It was the first time I ever had the feeling: I remember emerging from the Bloor Cinema in Toronto at night, shivering with excitement, promise and possibility, because here, finally, I had seen the first work of art created by someone of my generation. Until that point, I did not know that art could be made by one of us, in our time. I wasn’t sure it was possible. The shivering lasted for hours, weeks, months, years.
It was 1997, the film was Gummo, and the filmmaker was the 24-year-old American, Harmony Korine. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what he had done: There was something in his ability to make sense and nonsense, beauty and horror, live side by side. Here was a filmmaker who didn’t feel the need to explain things; he only needed to feel things, to see things. The movie had nothing to do with irony, or realism, or surrealism—or any category of aesthetics I was already familiar with.
I have read that “genius” means “being in the place where you are,” and over the years, Korine has remained in there. He made lots more work: art books and collaborations, movies that were barely released, and movies that were widely released, including Julien Donkey-Boy, in which the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog (a fan of Korine) played a sadistic, bizarre father. Mister Lonely found Samantha Morton playing a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in a colony of impersonators (including a Michael Jackson and a Little Red Riding Hood—which was the first appearance in his films by his wife, actress Rachel Korine). In 2009, he released Trash Humpers. Filmed on VHS, it featured a family of Goya-esque creatures which included he and Rachel; the actors wore masks that made them look old, and their skin like the healing scars of burn victims. It was like someone had edited together home videos found in the garbage. The movie ended with the scary, moving and redemptive birth of a trash-humper baby.
New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin hated Gummo, calling it “the worst film of the year” and reporting, with disgust, that the director “just shot the film on genuinely filthy sets.” Korine and I spoke over the phone, me in Toronto and he in Nashville, and I asked him how he handles such criticisms. He replied, “I just imagine it’s like I’m a football player in some video game and people are smashed up on the sides and all around, and I just keep running straight down the field. You know what I mean? I just love making movies, so that’s what I do.”
This month, Spring Breakers—which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year—comes to theatres. He said it feels like “the first film” he’s ever made, and it does have an outward-looking quality that his earlier films didn’t. Maybe it’s maturity. He pointed out that he is “now at the age that most people start making movies.” He is not only married but has a child; he calls family life “a saving grace, for sure.” When he was younger, around the time he wrote Larry Clark’s Kids, and met his then-girlfriend Chloë Sevigny, he had a notoriously intense life, saying, “It’s difficult when you’re burning it at both ends…things can be too fun.” If not for all the nudity, swearing, guns and violence, this would likely be his most broadly appealing work. One can easily imagine it giving pleasure to practically every teenager in North America, them feeling as I did: This guy understands me; he understands our time.
Spring Breakers follows four adolescent girls desperate to participate in Florida’s Spring Break bacchanal. They’re bored by their lives in their dreary town, and having no money, three of them rob a chicken shack, which gets them to their Promised Land. The odd-one-out, Faith (played by Selena Gomez) is the most “good girl” of the bunch, and a Christian. After what might be one day or one week or one month of drunken revelry with hundreds or maybe thousands of college kids, she decides to head home, begging her friends to join her (they don’t) for fear of what darkness is coming. “This is not how it was supposed to be…” her voices mourns softly after they have been arrested, spent time in jail, and been bailed out by a shady “gangster mystic” played by James Franco, in a performance that eclipses all his others.
Naturally, Faith was also the one who loved spring break best (until the troubles began). “I am starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” she says, in voice-over. “I feel like I can be who I’m supposed to be here.” She wants them to buy a home and live there, and absurdly and beautifully calls her grandmother and says, “I want to come back again next year with you.” (Only in a Harmony Korine film could a grandmother fit in amongst all the breasts stripped bare; his is a world of strange collisions; it’s all part of helping the audience have “a physical response or be changed in some way, for better or for worse.”)
There is revelling in the nubile bodies of the girls: For half the film they’re in neon bikinis, and in one of many memorable scenes, the girls do handstands in the hallway up against the walls of their dorm, the camera focussing and refocussing on their asses and thighs. But that scene and others like it— which in another director’s hands could seem lecherous—are not simply sexy. The girls’ avidness, their amorality, their love for each other and indifference toward men turns it in another direction: toward something baroque, something balletic, something strange.
The movie is visually “brighter” than his previous ones; he told his cinematographer, Benoît Debie, that it should look like it was “lit with Skittles.” In one recurring image, a fluorescent greenish-yellow bong is held up against a shining sun by the hairy arm of a frat boy partying on the beach. Is this beautiful or ugly? It represents everything about spring break that is degenerate, violent, insane, joyful, playful and free. Perhaps it’s morally gross and visually gorgeous? Whatever—it’s complex, and thus profoundly memorable.
“I like going for the abstract or for the confusing image or the confusing emotion,” he explains, “because it’s more interesting to me—that you can look at something sometimes and be equal parts attracted and horrified. That’s always been in all my movies, the idea of, What is beauty? What is horror? And not really knowing, and having both things working on you simultaneously.” Beauty, for Korine, lies not in the realm of pure, Platonic Beauty. (Could Jessica Biel hold any interest for him? His original leading lady was the jolie-laide Sevigny, who he was with for many years.) Beauty must be mixed with something else. The beauty (and ugliness) of Korine’s men and women is never simple: It never only repels or only attracts—it always does both things at once, creating that “physical response.”
I felt, after seeing this film, that it is silly, simplistic and dull to try to be simply beautiful. Instead, true, lasting and compelling beauty is always a mix of what draws you close and pushes you away. The girls— though their bodies are conventionally beautiful— can’t be put on the same shelf as models. They are beautiful in the way that great art is: They are fascinating. In their innocence and zeal, their dirtiness and fluorescence, and their goodness and badness, they reveal something new and true. Theirs is a beauty that’s as complex as a piece of shit. If we did not know that shit was shit, would we find something captivating about it? I think so. His girls present a new New Look: one that exudes as sunshine as well as shit. Here, spring breakers have nothing on trash humpers. If we would let Korine’s world seep into our own, hot girls would have nothing on their grandmothers.