Spring Breakers Review
It has been almost impossible to avoid reading anything about Harmony Korine’s fifth feature Spring Breakers over the last year, and after viewing the film for the first time I was a little disappointed, but only because it wasn’t as subversive as I’d been led to believe. I like Korine’s films but I didn’t know or really care who the female leads were (which seems to be the only truly subversive aspect), I’m not a fan of James Franco, and when faced with trying to formulate thoughts about something I’m not in love with I have to remind myself of Tom Milne’s mantra: “Try and shed light”.
Forty-year old Korine isn’t an enfant terrible anymore. One of his more recent films, Mister Lonely (2007), was a critical and box office wet fart which, for a short while, looked like the end of whatever bankability he might have had. He countered this by going small, internalizing, and pushing the aesthetic of his debut (Gummo) through the floor, with the utterly goosed Trash Humpers. He’s one of the few filmmakers whose work I’ve seen in order upon release, mostly at the cinema, and the excitement was high for Spring Breakers – by far his biggest project yet. My favourite Korine films are Larry Clark’s Kids (which Korine wrote) and Julien Donkey-Boy (featuring a career-best lead performance from Ewen Bremner. I wrote a wet-behind-the-ears over-the-top DVD review of the film at this site about 14 years ago: here), so after quite some time – including years spent dicking around with everybody’s least favourite magician David Blaine – it’s fascinating that Korine is now operating at this level, a Trojan horse in the disgusting mainstream sewer – a zeitgeist prankster.
I read a few reviews to gauge the love (Nick Pinkerton at Sight & Sound completely nails it), listened to the director’s commentary, watched it again, and began to admire Korine’s achievement more. It does require some kind of sick finger on (what was) the pulse of popular US culture’s malignant corpse to really appreciate the complex layers of social commentary here – if you can be bothered. Without that specific (depressing) understanding, it’s easy to lump the film in with what it’s portraying – but it really stands apart. Pinkerton’s review isn’t online, but for a synopsis, sympathetic reading, and good sense of the film, Elliot Foster’s cinema review at this very site is here.
I’m going to talk here mostly about the film’s interesting background and the technical quality of the UK Blu-ray.
Picked up by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures days before its world premiere at Venice in 2012, Spring Breakers was thrust fully-formed into Annapurna’s impressive library of titles: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, and the forthcoming Her (Spike Jonze), American Hustle (David O. Russell) and Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson), among others. Remarkably, Spring Breakers has twenty-one producers, including “Angel From Above” Ellison (I presume all of them threw money in the hat?). A quick word about Megan “Infinite Money” Ellison’s presence on the American film financing scene: she’s one of the most exciting developments in a long time, giving respected young filmmakers from the last great American wave of 1998/99 a safe home to make new work. Annapurna’s backing for Spring Breakers has undoubtedly given the film’s international distribution (and Korine’s professional street cred) a tremendous lift.
However, in the UK, Spring Breakers has been released on Blu-ray by Universal Pictures, the corporate all-over-the-shop dream factory churning out some of this summer’s most critically reviled lowest common denominator films, such as Bula Quo!, Fast & Furious 6, and Richard Curtis’ final ode to cinema craft, About Time.
I like to imagine the head of Universal UK was won over by Harmony Korine saying: “Film is like a dead art because of people not taking chances” and decided to take a chance on Spring Breakers because he was a fan of Julien Donkey-Boy and Trash Humpers, but the depressing reality is more likely to concern the potential box office returns based solely on Selena Gomez-related factoids (she was/is the girlfriend of Justin Bieber y’see).
I wonder whether Universal have realised Harmony Korine’s game yet? Korine once said: “The most subversive thing you can do with this kind of work, the most radical kind of work, is to place it in the most commercial venue.” Universal now, perhaps unwittingly, are the most subversive distributor operating in Britain today. I look forward to them distributing the forthcoming Detroit-based crystal meth epic Silk Road directed by Pedro Costa starring Kim Kardashian with music by Miley Cyrus and John Maus.
