Films We’ve Watched: Spring Breakers

10 Apr

“I feel like I’ve just gone through two nights of drinking, and this was the collective hangover.” That’s how my roommate described Harmony Korine’s new film, Spring Breakers. Perhaps you know it? It has had, after all, a marketing campaign that I would describe as omnipresent, or perhaps ubiquitous. And it does star Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson, not to mention James Franco. The first three, known for their television work and family friendly image, aren’t the kind of people you expect to find in a feature film, let alone one as dark as this. Indeed, much like Michael Haneke’s film Amour earlier this year, I find myself thinking that Spring Breakers is an excellent movie, just maybe not one I can recommend to anybody else.

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While Haneke seemingly reveled in discomfort, in making the audience squirm and cringe as the lives of his two protagonists slowly dissolved, Korine is after something far more devious. I challenge anybody to go see Spring Breakers and not come out feeling, well, dirty. Instead of discomfort, it’s shame you feel watching this hour and a half long film. Of course it doesn’t feel like an hour and a half. One of the things the film does is distort your sense of time. It’s impossible to get a really good feel for how long the four girls really spend on their long sought spring break, or how long you’ve even been watching them.

The days pass by in a blur, although to be fair much of the film itself is covered in a drug and alcohol induced haze. There is some fantastic use of color and filters on display as the whole movie takes on a dream like quality. Pinks and blues and yellows pop out of the screen, and a veritable neon glow clings to everything. Of course, all of this comes across as incredibly artificial, the candy, plastic colors that drench the screen couldn’t possibly exist in nature. But add that to the sense of delusion that has overcome the protagonists, if they can even be called that, and one can’t help but feel that the whole thing is supposed to be fake. The parties, the people, the whole concept of heading to the beach for spring break, it’s all terribly trite and thus the color pallet fits. In other words, it’s artificial, because in a world lacking any sense of the genuine, of reality, why shouldn’t it be?

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But the color is only one of the many things that are striking about Spring Breakers, the fourth feature film Korine has both written and directed. There’s also the music, notable for the fact that much of the score was produced by none other than Skrillex. But much like the plot of the film, even the accompanying music comes across as subversive. At a proto typical frat party, it’s not the wub-dub-dub or bass drops that one catches, but the Black Keys frantic guitar notes. We are also treated to a rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, sung by Franco and his female companions around his poolside piano. Although the song starts off as an interesting combination of the three girls and Franco, it quickly diverges into the actual Spears song. This only adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. There’s no way that this group sounds like the former princess of pop, to the audience at least, but in the context of the film and the “alternate” reality that Spring Break occurs in, they may very well believe themselves to sound that good.

This all plays into one of the overarching themes throughout much of the film, that of alternate realities. Franco’s character, Alien, early on describes himself as a visitor from outer space and the world he inhabits being different. The act of leaving school and joining the hordes of partiers on the beach, in the reality that Spring Breakers creates, constitutes entering another world. Selena Gomez’s character, Faith, spends one scene talking about how perfect everything on the beach is. How she doesn’t want to go back, that she wishes they could freeze time and persist in a state of perpetual spring break induced bliss. Her character, bored with school, with the mundanity of living in the dorms, has fetishized spring break to the point that actually getting to the beach constitutes a break from reality and descent into fantasy.

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Now what kind of reality would that be? That’s the logical question, and the one Korine seems intent on examining. In his novel Lolita, Vladamir Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert observes– “Whether or not the realization of a lifelong dream had surpassed all expectation, it had, in a sense, overshot its mark– and plunged into nightmare”. Of course, Humbert Humbert was talking about finally having sex with the titular Lolita, but the same sentiment forms the crux of Spring Breakers. The repetition of certain lines of dialogue, the bright colors, blurring of time, everything in the movie seems dreamlike. The lives of the four main characters, Candy (Hudgens), Britt (Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Faith (Gomez) are so empty that they end up having to create this new world, centered around Spring Break and the partying it entails.

At the beginning of their journey, the girls find sun and alcohol soaked beaches. Everything is exactly as they imagined it would, or should, be. They ride their candy colored scooters through the streets, drink outside of a convenience store, bask in hotel pools and join their fellow twenty-somethings in parties that fill whole buildings. “I wish we could take this moment and freeze it, make it last forever”, remarks Faith. The other girls look at her like she’s crazy, which she may be, but it’s an interesting viewpoint nonetheless. The real world, the world of school and jobs and real people holds nothing for Faith, and that precise lack has been filled in with the Florida beach.

