‘Spring Breakers’, ‘Pain & Gain’ and Postmodern Folly at the Movies

“What I finally decided was: art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of the cave in France 30,000 years ago. And it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. And art is storytelling; we need to tell stories. We need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information to try and make sense out of all this chaos.”

Steven Soderbergh, real filmmaker.

“For hundreds of years now, people have been trying to make the world make sense. Postmodernism shows that their best efforts have failed and that the world, if it even exists as such, makes no sense at all.”

Lionel J. Flackswax, fake philosopher.

A Tale of Two Filmmakers

Prior to spring 2013, Harmony Korine and Michael Bay represented two seemingly nonintersecting circles of the film industry. In fact, the most concrete connection was a year, 1995, which saw the release of the two feature films that announced their presence and introduced many of their artistic signatures. Korine was the early 20-something skateboarder/fabulist responsible for Larry Clark’s Kids, a film controversial for its “realistic” and voyeuristic treatment of teenage sexuality. Bay, the flashy and self-assured commercial and music video director, directed Bad Boys for studio blockbuster legends Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, thus establishing his own explosive and expensive action film template.

In the nearly two decades since that breakout year, Korine has sustained a career out of appearing to rebel against the mechanisms of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s telling that his best film to date, 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy, was aligned with a Danish film movement rather than any specific antecedent from the American studio or independent film scene. Bay, on the other hand, grew into a titan of the industry. So successful was the former commercial director at creating American movies as moneymaking exports that his alignment with the Hollywood machine resulted the Transformers franchise — movies literally about machines.

For critics and moviegoers, both men are easy targets. Perhaps it is in this way, as divisive personalities at such opposite poles of the same industry, that they seemed destined to meet. They’re hyperbolic in discussing their films and brazen in their commitment to moviemaking that favors aesthetic choices over plot. Until the present moment, those aesthetics had little in common, except for the fact that anyone familiar with each man’s work could identify it as indisputably bearing his signature. Transformers comes as naturally to Bay as Trash Humpers does to Korine, and no one would confuse the two. But despite these divergent approaches to filmmaking, there is at least one word/concept that brings them together. In reviewing responses to their movies from the ’90s to today, I notice a recurring attempt to define and/or examine their works under the banner of “postmodernism”.

Postmodern Problems

Postmodernism is tricky to define, and in its purest form would necessarily escape specific definition. Eva T.H. Brann describes postmodernism as the endpoint of a certain temporal perspective, after which nothing else would succeed: “What can possibly come after the time when ‘just now’ has itself been pushed into the past, when we are said to be already living ahead of our own present?” Brann’s observation most relevant to filmmaking is one that positions the image as the product of imagination and asserts, “The Postmodernist image is regarded as entirely cut off from any original, from any supporting base. Images image images. Like facing mirrors, they reflect nothing but each other.” Given these descriptions, the characterization of Korine and Bay as postmodernists does hold true. With regard to temporality, their films do favor the moment to the coherent whole. Visually, their pictures in motion are often unfettered by orthodoxy or tradition.

However, my current interest in these filmmakers goes beyond the formal aspects of their films and beyond discussions of attention span and personal taste. The releases of Korine’s Spring Breakers and Bay’s Pain & Gain during the spring 2013 movie season have brought the filmmakers into an unexpected lockstep. These two satirical crime stories are similar in many ways, most significantly in how they reveal Korine and Bay to be so bound to a postmodern view of ethics and morality that even their attempts to satirize postmodern ethics are undone by 1. devotion to the apparent pleasures of the present moment and 2. refusal to distinguish between good and bad behavior. In this sense, they are more in tune with (and in thrall to) popular culture than ever before, which should alarm viewers who still subscribe to the belief that there’s more to life than seeking personal gain at any cost.

In Korine’s film, personal gain is the chance to party in Florida during Spring Break. College students Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez) know that they don’t have the resources to achieve their dream. We hear their thoughts in voiceover and in lifeless conversation, and it’s clear that these young ladies regard Spring Break as an ultimate and deserved pleasure. Tired of being “denied” that pleasure, three of the four commit an armed robbery and then they all hit the road. The plot of Pain & Gain is similar, except in this case a lone figure, bodybuilder and trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), grows desperate in his pursuit of an “American Dream” of money and status. He targets obnoxious client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) for a forceful extortion scheme and uses friends Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to carry out the plan.

