Art and Film

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

Art and Film

By James Franco July 9, 2014

Part 1: Alien

James Franco as "Alien" in Spring Breakers, 2013. Courtesy of Spring Breakers LLC and A24 Films.  

What’s in a name, homegirl? What’s in a name?
Everything and nothing that you thought,
When y’all's mothers and fathers named you
Sarah, or Eve; or yo’ brothers Cain, and Abel.

These be ancient names, like Moses, and Jesus,
And Mohamed, and Pharaoh; but all these names
Be of the earth, be of man; and homegirl,
I be anything but of this earth. I am in it,

But not of it; I’m deep in it, relish it, like vagina;
Like an alligator deep within the swamp water
Who gets to lie about and eat the fishes passing,
Sweet pods of Mother Nature’s love I accept.

But I’m Alien, girl, an alien. The sheikh gathers treasure,
Not because he needs the glitter, but because
That sumofabitch can. I’m a racist, girl, a racist
Against the human race. I’m not of this world.

Part 2: Spring Break

Genet is not really arguing that “cruelty is good” or “cruelty is holy” (a moral statement, albeit the opposite of traditional morality), but rather shifting the argument to another plane, from the moral to the aesthetic.1—Susan Sontag

For what is Stanley Kowalski? He is the embodiment of animal force, of brute life unconcerned and even consciously scornful of every value that does not come within the scope of such a life… He is the unwitting antichrist of our time, the little man who will break the back of every effort to create a more comprehensive world in which thought and conscience, a broader humanity are expected to evolve from the old Adam. His mentality provides the soil for fascism, viewed not as a political movement but as a state of being.2Harold Clurman

Harmony Korine. Spring Breakers, 2013 (film still); 01:34:00. Courtesy of Spring Breakers LLC and A24 Films.  

Here’s the end of it all, and I’ll tell you why: Because there will never be a movie or a character that is more important for this age. Spring Breakers’ Alien is 2013. As Werner Herzog, a friend of Harmony’s, said to me, on a phone call of all phone calls—I was out in North Carolina, sitting in a little Mexican restaurant called Cocula that I frequent on my lunch breaks from the low-residency writing program at Warren Wilson College, just staring out the window frosted with the map of Mexico at the dirty field across the roadway—when he told me that my performance in the film made De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976) look like kindergarten, and that the film was the most important film of the decade. Imagine a distinct German accent: “Three hundred years from now, when people want to look back at dis time, they won’t go to the Obama inauguration speech, dey will go to Spring Breakers.

I don’t even take credit for Alien. He is Harmony’s. As he says, Alien is a gangster–mystic. A clown, a killer, a lover, the spirit of the age. Riff Raff wants to take credit for this creation, but that simplifies it. It is like Neal Cassady taking credit for Dean Moriarty, and that’s not even as close, because Jack Kerouac was actually writing about Neal. Alien undermines all. He’s a gangster who can deep-throat automatic weapons just like Linda Lovelace. He’s the guru of the age. He’s what you would get if you got every damn material thing you ever wanted. Bring it on, little bitches, come to me, little bitches. We didn’t create this sensitive monster, y’all did. Look at his shit—that’s what y’all are working fo yo-selves.

The film is like trance music in movie form. It is a liquid film. Scenes flow in and out of each other. A scene will start and then the imagery will jump to another scene, sometimes from the past, sometimes from the future, while the audio from the initial scene continues to play. Repetition is used, most prominently with Alien’s Southern, sizzurp-inflected drawl, rolling out in languid syllables so that each is enjoyed to the fullest, reminiscent—although with his own depraved, contemporary hip-hop spin—of Humbert Humbert’s delectation over the individuation of his young love’s name: Lo-li-ta, as it trips along the tongue. But for Alien, his long, relaxed exhale of Sppprrrrrrriiiiiiinnnnnngggggg Brrrreeeeeeeeaaaaaa again and again emanates more from the back of the throat—deep throat, you might say—and just to the side, to give it its arch Southern twang. This intonation, repeated and repeated like a mantra, is hypnotism, and as every reviewer has said, in an unprecedented overuse of a descriptive phrase: It pulls us into a “fever dream” of sex, violence, and materialism.

Some motherfuckers say the film depressed them because of the way it depicts our times. These be the motherfuckers who have a stake in representing our times to ourselves, those motherfuckers in the entertainment business who want to present the clean, polished, heteronormative “nerds, jocks, and white dudes win” kind of lifestyle. Well, here is the film that shows the white dudes, the privileged dudes, using black culture, using YouTube culture, using any culture that fits their needs to entertain themselves, to turn themselves into stars.

  Harmony Korine. Spring Breakers, 2013 (film still); 01:34:00. Courtesy of Spring Breakers LLC and A24 Films.    

