It was serendipity, I guess, that brought these two topics together. I’d been very excited to watch the new Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers after seeing its critical reception and its exciting trailer.
In the interest of full disclosure, up until this point, I’d never seen a film by the director that I’d actually liked, so this was kind of a departure for me being into this. And, being as how I live in Edmonton and not Vancouver, or Toronto, or anywhere really, it took a little while for the movie to get here.
In the mean time, I had a reading assignment to get through. In talking with Devin Bruce, who you might remember from his appearance on The Spoiler Show a few months back, I got in contact with a U.S.-based podcast called The Bookhouse Boys. Since they liked me for some reason, we decided that I’d appear on their show, and that we’d talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, as Devin and I’d briefly talked about Gatsby on my show.
So by the time I was able to check out the only worthwhile movie in the critical discussion (I saw Stoker right when it arrived here, and really enjoyed it, but not much else was worthwhile for new stuff), I’d already read a book about alcohol abuse, violence and hedonism that, in my mind, meshed really well!
Fitzgerald’s book, which is loosely biographical, is about Anthony Patch and his wife Gloria: two members of the Twenties élite, who spend most of their days carousing, drinking and boozing. The story is at once simple and complicated, as the two enfants terribles continue on their hedonistic death-spirals while their finances and hopes run out over a series of increasingly dire events. Anthony is in line for a fat inheritance, and fritters away his sober hours attempting to write. Gloria was basically the belle of the ball her whole life, and flirts around with a gig in the movies and wasting her youth.
Once I’d finally seen Spring Breakers, having this story in the back of my head for the duration was, to my mind anyway, the beginning of an interesting critical perspective on the film. If you listen to my appearance on The Bookhouse Boys, you can see my initial thoughts on the film, but I’d like to elaborate a little more here. As Spring Breakers has been the seeming sole focus of critical energy in the film world for the past few days, I won’t spend too much time on it, but here’s a brief synopsis: four girls attending school in Kentucky (I think…) have an immutable goal in mind – they are going down to Florida to experience the Spring Break shenanigans they’ve been promised their whole lives, and they’re not going to let a lack of funds get in their way.
And they do. The Spring Break experience shown in the film is exhilarating in its pounding demonstration of banality. The eponymous “Beautiful and Damned” of Fitzgerald’s title are to me a perfect distillation of the constant state of party that exists there. Both women and men, but mostly women, are reduced to their component body parts, and shot in a blindingly brilliant and slow hyperreal style, while dubstep assaults the ear canal. While it was infuriating at the time, now I keep thinking about how the audience was revolted by the bill of goods they were being sold. Like the Breakers, we too have an ancestral knowledge of what Spring Break is supposed to be: it’s been sold to us by MTV and music videos, so much so that jokes on Arrested Development about it make sense, even though I’ve never been there in person.
When the curtain is pulled back on Korine’s Three Card Monte game, when we’ve become disgusted by the culture of Spring Break (ie. right away), and numbed to the female flesh on display, and the copious alcohol and drug use ceases to look fun, that’s the moment at which I thought of ol’ Fitz. The characterization in the two works is equally sketchy: Gloria and Anthony are in love in the same banal way that James Franco’s Alien loves Faith, absolutely, or at least to the extent that he loves his shorts in every colour. Where Gloria’s last-ditch attempt to make some cash is to lean on an old admirer to get a screen test, the Breakers have been recorded their entire lives, exhorting one another to accept the meshing of fantasy and reality, to pretend their robbing the chicken shack is “like a movie”.
On the podcast I mentioned that one reason Fitzgerald may have seen fit to have certain passages in the book written down as plays, complete with stage instructions, etc. is that his characters have the empty interior lives that have become all too commonplace nowadays. When they are at a wedding, rather than experience the ceremony and whatnot with their full being, they resort to bits they’ve seen off-Broadway, or perhaps at one of the many cabarets featured in the novel. Spring Breakers shows this facet of the American experience brilliantly, with current media touchstones like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and nostalgiia-inducing (for people my age and a bit younger anyway) music from Britney Spears. Alien keeps Brian de Palma’s Scarface on an infinite loop in his house, as he’s been told by generations before him that this is how a gangster acts.
The recurring, hypnotic motif that underlies the film is the phrase “Spring Break Forever”. It’s usually intoned by Franco, but sometimes the girls say it as well. The film wonders what it would be like to actually live in that world forever; what would your life look like if you were solely devoted to hedonism and the acquisition of money over all else. You might be able to look back to the Roaring Twenties, that great decade of American excess, for the answer.