It must be said that Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain are great looking movies, mimicking the slickly packaged fantasies that have long been the stuff of music videos, television commercials, and well, Michael Bay movies. To return to Brann’s statement about image and imagination, the pictures on screen are the products of commonly imagined objects of desire like good weather, physically toned people, expensive houses, and fast cars. There is a satirical function to the films’ obsession with the sexy surface of things, insofar as both directors are targeting the dreams we’re sold in media by making movies that consist almost exclusively of those sorts of images. If the films lacked visual flair of this sort, then the satirical effect would be absent from the start.

The areas in which films fail to live up to their potential are in the executions of plot — especially in tone and causality — and in the values systems represented by the characters. Although both filmmakers are regularly accused of falling short in some of these areas, there’s a greater expectation for dramatic impact when the films actually set out to comment on society, which Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain ostensibly aim to do. It’s not for nothing that Bay has chosen a true crime story instead of an IMAX spectacle about robots. Or that Korine has been for the first time in his career almost entirely forthright in promotional interviews, forgoing his usual cryptic guy shtick. The criminal activities in both films are not self-contained cinematic ideas, but instead signals of cultural problems, and they deserve to be treated with the attendant responsibility.

But rather than exercise judgment or critical perspective on crime and punishment, Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain share their characters’ self-indulgence, making narcissism seem like a palatable or practical means to achieve goals. The pervasive narcissism of the movies is definitely on trend culturally. Earlier this spring, Bill Davidow wrote about “The Internet ‘Narcissism Epidemic'” for The Atlantic, identifying a connection between the Internet/social networking and an increase in narcissistic behavior. Though neither plot of these films involves the Internet, the characters are the embodiment of traits that Davidow notes in his article: “grandiose exhibitionism and entitlement/exploitativeness”.

The narcissistic characters in these films are perfectly postmodern creatures, placing all of their faith in the surface of things and achieving instant results that seem to validate that faith. The girls’ arrival at a Spring Break paradise, which they literally refer to as “Heaven”, delivers all of the sights and sounds that MTV has promised them their entire lives. Further, Korine, cinematographer Benoit Debie, and editor Douglas Crise do provide the audience with visions of this so-called paradise very early in the running time, as if to entice us and align us with the girls’ rationalization that any measure of scheming would be justifiable.

In a similar manner, Bay (aided by cinematographer Ben Seresin and editors Tom Muldoon and Joel Negron) moves the visual action through successive shots and scenes of visual pleasure that are directly tied to the protagonist’s shallow view of the world. Lugo believes that building up a perfect bodily exterior leads to happiness, and for much of its running time the movie reinforces that theme. Advanced age and excess weight are shown as grotesque. Lugo’s fortunes do grow in concert with his faith in the surface, and the viewer is expected to be so satisfied with the overriding comic tone that any yearning for depth inhibits the plot, which rapidly marches on, committed to “living ahead of our own present”. To watch Spring Breakers and Pain and Gain is to wait for breakthroughs of awareness that never arrive.

Sex and the Surface

Korine’s often-vulgar exploitations of flesh and intoxication would at least be more motivated if he were equally interested in the potential destructiveness of exhibitionism and the loss of self-control. Next to “Spring Break forever”, the girls’ second most vocalized idea is to act like they are “in a movie”. In this sense, their faith in images is supposed to eliminate any dissonance between bad action and healthy conscience. For various reasons, it’s difficult to watch Spring Breakers and not be reminded of the 2012 Steubenville High School rape case that gained wide attention during the 2013 trial, in which two high school football players were found guilty of rape.

Of the many horrific details of the case, the one that resonates most here is the fact that teenagers documented the rape and abuse for online dissemination, in some instances bragging about their participation. Many of the players in the Steubenville High School rape story were not just pretending to be in a movie; they actually created movies, pictures, and other social media about the rape. Their narcissism and engagement with social networking were so strong that the drive to produce outrageous coverage of the events overrode moral objections to the atrocity itself. As difficult as it is to believe, these individuals justified and celebrated their own inhumanity as a means of expanding their online presence/surface selves.

