“…pretend like it’s a video game”
‘Spring Breakers’ is the latest endeavor from filmmaker Harmony Korine, and outwardly it is an examination of the American ‘spring break’ culture of the Floridian coast, however in a recent interview Korine spoke about the lack of an underground in the internet age, and after a viewing of the film it is the opinion of this author that there is much more going here than meets the eye.
The film follows four early-twenty-something girls (Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty) as they rob a diner for cash to road trip down to spring break on the Florida coast and after being bailed out of a holding cell the rapper/drug-dealer Alien (James Franco) slowly descend into a blitz of violence, pleasure and nihilistic decadence which threatens to consume them at their own invitation.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (with simultaneous echoes of our own post-9/11 culture) a maelstrom of violence transfers the protagonists of ‘Spring Breakers’ from the dull repetitive banality of their gray anonymous suburban tract town into the maximal neon hyper-reality of spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The extremes of gray hopelessness and hyper-color indulgence are accurate reflections of the realities of contemporary American life in an age when the moderate balance of middle class existence has been gutted into a husk of its former self and the options available to a large swatch of the populace are either scraping by on the terms of those in power, or else a Bacchanalian rejection of the ethos that have resulted in the collapse of our lifestyle. In this film, it is the latter option that is investigated in this hypnotic visual poem.
The scene of transition in question, where the four female stars rob an all night diner in ski masks and bikinis and set the plot of the film in motion, is shot entirely from the point of view of the getaway car – the scene of chaos entirely mediated by multiple windows (or screens) from the viewer circling the carnage in a vehicle that is complicit in the act in what is perhaps an oblique metaphor to 9/11 or similar events which transpose meaning as catalysts for social change both positive and negative and are largely experienced through televisions, newspapers and video.
That the robbery is committed by use of realistic squirt guns that the girls use to continuously shoot liquor into their mouths (the simulacra and the pleasure principle) is one of the best metaphors for contemporary web technologies that I have seen in recent cinema.
Once the girls arrive in St. Petersburg we are confronted by a constant barrage of hyper-color, excess and artifice (numerous references are made of ‘going back to reality’ by the characters, who drop off at different points along the ride when it becomes too much in the way someone might drop off facebook) – indeed one character played by pop starlet Selena Gomez is shown as an evangelical Christian, often displayed against a primary colored stained glass window; trading one system of belief in a hyper-space of ‘other’ for another, and ultimately returning to the one where she is most comfortable.
Guns, drugs, booze and money are the symbols that are constantly utilized by the characters in various ways throughout the film; means for various ends of pleasure as McLuhan-esque extensions of the senses of man and therefore symbolic proxies of media. James Franco’s character Alien is often the source of these symbols and is shown cloaked in graphics, brands and logos living in a world of pure self-referential hedonistic fantasy.
He has a set of twins as his partners in crime and is often shown himself in reflection and mirror image, be it in the ubiquitous pool water or high gloss surfaces of the Floridian landscape. His character represents the values of this mirror-world that is an alternative to the reality Korine’s protagonists constantly seek to leave behind them.
The world of Spring Break is straight out of Society of the Spectacle and Franco’s character is its ringmaster. The Caucasian kingdom that he has created comes into conflict with an African American counterpart in the crime underbelly of St. Petersburg. The choice of the Floridian gangster lifestyle as the paradigm of investigation into the (literal) contemporary media landscape is entirely apropos on the part of Korine, as the hyperbolic symbol-management of hip hop aesthetics are the perfect metaphor for the performance-of-self pervasive in online personas and the selection of avatars on blogs and social media platforms.
This crisis of identity-conflict climaxes in a spree of violence that leaves a majority of both parties dead – an allusion to the increasing conflict with the ‘other’ that we face in an age when our lives become increasingly and inseparably interconnected. Be it Al Qaeda or the Arab Spring, the interests of once disparate groups now face increasing tension as the need for new methods of negotiation seek to catch up with our exponential inability to separate from one another, even as the unity of the internet simultaneously isolates us – indeed, the constant reiteration of ‘spring break forever’ mirrors the constant cycle without catharsis of the structure of internet-based media.
Cell phones and other media devices are rarely used or shown throughout the film (usually resigned to voice-over narrations to the characters mothers who seem to be reflections of their conscience) and I can’t recall a single iPhone, iPad or other high-end device that have come to define our epoch; if they are present in the film, they are unmemorable and might as well be absent. What literal media screens are shown are full of largely cartoon imagery and pop iconography, as symbolic metaphors of the psychosocial effects of these device extensions.
By showing us a maximal, neon, blinged-out world of artifice largely ensconced in self-referent pop iconography and repetitive cyclical imagery and reductionist mantras, removed from literal representations of contemporary technology, Harmony Korine is subtly hinting that there is no need for smart-phones or computers in Spring Breakers, because for all intents in purposes we are already inside of one.