“Spring Breakers,” Five Years On
A look back at Harmony Korine's teen dream magnum opus.
A film about nothingness and being hot, Harmony Korine’s 2013 Spring Breakers nonetheless provokes a minimum of three epiphanies when re-watched now.
One is that too much of a good thing can be not just bad, but borderline repulsive. One more is that even films purporting to be totally outrageous can, in fact, be totally conservative. The third is that it’s possible for women in a movie to be neither disempowered or empowered by its narrative, and for a gaze directed at nude and near-nude girl bodies to feel neither male nor female, but apparently agnostic, so that four babes (two of whom are former Disney starlets) look and act less like Lolita stereotypes than like four adult-adolescent Mobius strips in booty shorts.
Spring Breakers’ absent patron saint might say that they were not girls, not yet women. Middle-aged men, like Korine, might think of them as products of the age. Now five years old, the film is not especially prophetic, nor The Movie That We Need Right Now, nor necessarily an overlooked cult classic of female revenge: it’s just a ride. Four college students—three with the heavy handed names Brit, Candy, Faith, and one more with a mercifully opaque one, Cotty—yearn for what they think of as a life less ordinary than their life on campus. “I’m so tired of seeing the same things every single day,” says one of the group’s two nearly indistinguishable blondes. “Everybody’s miserable here because everybody sees the same things. The grass, it’s not even green. It’s brown. Everything is the same, and everyone’s just sad.” The life they’re dreaming of in Florida is just as typical, as meaningless and universally familiar, as their life back home. To fantasize about spring break does not exactly mark a girl out as a maverick, and there is no way that the grass is greener in St. Petersburg, however much grass and cocaine is circulating. Needing money, three of the girls—barring Faith, who is, per her name, a Jesus freak—rob a chicken shop with squirt guns, managing to stage the crime successfully because they are “pretend[ing] it’s a video game.”
In 2013, at 25, I missed how much of Korine’s film chimed with markedly un-counter-cultural critiques of “kids” my age; at 30, I can’t help but laugh at Breakers’ invocation of the video game as a catalyst for real-life, teenaged violence. Like Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, its indictment of its own wild scene is so slick and so fuckably-attired it can be mistaken for endorsement. By the time the girls have reached the beach, the movie’s synthesis of flesh and neon has begun to feel less like a trip than like a looming overdose. By the time the girls have been arrested for behaving like teens on spring break, it threatens momentarily to turn from a beach bacchanal into a Lifetime movie: Mother, May I Sleep With RiFF RaFF?
When Spring Breakers came out, James Franco’s presence happened to be problematic only in the sense that, at that time, he was writing phrases like “the building is beige, but the shadows make it shadow-color,” which ought to be considered very problematic, and ideally ought to be illegal. As Alien, whose dumb white rapperhood is as unhip and posturing as it’s pitch-perfect, Franco’s function is to bust the four girls out of jail, to introduce them to his “gangsta” lifestyle, and to pull the two blondes, Brit and Candy, into first a three-way, then a monster, bloodbath hit on a dealer’s mansion. Boasting to them in his bedroom, he can’t help but call to mind another shirt-collecting, lovesick dreamer of the Amuuurican Dreeeam, y’all. “All this shit,” he barks. “Look at my shit! I got shorts, every fuckin’ color! I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets! I got Calvin Klein Escape!” (Like Gatsby, too, he ends up shot and killed as penance for his inability to be appropriately chill.)
