Five Thoughts on Spring Breakers

1. The first time I saw Spring Breakers I was with two rowdy friends and we were coming straight out of a very happy edition of happy hour. I had a blast. James Franco’s monologue about all the stuff he owned was hilarious; the way a whispered “spraaanng breaaak” would get dropped in on the soundtrack from time to time would crack us up; the day-glo and neon of the movie was so tacky that it gave the whole movie an aura of irony that was intoxicating.

The first time I saw this I missed how melancholy of this movie is. It starts off with four young women feeling bored and frustrated in their everyday lives. Three of them rob a restaurant to get the money to come to Spring Break, but their exuberance at getting away with such a serious crime doesn't last long -  as soon as they have to explain to Faith (the only one who didn't go on the robbery) where the money came from her face crumples. Now Faith realizes that her friends are not the people that she thought that they were, and now she’s scared of them a bit, and they are a little sad that she doesn’t understand how tough they were. The bonding experience starts with them drifting apart.

They aren't on Spring Break long before the four of them get arrested for underage drinking and they get a reality check in jail, where their day-glo bikinis stand out against the cinderblock walls. They get bailed out by a scrawny weirdo named Alien, but Faith is overwhelmed by all that’s happened to her and she has to leave, breaking up the unit. The remaining three party with Alien for awhile, but in seedy places that feel more menacing than fun - like a strip club where Alien runs into the man who used to be his best friend but who is now his rival for drug turf. Franco plays Alien as a goofy joke, but he also has his tragic side, too.

Alien and the three remaining girls  go on a crime rampage – scored by a Britney Spears song that is both ironic (because it's Britney) and melancholy (because it's a ballad which directly contrasts the cute teens they used to be and who they are now.) Their rampaging seems fun at first, offering them the same adrenaline high as the robbery, but it turns serious when one of them is shot in the arm. And then it gets even darker, when a showdown between Alien and his ex-friend turns fatal.

As the film ends there is a voice over – which again seems ironic, but is also sad in it’s own right – from the most violent of the four women as she calls her mom and explains that she’s realized that the most important thing in life is to be a good person. If she’s sincere about what she’s saying then she knows that everything she’s done in the entire movie was a mistake. If she's lying... Well, I suppose lying to your mom isn't as bad as robbing strangers, but it does mark her more as a lost person somehow, because now she's an utterly different person from the child that her mother sent to college.

On my first viewing I saw this movie as a fantasy about ridiculous people who were going crazy. On my second viewing I saw it as a tragedy about people who lose their friends, who get in over their heads, who lose their sense of self, who get shot – people who come close to losing everything in their pursuit of hedonism.

The film is definitely both of those things. It’s about neon lighting up the night, and the grime that looks even worse in neon light.

2. The duality of the movie is probably the secret to what makes it work. As I was watching Spring Breakers I started to think about Fight Club, which is kind of the masculine yin to Spring Breaker’s feminine yang. Both movies are about people who are stifled in their day to day lives and want to find an outlet for their animal energies. Both of them blur the line between endorsement and satire by glamorizing things that I suspect that they want to ultimately reject. They are about seeing sexy people commit acts of violence, and they are about where fantasy meets reality.

The difference for me is that Fight Club is trying too hard to be cool for it’s message to be functional. The characters in Fight Club are portrayed as rebels; the Spring Breaker girls seem like idiots. Fight Club’s visual style is slick, and it makes the violence look exciting; Spring Breakers is garish, but it makes the naked bodies look like meat.

Furthermore, the changes that Edward Norton makes in his life when he starts the Fight Club work for him before they get out of hand and they don’t get truly out of hand until the third act. Because Spring Breakers is out of control from the start – the film opens up with half-crazed college kids beer bonging on a beach – and because the footage of the parties is played simultaneously with audio of Faith’s call to her grandmother – there isn’t a minute of the movie where we don’t understand that all of this is untenable.

There’s a reason why numbskulls like Fred Durst like Fight Club so much. Even granting that the four main characters are all the pretty young women wearing next to nothing I can’t imagine those same numbskulls like Spring Breakers nearly as much.

3. When I was in college I had more than one person tell me that I didn’t like fun. (I was more uptight then than I am now, which is kind of saying something, because I’m not exactly a party animal now.) Over the years I’ve thought about it a lot, and I have to say that while that’s stated a bit broadly, it is kind of true. I like to be interested in something more than I like to be excited by something. Even though every new movie I watch is a gamble and every roller coaster ride is guaranteed to be fun I'd still rather watch the movie; you just don't get that much new information from your fifth trip on the zipper.

Part of what interests me about Spring Breakers, then, is the way that it suggests how not-fun having fun can be. Some of that is exaggerated, of course, because what happens in this film is every parents worst nightmare of what their children will do once they become independent – they will immediately start doing drugs, become best friends with drug dealers, have threesomes in the pool, go on crime sprees. All of that looks like a nightmare (even the threesome, mostly because Alien is such a gross looking human being) but it isn’t exactly normal behavior for every college kid who goes on spring break.