James Franco, who stars in Spring Breakers as a rapper and criminal mentor called Alien, might as well have been talking about this very phenomenon in comments about the film at a Toronto International Film Festival press conference: “A lot of it is about the surface but that’s only because we’re moving into kind of a new age where people do interact with each other and pop culture and everything in a lot of times this very superficial manner. And normally you think superficial was kind of a negative term or something. But it’s actually just kind of this new phenomenon, this way that we live now. So, I guess that’s just to say that looks are very important in this movie. Surfaces are very important in this movie.”

Although Franco is speaking of his admittedly funny character, there’s a surrendering attitude to his statement that is in keeping with the low and/or failed ambitions of both movies, as well as the more widespread loss of moral bearings in an image-obsessed popular culture. Central to this abandonment of righteous ambition and ethics are narratives that provide no positive characters with whom to identify and/or elevate the negative characters to hero status.

Consider the media-spun accounts of the Steubenville rape. Despite crystal clear evidence of wrongdoing, some media outlets (most infamously the coverage on CNN) lamented the extinguished futures of the convicted rapists. As characters in the drama CNN was selling to viewers, the rapists became the sympathetic figures — “young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students,” as Poppy Harlow described them. The CNN coverage of the verdict was astonishing in its goodwill towards “these young men” and lack of compassion for the victim.

Likewise in a vacuum of judgment, the girls of Spring Breakers start the film unwilling to see beyond their own immediate desires, and once those desires are fulfilled, their taste for excess and criminality only increases. They like being the aggressors. Alien is happy to have them in his gang, and two of them quickly outpace their leader to become cold-blooded murderers who never pay for their crimes. In one bizarre scene, they seem to threaten Alien with sexual violence. That he submits to them indicates some attempt at advocating female empowerment on screen, but no message of true empowerment should be predicated on threats of sexual violence.

Additionally, since Korine’s cast involves popular young actresses like Gomez and Hudgens, the target audience for those ladies is likely to have an especially complicated relationship to their onscreen behavior. Articles are already being written on the subject of “suburban teen girls” who are reacting positively to (and behaviorally mimicking) the characters. The Guardian’s Heather Long has made her own connections between the film and the “rape culture” being peddled to young women. In a line of argument I hadn’t considered when thinking of Steubenville, Long associates the party girl image favored by the film to the lack of sympathy for the victim, linking another strand of that recent real life case to the projected fantasy of Spring Breakers.

Pain & Gain (2013)

Heroes and Villains?

Pain & Gain is also problematic in its relationship to real life, as the actual Daniel Lugo is a convicted murderer on death row for his crimes, yet in Wahlberg he becomes a charismatic leading man. The movie’s version of Lugo rationalizes his greed and goals in frequent voiceover narration, and as much as he sounds like a buffoon, there’s no moral counterweight to threaten his position as the film’s intended source of audience identification. As he murders and dismembers bodies, the movie’s tone barely wavers from the funny action mode of Bad Boys, a film whose period (1995) and location (Florida) Pain & Gain specifically recalls.

By the time we’re treated to the graphic image of Dwayne Johnson’s fictional character “Doyle” barbecuing the severed hands of the gym crew’s victims, text appears on screen to remind the audience that this is “still a true story”. In the theater, the moment receives a big laugh, some of which is probably motivated by nervousness. But the incongruity between the image and the tone of the film isn’t just the standard sort of incongruity associated with creating humor. Though the scene is played for laughs, the fact is, the real Frank Griga and Krisztina Furton were killed and dismembered by the Pain & Gain criminals. The criminals burned their remains. That the film envisions such events as material for humor is questionable, and the “still a true story” defense is completely duplicitous. Bay is defending the tasteless image by claiming its historical accuracy, while staging a scene that takes liberties with grim history for the sake of comedy.

Exhibiting a postmodern detachment from standards of historical fidelity, dramatic substance, and good taste, Korine and Bay have produced works that eliminate the sorts of polarities we’re accustomed to seeing in dramatic literature and film. By and large, the characters don’t seem to struggle internally over moral and ethical concerns, and all are so thinly drawn as to avoid classification as representing good or bad, hero or villain. There are brief nods to Christianity in both films, as Christian characters Faith and Doyle express hesitation to commit criminal/immoral acts. However, Faith transforms into the plot’s foremost hypocrite, backing out due to an apparent nervousness over Alien’s many “urban” friends. The film’s questionable attitude towards race doesn’t stop there. The finalé (spoilers ahead) involves Brit and Candy killing Alien’s rival Archie (Gucci Mane) and his associates, whose only substantive difference from Alien and his band of thieves is their race. In Pain & Gain, Doyle holds out longer than Faith did, but his backsliding is all-consuming and committed with even greater fervor than his former religious zeal.