These characters inhabit a world of their own creation, their own self centeredness prohibiting them from seeing the consequences of their actions. In fact, even the idea of consequences is antithetical to what their concept of Spring Break represents. It doesn’t matter the girls robbed a restaurant to get there since we never see them get in trouble for it. There is a slight tap on the wrist for narcotics during their vacation, but other than that one never gets a sense that the actions of the four main characters really carry weight. Theirs is a world where one thinks in terms only of the self. Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty wanted to go to the beach, which translates into they needed to go to the beach, and their desires preclude any moral judgment on their actions.  The idea, it seems, is that in this artificial world where the only thing that matters is what the girls want, there can’t possibly be repercussions for their actions.

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The same can be said of the other two central figures, James Franco’s Alien and Gucci Mane’s Archie. “I’m living the American dream, y’all”, Alien tells our Spring Breakers early on. “Look at all my shit! Look at all this shit!” he exclaims while showing the girls around his bayside home. There’s his guns and money, piano and tanning oil, nunchucks, hat collection, and shirts. This then, is Korine’s version of my generation’s American dream. Stuff. Or rather, shit. Tons of it, physical, material goods, enough to fill a whole beach side house.

However besides Alien’s collection of shit ripped out of a teenage boy’s fantasy, there’s also the question of the relationship to the group of Spring Breakers. We see him bail the girls out of jail, and are instantly made suspicious (or as Alien would say, “spicious”). It seems a common trope, the shady gangster seeking to take advantage of some young girls and use them for his own means. Oddly enough, any such subplot fails to materialize. In fact, Alien more than anything comes across as merely lonely. He genuinely seems to like the girls he rescues, because despite all the shit that he has, he’s still by himself.

Gucci Mane enters the picture in the form of Archie, the mentor and rival drug dealer of Alien. With the help of Cotty, Candy and Brit, Alien has been slowly taking over more of Archie’s turf, and how does Archie respond? “My baby is starving,” he tells his crew, while holding a curiously fake looking child. “He’s hungry, what are y’all gonna do about it?”. You see, in the world of Spring Breakers, it doesn’t matter how much shit you have, because it’s never enough. His crew? His Lamborghini? The mansion? None of it matters because any attack on his property is equivalent to an attack on his identity and cannot be allowed to stand.

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After leaving the theatre, my initial reaction was simply this: Harmony Korine is a massive troll. I can’t escape the feeling that the whole film is a massive joke, and everybody involved is the punchline. The audience. The studio. The cast. All of them are being targeted through various means.

Let’s look at the use of the Black Keys again. Surely they, or their publicist or attorney or manager or whoever, approved their use in the film. But it’s the context that is striking. Their song, “Tighten Up”, comes on during a fairly generic frat party. Now, we must also assume this is purposeful. However, next to the Skrillex dubstep and Britney Spears’ pop, it’s also a curious decision. Why “Tighten Up”? Why not more highly produced pop?

I have come up with a couple of theories. One, is the inherent irony of hearing an “indie” rock band as the background music for the kind of neon soaked debauchery that indie rock seemingly stands against. Another, is that this another way for Korine to poke fun at the consumerist nature that much of the film stands opposed to. Even the kind of guitar heavy blues rock that to some the Black Keys represent has sold out. Culture is, in the world of Spring Breakers, cheap. Art is cheap. By including “Tighten Up” in this scene, he’s degrading it, reducing it to the same level as Skrillex and Britney Spears. “They’re not the same!” we may collectively shout. “Yes they are,” Spring Breakers calmly replies.

Of course, that is not the only thing that comes to mind when trying to determine whether or not Spring Breakers is subversive. There’s also the case of the young actors. Gomez got her start on Wizards of Waverly Place, and launched into stardom with a pop focused musical career. Hudgens was, memorably or not, the star of High School Musical. Benson stars in ABC’s Pretty Little Liars, which is also owned by Disney. Taking these three stars, whose fame is predicated on a consumerist culture of mass consumption, and placing them in a film that savagely attacks that mode of life is inescapably strange. Franco is the only who seems in on the joke, chewing up as much scenery as he can in what is oddly one of the best roles he’s ever had. If one ever needs to ask, “James Franco, why do you take movies like this?” I can only imagine the answer is something like this: “It’s fucking fun!”.

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Because lets be honest about one thing: This movie is mean. It is critical. It is, if you engage in the kinds of lifestyles that are portrayed on screen, likely nigh unwatchable. We see close ups of topless girls getting beer and liquor poured all over them. Beer bongs, bong hits, images of twenty-somethings partying on the beach are repeated over and over to dizzying effect. However, these aren’t the same kind of fun scenes that the trailer implies. The voyeuristic camera work, switching at times to what appears to be cell phone footage from deep inside the throngs of people, makes everything appear absurd, bordering on grotesque. Scenes of people dancing and grinding are slowed down, lingering on guys pantomiming peeing on girls using beer bottles serves not to glamorize these acts, but highlight them in the most offensive way possible. We, the audience, are supposed to feel what they are doing is wrong.