But the scene where one of the Spring Breakers is too drunk to stand so she lies down on the floor, and then some creep stands over her and tells her that he wants her pussy? Or the bleary eyed look that they get when they have hangovers in jail? Or the discomfort they feel when they realize that all those drugs they want to do come from guys like Alien – guys who are pretty sketchy and who seem to be friends with even sketchier dudes?

Sadly, all of that is run of the mill stuff for people who want to party.

Speaking of the sketchy dudes who provide drugs: looking at all of Alien’s huge cache of drugs reminded me of an article I read not too long ago about how the combined effects of the drug cartels and the war on drugs might have killed more people than the Nazis, so people that buy cocaine are supporting regimes that are arguably worse than the people that we acknowledge as the worst in history.

Still, when I think back to the people I know when I was in college who did cocaine… I can’t imagine them caring about the abstract circumstances of how it got to them. It’s pretty easy to rationalize that situation by saying that the Nazis versus the cartels is an apples and oranges comparison, and it’s even easier to pretend that the drugs originated with the guy who sold them directly to you.

There are Saturday night people and Sunday morning people, and I’m a Sunday morning person. It’s easy for me to look at a pile of cocaine on screen and think: nobody should touch that stuff, it’s a terrible evil. Other people are going to look at it and get excited for a party. I’m the guy who is going to be worried about when the Aliens of the world show up at the party, while other people are looking forward to the moment when the goodies he's bringing arrive.

4.While I’m talking about Nazis: I just started reading a book called Five Came Back about five classic directors who left Hollywood to make propaganda films for the Allies in World War Two. I’m still early in the book, and war hasn’t been declared yet, so Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do. The studio heads know that making films that don’t acknowledge the build up to the war seems frivolous, but most of the studio heads are Jewish in a country that’s very suspicious of Jews, so they don’t want to produce films that seem like propaganda. They want to do the right thing, but if they over-reach and Congress steps in to censor them then these self made men could lose everything. It’s just amazing to think of a time when people were afraid of using Nazis as villains in a movie, because today they are the last villain you can put in a movie that nobody will object to. Hell, when you need make a meth-dealer look not-so-bad you have him square off against a Nazi.

Anyway, it’s funny to be reading this book about the 1930s and about all of the things you weren’t allowed to do back then in a movie, and then to come home and watch a movie that pushes that envelope so much farther than they could have ever imagined. It’s more than the graphicness of the sex and the violence – although of course those would have made the censors of the 30’s head’s explode – it’s stuff like the cinematography. There were so many fewer electric lights back then, so all of the glowing lights that frame the movie would have been unthinkable. I don’t know when we invented the glow in the dark bikini, but it was definitely post World War Two.

At one point I was thinking about that early silent film of a train, and how when it was shown people supposedly leapt out of the way of the screen, even though trains make noise and are in color. If you showed Spring Breakers to that audience would they also jump out of the way? Would they even recognize what they were seeing as art? I can’t imagine that if you dumped James Franco in corn-rows with a gold grille on them that they would be able to make any sense out of what they were seeing. Alien indeed…

5. I had a conversation near Christmas last year with a friend who started this movie and gave up before twenty minutes had passed. They thought it was repetitive and sexist and dumb. And it is those things, on top of being all of the things that I’ve mentioned above.

Around the time that this came out, I read an interview with it’s director Harmony Korine where he described Spring Breakers as a movie about what happens when people decide that they are gonna eat nothing but cake, and how at a certain point cake stops tasting sweet. The thing is: you don’t have to eat nothing but cake to know that you shouldn’t eat nothing but cake. We can get the point about desensitized modern society is without having to spend an entire movie looking at people wearing next to nothing.

(It’s too bad that Korine’s metaphor was cake, because if he had said “pancakes” instead it would have made more sense to link to this. Including it here is 100% a digression, but you’ll have to indulge me.)

But even though Korine’s point isn’t novel, and even though he’s making it in a crass way, I think there’s something to what he’s saying in Spring Breakers. The surface of this movie is all flash, but underneath he's tapped into some primal themes. The American lifestyle is all about cake now. Smart phones took what was nice about computers and made it so that you could do those things at all times anywhere you go, and now people are having serious doubts about whether all that screen time is causing them to miss out on life. Twenty four hour news channels seem to be making people less informed instead of more. Hell, the cake metaphor can literally be applied to cake: stuff that used to be a once in a while treat could easily be an everyday thing for a lot of people. 

I could go on and on, but the point is obvious: in so many ways we live in an age of excess, and I think it’s important to explore that. And the fact that the form matches the function – that he’s made a movie about too much cake that’s funny on one viewing and sad on another and totally gross on another – is just icing on the cake.

Winner: Me

Spring Breakers on IMDB