Friday, March 29, 2013

Grrrls on Top: Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers follows four young women (the girls) who go to Florida to “find” themselves. Old story, new reality. While the cast is populated by former Disney princesses (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens), this group is unmistakably contemporary. With Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine rounding out the cast, they are more of a gang than a group of buddies on a road trip. Selena Gomez’ character, Faith, is perfectly aligned as the foil to highlight the difference: a church-going innocent, she protests with genuine bewilderment when she is warned about getting involved with the others. Korine accentuates further visually: Faith is the only brunette, while the others simply meld into an indistinguishable blonde blob.

So the blondes devise a plan to get the money for the trip. It is dangerous and illegal, of course, and not the least bit surprising. Not in today’s world, where girls will gang up and beat another one senseless; not in this film where their tough grrrl dynamic rules.

And Spring Breakers does create its own microcosm. Korine hits on realistic notes but never caves in to realism. But it’s not a dream or even a fantasy gone awry. The opening sequence was exactly what the feminist in me was afraid of. It was even too much. Even a clothed crotch shot becomes too much to handle under Korine’s form of manic repetitive editing.

But then, I took a step back to analyze my reaction, only to recognize the stereotypical spring break imagery. Then I realized that the sequence lasted far too long and was so over the top that, for me, it became more like satire than an act of exploitation by Korine himself.  

Pushing past the limits of any reasonable lengths of endurance, this filmmaker made me squirm: conjuring and then subverting my expectations as he did, I was overwhelmed by the suspense. In Florida, Korine begins to summon cinematic cues and conventions and then warps the hell out of them. All the gratuitous nudity, the crotch shots, the boys outnumbering the girls and all that booze and drugs contributes to the tension I felt. In other films, these are the stereotypical cues for male physical domination: rape scenarios just waiting to happen. But in Spring Breakers they don't. The grrrls maintain their power. It’s like a new style of anti-heroes has been born.

Until they get arrested of course. But even that is a minor glitch in their path to empowerment. When a stranger, the local thug, Alien (James Franco), bails them out of jail, he does not overpower them. He tries to seduce Faith in a hyper-tense moment that has often worked in the man's favour (where the "girl" surrenders herself to him; I thought of Killer Joe in this regard) but it doesn't work here. She walks away shaken but relatively unscathed when we think of what could have happened. She does maintain her dignity.

The other grrrls establish their equality and even superiority over Alien using his own weaponry: guess who’s blowing  whom now? He's happy to do it and there is no retribution. In fact, he then shows his "sensitive" side as he calls it and they act out a gloriously pink fantasy number. With Britney Spears music no less. A reference to a powerful and famous woman who used those womanly wiles that make many of us feminists uncomfortable and even angry (especially Madonna too). But look at how powerful they are.

So, Korine is exploring the notion of female empowerment. These are women we may not like as role models but the reality of their existence and their authority cannot be denied. Korine is presenting the question of whether violence perpetrated by women is more acceptable because they are women. Makes me think of Tarrantino. Not my favourite filmmaker but his is a world where violence is acceptable. More filmmakers are exploring this side of humanity. Why not include women in that equation? Think: Kill Bill.

In the end, the bikini-clad gangsters get what they want on their own terms in Spring Breakers. Again, those are not my terms but the film made me think and rethink all the cinematic conventions mentioned above. The women explored the darker side of their sexual influence and now seem ready to move on. Maybe to something I’m more comfortable with, maybe not. But even that is a further subversion of my expectations.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched this movie last night, and remembered your blog post on it. Your post is an extremely accurate representation of all the themes in the movie, I'm not denying that. But, this movie could have been made a little bit more watcher-friendly. From an outside perspective (someone who just wanted to watch a movie to simply be entertained) this fell flat. The plot was pretty much dead, there was no real buildup of relationships in this movie, even between the girls, and there was hardly any dialogue. Besides all the messages you talked about, I found this to be an overall dull movie. Not at all what was expected given the portrayal of the movie in previews, and the cast.