Living Inside the Cliché: ‘Spring Breakers’

“The complex ways in which we produce and reproduce the world in technologically developed societies involves the ways in which we separate ourselves into public and private persons, producing and consuming persons and so on, and the ways in which we as people negotiate and cope with those divisions. Stars are about all that, and are one of the most significant ways we have for making sense of it all. That is why they matter to us, and why they are worth thinking about.”

— Richard Dyer, “Heavenly Bodies”, Film and Theory, 604

I begin with a confession. I have a daughter who is in her pre-teens. As a result, throughout the years I have suffered through countless hours of being bombarded by Selena Gomez’s mechanical acting within Wizards of Waverly Place at home and repeated assaults of Vanessa Hudgens’ chipper singing during long-distance car drives as the High School Musical franchise played on endless repeat over my daughter’s portable DVD player. So I held particularly high sadistic expectations before attending Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to watch their star images get immolated once and for all as sort of minor payback for Disney’s incessant stranglehold upon our household.

Unfortunately, their images weren’t as trashed as I would have liked. But my desires spoke to one truth about Spring Breakers: the only way to fully engage with it is by addressing the star system that it plays along with and somewhat challenges.

This would have been apparent to anyone who witnessed Spring Breakers theatrical release in March. As I stood outside waiting to purchase my tickets, hordes of pre-teens plotted to buy tickets for another movie in order to sneak into the R rated Spring Breakers. Inside, however, movie theater ushers guarded the doors to the theater entrance by double-checking everyone’s ticket. Never in my life have I seen such cloak-and-dagger tactics to see a film.

Undeterred, a plant for the underage opposition inside the theater sneakily popped open an emergency exit during previews so a river of under 17 kids could flood into the theater. It did my heart good. Movies were being taken seriously by a younger generation. And they were going to see Selena Gomez in this controversial role come hell or high water.

This experience speaks to the allure of star power, not simply in terms of worship, but also in how we mediate our own experiences through the stars we love. The kids who snuck into the theater weren’t there to just witness another Selena Gomez product. They were there to sneak glimpses of their star dipping her toes into adult material and express a budding sexuality and maturity that had been sanitized from the Disney products she had previously inhabited. They were there to vicariously mediate their own budding maturity and entrance into the adult world despite their parents’ protests.

One cannot but help read Gomez’s character Faith as a commentary on her sanitized star image. Her character is the most reluctant to engage with the film’s debauchery. She is a devout Christian who only wants to moderately stray from the fold. When things get too sketchy with the introduction of Alien (James Franco), she hightails it back home.

Interestingly, Gomez reinforces her reluctance as an actress to participate within certain scenes within the film during the DVD extras. She recounts, “It got overwhelming for me. I had a breakdown on the set.” She also recalls how she warned younger fans to not attend the film. Rachel Korine, who plays Cotty, further asserts that she protected Gomez during the grind sequences by keeping wayward boys’ hands from groping her too much.

The film and the extras suggest that Gomez the actress and Faith the character share the same concerns. But as film theorist Richard Dyer notes, “A film’s star image is not just his or her films, but the promotion of those films… public appearances, studio hand-outs and so on…” (604). As a result, although the DVD’s extras attempt to persuade viewers that they are discovering Gomez’s “real” opinions about her role and the film, we must keep in mind that this is all part of publicity and preserving the “innocence” of her star image in spite of participating in the Korine film. In other words, it conflates star and actress to such an extent that it is impossible to disentangle the two. Gomez’s “purified” star image seems to have over-determined her character’s reserved qualities.

Furthermore, the weight of preserving her cultural capital as an ambassador to Disney also over-determines what she can claim during her interviews, which seems to contradict her very involvement in the film. Clearly, she wanted to be in a film that challenged her star image to a certain degree. But she never speaks about this during her interviews. Instead, she recounts the trauma brought onto her “personally” by playing such a role. Korine reinforces this during his director’s commentary by recalling how he pushed Gomez to the breaking point on the set by placing her in vulnerable and unpredictable situations analogous to what Faith experiences.

The fact that Korine freely relates such accounts to promote the film speaks to the film’s sexist tendencies where the girls are at times seen as no more than objects to be manipulated rather than people to be engaged with. For example, in an early sequence the girls position themselves upside-down in a hallway. Their bodies visually intertwine forming complex patterns not unlike the women arranged and manipulated in a Busby Berkeley dance sequence. The scene’s monochromatic blue tint bleeds the girls’ bodies into their surroundings. Korine comments about this sequence, “It almost looked sculptural like an art instillation. I like the shapes it made.” This is where Korine’s formalist tendencies trump his narrative concerns, which isn’t necessarily an inherent problem except that it often reduces the film’s female characters into objects in the process. But, in part, this is a film about objecthood, and, stereotypically, it makes women serve as self-perpetuating consumable objects.

