The Empty World of Spring Break

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Empty World of Spring Break

  1. I wouldn’t argue that Britney is a pinnacle of musical culture superior to Beethoven, but it’s worth noting a few things about Everytime:

    1) It’s one of the few songs Britney wrote herself (with some assistance on the lyrics, oddly enough).

    2) It’s ostensibly about something deeply personal to her (her breakup with Justin Timberlake).

    3) The video indicates a conflation of romantic love with fan/artist interaction that is downright creepy, especially in hindsight.

    4) The lyrics may seem inane, but they reveal someone who has been the constant subject of scrutiny and the male gaze for half her life. Britney could give Foucault and Bentham headaches for *days*, because she destroys most of their theories about people staying well-regulated when properly observed.

    It is not quite the epitome of bland, mindless pop drivel that many people take it for, and I don’t think Korine was using it for those purposes, either.

    • And here I was wondering whether my lack of musical knowledge would endanger this analysis…

      Ok, so, to explore. On the lyrics revealing Britney’s shock at the loss of male attention when it has become a persistent feature of her life so far. Though the song does indeed beg for attention, in ‘Notice Me’ and with the frantic apologies, I feel that what Spears truly misses is support (the image of the wings, needing him to see clear). However, as you point out with the video, she conflates the two desires, which perhaps implies that she sees attention and support as being the same thing, when they aren’t. Perhaps the song then, in light of context, comments on Alien’s own misunderstanding of what is romantic surface and what is romantic truth.

      That said, the import Alien attributes to the work of Britney Spears, contrasted with wider assumptions about the import of her work, combined with the use of a slow, mournful ballad to play over a montage of Alien and the Breakers torturing people, encourages the audience to see Alien’s choice of song as ridiculous. Perhaps the wider assumption about the worth of Everytime is false: it’s hardly the last time that the popular conclusion was wrong. Yet if Korine was aiming to subvert expectations to impact on his audience, maybe he would use Everytime precisely because people think it’s mindless drivel, even if he does not share their opinion.

      What do you reckon? And thanks for reading! I admit that, when I saw one of Badass’ top commenters replying to my piece, I did get a little excited.

      • It does come off as ridiculous, initially. However, it ties in to the bigger themes of the movie–especially the overarching emphasis on images of young nubile female sexuality and how our society commodifies women’s bodies while simultaneously blaming women for being sexual–with the emphasis on seeing and being seen (especially in the chorus, which flips things around in a complicated way). Tie that in with the girls’ masks, which hide their faces (but not their bodies), and Britney being the most searched-for person in the world (according to various search engines and the Guinness Book of World Records), and it gets less ridiculous. Take into consideration the marketing for the movie (OMG HOT DISNEY PRINCESSES IN BIKINIS!!1!) and Britney’s Disney past, and suddenly it turns into a rather pointed comment on what happens if you write off young women as purely decorative.

        Unless, of course, you’re just looking at it on the surface, and then it stays ridiculous, and you remain the butt of the joke.

      • I think I may see where our different interpretations are coming from. You appear to me to be reading Spring Breakers in light of what it has to say about the relationship between women and the patriarchal society, whereas my previous tack was more looking at Spring Breakers as a comment on the emptiness of a society focussed entirely on cheap-and-easy pleasures. From that perspective, I read Alien’s idolisation of Britney’s song as a comment on the main character’s stunted development, the result of a life focussed on obtaining possessions without meaning. That’s why I feel that sequence to be designed to be ridiculous. That may be culturally elitist, but I have no intention of being patriarchal.

        Speaking of which, on Spring Breaker’s exploration of how society’s exploitation of the female form contrasts with it’s condemnation of sexuality, one thing I found really interesting about the film is how it purposefully refuses to be part of that dynamic. I mean if Spring Breakers was watched as an exploitation film, it would be incredibly disappointing. Sure, there’s a lot of nakedness, but I always felt the film intentionally excised the sexuality from its images. This is done either by using purposefully non-titillating settings (such as courtrooms or the ugly light of prison), or through excessive slo-mo combined with incredibly grungy dubstep. Furthermore, society’s condemnation of sexual behaviour also never appears in the film. Candy & Brit are thoroughly, powerfully sexual and they triumph over every obstacle thrown their way, even coming out ahead by the end with Alien’s car. What’s more, as I believe you referenced in the comments to Hulk’s article, Cotty, in a protracted sequence, insults and sexually taunts a Spring Break douchebag, conjuring the worry that she will be raped. Yet she isn’t. The condemning society shows itself to have as little presence in Harmony Korine’s film as the lecherous male gaze. Now, given that (sadly) the madonna-whore dynamic is noticeable by its absence in our culture, Spring Breakers makes for an excellent criticism of that cliche.

        As such, I agree with you that Spring Breakers acts as a refutation of patriarchal expectations. I mean, I’d be a fool not to, when every male in the film who believes himself to possess a comfortable power over women is revealed to be very, very wrong.

  2. And the thing is, both interpretations have a lot of textual support. SB *is* about the vapidity of American culture, but it’s also about the way that it’s toxic for women in some interestingly overlapping ways. Korine isn’t going for something as simple as a general condemnation of either; he’s riffing on both of them. (I might also just like the song more than you do.)

    But there is still some lecherous male gaze in the movie, and it has some deeply uncomfortable racial elements as well. The second sex scene, with its unnamed (and uncredited) women performing for Big Arch is about as textbook as it gets. I dunno what I think about that particular breakdown, especially given some really dicey stuff Korine said in an interview about one of the actresses in that scene and the number of Coke cans that she could balance on her butt.

    At the end, though, the movie is a fascinating comment on a whole bunch of stuff about female sexuality, and it’s a lot more layered than people give it credit for.

