Take a nice, fresh apple. Hold it in your hand. See it there, almost impossibly appetising, its skin without a speck of brown to mar the vibrant greens and reds. Feel its comforting weight resting in your hand. Then, pick up your apple corer. There is resistance as you shove the instrument into the flesh of the fruit, but it is overcome in a burst of juice and metal. You twist and yank back and the corer comes free, carrying with it a neat plug of flesh. You extract this and, laying the corer down, you observe the apple. It still looks delicious, fresh and juicy, its bright colours as yet undiminished. Yet the initial, comforting heft is gone and even as you take a bite, and the sugar-tang floods across your tongue, your teeth still close on empty air. Despite all the apple’s pleasantness, its missing core proves impossible to overlook. The fruit is as persistently hollow as the world of Spring Breakers.
“Spring Break Forever…”
It is hard to think of any three words less likely to convey a deep and chilling truth. “Spring Break Forever!” is a phrase of such extreme vapidity, that not only is it usually accompanied by a group “WOOOOO!!!!”, but it also has about the same level of meaning. This is the best a brain drenched in alcohol can do to express the delight of being drunk with friends, in a place where the music is loud and thumpy. In the mouths of the sober the phrase has slightly more meaning, but only as an ironic shorthand for carefree and idiotic youth. Yet in the mouth of Alien (James Franco), those three little words gain a new and horrible significance. They become, not a shout of joy, but a hoarse, trailing mantra, a philosophical statement from a character that embodies the very notion of a coreless existence.
Alien is the character that defines Spring Breakers. Nominally the film is about four teenage girls bored with studying US history and desperate for wonders, who travel to Spring Break with stolen funds to seek the escape they crave. However none of these girls, not even the chillingly reptilian Brit (Ashley Benson), has as arresting a presence as Franco’s drug-dealer/rapper. The reason for this discrepancy is that the girls are essentially tourists. Each comes to Spring Break in search of an ideal. Some are disappointed by what they find, while for the others it’s all they have ever wanted. Still, whatever their reaction, all the girls are limited to reacting to this Brave New World. By contrast, Alien is Spring Break. He has not just embraced the lifestyle for a few days: he has done so permanently. For him Spring Break really is Forever.
It’s not surprising then that his first interest in the girls is as potential sexual conquests. When we first meet him properly, Alien is all predator. He’s physically repulsive, looking like a scumbag and acting like a pervert, but underneath this is a personality possessed of suffocating charisma. Alien’s soft, twanging drawl encircles the girls like a python’s coils, thick with authoritative sleaze, yet it is a power he has no idea how to use. Alien is a man without subtlety, and it is this more than anything that undoes him. His bluntness inspires Faith (Selena Gomez) to flee the film, but it is when he attempts to dominate Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit that the tables truly turn. Those girls have a taste for dominance themselves, and they are not about to accept the role of morality play victims. When Alien crosses the line, they react, and it he who finds himself in their power. In a single, breathless sequence Alien the predator is destroyed, and Alien the human emerges. It is quite the transformation, this taming of the devil. However, as it turns out, Alien proves far more horrifying as a human being than he could ever be as a demon.
Spring Breakers is a film with a moment. That is the reason I feel comfortable recommending it, because regardless of how you react to the rest of the film, some things just need to be experienced. The sequence begins with Alien sitting down at his horrendously tacky, white piano. He is joined by the remaining girls, who stand around him waving guns, their faces covered by fluorescent pink balaclavas. This trio of Amazon Barbies proceeds to demand a song, but not just any song. They want something real, something with sentiment, a song to unmask Alien’s emotional depths. Alien sits, thinks for a moment, then begins to play and sing, softly (and poorly) at first, but with nothing less than full, heartbreaking sincerity. The girls, at first hesitant, begin to join in, and just like that all four people are crooning, voices thick with emotion, along to Britney Spears’ Everytime.
Looking into the Void
I will never be able to listen to that song in the same way ever again. Just thinking about it now makes me grin like a maniac, and in the moment I was not the only audience member to scream with laughter. The sincerity and the incongruity of it combined is initially all too much. Perhaps director Harmony Korine was aware of this, because the montage that follows the singing feels purposefully dragged out. Indeed, it goes on so long (and becomes so visually brutal) that the joke dissipates, and with mounting horror you begin to realise that in the world of the film, there is no joke. Alien’s choice of a Spears pop ballad as a reflection of his deepest humanity was made with complete seriousness.
