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Reelings #4: SPRING BREAKERS

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I grew up in Hawaii, so I have no concept of going away on “spring break”, but Harmony Korine has clearly schooled me in what I seemed to not have missed in his raunchy, pulpy, neon-fueled reflection of young America, Spring Breakers.

The opening montage of this romp is filled with budding tatas, American-colored popsicles-as-dicks, and girls who don’t look old enough to drive doing bong rips. But what looks right out of MTV’s Spring Break quickly devolves into a nightmarish echo of capitalist culture.

It’s no surprise, and quite a delightful choice, that Disney’s darlings are culled to play demon teenage girls who cruise through the film in bikinis and ski masks, holding up people at first with squirt guns and moving quickly along to blasting people to death Natural Born Killers style. While the obvious subversion of casting Disney stars as soulless gun-toters could have fallen flat, it was repeatedly met with delight.

The trailer for the film prepared me for what I anticipated to be a whole truckload of misogyny. It’s clear that only in a male fantasy would college girls spend their time in class drawing hearts that say ‘I love penis’ inside of them, drink out of squirt guns, and do handstands in their underwear. But suprisingly, just when the audience is positioned in an exploitative stance as we watch the four teenage girls in bikinis shotgunning weed and stroking each other’s hair in a faux-lesbionic fashion, Korine turns the trope on his head, making the four youngsters base and nihilistic. These aren’t girls gone wild, they’re girls gone wrong. They seem to care about nothing (save for Selena Gomez who turns in the only emotional performance of the film as a born-again Christian roped in with the wrong crowd), and proceed to blindly rob, steal and kill anything in sight.

After holding up a chicken shack, wearing short shorts and powder blue hoodies, they have enough money to go to Florida for spring break, where they meet a gangster rapper named Alien, played with panache and eerie conviction by James Franco. Franco sips through his silver grill, and his corn rows shake around like a wild lawn sprinkler as he ushers the girls into the world of St. Petersburg, Florida.

francoHe takes the girls round in his Camaro (license plate BALLR), and introduces them to his life of hustling, though to his surprise they seem to need no introduction. In a gripping scene two of the girls turn the gun on him, and make him fellate his own hardware. There’s also a very Korine-esque scene where Franco’s character Alien plays Britney Spears’ “Everytime” on a white grand piano situated on the deck of his pool, while the girls stand around holding machine guns, wearing pink ski masks and sweat pants that say DTF (down to fuck), even though the girls in this film have very little fucking on their minds. And that brings us a central problem with Spring Breakers: the protagonists of the film seem to have no real desire. Can you have characters without desire? The lineage of art seems to say no, though Korine seems to be asserting that desirelessness is our cultural inheritance.

When Alien says, “Big booties and money is what life’s all about”, for a second I had to reconsider what life is all about. Had I gotten it wrong this whole time? Was my belief that life is about truth and beauty just a dreamer’s fantasy? Have I become un-American?

If nothing else, Spring Breakers seems to be just another way of saying what we’ve known for a long time: consumerism is eating us alive. In fact, our real desires have been wholly replaced by manufactured ones. The girls in the film, when presented with buckets of cash, reply, “Seeing all this money makes my tits look bigger.” And the insidiousness of subliminal advertising plays a role via Alien’s repetition of the phrase “spring break” which he whispers over and over throughout the film, even when he’s not on screen, like a narrative mantra lulling us into a capitalist-induced coma.

It’s this base need to be a cog in the money-making machine that is the nexus of Spring Breakers message, if there is one. The girls tell each other affirmations in the form of, “just pretend like you’re in a video game” and “act like you’re in a movie or something” – could not those phrases be instructive for anyone dealing with modern life?

When one of the girls hesitates, the others get firm and say, “you have to be hard”. Welcome to the new economy ladies! There seems to be no time to develop ethics when struggling to get by financially. How do you get to Florida for spring break and eventually pay for your student loans? By dealing drugs and robbing people (duh!). It’s not a sad statement of where we’re at; it’s a damning one.

And aside from all that, the there’s the issue of race. The one time we see the girls in school, the topic at hand is the civil rights movement, but instead of paying attention to Emmett Till on the screen, they’re busy doodling testicles in their notebooks. While many students went south in support of equal rights for African Americans during the civil rights movement, the young stars of Spring Breakers return South to rob and then eventually kill a party full of black men. That’s quite a portrait of how little we’ve come, if we’ve come anywhere at all.

The film’s characters of color only exist on screen to remind us just how much white culture has stolen from them. The character of Alien, faux-rapper, middling gangster, is meant to be an apex of appropriation. The fact that Franco’s character learns everything he knows from fellow Black ganster Archie (played by Gucci Mane), and then has him killed is an obvious metaphor for white suburban consumption of hip hop culture. Additionally, to have two white girls in bikinis blow up an entire party of Archie’s crew, without suffering one scratch, seems gratuitous and sick, though that seems to be the film’s point. While Korine doesn’t seem to have the intellectual chops to fully deal with the issue of race, his film at least nods to the fact that he’s aware. Every artist has their limitations and Spring Breakers is more reflection of racial tension than analysis.

springbreakersposterIn the end Spring Breakers is much like having sex with a praying mantis—an experience that seduces at first then spits you out headless, and thus brainless. Which is not to say that the film is dumb, but rather that it’s mind-numbing. It’s a testament to the fact that we’re easily seduced by bright lights and hypnotic base lines. The film’s success can largely be attributed to the flashy neon cinematography courtesy of Benoît Debie and the trance-like editing of Douglas Crise. Throughout the film I was repeatedly reminded of the pulp-nod of Drive, so it came as no surprise to learn that the video-pumped soundtrack was created by Cliff Martinez (who scored Drive) and Skrillex.

Korine is nearing 40, (how long can you be referred to as an enfant terrible?) and I suspect Spring Breakers is more likely to appeal to aging film critics, middle-aged men, and women who never got a spring break (see:me) than the completely non-existent demographic of 18-year-old nihilist girls in neon bikinis. If that demographic actually existed, we’d all be doomed. Let’s be grateful, this once, for the pulp and fantasy, but not forget that the reflection comes right from the other end of the looking glass.


Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →