Consider the Image or, "Look At All My Shit"

The following was prompted by these two questions from Noah Lyons: Why did you leave out Spring Breakers from your top 100? Secondly, how do you feel about A Serbian Film?

My experience with Spring Breakers was complicated. As it unfolded I hated it, I loved it, I hated it, I loved it. It's beautiful, it's stupid, it's hilarious, it's monotonous. Wonderful highs, depressing lows. When I walked out of the theatre I thought I'd seen a film I loved. That quickly passed. I still think it's encouraging to see Harmony Korine's imagination taking off in fascinating new directions, as when his gangsta rap Svengali leads the girls in singing Britney Spears before and during a violent robbery. I think his work with James Franco needs to be commended because I can't think of a time when the ubiquitous star was better cast or more enjoyable. The problem was he also seemed to think he was the only person who'd noticed that kids sure are behaving badly these days, what with their materialism and drug use and their cellphones and hula hoops. I can think of six or seven films from last year with the same thesis that didn't wear out their welcome as quickly or feel the need to repeat any shots to belabor a point. One of the film's highlights is a robbery seen from the window of the getaway car, but it's blown when Korine then replays the segment from inside the diner, too proud of his work to let the breathless sequence lie. It's a show-off move that hints at a dire lack of focus. One of my biggest personal rules: if you repeat footage, there'd better a good fucking reason. I take a firm stance on issues of footage manipulation, of directors who disrespect the fact of the image. The other night I watched Ramin Bahrani's massively disappointing new film At Any Cost. A lot of people blame the Dennis Quaid performance, but it's really only behaving the same way the images do on that bland, flattening digital image. Nuance vanishes, these are now actors moving across a room. Quaid is big in the hopes of reaching the threshold of the image's tensile strength. Bahrani thought nothing of what his camera would do to motion, faces or the drama, and the resultant artless bore bears none of its creator's more humane touches because he gave up the image for dead.

Korine cares about his images, let no one tell you different, but enthusiasm overtook motivation. Some striking compositions appear and disappear quickly -  that beautiful shot of his three feral coeds silhouetted in the rain ought to convince anyone he knows what he's doing. The problem is the rest of the film could have used some of the composed nature of its most memorable seconds. Many of the conversations take place in close-ups that feel designed to make the viewer uncomfortable, or, worse, like they were chosen for no practical purpose at all. Too much incident sits at the crux of discomfort and obscenity-for-its-own-sake. Korine can't have it both ways, at least not from where I'm sitting. The frenzied opening montage of topless beach-goers being sprayed with beer is edited to match the rhythms of the dubstep-infused score, but the camera itself has no part to play in this dance. It just heads straight for whatever naked torso is nearest. Too much of the film feels randomly captured, which would be fine, except for those stunning couple of ultra-directed tableaux that are meant to mix with them like they weren't rocks dropped into streams. If he can take the time to compose, not to mention beautifully art direct, a few scenes here and there, his 'Jay-Z music video' aesthetic that eats the majority of the film feels like a cop-out. The plot, when it kicks in, tells us he's having fun with the idea of lost youth, but his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink subject gathering and lack of focus in the edit says he's trying to say something important, hence the repetition. He's too selectively emphatic, and it begins to feel like he hadn't met his running time requirement and improvised in the editing room.

Point of view is another big issue. Korine found subjects willing to take their tops off, which to me says he needs to earn that. Is the film a celebration of go-for-broke youthful indulgence, or a back-handed condemnation? Too many of his girls go home hurt and psychologically damaged for him to fully believe that the ones who stay are making the right choice. I'd frankly have preferred if he'd gone all out, because his moral hand-wringing, presented as a retina-tiring parade of gratuitous young flesh, felt boring at best, hypocritical and irrelevant at worst. A little focus and this could have been a Michael Mann-style thriller about a couple of Disney Princess Scarfaces. And boy fucking howdy would I ever watch that. I can't get that image of a girl leaving Florida on a bus in the early hours of the morning. That's one of the most tragic, retiring and gorgeous scenes of 2013, and it hints at what might have been with a firmer grip on the narrative and a more discerning approach to cinematography. It's the inverse of Mann's Thief in a lot of ways,  trading specificity for vagueness, four girls for one man, ugliness for superficial beauty, a yearning for domesticity for a descent into wildness, a foundation for a dream. One knows exactly what it wants, the other wants everything and settles for nothing. But both have an expansive relationship to their urban environments that transcends genre. Thief is all discipline, Spring Breakers woke up late and then started drinking. Franco's "Look at all my shit" monologue serves an auto-critique. Korine has orchestrated so much and can't settle down to show it all coherently. He wants to see it all, but only succeeds in micro details, when he's calmed down enough to let his work speak for itself. As it stands, Trash Humpers, which grows into a bigger and more important work every time I think about it, was far and away the better film on this subject, and made me much less uncomfortable. My enjoyment of that film wasn't conditional. 

Speaking of uncomfortable: A Serbian Film! I hated it. Once upon a time I reviewed it and though christ is it ever wordy, I still agree with what my younger, angrier self had to say. Something as stiflingly slick as A Serbian Film, not to mention as relentlessly stupid and pretentious, ought not to talk down to its audience like it just read a book on Eastern European history and their first sexual harassment blog. It plays like cold war fan fiction written by Wednesday Adams, though she was eternally more witty and light-hearted than the hapless clowns behind A Serbian Film. Back when I spent most of my time critiquing horror and smut films the edict I adopted was that any filmmaker who outdoes the real-world cruelties they're out to expose shouldn't be making movies. There's a difference between enlightening and punishing, and I happen to think that one can be detrimental to our cultural relationship to history. People can give Dallas Buyer's Club and 12 Years A Slave shit for being what they think a straight, white viewership expects from an issue film, but I'd take that over an ethics lesson from someone who delights in dreaming up creative ways to torture people. Meretricious as they might come off, Jean-Marc Vallée and Steve McQueen aren't condescending, and for the record I think they're both great directors. Srdjan Spasojevic, meanwhile, is insanely condescending and has no moral high ground because he'd stoop to showing infants being raped for the sake of his lesson. What can we possibly learn from someone who takes such glee in depicting something like that? If he's wounded or personally upset by crimes committed against the Serbian people, he doesn't act like it. Films like Men Behind The Sun, Goodbye Uncle Tom, and A Serbian Film all lose their objectivity in the name of recrimination. They aren't crusades, they're empty atrocity exhibitions which expose their makers as decadent, unfeeling bullshit artists.

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