The teens were a little shocked, too. They thought they were going to get a Selena Gomez film? Sorry, motherfuckers, this ain’t High School Musical. This ain’t a happy teen romp, this is the movie that takes all that stuff that makes your music and videos and social-networking lifestyles and uses it against you. But it ain’t just a critique, little bitches, it is also a celebration. This is why Selena and gang are in the film. Of course they are talented little actresses, but they also embody the time, their legends follow them into the diegetic frame of the film, coloring everything they do like a mist of meta-commentary that is constantly saying: What you are watching is extreme, yes, but it is all subtext, bitches. Every time you watch Britney Spears or any of her current offspring swing around in skimpy lingerie, draping themselves across sweaty bodies of anonymous men, the message is just this: fuck, fuck, fuck; suck, suck, suck; violence; materialism; drugs, drugs, drugs; live fast, never die because you will live on through Facebook legends; Spring Break, Spring Break, Spring Break foreva!

What is Spring Break? In this film, it is not the MTV-sponsored parties that take over and infect various beach locations across the American continent, although that version of spring break is certainly evoked for its imagery. In this film, spring break is escape, spring break means we are all stars in our self-recorded iPhone films, spring break means all inhibitions are off.

You want a story? Fuck a story. No one wants stories nowadays. People want experiences. Music is the medium of the soul, no? Pop music is all surface, you say? Is that not the tale of our times? We play video games ad nauseam, why? Not for the stories—even though some games like Grand Theft Auto are noted for their involved narrative frames—but for the experience. Here is a film that engages. Go on the ride, little bitches, let it take you over. People complain there are no characters, just interchangeable people? No shit, look around motherfuckers, we are what we consume. We are what we watch, what we listen to, what we play, what we wear, what we put on our Facebook page.

Into the mix Harmony threw a few other things: the ATL Twins, and Dangeruss, a local rapper from the area we shot in, St. Petersburg, Florida. Oh, yeah, and Gucci Mane. Real and synthetic all mix in this pot. Demons and angels commingle. The mix is as various as the two poles of Britney Spears and Gucci Mane, all brought together by the grounding sound mix of Skrillex and Cliff Martinez. That’s what it all is, a remix.

The look? Neon, bitch. Neon, palm trees, beaches, booties, and strip clubs. Florida, motherfuckers. All caught by Benoît Debie, the cinematographer of Gaspar Noé. When Harmony first pitched the project, he wanted it to be a Britney Spears video meets a Gaspar Noé film, and that’s what he delivered.

How did it all come together? Harmony. Harmony put it all in harmony. Twenty years after Kids (1995), he has followed up his zeitgeist film with a new portrait of the times. Spring Breakers is the neo-realism of the Facebook age. Where The Social Network (2010) was a movie about money, deals, greed, backstabbing, and a court case—anything but the technology that defined the new way kids were socializing—Spring Breakers is the embodiment of such technological engagement. It is everything that we are today. You’re welcome.

Part 3: Art and Film

Even though we don’t want to think that our tastes in movies are conditioned by commercial success, we have been trained to consider how well a movie sells as part of its artistic value. It doesn’t matter if a film like Twilight is comparatively good or bad next to more critically accepted films, it gains cultural value by the sheer size of its footprint and ticket sales. Twilight, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, the Kardashians, Jersey Shore, Survivor, the Beatles, the Stones, Justin Bieber, Nirvana, E.T., and Friends all must be contended with. Because they become touchstones for popular culture, they define eras. Anything which is that influential is, in a sense, beyond critique, meaning critics can’t really affect its commercial success, and outside of the marketplace, it becomes an object for academics to hang ideas upon.

I created two movies with the artist Carter: Erased James Franco (2008) and Maladies (2012). Erased James Franco was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s drawing Erased de Kooning, in which one artist erased, or at least elided, the performance of another. When Carter approached me about the project, I told him that a fully erased performance, all done in my head with only 10 percent coming to the surface, would be great as a gallery video, but he said he wanted a film that would play in a theater. After filming me for five minutes sitting in a chair doing nothing, he realized that he wanted at least 50 percent of the performance to come to the surface. Once we landed on that approach, we needed material for me to perform. Carter culled scenes from some of my early films (City by the Sea, Spider-Man, Annapolis, The Ape, Good Time Max, James Dean) as well as scenes from other films (Safe with Julianne Moore, and Seconds with Rock Hudson), but they were odd scenes, with actions that are incidental to the plot: walking, walking through doors, eating, drinking, talking on the phone, drawing, and painting. The resulting film was strange, ironic, dreamy, and strangely moving, as if the central character was in a daze and working out his issues using the lines from earlier scenes from his life.

Carter. Erased James Franco, 2008 (compilation stills); 01:03:00. Courtesy of Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris.  

It was a perfect piece to bridge the film and art worlds. It could play in cinemas, but it was sold as an art piece through a gallery; it didn’t need to sell tickets to recoup its budget. It was made for the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris and then shown in the theaters at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center. The audiences in these locations were more conditioned to experience it as art rather than as entertainment, even viewing it from start to finish. They did not say, “I paid good money to see this, I better be entertained.” They were there because they wanted to see a film that was going to push the medium in unexpected ways: through narrative fracturing, scene fracturing, character melding, and repetition. So in those contexts, it was a success.

