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The last few weeks have been a blur for both the Korines, but especially for Rachel. The hubbub at SXSW was nothing compared to the Spring Breakers premieres in Paris, Rome, Berlin and Madrid just a couple weeks earlier. One YouTube clip from Paris shows a phalanx of security guards guiding the cast through the masses to the barricaded runway. Gomez, Hudgens and Benson are clearly the big draws, the energy surging as the crowd first spots them.
Then Rachel comes into view. Stopped for autographs and snapshots, she poses with fans while husband Harmony, a connoisseur of chaos, records the mayhem on his iPhone with an amused grin. Amid the barrage of "Selena!" and "Vanessa!" a couple of "Rachel!"s rise above the din.
"Everyone has been joking about how it's a lot different from Trash Humpers," Rachel says. She's referring to the 2009 Toronto premiere for Harmony's last feature-length movie, a Nashville-shot faux-found-footage artifact about a gang of elderly weirdos who molest dumpsters and indulge in a cornucopia of depraved absurdity. (Oddly enough, the film won the grand jury prize at the 2009 Copenhagen International Documentary Festival.)
"Harmony and I had to walk, like, 10 miles to get to the screening," Rachel says of the Toronto premiere.
"We were staying in a crack den," Harmony adds, laughing.
Not so on the Spring Breakers tour. The director and cast were flown around Europe in a private jet and stayed at fancy hotels. Harmony Korine cues up video of Gomez, Hudgens, Benson and his wife on the jet, singing and generally carrying on. He's well aware the women are the main reason for the hoopla surrounding the project, and acknowledges that was a motivation in casting them. But even if he's not the center of attention, he's enjoying the media circus.
"It seems like stepping into some kind of teen fantasy," he says. "The energy and chaos around the actors, the fanaticism, is something I've never experienced before. ... The funny thing is, [the fans] didn't want to have anything to do with me. I was just like the security, walking around. I would sign some autographs, and I'd get nudged in the head."
He pauses, then does his best teenage-girl voice: "Where are the four girls?!"
Since the Austin screening, major-outlet reviews have been pouring in by the boatload — and clearly, Korine has lost none of his ability to divide critics. "Trash Humpers at least had the artistic courage of its own lunatic convictions," writes Time's Richard Corliss, "but Spring Breakers is all surface and sham; it's trash about humpers." Meanwhile, The Village Voice's Scott Foundas writes, "Spring Breakers seems to be holding a funhouse mirror up to the face of youth-driven pop culture, leaving us uncertain whether to laugh, recoil in horror, or marvel at its strange beauty. All I knew is I couldn't wait to see it a second time." (Foundas also wins the best headline award: "Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers Are Girls Gone Godard.")
But a couple of things are notably different about the reaction to Spring Breakers compared to response to the filmmaker's other works. For one, a clear majority of the reviews skew positive. But more significantly, the volume of the dialogue is exponentially louder than ever before. The sense of momentum behind the film is, quite frankly, astonishing, and it's caught even Korine off guard.
The day of the SXSW screening, Korine and James Franco were guests on a packed-to-the-rafters live recording of Marc Maron's WTF! podcast. The screening itself was swamped. At the panel the day after, several hundred people showed up.
But the point was driven home this past Sunday, when industry trades reported the highlights from the weekend's box office. The big news wasn't so much that Franco's family-friendlier project of the moment — Sam Raimi's $200 million Disney production Oz the Great and Powerful — had retained its first-place spot. Instead, observers were agog that Spring Breakers' limited release on three screens in New York and L.A. netted nearly $270,000. Not only did its per-screen average of nearly $90,000 smash the existing record for this period, Variety reported, it outperformed the opening-weekend averages of Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty.
Reached shortly after the Variety story hit the Web, Harmony was both ecstatic and exhausted. "I haven't stopped," he says. "I'm so spent. After Austin, I went to New York and L.A. They had to cart me around in a wheelbarrow. We just flew back this morning. Rachel and I just basically collapsed at the door."
As of a week ago, the film was slated to open in 550 theaters. Since the box office numbers came in Sunday, Korine says the release has been bumped up to more than 1,000 theaters. His widest release before Spring Breakers? "I think 60 to 80," he wrote in an email early Monday morning.
As for the question of whether Spring Breakers is just more of the crass excess it is purportedly critiquing, The New York Times' Manohla Dargis had perhaps the most concise response: "That Mr. Korine appears to be having it both (or many) ways may seem like a cop-out, but only if you believe that the role of the artist is to be a didact or a scold. Mr. Korine, on the other hand, embraces the role of court jester, the fool whose transgressive laughter carries corrosive truth. He laughs, you howl."
This from the paper that called Gummo "the worst film of the year."
What's next for Harmony and Rachel is unclear. On the strength of her performance in Spring Breakers, Rachel has been attracting attention, and now has an agent at CAA. She says she's already been sent a few scripts, and there are a couple of projects she's interested in, but she's keeping her cards close to her vest for now.
Harmony, meanwhile, says he's been sitting in his basement making artwork. "I'm trying to make things that look like somebody who'd been partially lobotomized made," he says. "If you can imagine somebody with some type of head wound, and one finger."
Asked if that's the aesthetic he's going for, he responds, "No, that's not what I'm going for. That's only what I'm capable of."
What might be most surprising, especially for longtime fans, is just how much the notorious arthouse provocateur relishes the prospect of mainstream success. "I always wanted my films to come out in the most commercial way possible," he said at the photo shoot. "And I thought every one of them would be playing in a mall and be on a double bill with, like, Shawshank Redemption or some shit."
Even Trash Humpers?
"Yeah, of course! I thought it was something that would appeal to the tween set."
On the phone Sunday, he's nearly breathless as he sees that carrot dangling ever so close to his grasp. "Do you believe this shit?" he says. "It's all a dream. I can't believe it! Usually, I make these movies, and I'm alone in the dark for years and years. You just never know what's going to happen, if people are going to react, or even notice."
People are definitely noticing this time. And as for the naysayers, Alien's gangster-mystic mantra may best sum up the director's sentiments:
Spring break forever, bitches!
- Photography by Michael W. Bunch. Hair and makeup by Betsy Briggs Cathcart (studiobbcsalon.com)
- Rachel Korine