Monday, April 8, 2013
Spring Breakers (2013) A Film by Harmony Korine
At various junctures in American history, since the inception of the national phenomenon around the late 18th century, the so-called "American Dream" has meant radically different things to different generations. Here's a cursory timeline: originating as a concept associated with frontier life, westward expansion, and Manifest Destiny, the catch phrase then took on a new dimension with the coming of a societal infrastructure. At that point, the dream had something to do with the possibility of being free, of living one's own life. For immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, this meant a chance at a steady job in an urban center. For slave laborers, the dream rested entirely on the hope of some future sense of equality. As the building blocks of capitalism took hold at the dawn of the 20th century and led to the full scale blossoming of a competitive market economy, the concept of upward mobility came to prominence. All of a sudden, freedom was taken for granted; the possibility of ascending a social hierarchy held even greater value. The American Dream, evidently, is a liquid concept, always vulnerable to the vagaries of history, politics, economy, geography, etc.
Flashing forward to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, we see the national nomenclature bandied about in a way that would leave Abraham Lincoln reeling in confusion. In the film's kaleidoscopic reverie of 21st century debauchery, the elasticity of the American Dream is manipulated according to the perversions of a popular culture hungry to distort the ethos as a way to justify its own pursuits. Before launching into an ecstatic lecture about his abundance of meaningless material goods, a corn-rowed, vice-loving money-maker known as Alien (James Franco) posits that "This is the fuckin' American dream." Translation: freshly sexualized skinny girls in neon bikinis, automatic weapons, pricy body spray, and blue Kool-Aid are the American Dream. Fair enough, insofar as these factors belong to this particular individual's definition of upward mobility. Without hesitation, however, he mutters his next statement, which is of even greater significance: "This is my fuckin' dream, y'all." The flippancy with which he equates a historically loaded concept with an individual interpretation of it is indicative of the larger solipsism that defines the twentysomething way of life sketched out, engaged with, and abstracted in Korine's latest, and it's also the lens through which the film chooses to evaluate this generational alcove, for better or worse.
At its core, Spring Breakers has a relatively formulaic plot: four naïve college girls – Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) – want nothing more than to attend Spring Break in Tampa Bay, so they rob a diner to muscle up the funds. When they arrive at this assumed oasis their idealized expectations are simultaneously met and complicated. It's a coming of age story, in a nutshell. Korine's interests, however, have less to do with storytelling than with generational anthropology, a penchant that becomes increasingly clear whenever one of the girls – first Faith, then Cotty – grows disillusioned with the vacation and Korine elects not to follow them back home but rather to remain submerged in the beachfront festivities. The film identifies Tampa Bay as a locus of contemporary pop culture's hopes and dreams, and thus the girls who remain there by the conclusion of the plot are representative of the film's idea of individuals who most fully embrace their own willfully alternate version of the American Dream.
On the surface, Spring Breakers' version of Tampa Bay has a slick, weird sort of beauty. This is one aspect of the film that Korine has been arrogantly vocal about, but while his repeated efforts to align his film's aesthetic with Miami Vice (2006) come off as more than a little puffed-up, he is accurate in some regards. Neon lights, casually captured skylines of murky pastels, and figures dwarfed by minimalist panoramas are all cosmetic parallels with Mann's crime-ridden beach world, but in all other respects the film's primary visual reference point is the modern hip hop music video consumed by the same sort of alcohol-and-marijuana-fueled adolescents who once valued MTV's comprehensive coverage of Spring Break locales as the full expression of the zeitgeist. Vibrant colors, endless partying without a clear sense of the occasion, gratuitous Genital Angles, cheap beer cans, and anonymous body-grinding – all committed to high-definition video with a ridiculously high frame rate and paper-thin depth of field – constitute the film's frenzied look. Korine assimilates this familiar style and subject matter to get on the same wavelength as the pop culture he's representing, only to then infiltrate the underlying misogyny, racism, and soullessness of such imagery.