Which is why the ad campaign behind Spring Breakers strikes me as so ironic. If you want to give yourself an aneurysm, go on YouTube and read comments on the trailer for Spring Breakers. The types of movies people online compare it to fall into the Project X and 21 and Over crowd. Yet, I cannot imagine anything farther from the proto-typical party movie. In effect, the ad campaign for Spring Breakers, despite using scenes that are actually in it, is advertising a completely different film. The reason is because it wants to attract precisely the type of people depicted on screen.

These people’s lives are purposless. Faith goes to Church, she goes to school, but there’s nothing there for her. The idea of living in the present, of making memories and moments dominates the proceedings. Her friends get high and watch TV, and while there are a few shots of the college everybody attends, these are largely empty, sparsely populated. Their world is empty. In that sense, when looking for other films to compare Spring Breakers to, movies like A Clockwork Orange come to mind, in that both represent fairly nihilistic views of the world. The emptiness of the main characters’ lives is filled with any number of things: drugs, drinks, sex, stuff. All of those things have the same thing in common– they all lack any serious substance.

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However, Korine does not seemingly condemn any one source for that emptiness. All of the girls have seemingly estranged relationships from their parents. Faith is reliant on her grandmother, while Candy and Britt are seen making phone calls to their parents, apologizing for past transgressions. Alien didn’t even really have parents. So, is the lack of authority figures to blame for their present predicament?

Or is it culture, or Art with a capital A that has let them down? The pop music that drives much of the score too comes across as mostly artificial, a sort of fast-food diet of culture that, much like the real thing, leaves one full, if also prone to obesity and diabetes. It’s a world of cheap things that Korine has created, perhaps best exemplified by Alien’s own home decorations, full of stuff, yes but also lacking any sense of taste. Shit for shit’s sake, in other words.

Certainly, religion doesn’t do anything for these characters. Faith is the only one shown with any ties to the Church, yet she too indulges in the binge of excess with her friends, and tellingly doesn’t turn down the money she knows is stolen. “Whenever there is temptation, the Lord will provide a way out”, we overhear at the beginning of the film during one of Faith’s Church group meanings. Now, to be fair she is the first Spring Breaker to decide to return home, however, it seems clear that even spirituality in Korine’s world does not preclude its actors from taking part in the decadence of Spring Break.

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The vignettes that drive the bulk of the movie each touch on these same themes. Yes, the film is largely disjointed, a collage of images loosely oriented around a central plot. I view this as an extension of the dream like, disoriented quality of much of the movie. It’s like waking up after a night of heavy drinking; you can remember bits and pieces of the evening, but they are all out of order without any clear structure. In that sense, the way in which Spring Breakers is composed compliments its themes rather nicely. We have little episodes brought to life, all building towards one ending which I will not spoil, although I will provide one comment: In my mind, I very much doubt whether or not the last act of the film actually takes place.

These little touches add up over time to produce an unsettling effect. If you believe the purpose of cinema is to entertain or to be fun, watching Spring Breakers, you will be sorely disappointed. Indeed, I witnessed a few people actually leave the theatre during my showing of it. But if you can soldier on, and open yourself up to Korine’s dream (or nightmare), there’s just so much to be found. Yes, its unpleasant and gross and dirty, self-conscious and mean, but Spring Breakers is such a wonderfully made film and so unlike anything playing today. It’s flaws can easily be overlooked. It’s a film of paradoxes, of girls seeking meaning in meaningless acts, of gangsters named Alien who are really just looking for a friend, of Skrillex and the Black Keys, neon lights and dark shadows. It’s a film about contemporary youth culture, featuring some of the icons that same culture has produced. And, perhaps most jarring, it’s an exceedingly intelligent film that I don’t know if anybody should actually go see.

– Nico

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2 Responses to “Films We’ve Watched: Spring Breakers”

  1. Under the Elder April 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    I HAVE BEEN WANTING TO SEE THIS MOVIE FOR OVER A YEAR! I’m so glad that you enjoyed this movie as opposed to dismissing it as trash, poorly acted, or not making up its mind about what it wants to be. Since it started getting “real people” reviews I’ve been so anxious. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet…. Interestingly enough though, Selena Gomez has been interviewing over the past year talking about shedding her “family friendly” image, but about few weeks ago a Wizards of Waverly Place reunion aired on Disney. It has nothing to do with anything – it’s mostly a comment about culture as constantly revolving & the meanings we assign it being arbitrary. ❤

  2. john April 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    How is a Black Keys song at a frat party subversive?

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