The Rapist Next Door: On Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

April 4, 2013 | 3 books mentioned 10 7 min read

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How much of a mirror are we willing to let Spring Breakers be? In indulging in a nauseating, exhilarating, and absolutely familiar fantasy of American fun, Harmony Korine might be offering the unflinching depiction of rape culture that our national conversation has been needing.

Five days after Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted of raping a minor, with Mays also charged with the dissemination of child pornography; 20 days after The Daily Princetonian reported the results of a 2008 survey about sexual assault at Princeton that revealed that about 28 percent of female students had been “touched in a sexual manner or had their clothes removed without consent;” a few days after Girls Gone Wild filed for bankruptcy; the month before Sexual Assault Awareness month; and following, or joining, a new national conversation about rape culture, Harmony Korine released Spring Breakers. If you manage to sit through the whole film — 5 people walked out of the first screening I attended — you will see a vision of the world in which all of this is possible, a world that holds together in a terrible, perfectly-packaged union: gun culture, consumerism, wealth inequality, college culture, American Christianity, racism, our global obsession with underdressed young girls, rape culture, and Britney Spears.

If there is anything like a common theme explored in Spring Breakers, it might be the question of how much any of us are willing to do, watch, or endure, in the name of or search for fun. Sliding from the beaches swarming with college kids testing their limits to a lifestyle apparently unconstrained by limits of any kind, untouched by the larger culture’s moral codes, the hinge around which both of these worlds pivot are four young girls in bathing suits. If we’re going to place this film in our contemporary conversation about rape culture, its contribution will be in revealing our unchecked appetite for female bodies, and the role played by these bodies — as mere bodies — in our culture of fun.

The film begins with manic young people pumping under the sun on the beaches of St. Petersburg, Fla., an explosion of headached colors, terrifyingly exalted faces, and endless, perpetually topless girls, their skin splashed with beer. The plot follows four female college students as they devise a quick-money scheme to make it to Spring Break (“spring breaaaaaak 4eva!”) and, once there, revel in the suffocating, hyper-sexual, round the clock party, nightmarishly disconnected from any other reality, and energized by the clench-jawed commitment to experience everything within a limited life span. After being arrested for being in the same room as drugs, the girls are sprung from jail by Alien (James Franco), and spring break gives way to Florida’s year-round criminal underworld, which itself gives way to what the critics have roundly agreed is a “fever dream;” some of the girls make these transitions seamlessly, others reach a limit in terms of how much fun, how much experience they are able to live with.

Perhaps at the sight of the first bikini being thrown off, or when a muscly 20-year-old male swings that same bikini above his blond head, lasso-style, or when a young woman lies passed out on a mattress surrounded by partiers who are either utterly indifferent to or lasciviously interested in what will happen to that unconscious human, at some point the veneer on all of this fun peels off, and suddenly the only phrase that seems adequate to what’s being shown is “rape culture.” The phrase comes to mind, and if the images had been hard to stomach before, they are, from this point on, nearly unwatchable, numbing, excessive to a violent degree. But what is most unsettling, is that it is possible still to be seduced by them, to thrill at them, all that color, all those bodies. When not utterly nauseating, the film achieves a kind of pop harmony, sweeping us all up in the rush of spring break, making us know it from the inside. Where we might imagine a more European filmmaker, perhaps one practicing the tradition of the “New French Extremity,” would have exposed us to what’s awful about this youthful rite of passage, Korine adopts a different, properly American tactic, demanding that we see what those very youths see: the exhilaration, the colors, the fun.

This is precisely what makes the film work, the very thing that will threaten to drive you from the theater in protest: Korine presents this culture, not for the assessment of knowing outsider — within, for example, ironic quotes marks or a moralizing narrative — but through the eyes of its most ecstatic participants, the camera roaming through the seas of anonymous dancing body parts, palpably elated by the unhinged, unparented energy. When Faith (Selena Gomez), the film’s vague outline of a moral center, begs in confusion and panic, “I feel uncomfortable, I want to go home,” it’s like having one’s mind read: Yes, I feel uncomfortable and want to go home. But when these four girls sing Spears’s well-loved “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in a convenience store parking lot, you realize, of course, you are home, this is home turned up.

One possible, totally appropriate response to this film is wild rage. With an art director’s name attached to this big-budget exploitation romp, it can, at times, feel like the film simply indulges in the very culture it should be critiquing, or like Korine is banking on us reading the film as critical, rather than as the worst and most familiar brand of cinematic misogyny, simply because he directed it.

covercovercoverAnyone familiar with Korine’s other work, though, will know that while his films are challenging, thoughtful, almost impossible to endure, they don’t aspire to be critical, if that means offering some kind of privileged commentary; if anything, Korine’s consistent cinematic aim seems to be to reject the position of privilege that directors tend to enjoy and to offer to their audiences. In Spring Breakers — with sounds, colors, and a budget more luxurious than any he has enjoyed before — Korine pushes this effort further, accompanying characters into a space that they very much want to explore, leaving it up to the viewer to determine to what degree we will join them, take pleasure with them, or try to resist. And though Julian Donkey Boy, Gummo, or Trash Humpers each challenge the capacity of the viewer to separate herself from what she sees, to ask herself what it means to feel entertained by such a film, this task is taken to new heights of difficulty when the world one wants to remain distanced from, the thing one can take no pleasure in, is pop culture, our culture, perfectly distilled.