Maladies was our follow-up project. It was also intended to be a piece that bridged the film and art worlds, or at least that was my intention. It’s a good movie, but it was problematically contextualized. When an artist decides to make a film, you hope she can retain some of her aesthetic and creative uniqueness in the new medium. The problem is that movies are valued in a different way from art—the value of one is measured by its popularity and the other by its rarity—and people have the expectation to be entertained in a theater. There is a host of other expectations that filmmakers have to meet to achieve commercially successful films:

* Length: under two hours;

* Story: a gripping narrative that compels us to care about the characters;

* Spectacle: Give us something that is exciting, expensive, and takes us out of our everyday experiences;

* Understanding: Don’t make us think too hard. We paid good money, and we want to feel like we’re being catered to.

Many of these things are based on the expediency requirements of the distribution centers. People don’t want to sit in theaters for too long. But it can be argued that this is a learned limitation. Movies weren’t always 90 to 120 minutes, but movie houses and filmmakers found this to be the money spot: long enough to tell a dramatic tale, yet short enough to have multiple screenings per day and sell more popcorn. As this length became standardized, the duration of rising and falling dramatic action became more ingrained in practice, and in pedagogy as people wrote books about dramatic arcs and taught such techniques at film schools. Art films exist in part because they are trying to accomplish new things with the medium. Thank goodness for YouTube and its ilk, because alternative material can be produced and distributed outside of the traditional system. All the work that was previously generated at places like CalArts and seen by a handful of people now has a free and open forum.

Robert Rauschenberg. Erased de Kooning, 1953; traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame; 25.25 x 21.75 x.5 in. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Blackwell.  

So the problem with something like Maladies is what it cost. It started as a self-reflexive art project, much in the vein of Erased James Franco. It would involve the refashioning of other films (including A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1959’s Compulsion based on Leopold and Loeb) as well as bunches of mine and Carter’s lives mixed in. At a small budget, this would have been a very worthy project. But the financier wanted to spend at least a million dollars, and as strange as it sounds, I tried to tell everyone “no.” Carter had never directed a feature film before and didn’t know that by taking that money, he would lose control of his film. (The financier had invested a significant amount of money and wanted to make it back.) The film would also be pushed into a new category: It would no longer be seen as an art piece; it became an indie film. Therefore it had to entertain! And the film is entertaining. It’s a quirky little thing that explores queerness of all sorts—queerness of the odd, queerness of the LGBT community, queerness in art, queerness of the artist—and does so with fun. But there is a language and tradition in the indie film world that this film wasn’t quite in tune with. The narrative became of primary importance because of the money spent. So a few things, like my character’s odd singing of Both Sides Now (1968) by Joni Mitchell while greeting the morning, were cut because they interfered with the narrative. Sadly, Carter didn’t know to turn down the money and to make the movie for a fraction of what was spent. Most of the film was shot in a single house in the Rockaways, after all.

A film like Spring Breakers is able to flourish both artistically and commercially because it is a piece of art disguised as a piece of pop gloss. Harmony had the brilliant idea (among many others on this film) to cast Disney actresses in his wild exploration of pop culture on the edge in the age of YouTube. By using Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson—all of whom have millions upon millions of tween female fans, as documented by social-networking tallies—Harmony mashed up two ends of the pop-culture rainbow: glossy teens on the verge of womanhood, at that crucial point of transition when they become Miley Cyruses, or Jessica Albas, or nobodies, and the dirty, indie/art world of sex, drugs, and hip-hop.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Howl, 2010 (film still); 01:24:00. Courtesy of Werc Werk Works.    

The movie revels in these juxtapositions and its dual nature. It celebrates certain lifestyles at the same time that it critiques them. The actresses are utilized for the myths that they bring from their previous worlds, but in Spring Breakers such baggage leads unsuspecting viewers into a completely different world. Only Blue Jasmine outperformed Spring Breakers on specialty screens in 2013; the movie earned more than ten times its cost because it was able to draw audiences that wouldn’t normally see such a film. Of course, many fans didn’t understand what they were watching and responded harshly, but this is because they were expecting a typical Selena Gomez movie: vapid, fun, and full of cute clothes.

Spring Breakers is an innovative piece of art that poses as entertainment, and because it gives a film audience enough of what they want with one hand, it is able to deliver a bit of art with the other hand. It’s really the old game that the New Wave gang delineated while admiring the Hollywood studio directors John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks: the ability to make individualistic work within a system. In those days, the system was the top-down model of the studios, but even though the locations of the tent poles of power in today’s movie business have changed, it is still an oligarchy based largely on money. The trick is to balance the investment with the art—a little for them (the audience) and a little for you (the artist).


  1. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 171.
  2. Harold Clurman, The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974), 16.

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