It's an unseasonably cool March night in Austin, not exactly swimwear weather, so the three women riding scooters down Congress Avenue can be excused for wearing unzipped hoodies over their fluorescent bikinis. At least their faces, obscured by hot-pink ski masks with unicorns on the forehead, are protected from the brisk wind. They honk their horns as they pass the Paramount Theatre, where in 90 minutes, Nashville filmmaker Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers will have its U.S. premiere, the marquee event of the 20th annual SXSW Film Conference & Festival.
The film is an anarchic, unsettling joyride through Florida's spring break ritual featuring Korine's most star-studded cast yet — James Franco, Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson and Disney sensations Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — and advance buzz has far exceeded that for any other Korine project. Festivalgoers hoping to snag one of the theater's 1,200 seats queue up outside the front doors. Throngs of teenage girls gather behind barricades, awaiting the arrival of the film's stars. The unicorn gang, part of a promotional stunt for the film, continues to circle the block with blaring horns, amping up an already hyped crowd.
As a bellwether for buzz and a film showcase advancing on Sundance, SXSW is no stranger to movie-premiere ballyhoo. Still, festival veterans can be heard saying they haven't seen a commotion quite like this. By 8:30, an hour before show time, the main line of badge-holders snakes well around the corner and down the block. Soon a steady stream of black Cadillac Escalades and other cars with tinted windows starts depositing the night's VIPs.
Ear-piercing shrieks erupt as Gomez exits a vehicle. Teen girls, mothers, even middle-aged men hold cameras and smartphones aloft. One girl screams, "Selena, I love you!" then shouts "Priscilla!" — acknowledging Priscilla DeLeon, whose chief claim to fame is showing up in tabloid shots next to her starlet cousin. Similar scenes play out as Franco and Benson arrive. Only Hudgens fans go home disappointed — the High School Musical star couldn't make the premiere due to illness.
This being a film festival, director Korine gets his share of oohs and aahs, albeit of a more reserved variety. Several other arriving VIPs go relatively unnoticed, even though their presence speaks volumes about the prospects for Spring Breakers. Roberta Hanley of Muse Productions, one of the film's producers, makes a striking entrance in a neon-green coat, while another vehicle delivers Megan Ellison, the film producer whose Annapurna Pictures partnered with A24 Films to put out Spring Breakers. Ellison, producer of Zero Dark Thirty and daughter of Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison (the third-wealthiest American), was profiled in a March Vanity Fair piece titled "Heiress at Work," which explored how her wealth and renegade style have made her a major force in film while ruffling feathers among Hollywood's old guard.
Ellison is notoriously tight-lipped with the press, but on the subject of Spring Breakers' director, she's effusive. "He's the greatest," she says at the movie's after-party, attended by the stars and visiting celebrities.
But there's a scene-stealer among all these dignitaries, in part because she's the least known (and hence most surprising) of the movie's glamorous leads. Looking poised and stunning in a one-shoulder flower-print Preen dress, Rachel Korine has attended movie premieres before, but usually as part of a larger ensemble or at her husband's side.
That has changed. With Spring Breakers as her calling card, the lifelong Nashvillian is emerging now as a star on the rise. And early box-office returns and reviews suggest the movie could catapult Harmony Korine to a hitherto unthinkable level of success and acclaim. In Austin, floodlit by iPhones and cameras, the Korines looked like something no less surreal than one of their previous collaborations: a mainstream power couple.
A twisted excursion through the time-honored rite of passage wherein thousands of college students descend upon Florida's beaches for epic bouts of drunken debauchery, Spring Breakers is Harmony Korine's most (first?) commercial film to date. And in terms of getting his scuzzy, dreamlike arthouse visions before a big audience hungry for skin and sensation, it ranks as his most subversive act yet.
The film follows four college coeds hell-bent on getting to Florida for spring break, lack of funds be damned. Bad girls Brit (Benson), Candy (Hudgens) and Cotty (Korine) coax the angelic Faith (Gomez) to join them on the trip, mainly so they can get her money. But when Faith's savings prove meager, the three instigators don ski masks and rob a restaurant, in a bravura one-take sequence that may be the most technically accomplished scene the 40-year-old director has staged yet.
