourn your father’s death with real tears,” “It’s finally all built up and you will retaliate with unbridled rage.” Real life is murkier than that and there’s generally a mixture of emotions within the majority of given situations, regardless of how one-sided it may feel, from the outside. And, within those situations, the percentages of each individual component involved –whether it’s fear, confusion, desire, apathy, what have you– aren’t static, either; they swell, dissipate, expand and recede, among each other; in turn, changing the entire dynamic of a scenario from one minute to the next. Being constructed from a series of emotionally driven moments that don’t over-stay their welcome, Spring Breakers is allowed to emulate and maintain this more realistic formula. On a larger scale, those moments actually mirror the emotional fluctuations within them, and swirl around each other, throughout the film, like particles in hyper sensory snow globe. Those heavier moments where the darker aspects take their turn at prominence are essential in making sure that the film doesn’t result in complete one-dimensional bullshit. They round it out, stabilize it, provide depth, and help push all of the more superficial sensations a few layers further into the epidermis, where they can be absorbed into the blood stream. But, in all honesty, what it really comes down to is that I just like entering into and visiting those moments of darkness. Even when you’re on a drug like ecstasy, cocaine, or LSD –sensations of which are all partially simulated in passing throughout the film– there is still that intrinsic element of doom in those experiences that can often be the best thing about them.
(addressing why people are calling this “The Worst Movie Ever”)