Until recently, Harmony Korine has been the underdog of a fiercely independent, provocative 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.
There followed four resolutely non-commercial features: Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely, and Trash Humpers (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 A Good Day 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 big-name stars (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, James Franco). “Yeah, I can see that,” the writer director accedes.
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 [is] 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 (apart from Faith, who as per her name, proves too pure), untouchable. What does it say about the American dream that these girls are the ultimate predators?
If Korine is making a point here, however, he’s not talking about it. “The girls were always meant to be almost unreal in some ways – almost like cosmic gangsters or like shape-shifters. They’re more like characters out of a video game, or something.”
The writer-director displays a disdain for self-analysis that’s persisted throughout his career. Spring Breakers may strike the viewer as an allegory for America or a cautionary tale, but Korine insists that the 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…I have no desire to know any answers. I never have. I’m more curious about the questions…I don’t think there even are real answers. I think people just fake themselves into thinking they know real meaning. But I think life means everything and nothing.”
This philosophy may be the one thing that underpins Korine’s body of work, and gives it its distinct flavour: the rapid and unflinching juxtaposition of the sublime and the ugly in one place, with no judgment. There’s a point in his directorial debut, Gummo, where one of the characters – in voiceover – says that all he sees is darkness and despair around him in the world. Then Gummo – in narration – says, “the world is beautiful, really it is.”
I ask Korine where his particular philosophy on life comes from; he responds with the predictable conversational shrug. “From skateboarding, from movies – just everything. From hanging out with convicts, running away from home, living on a rooftop, to having a daughter myself. Hey man, it all comes from everywhere – it’s life, you’re just a conduit to it. I don’t question it, I just let it hit me – and then I’m like, BAM!”
BY DEE JEFFERSON