The title glows in stylised fuchsia, purple, and white lettering on a black background. A synth melody enters over constantly shifting chords and a programmed hi-hat. The screen cuts to a blast of vibrant coastal light and the camera pans behind young, suntanned, sunburnt, mostly female, bodies – arms aloft in skimpy swimwear, dancing, jumping in slow motion – as the four-four beat rises up from underneath the music, prefiguring the ‘drop’. The camera floats now among them, staying mostly at torso level, cutting off their heads. The first clear point of focus, as an ultra-processed vocal melody enters the soundtrack, is a bronzed midriff which the camera glides down to land on smoothly gyrating hips covered by yellow bikini bottoms. The camera points skyward for the second, panning across the elated face of a reveller as she shakes her head and holds the neon orange funnel and neon green tube of a beer bong up to the cloudless sky.
A weird vocal sample – ‘You guys, oh my God!’, sounding as if recorded on a cranky dictaphone – enters and then, there is the drop. A paralyzingly powerful bassline shudders to life, overwhelming the speakers. A man in baggy blue beach shorts, his face obscured by the beer can he drinks from, grabs his crotch. Bikini-clad buttocks are twerked in slo-mo and, in one of the few shots to outlast the two-second mark, beer pours over shimmying, enhanced breasts. There’s a cut, but it’s only to a close-up of the shimmying, enhanced breasts. Middle fingers are raised, tongues extended and a man mimes masturbation with an open beer bottle. You think this scene, such as it is, will end as the music relents and the camera floats around a group of women suggestively sucking red, white and blue ice lollies sat in a patch of beach grass, but no, there’s more. A line of women lie face up on the sand, propped up on their elbows, drinking beer that pours on them from cans held at crotch-level by men standing over them, imitating urination. White teeth are bared in belligerent ecstasy. It ends in a smash cut to black as reverb from the stopped soundtrack drifts spectrally out into the darkness.
This scene opens Harmony Korine’s 2012 Spring Breakers. Korine is a singular figure in independent cinema. Despite now approaching his fiftieth birthday, he is still referred to as an enfant terrible, which stems, at least partially, from the visceral nature of his best work (the other part doubtless comes from the ramshackle public persona he cultivated in his early career). The sequences in his films are rarely as bombastic and in-your-face as the Spring Breakers opening but otherwise, in its intense physicality and withholding of moral judgement, that scene is consistent with much of the rest of his output. Any other director may have laced the sequence with a sense of moral corruption or, more likely, let the plot unfold to make such orgiastic thrill-seeking seem morally suspect in retrospect. Not Korine – he is happy to shoot a scene of (literally) naked hedonism and let it stand as exactly that. His four most effective feature-length films are all driven by a concern for the material world – with human bodies the most frequent point of focus – apparently unencumbered by any desire to make it conform to our psychological, narrative, moral, or other metaphysical expectations. Such a ‘blank’ approach is prevalent in avant-garde filmmaking, and ubiquitous in the kinds of films shown as installations in galleries, but rarely practiced with such dedication in general-release features. Accordingly, his films have been derided as pretentious and self-indulgent. But their startling originality has also been praised, perhaps most effusively by the late Roger Ebert when he wrote that Korine ‘belongs on the list with Godard, Cassavetes, Herzog, Warhol, Tarkovsky, Brakhage and others who smash conventional movies and reassemble the pieces’.