Moments after Alien proclaims his love for Calvin Klein Escape, a sexual switcheroo takes place. Each of the two girls slides a loaded gun into his mouth, the weapons level with their hips as if he weren’t at risk of getting shot, but getting pegged. “You’re a sick fuck, aren’t you?” Candy taunts. (“[James] Franco suggested he should get turned on by the gun in his mouth,” Complex reported, in a listicle about Spring Breakers’ DVD extras—adding, in perhaps the strangest accidental riff on Mrs. Dalloway of all time, “[Franco] wanted to suck the gun himself.”) Whether Franco is a “sick fuck” or an opportunist sleaze, the movie’s freak dynamics with regards to heterosexual interactions take on new significance now. This year, it’s been reported that James Franco used his acting school—allegedly—to see his female students naked, and—allegedly—to talk them into doing sex scenes with, to nobody’s surprise, James Franco. “Look, I like you,” Alien tells Faith just after he has taken her to a pool hall, in a speech that theoretically could also be delivered to an actress by an acting coach. “If you want to go home, you can go home. But then you're just gonna be…right where you started. And you'll be thinking.... Maybe I missed out on something.”
Like Gatsby, Alien, too, ends up shot and killed as penance for his inability to be appropriately chill.
If Spring Breakers is not necessarily a film worth hanging much analysis on with regards to feminism—it is, although this does not seem to be a word, afeminist, concerned with women’s rights only as far as they affect the right to bear arms, or to kill, or get cash—its handling of race is sharp, imperfect, and so down to personal interpretation it seems faintly schizophrenic. Viewed from one perspective, the climactic shoot-out at a rival dealer’s mansion, where black men and women are mown down by cute, white girls with guns, is exploitation. From another, it’s white privilege interpreted as literal, lethal violence. Plus ca change. It cannot be coincidence that Alien believes his rival dealer’s gang are “no-joke murderers, killers and baseheads, motherfucking nightmares walking,” but that he himself, a killer and a dealer and a user also, is the physical embodiment of the American Dream; nor that the only characters who sin and walk free happen to be hot, Caucasian blondes.
In 2004, another proto “nightmare walking,” Britney Spears—a hot Caucasian blonde in spirit, if not necessarily perpetually in practice—wore a t-shirt that said I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM. (It’s worth noting that Beyonce, a contemporary of Spears, a fellow Southerner, and possibly our generation’s greatest show-woman, has never self-identified with the American Dream; perhaps because the dated term leaves no room for her genius or her blackness.) Harmony Korine has said that Britney is a “pop culture umbilical chord” for Candy, Cotty, Brit and Faith, which helps explain why all of their best moments as an all-girl, all-millennial ensemble happen to be underscored by Spears’s music. Dancing in the parking lot of a neon-lit bodega to an acapella version of her debut Baby, One More Time, ungraceful, they’re as thick as squirt-gun-toting thieves.
Surrounding Alien’s white piano, lifting their new AK47s while the sun sets on the beach and he plays “Everytime,” they’re also Spears if Spears had had the chance or impulse to be vengeful, and had not instead been subject to a patriarchal media’s own desire for blood. When Spring Breakers first screened, Britney Spears was months shy of announcing the Las Vegas residency that her fans most often credit, without hyperbole, with saving her life. The Spears of Breakers is, therefore, a Spears in crisis—these days, more Mom-slash-meme than cautionary tale, her function as a piece of semaphore has changed, so that she represents not injury at the hands of the America in Korine’s capitalist horror movie, but survival as a means of spiting it.
“Watch the end of the ‘Baby One More Time’ video, as Spears holds her face with boredom and smirks at the camera,” writes Alice Bolin, in her forthcoming collection Dead Girls. “It’s not the dumb hand of the market patting her head with approval, not sex and its dumb compulsions, nor even the dumb intelligence that is satire or critique: it’s Art.” Breakers’ satire and critique is grounded in the obverse: lacquering his abnegation of a failing dream with gorgeous, covetable dumbness, Korine helps ensure his movie—to paraphrase yet another hot blonde, and a major Britney fan—floats like a bimbo, and stings like a bee. The single aspect of its critique that has perhaps more sting now than it did back in 2013 is its image of young women chasing wealth, oblivion, and the trappings of a millionaire’s excessive grind. Where good-looking chicks were once pegged as the obvious reward for killer men, they—“girlbosses,” hustlers, and entrepreneurs with physiques hot enough for editorial—are now the killers.