The meaning to be seen in Alien’s choice is the opposite of that found in Alex’s love of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange. This is not to say that Beethoven is the pinnacle of musical culture Britney Spears is not (though I’d like to hear the argument that says Spears ranks higher on the cultural ladder). Instead, Alex’s love has meaning because him even knowing who Beethoven is is unexpected. The fact that a sadistic thug like Alex can appreciate the beauty of a music crafted for a completely different time and audience, reveals that he still possesses, despite himself, some vestiges of a universal humanity. As such Alex’s screams of IT’S A SIN, IT’S A SIN!’ while imprisoned in his viewing chair scorch the ear, because even this creature, for whom even the Bible is nothing but an engagingly vile escape into fantasies of cruelty, is able to recognise and loathe the violation of beauty. By contrast, the choice of Britney Spears by the Spring Breakers as the spiritual pinnacle of music reveals how limited their experiences are. They see ultimate beauty in Britney Spears because they have no experience of any greater beauty beyond it. I doubt that if any of them were strapped down in Alex’s place they would make any protest whatsoever. Their belief in Spring Break as an ideal has cut them off from humanity.
For Alien and the Breakers, Spring Break is an endless parade of tangible joys with which they are obsessed. Their ideal is the possession of money, and the subsequent possession of ‘shit’. Their ideal is the ability to be hammered out of their goddamn minds, and either prowling amongst the lusting eyes of similarly drunken males, or getting down to the business of grabbing ass and sucking tit. They are fully aware of the pleasures the world offers and are determined to possess them. This, by the way, is not a bad thing: even I have been known to dabble in pleasures on occasion. The problem is that these devotees of Spring Break see the pleasures, but do not see the reasons those pleasures have worth. They care so much about possessing wealth, but don’t give a shit about how they get it and have no meaningful use for any of it. Instead they just leave it just lying around or fritter it away on gaudy trinkets and ridiculous weaponry. The Spring Breakers’ constant refrain during the first golden days of their holiday is that they’re making ‘so many friends’. However, come sobriety said ‘friends’ are nowhere in sight, as transitory as all aspects of drunken happiness. Yet neither Alien nor the Breakers can see this. Alien genuinely believes he has fallen in love with girls he only just met, and in the endless pursuit of wealth and status and yet more tangibilities, decides to murder the person who was once genuinely his best friend. To see Spring Break as the ideal is to ignore the depth that makes life worth living, and after a lifetime of ignoring meaning, Alien and his little cohort can’t even recognise it anymore. That is the horror that Everytime encapsulates.
I want to state now that I have no intention to demonise Spring Break. Pleasure that comes without inflicting pain on others cannot be considered immoral. What I am, and I believe Spring Breakers is criticising, is the making of pleasure into the be-all-and-end-all of existence. Spring Break functions identically to Las Vegas in Fear and Loathing: a transitory, holiday destination where the party gets so extreme it becomes a perfect tool for satire. The sight of vodka-soaked crowds heaving Boschly to a purposefully grungy Skrillex track echoes the ether disorientation of Raoul Duke’s stumble through a nightmarish Vegas circus. Both films also have similar targets, lampooning cultures characterised by the death of meaning. Yet both are also of different times. The 70s that Duke finds so terrible is one where the adults are still in charge, one where the promised revolution of the flower children never arrived. The modern tragedy of Spring Breakers is that the children’s crusade has succeeded, but in the worst possible way, by introducing infantile behaviour into the wider culture. The Breakers are criminally short-sighted. They want things, they will take them if they can, and at their age there is no-one left to send them to the naughty step. In their narrow focus they have forgotten, or maybe never learned, what truly makes life important. I know for me the Britney Spears moment was the point at which the film made this clear, but then again, art matters to me in a way it just doesn’t to other people. So, for you others, allow me one last point to illustrate the void.
On numerous occasions in Spring Breakers, we witness characters experiencing emotional trauma. It happens to Faith, it happens to Cotty (Rachel Korine) and it happens to Alien. Well, on each of those occasions, that individual’s peer group does not focus on comforting and caring for their friend: quite the reverse in fact. Their main concern is to override their friends’ qualms to keep the party going. To all of them, but to Candy and Brit in particular, sharing the party is all friends are for, and when, out of nothing but fear and misery a friend refuses to keep going, they either pressure them into going on, or abandon them to face their misery alone. The fact that the Spring Breakers can’t recognise true beauty, the fact that they can’t differentiate real love from infatuation, those two things might well be excused by their youth. However their total lack of empathy for the pain of their friends, reveals the emptiness of their world with horrible, harrowing clarity.