The girls' uncontrollable desire to go on spring break emerges out of a lifetime of being exposed to this eye-catching frivolity. For them, the American Dream means being able to attend this 24-hour party every year, to "find [themselves]" and "never leave." Of course, the onus to recognize the absurdity of this ideal is on them, but the film nonetheless formulates their integration into this milieu as that of a victimizer/victimized relationship. In one of Korine's more heavy-handed gestures, repeated shots of the girls huddling together as if piglets gravitating towards their mother's teet – as well as the intermittent motif of emotionally detached phone calls to mothers and grandmothers – creates an aura of innocence and purity around these characters. The presence of girly-girl regalia (hot pink bikinis, hair dye, and nail polish), too, not to mention the proliferation of Britney Spears on the soundtrack, suggests a hyperextension of premature adolescence, a specter of 1990's/early 2000's cultural furnishing dangling over into the present.
Korine contrasts this sense of childishness with a looming danger never fully grasped for its deadliness. Especially when Franco's character enters the plot, the film brims with cocaine, marijuana, binge drinking, near-rapes, and a plethora of assault weapons. (The sound of a machine gun being cocked reverberates at nearly every scene transition in the film's second half.) Spring Breakers' best sequence features Alien serenading the girls with Spears' "Everytime" on his pearl white, open-air grand piano, an awkwardly touching moment that Korine intercuts with shots of the main characters flailing around machine guns at an afternoon rager as if party streamers. The film continues to deal in similar dialectical maneuvers throughout, but never with quite such provocative gusto.
Naturally, once Alien is introduced as an exotic Other and a representation of the kind of absolute pleasure-seeking carelessness these girls aspire to, Faith, a religious believer who refuses to participate in the robbery that sets off the narrative, bails, while Candy soaks his macho bullshit up. (There's a not-too-subtle trend here that has to do with character naming...) At this point in the film, the remaining girls willingly and uncritically submit to borderline violent masculine domination, but it's also the point at which the film drifts increasingly from an ostensible reality, using more and more cues (a layering of interior monologue and exterior sound, the growing melodrama of the plot, absurdist set pieces, even more menacing neon) to imply the fracturing of the real. As Korine portrays a surreal version of the present moment, he also keeps an eye ahead, conjuring up a nightmare of the sadder future that may await these girls if this way of life persists. In this framework, the film's final scene – introduced by a surround-sound Franco prescriptively intoning "it's all a dream, y'all" – is the harrowing net result of this descent, a garish massacre echoing at once the racial division of the Civil War and the bloodbath climax of Alien's beloved Scarface (1983). If Korine's fanciful omen winds up being at all accurate, the American Dream will have undergone a near-complete reversal of its initial promises. Uses of freedom can be dangerous. Deadly lines can be drawn between people in the name of social climbing.
Spring Breakers’ most ingenious ploy is its use of Disney starlets, products of the same pop cultural machine that Korine lays bare for all its soul-crushing vapidity. The double-edged irony here – of plummeting towards empty exploitation both diegetically and non-diegetically – is never off the film’s mind. In premonitory fashion, Hudgens has embraced her character's bad girl persona offscreen since working on the film, while Gomez is supposedly emphatically "NOT Trying to Shed Her Disney Image" (pardon the source), and to the extent that these particular post-release reports foretell the paths these young actresses will take in the grander scheme of things, Korine's film comes across as almost supernaturally tapped-in to the zeitgeist. Indeed, Spring Breakers may find its place in the canon less as an especially great film (though it is a defiantly good and unusual film, at least in the context of other current multiplex titles) than as a strangely fascinating cultural phenomenon, a movie that – like last year's Magic Mike – hijacks a hot topic not for cynical cash-grabbing but rather for genuine curiosity. Korine has succeeded in making a film that mirrors the flashy surfaces of his subject while arousing little of the vicarious pleasure associated with such an approach.