    (One nitpick: because I am a consumer-goods obsessed American, I must correct you about the car. It’s Big Arch’s, not Alien’s. Alien drove a Camaro. Big Arch was the owner of the tangerine Lamborghini.)

    • I agree with the wonder of the multiple layers! There hasn’t been a lot of that this year, and the fact that Spring Breakers manages to be so complex, while also being quite blunt and punk to boot, is a thing to be celebrated. So I don’t want to come across as invalidating your analysis – the more reasonable readings an artwork accumulates, the more valuable that artwork becomes.

      I also agree that there is a racial ugliness lurking in Spring Breakers. One of the New Inquiry’s set of essays on the film (which are of varying analytical quality, but all fairly interesting, and to be found here: http://thenewinquiry.com/features/spring-break-forever/) made the point that, though Spring Breakers provides agency to women, it provides said agency exclusively to white women. Arch’s black companions get none, which could reflect a slipping in of the male gaze, or an infiltration by the discriminatory assumption that non-white minorities are more subject to traditional hierarchies than whites. Regardless, do you have a link to that interview? Sounds like it provides good context.

      If I might nitpick too? I don’t want to target the ‘cultural emptiness’ theme directly at the USA. You see the signs of emptiness across Britain – the Recession has done some worrying things to how this country apportions ‘worth’. If anything I’m amazed the US tackles the issue so well. Britain (at least, as far as I am aware) does not challenge its national myths with quite as much flair (though Attack the Block had a good stab at it). Plus, well, British liberals have a fairly unhealthy habit of heaping very general criticisms on the USA and that’s not something I want to make the mistake of doing.

      • There are a whole mess of people noticing some of the sketchier aspects of SB, racially speaking. Another good essay on the subject: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/03/22/spring_breakers_racist_harmony_korine_movie_with_james_franco_adds_little.html

        I hadn’t seen the New Inquiry essays, though; thank you for passing those along!

        The interview (or at least the relevant quote): http://www.vulture.com/2013/03/gucci-mane-slept-through-spring-breakers-sex.html

        I have some theories on why exactly Korine did something that obvious and questionable, but they aren’t entirely formed yet. Details to follow.

        This might be the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that the U.S. was handling class issues well, so I’m just going to revel in it. You’re quite right that we don’t have a monopoly on emptiness (nor have we ever), but we do still cling to our national myths with great enthusiasm. Have you seen http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-feed/2013/04/what-do-pain-gain-spring-breakers-and-magic-mike-have-in-common-the-american-dream.html ?

      • It didn’t get eaten – I was just a bit tardy with my approvals, apologies.

        I look forward to hearing said theories! At the moment I’m wondering whether there’s a division between fantasy and reality being drawn in Spring Breakers, with the point being that for the white and affluent the Thug-Life is an entertaining fantasy, whereas for the black and underprivileged it is a coarse, sad reality. Still I feel said analysis is problematic, given that it extends into suggesting female empowerment is a fiction and female subjugation the reality, which is not a conclusion worth entertaining.

        I had not in fact seen said GQ article, but coming from reading it, I feel it kind of illustrates what I meant to say. It seems to me that the US has a long history of intelligently critiquing the American Dream in a number of ways. If anything, I’m surprised GQ thinks that Citizen Kane is pro-Dream – I would have thought the point of the movie was that wealth and power is ultimately meaningless, and the real Dream-state was the carefree innocence of his youth. Combine that with Great Gatsby and Fear and Loathing (and probably a whole host of other authors I really need to read), the US has a long history of critiquing its central national myth. Meanwhile Britain still feels stuck under the shadow of a lost empire it cannot face. I mean just look at Skyfall. That entire film, when it wasn’t about people getting shot at, is about national transition. Skyfall stresses that we might continue to be a Great Britain even if a lot less of the world is coloured pink. Yet even though Skyfall acknowledges the post-imperial shift, it does so in a way that is focussed on moving on, on throwing out the old and getting in the new.

        The problem with that of course is that the past does not just go away. I don’t know if this has reached the US (though it might have considering the President’s grandfather was involved), but in case it hasn’t, the British government is currently being sued by Kenyans who were tortured during British suppression of the Mao Mao Rebellion (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/05/mau-mau-victims-kenya-settlement). That’s Britain’s imperial past refusing to be forgotten. Yet we just don’t have a body of work that deals with that loss to the same extent as the US deals with the Dream.

      • My response apparently got eaten–boo! The interview, or at least the relevant quote from it: http://www.vulture.com/2013/03/gucci-mane-slept-through-spring-breakers-sex.html

  3. You have Heart of Darkness and everything Rudyard Kipling wrote and The Secret Garden (yes, really). The U.S. has trouble admitting that we are an imperialist power, beyond, say, Three Kings. And no, the past doesn’t go away, but at least y’all acknowledge that you have a past and it involves sketchy things. For instance, I had no idea about President Obama’s grandfather being involved in the Mau Mau rebellion, much less that horrible things had happened to him.

    National myths are tricky things, and they get propped up with art in weird ways. I loved the Tennyson in Skyfall for just that reason. What’s going on in SB is less coherent, but it ties in with something more specific for this precise point in time. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays in 25 years.

    • I am going to have to re-read the Secret Garden…

      On Heart of Darkness & Kipling (& War of the Worlds too), though they certainly deal with the Empire, they are dealing with a thing that exists and could then be experienced, rather than thing that is only a shadow haunting a cultural memory. Still, that doesn’t invalidate their critique. Interesting that you liked the Tennyson. I wondered how that would play to a foreign audience. I mean, the imagery was beautiful, but the nationalism could alienate.

      Heh I’m personally of a mind that Breakers is going to get the Fear & Loathing treatment – cult classic that gradually gets a place in the Set Cineaste Library, though I must admit, I’m no great shakes at prophecy.

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