Words: Adnan Khan
I never had a spring break. Canadians just don’t do it – for March break, we bundled up and took a bus to Montreal so we could stay at a hotel without parents and because it was easier to get into bars in La belle Province. Since the drinking age is lower than America’s – 19 rather than 21 – getting alcohol and partying was never a question, because everyone had at least one 19 year old friend that could make a liquor store run. Still, we could feel the weight of ritualistic importance bestowed on the one week off by our American brothers. The optics were harshly different: winter coats, a Delta Inn, no other teenagers around except for our moribund group of 10; most of us split into loose groups and did what teenagers do in big cities when adults aren’t around – not much. We would regroup nightly and drink vodka and coke, stumble around, fall asleep. This was in high school, which is my closest parallel, because in University no one even thought twice about spring break. It was one week off in February and the University titled it the ultimate soul crusher: Reading Week.
I experienced only a weak reflection of what ‘spring break’ was all about, but it still rammed itself into my consciousness and that hyper-importance of the ritual makes it ideal for Harmony Korine’s examination of American youth culture and for Korine to tackle a very classic question: How should we live? His answer is stark and surprising, depicted in a very caustic descent – or ascension – of four college girls from Kentucky, in Florida. Like Scarface, which Franco’s character Alien is obsessed with, Korine wants to vocalize the American Dream for an unheard from minority.
About the only question that Harmony doesn’t tackle is the immigrant one; everything else is here. The structural and systematic representation of Whiteness, Women, Blackness, and the triangulation of all three is opaquely examined with real glossy Music Video and Video Game aesthetics: slow motion, dubstep, close ups on tits and ass, gunshots, the fetishization of ‘blackness,’ and the dangers of ambition. The initial reaction to the Spring Breakers marketing campaign was to suggest that he was ready to glamorize the sexuality of youth – we thought this was obvious because of his deployment of Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, the sex that oozed out of the advertisements, and the aroma of hedonism that wafts forward from the Spring Break myth. These techniques aren’t used to celebrate what conservative critics might have feared – who knows exactly what, but the general existence of youth seems to be a good bet – but to ridicule, and at some points, to offer a ridiculously banal critique. There are moments when Korine manages to pull off the subversion and lure us into shrill enjoyment but usually the camera work is so overt, the dialogue so clumsy, that the big ‘moments’ are made obvious for us.
Every criticism of the film addresses the tone established upon opening: zooms into tits, ass, sculpted men. The introduction of the girls as a group lingers on their crotches while they play on the floor. Big budget pornography visuals. Korine does an exceptional job of portraying the gaze – everything about these shots reminds me of a pornography, except the fact that I’m not supposed to jerk off, that this is a real movie; you can only watch the flesh for so long until self-consciousness sets in.
Faith, Candy, Britt and Cotty are bored to death. College isn’t enough for such rambunctious youth – Faith, Selena Gomez’s Christian character, expresses the most of this staleness and stillness. Her Christian and innocent humanity – she only wants to see something new – is juxtaposed sharply next to Vanessa Hudgens’s Candy and Ashley Bensen’s Britt , who want to feel something and have the flicker of meanness in them from the start. Faith’s yearning is spiritual. She wants to experience. Candy and Britt are hedonistic; they want to do. Rachel Korine’s Cotty serves as an necessary in-between: she is not engulfed in morality like Selena (who likes to talk to her Grandmother, and, you know, her name is Faith), but will participate in a robbery as the getaway driver but not the gun wielder. Candy and Britt wield the guns while Faith stays at home, oblivious.
Korine represents these psychopaths pretty articulately. There is a lot of fun to be had here. Candy and Britt reminded me of Eric Harris, the psychopath who instigated the Columbine massacre. Dave Cullen’s careful research in the phenomenal book, Columbine, sketches out a psychotic murderer with no empathy, love, heart, or remorse. Investigators cannot trace his motivations because his brain operates on different wavelengths than ours. Korine provides very little ignition for Candy and Britt’s descent into madness and just like Harris, they use other people as facilitators for their different lusts: notably Franco, but all the men around them.
The Columbine case is also noteworthy for the pervasive line the media took, that media itself was to blame for the tragedies: DOOM, Marylyn Manson and films all took a beating over Harris’s bloodlust. Cullen, always wary of tradition, avoids this, and instead delicately examines the development of a psychopath, revealing there is no clear ascension – which makes illuminating motivation a very difficult trick.
Korine seems to pick up on the old media trick of blaming itself. There is motivation rifled through Candy, in two lines echoed several times in a row, “Fucking pretend like it’s a video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.” Its message is so bogus and conservative that I couldn’t believe it was said. To nail it home the paraphrase, ‘break from reality’ is woven through several scenes. It’s a boring and clichéd thought (it might be telling that both the New Yorker and Guardian praise this idea): youngsters view the world as video games and movies and therefore cannot compute any real emotion, and therefore, are easily prone to criminal activity. The counterpoint is Faith who is always riddled with doubt and leaves after going to jail, being freed by Franco. Then the final kicker: meeting some black people. They freak her out and she leaves quickly. The next to leave Florida for Kentucky is Cotty, who vanishes after she’s shot: Candy and Britt are left to complete the fall.
Taking heavily from rap video aesthetics and trolling in an incredible amount of fun – sex & guns – the quality of the movie dips when you can most clearly see the hollow morality it is tethered too. That life is bad and people are bored is obvious. Spring break and youth are the respite; the time before everything turns to shit. Are viciously bored teenagers a reality? Slicing in females where white men usually belong – sort of like Tarantino and Django – certainly comes with fun moments, but the core of the movie rots.