Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spring Breakers in Tampa Bay: Glorying in the Pirates' Beautiful Wreck

This piece was originally commissioned to run in the online version of Creative Loafing Tampa.  It was apparently declined - all I know is that it never ran.  Maybe why it wasn't wanted will be more clear to you than to me (I have yet to get an explanation from the editor).

People in Tampa Bay have been fretting about director Harmony Korine’s new movie, Spring Breakers, understandably perturbed by a film set in their hometown that is, if the previews are any indication, a serving of debauchery with a side of carnage.  I moved to Tampa Bay in August of 2011, bringing a completely clean slate.  I had never even been to Florida, but I was offered a job, and so I came.  As an outsider who has now seen the length and breadth of the Bay, and who has now seen Spring Breakers, I think the film gets Tampa Bay right.  Not mainly in the hedonism, the crime, or the murder, though I know there are plenty of those around here.  As anyone familiar with Harmony Korine must have known (his last film was titled Trash Humpers, and that title is just as literal as this one), Spring Breakers is not the simple exploitation movie it’s being billed as.  It’s an uncomfortable meditation that captures a feeling unique to Tampa Bay.  It shows a truth that’s difficult, but that should be treasured.

Much of what I found when I came to Tampa Bay reminded me of my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas: brutal heat, tatty public facilities, and a sprawling highway system and six-lane surface roads that marked it as a driving town.  There were differences, too – from St. Pete to Temple Terrace, the poverty was more in-your-face than at home, with panhandlers on every intersection and condemned homes around every corner.  Those unlucky enough not to own a car raced, Frogger-style, across those wide roads, infants in tow, praying for their lives.  Groups of men lounged aimlessly in the green spaces of grocery store parking lots.

Also different from home, though, was the multi-species parade of brighter things mixed right in with that abrasive reality.  There were the professionals that occasionally ventured from South Tampa, sometimes classy and more often delightfully cartoonish.  There were the hipsters, legion with their tattoos and mustaches, in bars across the street from by-the-hour motels.  In October of 2011, there were anarchists in the streets.  There were hand-painted signs for jerk chicken and oxtails.  There was a creative class throwing together shoestring and tape and getting things done.  There were the mangroves and vines stretching through suburban backyards like Father Knows Best got transplanted to Borneo.  There were the nonprofits and activists striving to make things better.  There were lizards sunning themselves on sidewalks, scattering with each step.

Spring Breakers’ story of hedonism and bad endings is just a superficial detail, part of the trappings that let this slow, smallish art film pass as a big deal party-caper flick (Amazingly, it cracked the Billboard Top 10 this weekend, but given broadly negative reactions from misled audiences, watch for it to drop like a rock). The movie’s soul, ironically, is on its surface.  Korine’s focus is on the feeling he hangs on his inconsequential plot, a hallucinatory strangeness fleshed it out with garish colors, ethereal voice overs, blunted melodies, slow pans, and harsh lighting.  The vibe is lonesome and desperate, like it’s all a frantic display of confidence by someone whose soul is crumbling.  It’s a feeling Korine said he found in Tampa Bay as nowhere else in Florida – darkness and light, in struggle, in flux.

That’s not something any sane tourism board would put on bus signs, but that doesn’t make it less true, or less valuable.  Tampa Bay is a place of decadence, desperation, and degradation, but also of possibility and excitement and change – and all for the same reasons.  Think of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.  People lived in fear of being mugged or killed, but there was CBGBs and Keith Haring and Studio 54. Then Disney bought out Times Square and shut down the porn theaters.  Within what must have seemed like months, New York – the New York we dream of, the New York of Taxi Driver and Manhattan and Wild Style – was gone.

Spring Breakers is about the desire to change, and to escape, about how even when that desire gets pushed too far, it can still be beautiful.  Like New York in the 1970s, Tampa Bay is a royal mess because nobody owns it, and nobody controls it, because right now, nobody wants to.  It’s a place of both risk and freedom, where it’s easy to try something and the costs for failure (and here the film doesn’t get it quite right . . .) are low.  It’s a city being made before our eyes, a city whose future, unlike those of so many older cities, has yet to be written.

I was originally hired for a two-year job here in Tampa, but I’ve decided to stay and see what happens.  I think Harmony Korine would understand.

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