Worlds Viewed: Spring Breakers

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One of my long-standing dreams is to teach a class on cinema and the concept of world. It’s a topic that runs through the writings of numerous film theorists. (Possible readings would include Stanley Cavell, André Bazin, Annette Michelson, V. F. Perkins, Parker Tyler, Daniel Yacavone, and Jennifer Barker.) It is also, frankly, one that I have found to be somewhat ill-expressed in most film theory, which is why I would split the course readings between film theorists and figures in phenomenology. (Possibilities here include Heidegger, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Aaron Gurwitch, Iris Marion Young, Hubert Dreyfus, and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone.)

The screenings for this course would all center around characters encountering a new world. I don’t mean this in a fantasy sense. There would be no stepping through wardrobes into uncharted realms, here. Instead, I mean encountering a new configuration of possibilities: adjusting to a new social role, learning new skills, abiding by new constraints, adopting new goals … or, in the worst case, failing to, and losing the meaning of one’s life as a result. Screenings would potentially include Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1964), Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Werner Herzog, 1974), Perfumed Nightmare (Kidlat Tahimik, 1977), My Brother’s Wedding (Charles Burnett, 1983), Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999), Une prophète (Jaques Audiard, 2009), How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010), and Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013).

And, as the title of this post implies, Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012). Since its theatrical debut four years ago, Spring Breakers has been a favorite in University of Chicago Intro to Film courses, particularly as a way of illustrating nontraditional editing techniques. I’ve never taught it in that context, but I have been itching to include it in a class, as it remains one of my favorite films of the past decade. Below the jump, you’ll find a long-overdue appreciation of it.

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Quick plot synopsis, just so that I can get it over with: Spring Breakers is the tale of four college friends, Faith, Cotty, Candy, and Brit. (Of these four, only Faith’s name is spoken regularly, for ham-fisted allegorical reasons. The other three blend together more, and by the end Candy and Brit are nearly indistinguishable.) All four want to go on a spring break trip to Florida, but lack the money for it. Cotty, Candy, and Brit come up with a plan to do an armed robbery of a diner (actually armed with realistic-looking fake weapons) to raise the funds. They succeed, and invite Faith on their trip, initially keeping their method of procuring the money a secret, knowing that she is religious, and would object.

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After what seems to be several days of partying in Florida, the young women are busted in a raid of a coke-fueled hotel room party. They are bailed out of jail by Alien, a scuzzy white rapper cum drug dealer. Faith, disgusted by Alien and deeply uncomfortable with the situation, bails, and takes a bus back home. Cotty, Candy, and Brit, meanwhile, ingratiate themselves with Alien. Alien attempts to seduce all three girls into a life of crime, and is surprised to find that Candy and Brit, especially, are not only receptive, but quite possibly more psychotic than he is.

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Alien and the girls embark on a series of armed robberies (scored to Britney Spears’ “Everytime”). But their reign of terror is cut short when Alien’s onetime friend and now rival drug dealer Big Arch shoots at Alien’s car, injuring Cotty. After some improvised surgery, Cotty, too, departs Florida, noting that spring break has finished, and it’s time to return home, anyway. Candy and Brit remain with Alien, planning a retaliatory raid on Big Arch’s well-protected compound. Upon reaching the compound, Alien is unceremoniously shot in the head and killed. Candy and Brit, however, embark on an improbably successful bikini-clad shooting spree, emerging unscathed after gunning down a dozen henchmen, killing Big Arch, and avenging Alien.

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Upon first glance

Spring Breakers is an ironic film. It is satirical. It mocks its characters. There is something off about these people. They are surreally dense, and at times seem to be bumbling about the world without even the vaguest sense of its norms. The palette of pleasures that they embrace are so small-minded, and they embrace them with such conviction, that they seem utterly impervious to norm of taste and propriety.

Early in the film, when the girls have reached Florida, and while things are still freewheeling and Bacchic, not yet interrupted by their trip to jail, we hear Faith, on the soundtrack, leaving this voice message for her grandmother:

Hi Grandma. I’m having so much fun here. This place … it’s special. I’m starting to think that this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. God, I can’t believe how many new friends we made. Friends from all over the place. I mean, everyone was so sweet, here. So warm, and friendly. It’s way more than just having a good time. God, it was so nice to get a break from reality for a little awhile. We’ll always remember this trip. I wanna come back again, next year, with you. Something so amazing. Magical. Something so beautiful. It feels as if the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end.

