Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an oddity wrapped up in a conventional teen-drama that warps into some kind of day-glo fever dream of bikinis, Britney, and assault rifles. Ostensibly the tale of four girls who commit a violent robbery to fund their spring-break trip to Florida so that they don’t miss out on the hedonistic, beer-bathing fun they imagine their peers are having. But it could just as easily be their heat-stroked collective hallucination. It is neither the lurid exploitation of Disney princesses it might seem to be on first glance (see accompanying image, above), nor the handwringing “won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children”, expose of “the Real Spring Break”, though it has the scent of both those things about it. It’s a little more haunting and confounding than that. It seems like a prime candidate for some randomisation, so I’ve subjected it to the process that will familiar to regular readers by now, and which can be recapped/introduced with a quick visit to some of the earlier entries in the series.
The randomiser has selected minute-marks 2, 24, 37, 54, and 83. That’s a good spread across the whole of the film, but there’s no telling what those images will yield. The first picture will be…
… part of the opening montage. Hordes of college-age kids are at the beach, sunning themselves in few or no clothes. There seems to be an ocean spray of beer and soda. Now, I’m British, so I don’t really know what spring break is. For all I know, Korine’s film could be a perfectly accurate ethnographic study of young people in their natural, be-thonged communities. But I doubt it. The colours are super-saturated, the slow-motion is extreme; this is the aesthetic syntax of MTV, not the grain and chaos of actuality. A peroxide blonde spring-breaker sucks suggestively on a popsicle – the innuendo couldn’t be more obvious if it had veins on it. The immaculate, near-violet sky is a perfect, obliging backdrop to the scene, with no interruptions from the messiness of climate and clouds. The girls are unfeasibly focused on their lollies. This is the most important thing in their lives right now, a sensual pleasure that comes from ice-cold sweetness (is it red, white, and blue, too?), oral gratification and the sexual spectacle of the image. The scene is cut to Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, which phases between a lush, echoing main section and aggressive bass drops (this shot plays over a quieter interlude, just before a sample of speed-stacker Rachel Nedrow shouting “Yes! Oh, my gosh!” brings in the bass). It plays like a music video, then, and not an evocation of an actual place and time. Revisited several times over the course of the movie, these inserts of the “ideal” spring break serve as a nirvanic vision of good times against which the girls’ less-than-perfect experiences can be measured. All synched sound has been removed from these sequences, and the slow-motion makes them all the more alienating and unobtainable. For all that it revels in the decadence of spring break, the film locates a sadness in the desperation of mass fun, the swarming party fever that turns everyone into a like-minded mass even as it promises them the thrills of personal, individuated escape. Korine’s ambivalence is evident in moments of morose ambience on the soundtrack, in the supersaturation of the colours that we’re primed to read as extreme enough to qualify as ironic or satirical, and in the way the overlapping voiceovers and swift cutting give everything the sense of a fleeting, ephemeral rush instead of a fulfilling change of place and pace. All of this is compounded for viewers of the film by that fact that, for all its claims to an enveloping intimacy, cinema finally shuts you out of its represented experiences. Selena Gomez even expresses her yearning in media terms: “It would be real cool if you could just freeze life”, like a video or photograph.
When the girls (Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Selina Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens) first arrive in Florida, a lot of their expectations are met. They do indeed get to join in Babylonian orgies of booze, coke and bronzed bodies. They also get to bask in each other’s company, and to relax in the knowledge that they are accepted, part of the Spring Break phenomenon (Korine does not really pathologise this, or explain why it is an important thing to be a part of, other than that it is “a thing”, and things are there to be a part of). The image of the group, silhouetted at sunset, ankle-deep in the surf, is a perfect summary of their feelings; it’s as classic as can be, as tacky and dated as a postcard from Athena: the beauty of this moment has already been commoditised, aestheticised, and worn down from overuse – all they can do is conform to a secondhand image that predates them. They’re attempting to insinuate themselves into the hedonistic montage that opened the film, but the sun is already going down. The beach is a liminal space, on a threshold between land and sea, sea and sky. If it communicates a feeling of liberation, it does so by positing an absolute limit – they can not go any further than this; it is, quite literally, a line in the sand.
