Saturday, April 19, 2014

SPRING BREAKERS: The Way of the Superficial

 “Two little chickies left in the nest. 
   But those be the chickies that are the best.” 
Spring Breakers is, needless to say, a movie that deals with the lifestyle of superficial people: dumb bitches, wannabe gangsters, Britney Spears. However, its ambiguous nature has left many people perplexed as to whether this movie is an indictment or a glorification of the superficial. Is it ridiculing or embracing? Exploiting or accepting? Condemning or advocating? Some are calling it a nasty critique while others are deeming it to be an unapologetic celebration. However, I think that to side with either of these sides is to miss the point. I’d argue that this is a movie where the distinction between criticism and praise disappears. It erases the rigid boundary between these two incompatibles, just as it erases the boundary between high and low culture, pop and poetry, art and commerce, good and bad, beauty and ugliness, black and white, cinema and real life, material and spiritual, and dream and reality.

The youths in this movie are portrayed as being utterly shallow, vulgar, vapid, uninhibited, irresponsible, insensitive, depraved, and debauched. They steal a car, rob a restaurant, piss on the street, utter foul words, indulge in drugs and sex and violence, roam around in bikinis, wear DTF trousers and ski-masks, carry guns, and, by the end, execute a mass murder. They only think about instant self-gratification and don’t give a damn about other people. “Pretend like it’s a video game,” says one of the girls before robbing a restaurant with water pistols. Their whole philosophy of life is boiled down to partying wild all the time. Their idea of a spiritual place is Florida. Their dream is spring break forever.
Alien (James Franco) is their dream come true. He is the incarnation of all their beliefs. The avatar of Spring Break. Maybe you did all that prayin' and I’m the answer to your prayers. He is all style, no substance; all surface, no depth. Shallowness made flesh. He claims he’s a bad-ass, but we soon find out that he isn't really bad; he’s just shallow. Whatever bad things he does, whatever harm he causes to other people, whatever evil we sense in him comes from the fact of him being utterly shallow and not because of him being inherently evil. It’s the same with the girls. Despite all their wickedness, they are not necessarily evil; they are just shallow. That terrific scene where they let Alien deep throat the silencer, instead of blowing his head off with it and running away with all his money (which they could have easily done) shows that they aren't evil. However, because they are so shallow, there is every chance that they’d end up doing something utterly horrible at any moment. 

This is one of the things that the movie keeps reminding us about. Being superficial is not just about partying and having fun, but also about being susceptible to the dark side. A little sun can bring out your dark side. (Alien himself looks alluring and at the same time menacing, ridiculous but at the same time mysterious, formidable but at the same time vulnerable. He’s a rapper but also a hustler, a clown but also a killer, a poet but also a gangster, a guru but also a loser.) The scenes which seem ludicrous or innocuous at first are later shown from a different perspective, and we suddenly experience the gravity and the danger inherent in them. At first we see the restaurant robbing scene from outside, bereft of the noise and the close-ups, and it almost looks comical, but when we see the same scene later on from inside, we see how serious and dangerous it is. We also see Alien flaunting his shit, almost childishly, at first, but later that same moment turns into something menacing. However, I don't think Harmony Korine is doing all this to warn us of the dangers of being shallow. I don't think he's moralizing. On the contrary, I'd claim that he's telling us, "Look, being shallow is not just about parties and booties, it entails all these seedier and darker things as well. So, knowing that, are you up for it? Do you now have the balls to follow the way of the superficial? Do you have the guts to join this party?"

Faith (Selena Gomez), who is the least shallow and the most moral of the four, clearly doesn't. She tries to adopt the lifestyle of the superficial thinking that being a spring breaker is all about partying and having fun. But as soon as she senses a bit of weirdness and danger, as soon as Alien goads and tests her a bit, she freaks out and leaves. She returns home, where she can be safe and bored. Cotty (Rachel Korine), who gets shot in the arm by Archie's (Gucci Mane's) bodyguard, also leaves when she realizes that her life is at risk. Archie is pissed off at Alien for bringing spring breakers into his territory (This is a very sly move that Harmony Korine makes because he understands that Black culture is the original culture of superficiality and it is the White ones who are trying to takeover.  Alien himself is a white guy who has appropriated black culture, and now the girls are trying to do the same. At the beginning of the movie we see these girls sitting in a class where the professor is lecturing on Second Reconstruction, and by the end we see them exterminating all the Black people.) It is Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), the two hardcore ones, who stay and are able to truly follow the way of the superficial. We wait for them to learn their lesson, but that never happens. It is not a morality tale! The movie portrays them as being utterly superficial, but shows that that is exactly what makes them great. 

The movie itself wallows in superficiality: it is hyper-stylized with an overdose of neon colors, dubstep, floating camera, and non-linear editing. The plot and the characters have no depth. The dialogues are utterly trivial, and yet they are fun to quote on repeat because they sound cool.  They are quotable just for the sheer joy of their utterance, and not their meaning. Alien himself relishes in uttering them: “spraaang braaake” “lu-r-r-r-r-r-r-kin’” “y’all” “Gaaangsta". When he flaunts his shit, it is utterly ridiculous, and yet one can’t help loving his childish exuberance. The “Everytime” scene, I think, perfectly encapsulates the whole movie: It is ridiculous, absurd, funny, campy, strange, extreme, and yet it is also captivating and beautiful. We see their shallow emotions on full display; however, it isn’t ridiculing them, nor is it making fun of Britney Spears. It is just showing them for what they are. And what we see in them is the beauty of the shallow.
It is in the climax (which, apparently, most people seem to hate) that everything comes together. It is where the movie reaches the height of ludicrousness, foolishness, recklessness, and darkness as well. Alien, Brit and Candy take on Archie and his gang. But, hilariously enough, Alien, who has been claiming to be a gangster all the while and whom we expect to be the formidable one among the three, is the one who dies without killing a single soul. Everything is left to Brit and Candy. And these two college kids end up exterminating Archie and his whole battalion of black gangsters with ease and sheer confidence. The movie becomes pure dayglo:  they glow when things become black. When they reach the apogee of shallowness is also exactly when they become the most powerful. What’s ugly about them is also what’s beautiful about them. Where they've completely lost it is also where they find themselves. It is, indeed, their spiritual place! No wonder the last shot of the movie is literally upside down. Spraang braaake forever, bitches!