Meanwhile, what we see on the image track is a parade of young flesh, engaging in typically adolescent revelry: drinking, smoking, bare breasts flashing, even Faith and her friends publicly urinating. Are these characters lead poisoned? Deranged? How could Faith not realize the utter incongruousness of equating this type of youthful Bacchanalia with wholesome spiritual uplift? Does she really not realize this might not be her grandmother’s thing?

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At its most potent, the small-minded tunnel vision of these characters acts as a reductio ad absurdum of specifically American breed of tacky, Philistine aspirational consumerism. The pleasures that characters chase in Spring Breakers aren’t just the pleasures of intoxication, sex, and rebellious violence. They are also the pleasures of acquisition, as a form of status-signaling. All of this comes together in a speech made by Alien, delivered shortly after Faith departs, and he makes an all-out effort to get Candy and Brit under his influence:

It’s in our blood, y’all. Gotta love it. This was my dream. I made it come true. This is the fuckin’ American Dream, baby. This is my fuckin’ dream, y’all! All this shit! Look at my shit! I got … I got shorts! Every fuckin’ color. I got designer t-shirts. I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin’ vampires. I got Scarface, on repeat. Scarface, on repeat constant, y’all. I got “Escape”—Calvin Klein Escape. Mix that shit up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice. I smell nice. That ain’t a fuckin’ bed—that’s a fuckin’ art piece. My fuckin’ spaceship. USS Enterprise, on this shit. I got to different planets on this motherfucker. Me and my fuckin’ Franklins here, we take off. Fuckin’ take off! Look at my shit! Look at my shit! I got my blue Kool-aid. I got my fuckin’ nunchuks. I got shurikens. I got different flavors. I got them sais. Look at that shit—I got sais, I got blades. Look at my shit! This ain’t nuttin’. I got rooms of this shit!

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Between the items themselves and James Franco’s goofy, rambling delivery, it is difficult to listen to this Latourian litany of white trash status symbols without guffawing. So, yes: it is undeniable that Spring Breakers mocks its characters. It mocks the fact that they find the Florida coast during spring break to be “the most spiritual place” they’ve ever been. It mocks the fact that their dangerous, antisocial tendencies are aimed toward the acquisition of the most banal and trashy of consumer goods. And it mocks how unavoidably and embarrassingly American this whole thing is, from the romantic glamorization of violent crime, to the gun worship, to the ostentatious consumerism. “Look at my shit!” is the rallying cry not only of Alien, but of America. It is certainly the rallying cry of Donald Trump, the most American of all Americans, in his tacky, soulless materialism. (There is no doubt in my mind that, if Trump ever made good on his promise to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” to prove that it would lose him no voters, that his gun would be loaded with gold bullets.)

There is a danger, though, when looking at Spring Breakers, to just say “ah, yes, irony,” and feel as if we have the entire film decoded. Yes, the film is ironic. Yes, it is mocking. No, it does not endorse the behaviors or attitudes it depicts. But we should resist the temptation to keep things pat, and imagine that that’s all that’s going on in the film. If all we were looking for was an irony-drenched thumb-in-the-eye of small-minded Red State American culture, then we could just go and watch Butter (Jim Field Smith, 2011). But Spring Breakers isn’t Butter. It wasn’t critically maligned upon release, and quickly forgotten. There’s more to chew on, here.

In fact, I am even a bit hesitant to apply the label “ironic” to Spring Breakers. The description undeniably fits, on a number of levels. But the word “irony,” as deployed in the 21st century, too often takes on this cheap and fuzzy aspect, meaning roughy “doesn’t take its characters seriously.” And I actually think that Spring Breakers takes its characters very seriously. It most certainly does not share, promote, or endorse their aspirations. It mocks their aspirations, quite viciously, and vividly. But, even as it does so, I would propose that the film takes its characters seriously as moral agents, acting in accordance with a moral vision of the world, even if it is one we find both silly and abhorrent.

In order to fully unpack this, we need to wade into religion. And, while doing that, I’m going to take a short detour.

The seductiveness of Sin, and the tension that fuels the engine

Another film that I considered placing on the syllabus for my cinema and worlds class is Robert Bresson’s L’argent (1983). (Warning: if you’re the kind of highbrow art cinema purist that would be offended by someone talking about Bresson and Spring Breakers in the same breath, now is the time to close the tab.)

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The arc of L’argent is simple. A gasoline delivery man, Yvon Targe, circulates a counterfeit 500 Frank note, through no fault of his own. (READ: man’s birthright of original sin.) The judge is lenient, and assigns no formal punishment. However, the incident still loses Targe his job.

