The Evil of Banality: Spring Breakers and F. Scott Fitzgerald

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film

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.

The Beautiful and Damned

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.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

25 Comments

  1. Now I’ll really have to see Spring Breakers. And if you ask me, no one could like in a world of hedonism for long and remain happy. It’s just too empty, but we’re decieved into thinking we should be happy. Maybe that’s why alcohol is such a staple there. You need something to make hedonism seem that much more fun.

    • Yes, the film and book both indicate that happiness is not always accessible by means of mercantile transactions and numbing oneself with substances. There’s something else that needs to be done as well.

    • It’s definitely an interesting career move to be sure. While it kind of seems like she’s trying to shed her Disney Channel image by doing a hard turn towards the sexualized, the film is a lot deeper than that. It really pushes some buttons, and allows her to show some good acting skill.

  2. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed (though a bit late)! I have neither watched Spring Breakers nor read The Beautiful and Damned, but I think a lot of books might have inspired movies in some way, shape or form. It’s bound to happen anyway, there are so many more books than movies…

    • Thanks for stopping by! I’d recommend both Spring Breakers and Beautiful and Damned, although with the caveat that they’re kind of grueling to get through at times. I guess I just wanted to comment on the fact that nihilistic hedonism and substance abuse aren’t a new phenomenon, even though protectors of the public morality always want us to think they are.

    • It’s worth checking out, although it’s no “Gatsby”. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. klew22 says

    I watched the movie “SpringBreakers” to see what the fuss was all about. After watching it my initial thoughts was that I wasn’t disappointed, but I would not be watching it again anything soon. The way the movie was shot made it stand out in its own unique way, but also made seem like it was a big, crazy party spiraling out of control. Which always ends up in disaster.

  4. So what initially looks like your typical American ‘coming of age’ nonsense is actually a critique of the excesses and hyperreality of Posmodernity. Sounds interesting, actually wouldn’t mind seeing the film now.

    Interesting post.

  5. I actually just watched Spring Breakers last night and read The Beautiful and The Damned maybe a month or two ago, both on a whim. F Scott Fitzgerald is one of those authors that tends to stir up aggravating and depressed moods in me, and yet I keep coming back to him. (He’s also from my home state so I feel a weird kinship).
    At first, I thought Spring Breakers was just another movie with half naked girls, on a beach, getting drunk and doing drugs, and gave it an eye roll, but as it went on, it definitely had an F Scott Fitzgerald death-spiral to it. Especially during the narrative sections, when Faith is telling her mother that she’s ‘never felt more spiritual’, and has really ‘found herself here.’ Also, when some of the other girls talk about how much they love this life, how they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, the camera pans to their faces, and you see the blank, spiritual-less, souless look of self-destruction.
    Fitzgerald definitely plays into this gothic/romantic/self-destructive genre of book writing, although, I don’t know if he did that intentionally, maybe he did, as we all know how is life turned out.
    Good tie between the two. I like this correlation and can definitely picture it.

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by! That’s kind of a crazy coincidence that you watched the movie and read the book close together as well. My favourite part was when Faith was on the phone with her grandma (I think…) and she says her grandma would have a great time there. Also when Alien pushes that guy’s face into a cake.

      • Ha yeah. I realized this movie was a little more than one dimensional when they had all the dialogue of the girls talking to their loved ones, but reflecting on their faces, which I feel was their true feelings. Something I think a lot of people do. They felt like, for so long, they wanted this trip. They didn’t want to let anyone down by saying it wasn’t exactly what they wanted.
        I ended up kind of rooting for Alien in some weird way at the end. Felt a little bad with what happened (won’t give away the story if other readers have not seen the movie).

  6. What would it look like? Eventually, like the loony bin that Zelda was committed to, and the coffin to which Fitzgerald was committed to before 40.

  7. Very interesting piece. Just like Fitz’s The Great Gatsby, there are lessons to be learnt in The Beautiful and Damned. And the novel does sound like it has many parallels with Spring Breakers, on which I have read several critiques but not seen the film as yet. I’m looking forward to it, although I am fully aware I may not like it at all.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. Pingback: The Evil of Banality: Spring Breakers and F. Scott Fitzgerald | Musing about Mysteries of the Inner Light

  9. Pingback: The Evil of Banality: Spring Breakers and F. Scott Fitzgerald | empower With Hal

  10. midya says

    Very thoughtful piece. It seems to me that somehow the thought gets lost that though affluence allowed for the excess of which you write, it is not the cause. The 20s were a great time for a lot of people. I dare say they were a great time for more people than the 30s. I see works like these as warnings not to follow extremes. The winners write the text books, and FDR was the real winner from the Great Depression. F. is great at showing the impossibility of inhabiting hedonism for too long without consequences. It seems like it might do some good to try it on for a while, though. I’d say F. and Spring Breakers both speak to our own proclivities as people as much as they do the evils of some time period or patch of coastline.

  11. Pingback: Spring Breakers | FlikGeek Film

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