Spring Breakers: exploitation/art cinema

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers offers a fascinating combination of elements of exploitation and art cinema, two key ingredients often found in the mix that constitutes indie film but employed here in a blend that’s somewhat jarring and uncomfortable – but also thought-provoking.

spring breakers poster

One the one hand, there’s lots of classic exploitation material. Initially, this involves much footage of what appears to be almost the ultimate in youth-sex-drugs-and-drink excess: groups of scantily clad college students in close physical proximity, with booze being poured via tubes down gullets and smoking of bongs – the apparatus for all of this preferably being of lewd appearance. This seems like the acme (or nadir) of such terrain, the early stages of the film seeming to promise something like a non-stop wallow in such forms of excessive indulgence. Later, after the four bikini-clad principals fall in with an over-the-top rapper/gangster figure, the above mix is enrichened (in exploitation terms) by the trappings, again excessive, of the requisite generic terrain: a fetishistic panoply of guns, pimp-style motors, piles of cash and luxury-camp settings (there’s also an earlier, nicely-stylized robbery sequence).

Through all of this, however, the film employs quite radical formal strategies, departing sharply from mainstream norms particularly in its denial of any of real sense of emotional proximity to the central characters. Imagery is quite heavily stylized, in bright colours and a disjointed sense of shifting backwards and forwards in time. Dialogue is often repeated, sometimes on multiple occasions, as the film veers sometimes further in the direction of the more overtly poetical style familiar from Korine’s most noted  feature Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), including some sequences shot in a swirling-pixellated format. The soundtrack is also similarly mixed in resonances, combining thumping rap that seems to buy into the aesthetic of party-excess with the coolly distancing impressions created by a typical Cliff Martinez score (as per his work on Soderberg titles such as Traffic [2000] and Solaris [2002]).

What should we make of this combination? It’s certainly a film that would be expected to attract very mixed reactions. Anyone attracted by the main poster image – the four scantily clad  principals, as reproduced above – and expecting a typically mainstream ‘raunchy youth’ movie is likely to be puzzled by the distance of the film’s overall feel from anything more conventional – while those receptive to the more arty dimension are liable to be discomforted by the volume of near-naked display of exploitation standards. The best of both worlds – or, maybe for more viewers, exactly the opposite, satisfying neither? Does the arty material undercut what might otherwise be straightforward ‘cheap’ exploitation, or does it seek to legitimate it and provide cover? I don’t think there’s a simple answer or that it’s so clear-cut.

Maybe there would be no reason for the latter – cover for exploitation – as anyone who wanted to treat this territory in that manner would be far better off (literally, in financial terms) playing it more straight. The trailer, unsurprisingly, emphasises the obviously commercial, exploitation dimension. Personally, I found the film grew on me the longer it progressed and has seemed more interesting the more I’ve thought about it, and in retrospect. Which is often a marker at least of something more thought-provoking than most. If combinations of exploitation and artiness are usually somewhat smoother in the indie sector, an example such as this offers a good illustration of the different pulls that such dimensions can effect on the text and the kinds of responses it’s likely to encourage.

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