The absence of identifiable heroes is accompanied by a lack of villains. Even as Brit and Candy murder Archie and his women, it’s still not clear what he’s done to deserve their wrath and even less clear why the viewer is supposed to cheer the girls on. Sure, one of his crew shot Cotty earlier in the film, but only because Alien instigated a war between them. And Cotty still lives, so their retribution is exaggerated to an absurd degree. Concerning Kershaw (real name Marc Schiller), the primary victim of the gym crew in Bay’s film, his misdeeds are being wealthy and annoying. For this, Lugo sees him as undeserving of having attained the “American Dream” that Lugo himself so covets. Griga (Michael Rispoli) and Furton (Keili Lefkovitz) are even less antagonistic in their function within the film. Yet their fate is far worse than Kershaw’s, further illustrating the madness of this true crime and making an even greater error of the screenwriters’ and director’s failure to treat their deaths with any sensitivity. To be fair, Pain & Gain never argues (like Spring Breakers does) that killing is good. But the film does treat killing as a joke, which isn’t much better, as affirmations go.

Good and Evil

The result of all this is the elimination of good and evil as evaluative standards for characters, behaviors, and events within movie plots. To remove the timeless dichotomy is to create empty, purposeless narratives. Lest anyone take this as an argument for simplistic storylines or against well-employed complexity and ambiguity, I’ll conclude by offering a few examples of films that have avoided the temptation to say nothing at all when facing the chaos of the world.

In The Ladykillers (1955), Alexander Mackendrick directs William Rose’s screenplay about a sweet elderly lady, Mrs. Wilberforce, who’s the epitome of innocence, and her scheming lodger, Professor Marcus, who is a force of evil. When Marcus and his band of crooks decide they need to kill the sweet old lady for her knowledge of their crimes, they self-destruct instead. In the end, her virtuousness saves her as the men’s bodies pile up just beyond her house.

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is at times too romantic in telling the tale of self-promoting American outlaws, but the tone of the film is calculated to conclude that crime and its effects are deadly serious. The gradual foreshadowing of the couple’s appointment with death, and the iconic and brutal final judgment meted out by police, pose sobering questions about justice that have rarely been rivaled in subsequent films of the same genre.

More contemporary and extreme in its satire is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), which updates Bonnie and Clyde for the sensationalistic news and entertainment media landscape of the ’90s. Stone comes very close to the edge of amorality throughout, but ultimately the film works as a satire of the media’s celebration of killers. The media’s current fixation on a couple of murderer-celebrities (I won’t name them here, for obvious reasons) makes Stone’s exaggerated vision look prophetic.

The final film to consider is Bully (2001), directed by none other than Kids filmmaker Larry Clark. An adaptation of Jim Schutze’s true crime book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge, the film is a Florida-set murder tale with some plot points similar to both Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain. Unlike those films, however, Bully forgoes selling the story as sexy or funny and instead marinates in the ugliness and hopelessness of bullying, vengeance and their effects. Bully is not a film for young teens, but its brilliant final scene of convicted teenagers arguing amongst themselves in court while their horrified families look on, could scare anyone straight from a life of crime.

There are other films that could be mentioned, but the point of reviewing these past examples is to assert that plenty of filmmakers have figured out how to confront the chaos of the world without dodging fundamental questions of good and evil or right and wrong. Yet with each passing year, it seems as if many mainstream movies trend toward avoiding or ignoring the moral and ethical concerns that are inherent to their plots. Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain are just the latest and loudest examples.

Some might say that it’s not the filmmaker’s responsibility to ask big questions and make such judgments and that discerning audiences will vote with their box office dollar. The debate reminds me of a passage from Kim Masters’ The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else. In it, executives Michael Peyser and Jeffrey Katzenberg discuss Pretty Woman (1990) and “its premise that prostitution can lead to wealth and happiness.”

Peyser: “This could be popular but I think it’s sort of reprehensible. I hope you give some of the profits to AIDS centers and runaway shelters.”

Katzenberg: “It’s just a fantasy.”