Arrested when a party they’re attending is raided by police, the girls spend a night in a cell. The colour scheme changes to a sickly green hue to represent the in-rush of reality, the blocking of the sun from their skin. The blankets are one of the few times they wear anything other than their bikinis (which are all they wear to their court hearing). Huddled and restrained, they display none of the spasmodic dancing, hugging, singing, and running that usually gets them through the day. Having cast a bunch of Disney princesses in his movie, Korine gets good value out of playing with their image. References to Britney Spears are more than just pop-cultural throwaways. She is exalted as some sort of angel on Earth by Alien (James Franco), but when he sings a song to serenade his girls, it is Spears’ ‘Every Time’, with the refrain “Everytime I try to fly, I fall without my wings”. This was also the song with one of the videos intended to break her schoolgirl image. It serves as a sly reference to the celebrity cycle of innocence, followed by exploitation and degradation that Spears traced so disastrously (though some would argue that her music became more interesting the more “complicated” her private life was…). Showing the girls in prison (the only time they are seen to be bordered by any kind of authority figures – their parents are just anonymous entities at the end of endless phonecalls the girls make to say how well they’re doing, and what a spiritual experience they’re having) is a diminishment of their clean reputations as Disney house stars, but the framing, which makes it look as though we are intrusively peering in at them in their box, throws some of the responsibility back on to the spectator.
But let’s not forget that James Franco’s own Disney epic, Oz the Great and Powerful was also on general release at the same time as Spring Breakers (their US release dates were just one day apart). In both films, he plays an imposter passing himself off as a miracle-working svengali to a series of impressionable young women. Franco, now a prolific, talented, multifaceted star, was arrested several times as a teenager for drinking, graffiti, and other forms of delinquency. Perhaps Spring Breakers is a chance for all these actors to play alternative future versions of themselves had they never felt the taming influences of the law or the Studio. Here, Franco is behaving like a teenager – i.e. he’s jumping on the bed, showing off all the cool stuff in his bedroom. “Look at my shit”, he says, over and over and over again. “Lookit ma sheeee-it.” Above his illuminated, Art Deco headboard, a little arsenal of weaponry is pinned up to the wall like a collection of rare insects. There is, of course, no attempt at concealment. These are icons of prowess, not practical self-defence precautions. Franco’s appearance speaks of ethnic drag – he claims to have been the only white kid in his neighbourhood as a child, and that he is just “keeping it gangsta”, his lifestyle a chameleonic performance to adapt to his surroundings, to perfect a stereotype. The jewelry, the corn rows and gold grill all comprise a costume of sorts, but it is his mantric request for us to look at his shit that goes from keen insistence to needy bragging. This is one of many reminders that Spring Breakers shares a cinematographer with Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void: fluorescent colours, UV lighting, and a hint of death in the glowing bridge across a void to an indistinct place. This is the climax of the action. Alien is launching an attack on his rival’s home, armed with guns and accompanied by the last two girls standing, Hudgens and Benson. They are still improbably dressed, though the addition of face masks to their ensembles turns them into walking pop-art icons, Beachwear Barbie meets Irma Vep. The deep composition for the following shot makes this feel like a long journey towards a vanishing point (i.e. doom or dissolution), garishly lit and humming with neon promise. Throughout Spring Breakers, the soundtrack bleeds from one scene to the next. Aside from James Franco’s Alien, no characters beyond the four girls really cohere or are given any prominence. We cut back-and-forth in time, piling up so many temporal ellipses that it becomes hard to grasp a here and now in which anything is taking place. The effect is akin to the feeling you get after spending too long in the sun, a little dizziness and confusion, but there’s even a hint that this is their fevered imagination more than their real experience, the seepage of their aspirations, their self-image, their perceptions and realities into one another, destroying whatever separations may have existed between them.