spring breakers: pathological innocence

I was thinking that Spring Breakers was going to be a certain kind of film. The trailer is all about glossy beach bodies and neon colors and sex and violence, and I assumed the movie would rub my nose in sensationalism, in a kind of cinematic equivalent of saying, “Hey, aren’t you cheap for enjoying this lurid stuff?”

I don’t suspect this of all lurid movies — some movies are merely tawdry, not self-consciously tawdry in a way that suggests the director is messing with you. But the last film by Breakers‘ writer-director, Harmony Korine, was a movie about people dressed in completely unconvincing old-people masks and humping trash. Its title was “Trash Humpers.” I didn’t see it because it looked as though its entire raison d’être was to make me uncomfortable and probably bored.

Further in my defense, what I had read of Spring Breakers seemed to emphasize how it refused to be categorized as either farce or real-deal pulpy grit, a refusal that itself could be seen as an attempt at audience provocation. Manohla Dargis’s review (for the NY Times) puts it this way:

From one angle it comes across as a savage social commentary that skitters from one idea to another — white faces, black masks, celebrity, the American dream, the limits of self-interest, the search for an authentic self — without stitching those ideas together. From another it comes off as the apotheosis of the excesses it so spectacularly displays. That Mr. Korine appears to be having it both (or many) ways may seem like a cop-out, but only if you believe that the role of the artist is to be a didact or a scold.

It didn’t help that the movie had two young actresses, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, who are or were wholesome Disney-branded starlets, and whose half-naked crime spree in this movie would seem to be kind of a meta-commentary on the corruption of wholesome Disney girls.

photo by Joseph Robertson under cc

But never mind all of that, because Spring Breakers, much to my legitimate surprise, works on much more conventional, non-pulpy and un-self-conscious levels; it’s not even really trashy insofar as really trashy movies (or a straight-faced imitation of trashy stuff) want us to believe that its characters are compelling because they are dangerous or immoral; the genre is cheap (in artistic terms) because they let us live vicariously through their characters’ sins and don’t challenge us on any of our preconceptions.

But Spring Breakers‘ main quintet, James Franco and the four girls on the titular break, mostly come across as lost children. Franco’s character probably did some nasty stuff as a drug dealer, but his enthusiasm for the consumer goods he shows off — look at how many different colors of shorts he has! — give him a “aw-shucks” vibe. He doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct necessary to know that really cool people don’t wave their expensive crap in the air and squeal about it like sixth graders. He sure understands that things = status in America, and he gets that status is good, but he’s the one most amazed by his own material success.

The girls, meanwhile, represent a similar kind of credulous innocence. They mention in their calls home how many wonderful people they’ve met in cheery tones that suggest they either don’t understand or won’t even admit that spring break is largely an opportunity for them to reenact a twenty-year-old’s empty symbolic gestures of transgression: getting wrecked and having sex. They don’t know anything about the world and even less about themselves. They might be willing to yell and wave a gun around, but you have the feeling that they have next to no sense of identity or the psychic defenses that go along with having one.

I think reviewers have mentioned Bonnie and Clyde for the superficial reason that the older film is also about crimes undertaken by rash young people, but there are other similarities. Maybe at first glance it seems like the classic gangster movie is about the young lovers’ will to live vividly and without constraint, and the kind of romantic idealism that goes along with that. But when I saw Bonnie and Clyde again a few years ago, it seemed more like it was about the pathological side of innocence. These kids may make a show of being self-assured, but you sense that they are convincing other people that they are living free and without a care so that they might convince themselves. They crib phrases and poses from whatever bits of culture they’ve been exposed to, but they are playing a part they don’t really feel, a part that was really just a child’s fantasy to begin with, salvaged for lack of another model for being a human adult. They should have outgrown it sometime in adolescence, but they had nothing else.

In Bonnie and Clyde, with Clyde’s impotence we can find at least one clue that the filmmakers don’t think of Clyde as the romantic rebel he takes himself to be. His sexual failing undermines the virility his character wants to embody, which is bad for him but interesting for us. Likewise, Franco’s paradoxical lack of guile — he seems nothing if not painfully sincere — well, it makes him seem absurd, not dangerous. The girls are the same: Their lack of inhibition doesn’t come from self-confidence but something more like an inability to dissemble or connive. They earnestly believe spring break can change your life, like a religious conversion. But they’re already lost.

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