Diametrically opposed to both Gomez and her character Faith is James Franco and his character Alien. Alien represents the dark side of spring break where drugs, money, and violence tangle into an orgy of confusion and excitement. It’s no coincidence that Alien finds Faith the most attractive since she is the least obtainable and therefore the greatest challenge. Their opposition and mutual attraction is visualized as they sit across from one another in Alien’s pimped-out car. Faith looks frightened but also cannot look away. This creepy dynamic reaches a crescendo as Alien in close-up intimately caresses Faith’s face and her lips as he attempts to manipulate her into staying with such lines as “I like you so much” and “And I’m gonna be thinking about you when I’m with your friends, okay?”

The two are also diametrically opposed in terms of acting styles. Gomez remains wedded to her star image, which ultimately restrains her acting, character traits, and the roles she can accept. Franco, on the other hand, completely immerses himself into a variety of roles that have little relation to one another. We witness his immersive acting style during one of the film’s extras that shows Korine suggesting to Franco that his character had a rough life and values only money. With minimal guidance, Franco then launches into an impressive improvisational number, which expresses Alien’s crude summary of the American Dream and somewhat becomes a mantra for the entire film.

He states: “Some people want to do the right thing. I like doing the wrong thing. Everyone’s telling me, ‘Yo, you gotta change.’ I’m about stacking change, y’all. I’m about making money. That’s the dream, y’all. That’s the American Dream. That’s it. I did it.” As he speaks, shots proliferate of material goods: his house, shrink-wrapped bars of money, cocaine on scales, a luxurious waterfront backyard, a huge knife surrounded by gold watches and necklaces, and automatic weapons laying on stacks of cash. In many ways, the message is no different than most gangster films: the escape from mediocrity is paved with the glitz and glamour of a hyper-materialistic lifestyle. But Spring Breakers pushes this even further by suggesting the characters’ unquenchable desire to disappear into the surface of things, of erasing mundane concerns by fully dissolving oneself into the cliché and the commodity.

Some commentators have simplistically dismissed the film as a simple endorsement of a superficial culture. A.O. Scott, for example, strikes a curmudgeonly tone as he scornfully accuses, “Like a great many other American dreamers, Faith and her friends are pursuing a vision of earthly paradise, and Spring Breakers is unambiguous about the sincerity and fervor of their pursuit” (“Gatbsy, and Other Luxury Consumers”, The New York Times, 19 May 2013, A&L 14). This is half correct.

Spring Breakers certainly immerses viewers into the world of the commodity and surfaces. As the film increasingly shucks off killjoys like Faith and later Cotty (Rachel Korine), its form becomes increasingly experimental and unhinged from reality. Perhaps its best moment that firmly entrenches viewers into the fevered dream of the characters is when the three remaining girls exit the house onto the back patio wearing pink fluorescent ski masks with unicorn patches and one-piece pink and black bathing suits while holding shotguns; they ask Alien to play a song for them on his white baby grand piano, perched by the pool. Alien, in all sincerity, states, “This one’s by a little-known pop singer by the name of Miss Britney Spears. One of the greatest singers of all time and an angel, if there ever was one on this earth.” He then begins to plaintively sing “Everytime”.

The sun descends into a pink sky as the girls twirl around Alien with shotguns raised above their heads in slow-motion. The music slowly dissolves into Spears singing as the footage cuts to slow-motion shots of Alien and the girls in the same outfits robbing and beating senseless their victims. A particularly ludicrous shot has the girls pointing their uzis at their hostages as Alien bounces up-and-down on a bed like an excited boy wildly swinging his dreadlocks from side to side. Moral compunction aside, the sequence relates a carnivalesque time and can’t help make less discerning viewers like myself fully embrace its excess and outrage. Korine has rightly called this sequence during his commentary “a kind of violent ballet.”

This is part of the Spring Breakers‘s power. It fully descends into the superficial, the spectacle, and the cliché to reveal the fun that they embody. In some ways, the film needs to make this point or it would remain unclear of why Alien, Cotty, Brit (Ashley Benson), and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) desire this world of surfaces. And except for perhaps the most puritanically minded viewers, we have all had our debauched moments—maybe not to the film’s degree but some variation thereof.

This embrace seems to stick in the craw of critics like A.O. Scott, who simply want to condemn the cliché from the outside—at least in Spring Breaker. It’s as if they fear being infected by its allure if they hazard to see it from the inside. Yet they don’t seem to hold any reservations when other films or genres do so like the gangster genre. For example, critics heralded The Sopranos, which simultaneously embraced and questioned the cliché of the gangster, his masculinity, and its world of violence. Tony Soprano represented both sex symbol and monster—with his monstrosity growing more pronounced as the series ended.

Alien, too, is both sex symbol and monster. If anything, Spring Breakers queers the gangster genre. It is the coming-of-age story of Candy and Brit being introduced to the world of the gangsta. They eventually outstrip their tutor, Alien, as they remain the last women standing after a gun battle with Archie (Gucci Mane), Alien’s old friend and now nemesis. The girls’ allure and control of Alien gets fully revealed as they make Alien give a mock blowjob to the fully loaded silencers that they forcefully hold in his mouth. To his own surprise, he enjoys it and marvels, “You’re my mother-fuckin’ soul mates.”