So “critique” in this sense is not Korine’s aim at all; the viewer is never invited to join in anything like critique, there is no external vantage on this world, there is rarely anything like an assuring wink. We are rather swallowed whole by spring break, by its nonstop terrifying energy, and asked to revel in it. The closest we get to critique are the repetitious shots of various degrees of debauchery paired with the whimsical, hollow voices of the girls talking to their mothers about the life-affirming experiences they’ve been lucky enough to have; its impossible to take this seriously, and through this we are, perhaps, given a kind of distance from the screen. But for the most part this world is presented in utter sincerity, nowhere better realized than in Alien’s soulful, seaside rendition of Britney Spear’s “Everytime” — which, to be sure, is an oddly moving ballad, in a ghostly kind of way.

In interviews, Korine has emphasized that his goal was to achieve, in contrast to an arced plot and developed characters, “liquid narrative,” that he wanted to make a film that looked like it was “lit with Skittles;” “its meant to be candy…there’s no right or wrong way of viewing the film.” While it may be unproductive to insist, as some offended critics have, that this film was not worth making or showing because of its candied presentation of rape culture, it seems wildly irresponsible to insist, as Korine does, that a movie about a culture structured largely around the drugging, undressing, filming, and habitual assaulting of women should be easily consumable, or that there is no wrong way to view it. There is of course the question as to whether Korine means this seriously or if, by insisting on the emptiness of his film, he is just goading the moralizers in the audience. Still, though, if someone could watch Spring Breakers and not experience a moment of fighting rage or bleak sadness, I would say they haven’t seen it rightly.

And indeed it turns out Korine wants it both ways: in the same interviews in which he’s insisted on his achievement of cinematic substancelessness, he’s also tossed off comments about Spring Breakers as a movie about “female empowerment.” What this means is he’s either pandering to the audience’s need for a message or suggesting that the idea of female empowerment is a kind of candy, a junky fantasy. While we might get some rush from their ruthlessness, the realization of a feminist vision is hardly his goal. If female empowerment was actually the issue, maybe the girls would have massacred, not the black gang members and rivals of their boyfriend-collaborator, but instead their grinning, eager, white male peers from the beach, the ones who’d been yanking off bikinis and circling passed out women like sharks (its not insignificant that Korine’s climactic image of power is Vanessa Hudgens gunning down Gucci Mane in his hot tub). Korine’s vague idea of feminism is ultimately nothing more than a marketing gimmick for the film; putting his “girls” as he affectionately calls them in balaclavas seems less a nod to real-life empowered females Pussy Riot, and more of a smirk. And truly, what could be more marketable than this hysterical, well-trodden male fantasy of female power: interchangeably beautiful, half-naked girls, dancing with rifles; these are women without identity, incapable of much emotion other than excitability, “sociopaths,” as Korine himself has said.

Korine’s insistence on superficial fun repeats, of course, the mantra of the very culture in which Spring Breakers is absorbed, and it is this commitment to superficiality and fun that inspires people, in real life, to threaten rape victims who come forward. If Spring Breakers can have any place in our culture, if it can be something worth seeing, its worth must be located in its frightening capacity to capture a world we dismiss as “just fun,” to capture the seductions of a world we refuse to understand. And there is potentially something valuable about being subject to this world without the assurances of critique, without being able to congratulate ourselves on knowing that we are well outside that environment, morally and experientially. There might even be something valuable about coming to the film expecting a play of surface and light, and instead glimpsing something profoundly real and deep and present.

The scenes that are most difficult to watch are not the more spectacular scenes of violence and revenge, but the ordinary, familiar parties on the beach that could be pulled from any Google image search of “spring break” or from any music video; what is hardest to stomach is so much “fun.” In making the party scenes, some of the most difficult to endure moments in American film history, Korine effectively brings rape culture, masked as ever in the guise of party culture, into the bright sunny dancing daylight. Which is to say that what’s most compelling and infuriating, what ought to leave any viewer deeply unsettled, is simply seeing the world we live in, the world in which spring break is an experience of a lifetime, a world scored to Britney Spears and fueled by blue Kool Aid.

Credit: Publicity photo.

is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. She works on issues in moral philosophy and moral psychology, and as much as possible, film and aesthetics.