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Dispatch from TIFF: Spring Breakers and Argo

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It’s the third day of the Toronto International Film Festival and my notebook is filled with scrawls that don’t make any sense. Like “Adam Driver” followed by a question mark. Or, “See Art School Confidential.” Or, “The story of the diamond robbery.” And also Selena Gomez insisting she does everything for her fans, including her clothing line. Who is this person, and why does she have a clothing line? And why did she create a clothing line for fans? This was in regard to a question about money.

But Spring Breakers, by Harmony Korine, was a revelation. It was like an answer to a question on a test: What is art? It was a strange movie about music and surfaces, an outside look at the inside of a cultural idea. After the movie Korine said he wanted to make a movie about surfaces because that’s what so much of society is right now. These people, all they care about is money, bitches, clothes, and guns. It’s all appearance. Underneath is a scared child, or a person capable of great love.

The thing about Spring Breakers, with its strange cuts, bizarre scattered photography, and looping dialogue, is it never lets up. This movie is relentless. I thought, This is like a tone poem. But not like the tone poems of 2011 where you were never quite sure what was happening, movies like Tree Of Life, Rampart, and Melancholia. This is like a street poem, a slam poem. And it’s never for a moment boring.

I’m curious about the narrative in Spring Breakers, given to us in points repeated. I’ve never seen this done so well. There’s very little dialogue, but there’s great story and pacing.  Like, “You used to be my best friend.” Rather than expounding on that we hear the same line over different visuals. Each time the narrative shifts we’re given the one thing we need to know and the rest is music, the sound of guns cocking, the partiers dancing on the beach, if relevant, or the quiet house right up against the water. It’s as if Scarface was a Disney cartoon staring Mickey Mouse and Goofy, with Donald Duck stabbed in the heart bleeding to death in the middle of an orgy, but it was good. And we’re fed the same sentence, “Grandma, I’m having the best time of my life. I wish you were here to share this with me.”

There is a scene, toward the end, the girls in bright string bikinis, blue ski masks, guns drawn, approaching the home of the drug lord.  And they’re outside but they look like they’re inside, like they’re in a nightclub, everything glowing beneath the black lights.

And also, James Franco might actually be a character actor, as opposed to a leading man. He might be Robert DeNiro but not George Clooney. Look at Howl, for example, and compare it to Planet of the Apes. You might like Planet of the Apes, but not for Franco. And you might dislike Howl, but there is no doubt James Franco became Allen Ginsburg in that movie.

At any rate, I walked out of The Sessions because of Spring Breakers, though I could tell it was a good movie and that John Hawkes would deserve an Oscar, the way he did for Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. But in Spring Breakers you never knew what was going to happen. Even if you hate the movie, and so very many people are going to hate this movie, you’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t remember the last time I really liked an “art film” as opposed to an “independent film.” As opposed to a movie that is a great work of art or transcendent entertainment. I’m not talking Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen. I’m talking Meek’s Cutoff, or Take This Waltz. I’m talking everything by Terrence Malick since Days Of Heaven, I’m talking Last Days by Gus Van Sant, and also My Own Private Idaho, which might actually be my favorite art film, though already the terms are blurring together.

Earlier today I saw a terrible movie by one of my favorite directors. I’m not going to name the movie, but he had made one of my very favorite movies for under two million dollars a few years ago and now he’s made a horrible movie for close to ten million. A movie that relies on your caring about character you can’t care about. It was so upsetting, thinking how people write great books or record great albums and then follow with something terrible, or just something not particularly good, something they spent years on. I say this as someone that has put failed art into the world and also art I’m very satisfied with. How, when you miss by a little bit you miss completely. That’s when the artist goes back to the woods. He or she has to disappear for a while. Maybe they never come back. And then occasionally they come back with something better than they’ve ever done. Happens all the time, like failure, which happens all the time too.

Then, last night I saw Argo at the big theater. Argo was the first screening I went to that wasn’t a press and industry screening. Ben Affleck took the stage before the movie and said he wouldn’t take too long. Then he started thanking people. “__ is a good friend, a great actor, did me such a favor being part of this movie.” He said some version of that for at least twenty people, maybe thirty. He would change the words around, “___ is a great actor, and a good friend who was part of this movie, doing me such a favor.” “But we couldn’t have made this movie without ___.” It was stunning because he couldn’t possible mean it. Even if he did mean it. It was like being fucked by a machine. But the movie was perfect. Not perfect like Spring Breakers. Argo was a classic huge movie, like Three Days of the Condor or Day of the Jackal or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was rock solid, the music building, your heart pounding through your rib cage, the stakes continually going up a notch. Every time someone said something even a little bit funny you had to laugh, just for the relief from holding your breath.

Where did Ben Affleck learn how to do that? I asked at the after party. I was hanging out with Dave, who had the original idea for the movie. He gathered the materials, contacted who he needed to contact, and eventually hooked up with Josh Bearman, who wrote the article for Wired Magazine, which was then optioned by George Clooney, and which, a few years later, was Argo. After Josh there was the screenwriter, then casting. Before the movie Affleck said he stood on the shoulders of the screenwriter. It was obviously a great script. The dialogue was almost absurdly crisp. Still, you could see what happens to writers. The same thing that happens to all of us eventually. In a large restaurant, not just with several rooms, but with reserved booths and also with inclines and declines. Part of the restaurant was literally higher than the other part of the restaurant. Some of the rooms weren’t open, even if you were invited, and had passed all the security and velvet ropes, there was still more velvet rope. The place was so perfectly tiered it was amazing. It was like the military. You looked around and you could see people’s rank. They might as well have had bars and medals pinned to their jacket.

I should also mention Looper and On The Road, but I don’t really have any reason to. Looper is a pretty good movie that could have been great but isn’t. And I think Argo and Spring Breakers are both great movies, though on opposite ends of the spectrum, and maybe on different spectrums altogether. Spring Breakers is capital A Art and Argo is a MOVIE. Argo is so good that it’s also smart, and you’re thrilled but you also learn a little something. It’s entertainment that tickles your brain. And it’s also art, just no capital a, I guess. But Looper is not great, though for the first forty minutes I was certain it was the best movie I’d ever seen. And On The Road is the kind of movie you say isn’t as good as the book. But it’s really not as good as the book.

That all I have through Day 3, though I also saw a table read of American Beauty, a stark reminder of how good that movie is. And how fun table readings are, especially with good actors and a good script. And sitting around reading lines with actors. And it’s raining.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →