First off, some disclaimers: I haven't seen Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis yet. I thought 12 Years A Slave and Gravity were both just swell, and I had a great time at Ron Howard's unexpectedly lively—and worldly—Rush. In spite of groaning at Woody Allen's bald-faced hijacking of A Streetcar Named Desire and his Rip Van Winkle unfamiliarity with the current century, I even got semi-down with Blue Jasmine, and so on.
But that said, as we gear up to dispatch 2013 to the rear-view mirror, there's no contest when it comes to naming my favorite American movie of the year. That would be Spring Breakers, cult director Harmony Korine's sleaze-addicted, druggily impressionistic—and wondrously beautiful—tale of vacuous college girls gone wild in St. Pete. It features bare breasts galore, surreally goofy robberies and mayhem, and an all but unrecognizable James Franco wearing what look like brass knuckles on his teeth as a white rapper/wannabe gangsta named Alien. Will you believe me when I go on to tell you it's the funniest, brainiest movie about our national character—which, this being America, means our national fantasy life, otherwise known as the pursuit of happiness—I've seen in I don't know how long?
Probably not, because I'm guessing (you'll just have to forgive me if I'm wrong) that many if not most Prospect readers are the sort of responsible folk who balk at art that doesn't fit their notions of propriety. Or anybody else's, really, unless John Waters counts. How many of you did I lose at "sleaze-addicted"? How many bailed at "bare breasts galore"? Heck, how many of you just can't help throwing up when you read James Franco's name in any context, with the only conceivable exception being his obituary?
Trust me, the third group is the one I've got the most sympathy with. No way around it, though: Franco's performance in Spring Breakers is brilliant enough to more than make up for how sick everybody is of his Renaissance-lad shinola. As more than one critic has noted, self-reinvented Alien is this movie year's real—that is, cretinous, perturbing, unconscionably magnetic—Great Gatsby. Nothing proves that like the magnificent—yes, really—scene that has Franco crooning Britney Spears's "Everytime" and tinkling a white piano seaside as our gals, now wearing hot-pink ski masks and clutching weapons, cluster reverently around him like the acolytes they are.
You're probably wondering what kind of plot could lead to that moment, though. Well, first we're introduced to a quartet of bored coeds—they're played by Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, three of whom are formerly squeaky-clean stars on either the Disney or the ABC Family Channel and the fourth of whom is Mrs. Harmony—so crazy to get to Florida for some spring-break action that they stick up a diner with toy guns to obtain the loot for the trip. Once they're in St. Petersburg, the joke of the debauchery that ensues—binge drinking, scarfed cocaine, a near orgy—is that this is their definition of innocent fun, unlike what they get into once the cops break up a party that's spiraling out of control even by St. Pete standards and Alien bails them out of jail before getting busy turning them into his love bunnies and gun molls at once.
All this is a wonderful parody of both teen-empowerment stories and the kind of cautionary tale that revels in what it's supposedly cautioning susceptible young people against. But it's parody of a sort that keeps us uncomfortably complicit instead of letting us chortle at a safe remove. People have debated whether Spring Breakers sends up the prurient appeal of exploitation movies or is just prurient, but that's missing the point: both are true. While we can laugh at the joke of the heroines being in their jiggly bikinis even in a St. Pete courtroom, we still spend most of the movie getting an eyeful of barely-legal hubbaliciousness, meaning that male viewers have to cope with knowing they're being taunted and, well, served simultaneously. In another cognitive-dissonance game, everybody's idea of pleasure looks patently moronic—and yet it's also deliberately made tantalizing enough that our own inner moron would be tempted to join in.
What's most startling about the movie, though, is how breezily but bluntly it lays bare white America's "I wanna be black" race fantasies. Not only is Alien pretty much a 24/7 minstrel act, but his nemesis, Big Arch (Gucci Mane), is plainly a white person's fantasy of a black drug lord—right down to his harem of sexually experienced, visibly grown-up African-American women, so at odds with Alien's gaggle of novices living out taboo daydreams while staying dreamily immune from any consequences. In the movie's climactic shootout, our heroines—still in their bikinis, of course, even as they indolently blast away—are lit by ultra-violet light that turns their skins "black" for real, and the combination of wish-fulfillment satire and genuine, magical transformation is something to gasp at even as you giggle. "Sure, they're imbeciles," Korine might as well be saying. "But look at how something can be imbecilic and gorgeous at the same time."
I don't know about you, but at least some of the time, "imbecilic but gorgeous" would be a pretty fair summary of how I view my homeland. At least in this movie—a huge leap forward over his previous ones, incidentally—Korine is as sharp as any director ever has been about the sexual and racial pathologies that underlie so many forms of American craziness. The paradox that makes you believe the man knows what he's talking about is that he can't stoop flooding the screen with their poetry.
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