As a result, Targe turns to crime voluntarily and outright, acting as the getaway driver for a bank heist. Again, he is caught, and brought before the court. Repeatedly, he is caught by the authorities. Repeatedly, the justice system takes his circumstances into account, finds them to be mitigating, and excuses his behavior to the extent allowed by the law.

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The magistrates that pass down minimum sentences might think, in their own secular way, that they are acting as agents of God’s grace on earth. They are willing to be lenient, and to move on—within the boundaries provided to them by the state and its apparatuses. But the state cannot act as an agent of God’s grace.

For one, God’s grace is absolute, in a way that earthly forms of justice and forgiveness—to say nothing of the penal system of the state—can never be. And, secondly, God’s grace requires repentance. It requires us to acknowledge that we are sinners. This fact is inescapable. We have all inherited the original sin of Adam and Eve. Although we did not take this action ourselves, it does not follow that we are innocent. None of us are innocent. We must accept our status as sinners, and we must repent. Only through penance can we be worth of god’s love.

The actions that the state takes in L’argent, however well-meaning, actually allow Targe to evade responsibility for his initial sin (the circulation of the bad bank note). And, ultimately, this poisons him, beyond any hope of redemption. If he had repented early, accepted his guilt in the case of the counterfeit note, then there might have been hope for him. Instead, as the film goes on, Targe increasingly shows an inability to accept guilt, to feel remorse. He plunges deeper into the world of sin—and let’s go ahead and make that “world of Sin,” with a capital “S.” Ultimately, Sin corrupts him completely. It was not inevitable that accidentally handing a waiter a counterfeit 500-Frank note would lead to an axe murder. But because of Targe’s utter refusal to accept guilt and repent, and because of the judicial system’s enabling of this attitude through its lenience, he falls into a spiral of moral decay. He is hollowed out, and transformed into an avatar of avarice, an agent of pure Sin.

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The world of L’argent is built upon Catholic guilt. It exhibits a profoundly conservative skepticism towards secular social structures’ efficacy as pillars of moral society, as well as a palpable pessimism toward both mankind’s capacity for redemption. This is not a vision of the world that I subscribe to. But it is a coherent one, coherently stated, with great moral conviction and great rhetorical power. (L’argent is one of my favorite films, actually, despite the fact that I reject its theology and moral philosophy.) For Bresson, the world of crime is a slippery slope. If we indulge in Sin unrepentantly, we have taken the first step toward descending into the depths of evil, from which there is no return.

There is a similar logic at work in Spring Breakers.

Early in the film, we are introduced to Faith, the film’s embodiment of innocent Southern Protestantism, via scenes of her attending Christian youth group meetings. There is a certain silliness to these scenes: the pastor asks students if they are “jacked up on Jesus,” followed by plenty of smiley clapping and dopey singing of “amen.” Certain viewers, including those primed by prior cinematic skewerings of American evangelical Protestantism, from Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004) to Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006), will undoubtedly consider Korine to be mocking these characters, satirizing this distinctly American religious culture.

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I find this to be too simplistic, if only because it can’t account for half of the film’s pleasures.

If one wanders into Spring Breakers assuming that these characters and their culture are just there to be mocked, tout court, then one encounters a problem. As much as Spring Breakers obviously mocks these character’s aspirations, I don’t detect much in the way of Dawkins-style derision of Faith’s religiosity in it. And there is a structural reason for this: the film leans heavily on Faith’s Christianity as a thematic center, particularly in its treatment of Sin—again, with a capital “S.”

Whatever else Spring Breakers might say about these characters and their culture, the logic of its plot proposes that Christianity is right to posit Sin as supremely seductive. And not only the logic of the plot, but also the film’s entire audiovisual design! The trails of neon bloom that streak across the screen as Skrillex buzzes on the soundtrack. The way that the editing itself is an intoxicated slurry, getting confused as to time and place, mixing up where and when conversations took place. Violence looks great onscreen. Nubile flesh looks great onscreen. We can’t deny this fundamental logic of cinema, and it plays right into the basic Christian message of the seductiveness of Sin.

