Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

10 September 2013

Spring Break Forever, Y'all

I am not quite sure what I figured I'd get from Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, but it was recommended to me by two sources that I don't really trust (ahem: Carlos and Jonathan), and so my expectations were fairly low. More than anything else, I figured Spring Breakers would be like 1998's Wild Things for a new generation.

In fact, as I write this, the comparison makes perfect sense. Wild Things (if you grew up in the '90s like I did) was the sexiest mainstream film I had ever seen: Neve Campbell and Denise Richards have sex with Matt Dillon in a swimming pool and it's all very exciting. Wild Things was all about trafficking in this kind of eroticism: Kevin Bacon even appears fully naked (he did that a lot in the late '90s). But Wild Things is a plot-driven film that has about twenty-five twists: this person double-crossing the other and then being double-crossed in return to the point of total absurdity. The tittilation in Wild Things is the point of the movie, of course, but the film pretends for all the world that it is a crime caper, almost as if it is in denial of its own purpose. 

Spring Breakers does things differently. It's set in Florida, too (Florida is apparently the favored setting for both real-life criminal behavior and its cinematic equivalent these days) but Korine's film is not about plot any more than it is about eroticism or faux-lesbianism. Spring Breakers is, for one thing, about time.

Spring Break forever, y'all. The film's characters chant this mantra as a plea for living in the now and as a demand made upon those participating in spring break to celebrate this time during spring break to the fullest. It's a way of saying YOLO or (as we used to say) carpe diem. And essentially this time during spring break is assumed to be "free" time, or time that is outside of time. The young ladies at the film's center speak about getting away from their lives, leaving their humdrum existences. They need to get out of their lives: out of the regular time of their lives in order that they can have "the time of their lives". They repeat hackneyed expressions such as these are the moments we'll always remember, but aside from being so intoxicated that memory of anything would seem impossible, the moments that are intended to be remembered are themselves outside of time, approached as outside of time. It is central to the film's premise that the moments in these young ladies' lives are not at all memorable and the moments lived outside of "real life" are worth remembering, indeed are the only ones worth cinematic retelling.

And if Spring Break is considered a break from time, Korine's film explores the ways that time itself is disrupted through the activities attached to the popular notion of spring break: the film is often unclear about when we are and where we are. Sometimes we watch things that haven't happened yet, flashes-forward that we then see in real time, giving the entirety of the film the feeling of having happened already. I found myself saying wait, has this already happened? or hasn't this happened before?. Lines repeat, sometimes ad nauseum, and Spring Breakers plays with the totally intoxicated way of living this life out of time. The young women re-enact a scene of violence from the first act of the film in the second act. Only this time they're in a parking lot and everything is different. It's just play-acting. And the film flashes quickly between the memory and what is happening in the present. But even what is happening in the present feels like it has already happened. And one begins to feel a bit nauseous. I began to feel as though I had had as much to drink as they had. But you said that already. Didn't you say that already?

James Franco as Alien
Spring Breakers, too, is essentially about our time. It feels very much about the current moment: the total banality of collegiate sexual activity, of naked men and women, of alcoholic intoxication, of beach parties and public, sexualized play. The police appear in the film at a key moment and they (as you can imagine) do nothing but cause much more trouble. They are present for none of the violent criminal activity in the film, but appear only to slap a hand or two, only to facilitate further criminal behavior. And this no longer feels like a total failure on the part of our legal system, but par for the course. This is the way the law works. When, late in the movie, Alien refers to Britney Spears as one of the greatest voices of our time, it doesn't land as a joke. I nodded my head. He's right. That is the version of greatness we are willing to accept.

The plot of the movie is essentially that three young ladies violently rob a restaurant and set fire to a car so that they can go on vacation with their friend. The four girls then have a wild time in Florida (St. Pete, to be exact) and spend their time getting trashed and flirting with guys. Then they are hauled in by the cops for drug use. They spend a night in county lock-up and then when they come before a judge they are sentenced to two days in jail unless they can pay a fine. The fine is paid by a musician/gangster with a mouthful of gold teeth and a head of cornrows. This guy, whose name is Alien, sells drugs and collects weaponry, and spends most of his time barging into the hotel rooms of spring breakers and robbing them. The young women take up with this guy and form a kind of gun-toting, bikini-clad gang. Eventually two of the women go home, but the two main girls form a ménage à trois with Alien (there is a Wild Things homage where the three have sex in a swimming pool).

The film is filled with bright lights and saturated colors, and these are used to fabulous effect both by the film's cinematographer and its editor. The film is violent and shocking and spends most of its time attacking the famous urban/rural axis that Carol Clover analyzed so well in her study of 1970s horror films. Class conflict is central to Spring Breakers, and that conflict is literalized as the film becomes increasingly violent. Spring Breakers is about money. And to return to time, the film questions who is able to afford time and what people might do to pay in order to buy some time out of time.

By the point at which Spring Breakers is over, it has begun to seem less and less real. Paradoxically, however, the way that Korine has told his story recommends the narrative to us as a real one. I was convinced, by the movie's finale, that such things happen and probably with frequency. And further, I found Korine's approach to be an empathetic one. The young women in Spring Breakers make foolish decision after foolish decision, but they are, after all, more trapped than anything else: trapped in boring lives, trapped by their age, trapped by their relative lack of intelligence, and trapped in a time when the best idea anyone can come up with for escaping a life of boredom is robbing a restaurant in order to get wasted and flash your tits at a video camera.