Spring Breakers constantly reverses roles and gender stereotypes by having Alien and the girls wildly conflating masculine and feminine performances. The girls dressed in pink ski masks with unicorns in scantily clad bikinis while mowing down Archie’s henchmen with their uzis fully reveals the convergence of these realms. As Korine notes during his commentary, “This is a culture of performance and display.” As a result, gender attributes, sexuality, and identity itself is up for grabs within this sea of images and immediate gratification.

Yet, at the same time, it also exposes the utter stupidity and vapidity of those who fully embrace a world of surfaces and attempt to confine their identities within clichés. Alien becomes the quintessential figure of this. His very name, Alien, suggests his desire for transcendence and escape. Yet his southern twang constantly and firmly entrenches him back to his roots. His 727 tattoo becomes a metaphor for Alien’s desires and contradictions. It is dressed out in guns and gangsta imagery, but it still remains the area code for St. Pete, his hometown. His faux worldliness remains shackled to a provincial mindset that can only assess life according to his limited geography and experiences.

The girls, at least, travel from their surroundings in search of themselves. Of course, the very search itself is a cliché, as if a raucous week of drinking, drugs, dancing, and sex will reveal anything other than a hangover, an arrest record, and STDs. The incessant imagery of the girls partying that circulates throughout the film emphasizes its repetitive nature, less narrative movement than spectacular escape that also eventually transforms into its own form of routine.

This cliché of the coming-of-age narrative is punctuated throughout the film with the girls’ calls home. Brit says, “Hey mom… I just want to do better… I feel changed. I just want to be a good girl. The secret to life is being a good person.” Meanwhile we watch imagery of Archie’s men being gunned down by the girls in slow-motion as Brit speaks. This disjunction between her words and her reality speaks to the manipulative nature and ambiguity of the coming-of-age narrative. Is she being ironic here or does she genuinely mean it? Does she mean it but not see it connected to her actions? Or do her actions indeed support her narrative—that being a good person is mowing down those who oppose you? There is no answer since the film seems to suggest that Brit doesn’t care about the relationship between her actions and words. The words are enough, as if simply saying them makes them true. Why question any deeper meaning when you live in a world of surfaces? That is the beauty of such a world: there is no depth to trouble appearances.

Yet this very lack of depth also suggests an absence of sustained emotional connection with others. Candy, Brit, and Cotty are fairly honest with Faith that they are just using her for her money to get them to spring break. When Faith eventually leaves, none of the girls seem particularly bothered by her departure. The same holds true when Cotty leaves. Even when Alien is shot dead during the film’s final sequence, Candy and Brit keep marching forward firing their guns. Only after the shootout do they kiss Alien goodbye, though they never remove their ski masks, suggesting a distance remains between them still.

The only sustained relationship throughout the film is that between Alien and Archie. They were childhood friends who would rob spring breakers. Archie schooled Alien in the ways of the gangsta. But now the lifestyle has caused them to become enemies. Alien seems bothered by this as he plays mournfully on his piano and sings, “This mother fucker was my best friend. And I’m gonna’ kill my best friend.” But these reservations get trumped by the spectacle of material things and the increasingly unhinged form of the film that undermines linear narrative, coherent thought, and deeper emotional connections.

The Neon Fevered Dream

The end of the film fully immerses itself into a torrent of images of Alien, Candy, and Brit writhing in the pool together, arming themselves, and inhaling drugs, and incessantly looped audio of the girls asking, “Are you a scaredy pants?” and Alien replying, “Yeah, I’m a big ol’ fuckin’ scaredy pants” punctuating the imagery. The film becomes decidedly more musical than narrative and overwhelmingly beautiful as neon imagery dominates like the shot of the girls’ glowing pink ski masks and radiating yellow bikinis as they stand armed in their boat that races towards Archie’s destruction.

Tellingly, Spring Breakers ends in a disturbing crescendo of beauty and horror. We watch slow-motion aestheticized death à la the ending of The Wild Bunch. Yet we listen to the girls’ testimonies to their parents that they are becoming better people. Signals cross to such an extent that it is impossible to sort out one’s emotions from both the excitement and repulsion that the final scene evokes. This is to Korine’s credit. The film wants to confront viewers with both the allure and gruesomeness of this surface world of the cliché. It is both enticing and repulsive at the same time. To suggest otherwise is to underestimate its power.

This helps explain our analogous appeal towards stars. We want to simultaneously revere and destroy them since they become mediated images where we can work out our own contradictory desires. Their power can overwhelm us at times. After all, it sent hordes of underage kids to sneak into theaters across the country to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars tarnishing their image.

Although one might condemn the girls of Spring Breakers for descending into the lustful materialism of St. Petes, it seems quite hypocritical coming from avid cinemagoers who also like to immerse themselves in the debauchery of horror films, musicals, melodramas, and the like. We, like the girls, understand the enduring power of the spectacle and the desire for escape. Before every screening, we secretly hear inside us our own inner Alien whispering, “Spring break forever. Spring break forever.” Whether we let him get the better of us becomes another matter entirely. But Korine rightfully identifies the Janus-faced appeal of the spectacle which Spring Breakers, more than any other film as of recently, embodies.