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Stripped to its basics, the plot logic of Spring Breakers is that of a Sunday School parable. Once you give in to temptation, it traps you like quicksand, pulling you deeper in. In grand moral panic style, the temptation of drugs and debauchery inevitably lead to deeper Sins: armed robbery, drug dealing, mass murder. Temptation is a black hole. It corrupts the souls of innocents, pulling them deeper into evil, until only demons remain, wearing their faces. Sin corrupts absolutely.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get out, as Faith does. (Although notice that Faith’s faith doesn’t offer her full protection. She is not immune to temptation, and she even proves susceptible to the topsy-turvy world of Sin, mistaking this den of hedonism as the “most spiritual place she’s ever been.”) Go too far, though, and you be so corrupted as to become evil incarnate. Candy and Brit play Spring Breakers‘ version of Yvon Targe. Already by the two-thirds mark of the film, they are less human (well, to the degree to any of the hastily-sketched characters in this film are “human”) than they are demon. They have ascended to the realm of pure temptress. Alien’s effort to draw them into a life of crime is severely misguided: by this point in the film, they are already crime incarnate. They don’t stand in innocent in awe of Alien’s gun collection. They turn his own guns against him, degrading him into simulated oral sex, and reposition themselves as the film’s gravitational center of violence, the baddest of the bad.

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(A side-note, albeit an important one: the way that the world of Sin is mapped in Spring Breakers is inescapably sexist and racist. Candy and Brit are basically femmes fatale, using the powers of female sexuality to provoke men into ever-escalating violence. Big Arch is black, as is his entire gang, and the character’s blackness acts as a racist synecdoche for Floridian crime. This, too, I would argue, is an uncomfortable example of the film’s deliberate appropriation of the moral logic of Southern, White Evangelical Christianity, with all of the sexist and racist overtones that cluster around its history.)

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So, Spring Breakers is ironic. It mocks the simple-minded hedonism that motivates its characters. At the same time, though, its plot is structured by Christian structuring principles, making it as clear a map of the logic of Sin as L’argent is.

There is a central tension at work here, and Spring Breakers is powered by this tension. This tension forms its engine. Its bits bump and grind against each other, in productive ways. The film’s clearly-articulated thesis on the seductiveness of sin provides a counterweight to its equally-obvious irony, preventing the whole thing from falling into petty nihilism.

The result is tonally incoherent, but in an oddly intoxicating way. What happens when you combine irony and mockery with the plot logic of a moral panic film? The obvious answer is that you get an ironic moral panic film. And I think this describes Spring Breakers nicely, with one caveat: Again, I want to warn against using “ironic” as a synonym for “frivolous and unserious.” I don’t think that Spring Breakers is completely frivolous, or unserious. It’s funny, yes. But when it inverts standard and expected meanings, it does so with real seriousness.

I will state it simply, outright: Spring Breakers is heretical.

A heretical moral universe

Spring Breakers didn’t snap into place for me until I considered it as a companion piece to its immediate predecessor in Korine’s filmography, Trash Humpers (2009). Examining the films as a diptych helped me better appreciate both, so permit me a brief digression into Trash Humpers here.

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The central characters of Trash Humpers are utterly repellant sociopaths. Korine dresses up his cast in wrinkly grey latex masks, giving his “protagonists” the complexion and emotive range of the grandfather from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The characters don’t really talk: they grunt, and screech, they sing tuneless songs, they compulsively repeat sexualized gibbrish and hip-hop slogans. They continue to do this even as others address them: the concept of communication is largely alien to them; these are animal noises, not attempts at dialogue. As the title implies, these characters spend much of their time humping trash cans. When they’re not humping trash, they teach neighborhood children how to suffocate babies in plastic bags, and how to put razors into apples. They also have a pronounced tendency to first humiliate, and then murder, anyone who crosses their path.

My experience of watching Trash Humpers was a deeply unpleasant one. Trash Humpers is, at first glance, a nihilistic freak show, a parade of depraved acts without momentum or point. The film felt rudderless, dull, and unnervingly amoral in the completely disinterested way it presented the actions of characters who were, in the end, nightmarishly psychopathic.

In the wake of Spring Breakers, I still find Trash Humpers to be a feverishly unpleasant viewing experience. But I no longer think of it as being an amoral film. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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At one point in Trash Humpers, the central characters attract a groupie of sorts: a scraggly, barefooted man in a maid’s dress, clearly excited about the anarchic potential of this strange group. He excitedly recites a poem he has written in their honor. I don’t have room to reproduce the full thing here, but here are a few key stanzas:

We are to witness the evolution
of man’s contribution
to the highest reward of his species.
With his lion heart thumping,
and his pathetic hips humping,
on garbage and animal feces.

See, you say it’s moronic,
bubonic, demonic.
I say it’s princely, and just.
Just look around at this world:
at the grisly facts of what
so-called “civilization” has done to us.

The trash humpers are utterly indifferent to this poem, singing and setting off firecrackers while the maid-man babbles on. Later, they bash the poet’s head in, killing him.

