We can get as close as we want so long as we maintain critical distance.
This philosophy, primitively grasped, guides the four young women in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, who skip through frame after frame of booze, bongs, and omnipresent breasts only to phone home and tell their parents that they’re learning so much. If the largely appreciative reviews are any indication, filmgoers escaped with a similar sense of edification.
Neither embarrassment nor titillation is a sufficiently sophisticated response to the indiscretions captured by Korine’s ambivalent camera. Call the film sexist or racist (concerns about indecency, I’m afraid, are as anachronistic as is the Britney Spears in the film’s soundtrack) and you’ve missed out on the ironic point of the party. For those viewers in on the game, Korine’s work will curl nothing but amused lips, raise nothing but knowing eyebrows. We are to smirk rather than leer, and it all works well enough that one wonders why St. Alphonsus Liguori did not prescribe irony to young Christian men.
Korine very earnestly hopes this irony can save him and us from sin, but the sin he’s worried about is not immodesty but moralism. As in the straightforwardly named Trash Humpers, Korine dares us to prove our tolerance, challenges the limits of our cosmopolitanism. How committed are we to not turning away in disgust? How long can our fascination outlast our revulsion? (For the film editors, the answer was ninety-two minutes.)
One’s opinion of the ethical value of Spring Breakers, then, will depend on what one makes of the ethic of nonjudgmentalism that it impressively elaborates. It is possible to admire the piety of a man whose beliefs differ greatly from one’s own, and Korine proves himself a singularly devoted servant of the closest thing we have to a public faith. As if to prove his commitment, Korine even casts his wife Rachel Korine as one of the damned damsels.
It is perhaps worth nothing, then, that Rachel Korine’s character is inseparable from the other starlets until the real sex scenes begin. For reasons unexplained by the film, Rachel disappears before an early romp involving James Franco and her sidearm-wielding friends. Then Mrs. Korine leaves the film again (this time for good) before Franco and the two others begin an extended sex scene that her co-star, Disney starlet Vanessa Hudgens, said she found harrowing.
Critical distance has a hard time when it approaches what touches us most closely. Irony, however faithfully we serve it, cannot immunize us against everything.