Upon loading the UK region-free Blu-ray you are met with an “English or Português” screen. Next are a couple of copyright and “Don’t dare blame our shareholders for any opinionated disc content” slates (all of which can safely go at the end of a film now. It’s space year 2013, we’ve seen them a million times, roses have died while we wait, the slates are still legally binding if placed at the end); trailers for Kick Ass 2, The World’s End, Fast & Furious 6, Mama, but disappointingly, no Bula Quo! (I think Harmony would have liked a bit of Bula Quo! on the disc). It takes a while even to skip through all this crap, by which time you may have forgotten which disc you put in the machine.
If you did forget, the menu screen doesn’t have any text, it doesn’t even say the name of the film. Instead we have Universal’s infantile and badly designed wordless icon system, first introduced in 2012, which presumably saves them having to produce differently authored discs for the many territories the behemoth corporation has the rights for across Europe. This has the expected insidious corporate whiff of bean-counting utilitarian skankiness, but worse, it continues to be confusing to operate.
The film was shot on 35mm by Gasper Noé’s distinguished cinematographer Benoît Debie and it looks ridiculously beautiful here on this Blu-ray. Grain structure, colours, everything, just completely boffo. It excels on Blu-ray (as do most new films finished in HD these days, in this instance: a 4K Digital Intermediate). Roughly 1% of the film, mostly party scenes, were shot on Trash Humpers-style VHS and a consumer Japanese digital camera with bloomed and ramped contrast. Aesthetically, the film is a firework display of colour and it’s simply incredibly great looking. Exciting to think where Korine might go next too.
Extras include: a Harmony Korine director commentary which is a little pedestrian and low key. His voice has never been reedier than it is here, which grates and makes it hard going, but he’s amiable enough – even if he doesn’t seem to realise he’s pointing out the bleedin’ obvious half the time. He does however, explain how the film formed in his mind: “I had been collecting spring break imagery for a while, just pictures I had gotten from fraternity sites and message boards. Even co-ed pornography, stuff of teenage debauchery, people on the beaches going crazy, classic American iconography with the most debauched behaviour. I was using it more for paintings that I was doing, separate from film, and I started to look at it as a whole, and it’s interesting because the imagery was this hypersexualised, hyperviolent subject matter, and then around it all the colours and the texture and details were all these childlike pop culture indicators – nail polish, bathing suits, beer kegs. Even the way that people – the bodies would look – would start to almost look more sculptural.” (Like the main feature, optional English subtitles are also available for the commentary.)
Also included are a bunch of very short “featurette-y” commercial pieces that are so fleeting they almost have no purpose (presumably used on American TV for something or other? Maybe as adverts? God knows.) They are: “Behind The Scenes” (1:40), “Harmony Korine Featurette” (1:34), “AVPs” (2:03), and “The Girls” (1:16). There is also a longer and better piece: “Making Of” (25:57) and the obligatory “Theatrical Trailer” (2:25). A bonus DVD in the Blu-ray package (which wasn’t supplied for review purposes) contains a deleted scene, outtakes (7:20) and two further featurettes: “Breaking It Down: Behind Spring Breakers” (21:46) and “Harmony’s Ear Candy” (7:20).
If it catches you right and you don’t already hate the culture so much you couldn’t give a fart about what Korine is exploring, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this – there are some wonderful aspects. If you’re familiar with Korine, run to it! The feature encode of the film on this UK Blu-ray looks and sounds the business, and that’s the most important thing. I would very much like to have seen more filmmaker involvement with actual disc production though. I wish more filmmakers cared. It would be a far more interesting experience and desirable object if it had more self-indulgent personalised loving care – but that’s almost impossible with large corporations. Here’s Harmony to play us out: “How can an artist be expected not to be self-indulgent? That’s the whole thing that’s wrong with filmmaking today... To me, art is one man’s voice, one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person.”
All Harmony Korine quotes take from an interview with Ray Pride at Toronto International Film Festival, 1997.