Despite this indifference and violent hostility, the poet offers up the closest thing something as seemingly nihilistic as Trash Humpers has to a mission statement. The trash humpers are utterly revolting, but there is no denying that they are completely and utterly committed to the pursuit of pleasure. And Trash Humpers, I think, valorizes this. If we take the poet’s hedonistic philosophy to heart—accept that civilization is irredeemably corrupt, and that we should therefore devote ourselves to pleasures that invert civilization’s hierarchies—than what the trash humpers are doing is, in fact, “princely and just.” Up to and including murdering the poet himself.

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The trash humpers are so vile that I don’t think Nietzsche would ever accept them as Übermenschen. But we can still sketch out a process of moral creation here, in a vaguely Nietzschean lineage. The trash humpers’ chosen pleasures are perverse, dangerous, and utterly alien to us. But this just makes their unfettered pursuit of these pleasures all the more radical. Where we lose Nietzsche’s thread, we might pick up with Anton LaVey: Indulgence is the ultimate good. The exploration and refinement of personal pleasure (no matter how esoteric) is a supremely moral pursuit.

This radical, antisocial hedonism is the key to the moral universe of Trash Humpers. I think it’s also the key to Spring Breakers. LaVey’s Satanism is parasitic (to say nothing of plagiarized): it needs Christianity to define certain pleasures as morally reprehensible, so that it can then turn around and define those pleasures as morally valuable. Spring Breakers exhibits this same inversive relationship. It reproduces the same logic of Sin’s corruption that we see in L’argent, but for completely different ends. L’argent is aa deeply Christian film. Spring Breakers is not. It takes Christian moral values seriously, but it does so because it wants to invert their proposed moral universe, committing the ultimate heresy.

“I’m starting to think that this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” reports Faith. From a Christian perspective, this is a sign of deep spiritual confusion, brought on by temptation. But from Spring Breakers‘ heretical perspective, I think it’s supposed to be a divine revelation. The pursuit of pleasure—guns, Franklins, coke, alcohol, dick—is the ultimate good in the moral universe of this film. (The fusion and re-alignment of these two is also gestured to in a series of two insert shots, which provide us with flashes of Faith’s church while she is lounging in a hotel pool with her friends.)

Read this way, Faith isn’t the film’s moral protagonist, the one who wisely/luckily realizes that she’s on the wrong path, and turns back before being completely corrupted. She is, instead, a quitter, a girl who didn’t follow the path of spiritual redemption long enough to realize the cosmic moral value of hedonism.

It’s all there in the film’s closing image. Candy and Brit kiss Alien’s lifeless body, and then the camera swivels upside-down as they begin their murderous rampage. The film’s inversion of Christian values is complete. As a delicate, almost liturgical variation of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” plays on the soundtrack, these characters have ascended to the realm of Satanic angels. (Hence, I assume, their invulnerability.)

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Above, I said that Spring Breakers is a thumb-in-the-eye to small-minded Red State American culture. And, indeed, it is. But it is also a thumb-in-the-eye to the stuffy liberals who populate the seats of arthouse theaters. “Yeah, you think you hold all the right values, and you chuckle about the rubes with their religion, as you watch Bill Maher and donate to NPR,” the film seems to say. “And yes: these characters’ materialistic dreams are utterly stupid and tacky. But so what? They’re out there, actively pursuing pleasure as a moral good. When’s the last time you took radical action in the world? And don’t tell me you’re not seduced by what you see and hear in this movie. I know those colors excite you. I know that dubstep bass gets your heart pumping.”

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As a last word, I humbly propose that Spring Breakers falls into the rarified lineage of Luiz Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959). It is a satire of Christian values, that also somehow simultaneously works as a profoundly Christian film.

In both cases, these two halves reinforce each other.

Nazarin puts forward a proposal: “This is what it would really mean to act as Christ acted, and it is absurd and self-defeating.” That allows skeptics room to laugh at Christianity, yes. For the truly faithful, though, it reinforces how alien Christian values are to wordly values, which is actually a key tenet of Christianity (at least in its least corrupted forms).

Spring Breakers, meanwhile, is just about the purest slice of outright Satanism that cinema has ever offered. It gives us characters who embrace violence as a means of fueling consumerist desire, and it presents their lives as exciting, even admirable in their dedication to their hedonistic cause. But even while embracing a heretical inversion of Christian morality, it gives us a vision of Sin so potent and clean-cut that we might as well be watching a Sunday school special on the dangers of temptation.

All of this is to say, again, that Spring Breakers is tonally incoherent. But its incoherence is expertly managed. The tension between its parts refined, until it reaches the potency of rocket fuel.

And then Spring Breakers huffs that rocket fuel.

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