Once in St. Petersburg, the bikini-clad foursome gets sucked into a maelstrom of booze, drugs and flesh, culminating in a hotel-room bacchanalia that lands them in the clink. Unable to pay the fine, they face a few more days in jail — that is, until corn-rowed, grill-toothed wannabe gangsta Alien (Franco) eyes the scantily clad pretties and puts up his easy-earned cash to spring them. Seduced by his stacks of Benjamins and glitzy digs, the girls are drawn into Alien's world, as tensions between their benefactor and his former mentor Archie (rapper Gucci Mane) come to a boil.
Saying much more might risk spoiling plot details, but frankly, it wouldn't matter. Spring Breakers may be the filmmaker's most narrative-driven film to date, but that's a relative assessment. As in all his films, narrative is beside the point: Korine's creations have always been about mood, strange energy and weird moments — clip reels of confrontational incidents that threaten (or promise) to go way past comfort. Picking plot holes and subtracting points for implausibility are kind of like criticizing Jackson Pollock's art for being too nonrepresentational.
"The film is not even trying to say one thing in particular," Korine tells the Scene. "It's more a kind of feeling. I wanted the movie to be closer to something that was almost like a drug experience. Something with a peak, a kind of physicality and a transcendence. I always want my movies to be in some ways post-articulation, in that I'm going for something that's more like a physical response."
As usual, he's having no trouble getting a response. Some early reviewers, The New Yorker's Richard Brody among them, have assailed the movie's racial dynamics. "The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence," Brody writes.
Another looming controversy is whether Spring Breakers is just as exploitative as the trashy Girls Gone Wild milieu it appears to parody. The film shows dozens of topless women, reducing some of them to disembodied jiggling breasts in seemingly eternal slow motion. You can almost hear Korine in carny-geek mode taunting the viewer — "You wanted boobs, right? What's the matter, too much for ya?" — and some early reviewers have taken the bait.
But what's so seductive about the scene (and the whole movie, for that matter) isn't the bare flesh but the sun-soaked, candy-colored pipe dream of uninhibited excess and indulgence it represents. The promise of spring break is conspicuous consumption and endless summer; the reality the movie presents is frat douches faux-peeing from waist-high beer cans into coeds' mouths — a mess left for somebody lower on the economic ladder to clean up. (Of course, if you're into that kind of thing, here's the must-see movie of 2013.)
The result is a fever dream that Korine gradually morphs into a bad trip. By the movie's end, its oft-chanted refrain — "Spring break forever!" — sounds more like a curse than a rallying cry, like a crunk single's hedonistic fervor warping under an unforgiving sun. Much of the credit goes to cinematographer Benoît Debie, who did stunning work in films by Korine's pal and fellow provocateur Gaspar Noé (who showed up at The Belcourt for Korine's Trash Humpers premiere). In a movie that marks a newfound command of cinematic choreography for Korine, it's the Miami Vice-worthy interaction of sunlight and color that stand out.
"I wanted the movie to seem like it was lit with Skittles and Juicy Fruit," Korine says.
The sundazed drugginess extends to the score by film composer Cliff Martinez and electronic music artist Skrillex. The two musicians wrote a fair bit of new material for the film, but it's Skrillex's 2010 hit "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" (a fitting subtitle for the film), wedded to the beach party freakout, that proves most affecting. Korine's cut to slow-motion footage of dudes grabbing their crotches and other rites of collegiate grotesquerie, just as the song's angelic Auto-Tuned vocals give way to the oscillating voice-of-Satan dub bass, is the point where exploitation and art become inseparable.
Korine says he was trying to emulate certain aspects of electronic dance music. Snippets of phone calls and dialogue recur throughout the movie like loops or mantras. Even the editing has a serpentine two-steps-forward-one-step-back momentum that mimics the unstuck-in-time sensations of acid or Ecstasy.
"I was thinking about the movie more structurally in terms of pop music and choruses," Korine says. "The film is made with these micro-scenes, quick scenes that repeat in a loop, almost like loop-based electronic music. I wanted the audio, the phone calls and things, to almost serve as a hook or a chorus."
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