‘Spring Breakers’ & America’s Collective Hallucination
"Spring Break forever..."
Over and over James Franco's character, Alien, utters that phrase in Harmony Korine's film "Spring Breakers". The first few times it sounds comical; but the soft, dreamlike repetition soon renders it the movie's mantra. In fact, it might as well be the mantra of the American dream, which, of course, is the world dream, undiluted in pure megalomania-fueled rapture.
Surface level, it may seem to the viewer that "Spring Breakers" is about youthful partying and the inevitable messy clean-up. Korine's satirical, prankster critique, however, extends far beyond drinking, flesh and nightmarish hangover. It tends toward something almost Baudrillardian: a day-glo simulacra (double) of humanity's post-modernity consciousness, or lack thereof. It is hyperreality. Korine uses the 21st century's filters to portray how our reality is warped by media, information and material concerns, and forced back onto us in a feedback loop. In a hyperreal world human beings cannot distinguish the real from the fictional because the two have become fused.
In this way "Spring Breakers" is the looking glass of our hyperreal world. As Alien himself says at one point, "it all seems like a dream". Well, it is; and not just in a Carrollian sense.
What we have with Korine's latest film is a meditation on the American Dream superimposing itself on the hyperreal dream, or vice versa. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are any more real than the dance of Korine's light on the cinema screen? There's more truth in "Spring Breakers" than there often is in any one individual human being occupying this three-dimensional world. More truth about how the culture, particularly in America, operates.
Now, before someone dismisses Korine as the prototypical hipster and prankster who cannot be trusted on an intellectual level, we all should be reminded that even pranksters speak truth. Alfred Jarry, the father of Pataphysics, laid out an artistic, prankster vision of absurdist existence some 50 years before Albert Camus. This is the tradition in which Korine works.
And that punk-prankster approach is found immediately in the first scene with Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" soundtracking an orgy of flesh and substances. It is in these slow-motion, highly-stylized shots that "Spring Breakers" plays out in micro-format, putting the emptiness of not only pop culture, but culture in general, on full neon display.
Side Note: The soundtrack seems far more Cliff Martinez than Skrillex—clever marketing... sell some tickets to those kids.
"Everyone can use a little bailing out once in awhile..."
In Korine's vision, the American Dream—the distorted capitalist reverie—is a mantra. It has become, despite the best efforts of the faithful, a surrogate for the religious mantra. In other words, that greedy, egocentric mantra of self interest—taking what is yours in whatever way possible, no matter the damage—replaced the dogmatic mantras of religion. A mass socio-political sleight-of-hand took place from the Industrial Age on through our Technological Age—few seem to notice.
Does this mean that Korine necessarily longs for something pre-Industrial? No. It's hard to tell exactly what Korine wants for civilization since he's openly fond of transgression and digging into subcultures. But some sort of polemic seems at work in the text of "Spring Breakers"—something beyond the attractive veneer of celluloid entertainment.
Take Korine's jab at the wealthy few who engineer and distort the free market, when Alien bails out the four girls, Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty. Asked why he is there by one of the girls, Alien says, "[T]hought I'd bail ya out... everybody needs a little bailin' out once in awhile." It's not a subtle satirical barb, but it does have punch. Did any of America's lower classes get any bailout? We know the answer to that question.
There is also an equivalency established here subliminally between the US bailout and the "Spring Breakers" fetishization of theft. After the last few years, people should know that theft is theft, and no semantic leaps can disguise it. The only thing separating the banks' pilfering of taxpayer money from the film characters' theft is variety and scale.
Spring Break & the American Dream
Anyone who has done spring break will wax nostalgic for the welcomed annual "break from reality". In "Spring Breakers" this breaking from reality also holds true, in a sense, but not in the way many viewers might imagine.
When Faith says, "It's so nice to get a break from reality for awhile", we might sympathize with her sentiment; but, there is a false nostalgia, a naïveté operating that isn't just Faith's but our own. Faith encounters—to adopt and elaborate on Umberto Eco's conception of hyperreality—a "fabricated reality" that is more "real" than the hyperreality she mistakes for the real (the stable world that she left for spring break).
We should look upon the spring break daydream as a very concentrated and temporary dose of psychosis. There is a loss of contact with "reality"—that is the real break. Like a holiday, none of the usual concerns (rent, bills, work, etc.) seems to matter. The irony is that spring breakers aren't actually losing contact with reality as they know it, but undergoing a sort of psychological break with hyperreality, which they cannot see. It is pure delusion. With spring break, one simply trades one hyperreality for another.
Harmony Korine seems to acknowledge this reality psychosis by escalating the dreamlike, hyperreal state over the film's duration. The movie begins normal enough (whatever that means in a hypperreal, simulated world) but crescendos to a day-glo, nightmare—the endpoint of mindless consumerism and material lust. The more we accumulate and desire, the more we disconnect—the more we break from any still existent residue of reality.
Interested in reading the rest of the review? Head over to Death and Taxes.