Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The conformist rebellion of Spring Breakers...

There is something oddly safe and reassuring about the alleged shocking content found in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.  It is something so explicitly fashioned to be viewed as 'outrageous' yet its actual onscreen content would presumably only be shocking to those who are somewhat, pardon the simplification, sheltered or easily hot-n-bothered.  It contains moments of overt sexuality and moments of stark violence, but nothing that wouldn't be out of place in a more conventional action picture.  The fact that the very idea of former Disney starlets (and a current ABC Family Channel star) running around in bikinis and engaging in "Girls Gone Wild" type behavior is considered "controversial" or "outrageous" is perhaps a dangerous sign of our current puritanistic attitudes.  The film, at least from a marketing standpoint, seems intentionally designed to give an outlet for "serious" critics and/or journalists to have their cake and eat it too.

That doesn't mean I think it's a bad film.  It's a decent film that errs only in having too much time to ramble after making its primary point quite efficiently.  But in terms of being "shocking", it's akin to watching Ren and Stimpy on Spike TV. Ren and Stimpy as a kids' cartoon on Nickelodeon is arguably shocking and daring in concept and execution.  Ren and Stimpy on an adult television network with no real boundaries or content restrictions negates much of its taboo appeal.   The idea of four young college-age women, no matter their kid-friendly backgrounds, engaging in R-rated behavior in an R-rated film that is technically intended as an art house release shouldn't be anything other than normal. I do think there is something to be said about the sheer number of younger (mostly female, it would seem) viewers who reacted with moral outrage or disgust at these actresses playing these characters, as if they had a moral obligation to only play squeaky clean protagonists. But that's a whole different essay and a whole different can of worms.

I do think that the presence of James Franco is the saving grace of the picture, both thematically and commercially.  Like the Genie in Aladdin or The Joker in Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm, this larger-than-life overwhelming character shows up to give the film a proverbial shot in the arm just when it needs it most.  Without Franco's over-the-top figurehead, the film is merely four young women randomly misbehaving for 85 minutes.  But Franco provides pure entertainment value to break up the relative monotony of the women doing shots, engaging in sexually aggressive behavior, and randomly dancing at various parties.  Franco's "Alien" also provides audiences (especially male film critics, I'd argue) the major male character to latch onto, the key I'd argue which allows male critics to take the film more seriously than it if merely focused on four 'girls gone wild'.

I could ask why the overt sexualization of the females in Spring Breakers gets a critical pass while the more implicit sexualization of the five young women of Sucker Punch causes all of its subtexts to be ignored, but I will merely say that both films are (to varying degrees) flawed pictures about women with interesting gender-related ideas at their core.  Personal preferences aside, I will give more credit the more entertaining and less repetitive action fantasy that preaches its thesis under the guise of a big budget blockbuster versus the one that has the protective sheen of 'art film'.  As for Korine's ultimate message, it is two-pronged.  I'd argue its core idea, that young women in today's society finding themselves attempting to achieve an ideal that is actually a pointless and demoralized reveling in debauchery, isn't too far off from any number of male sex comedies that play with the same notion.

But this is where the film's casting gimmick pays off.  What Korine is arguably also commenting on is what we, as a society, consider to be young girls becoming young women.  When the likes of Britney Spears or Miley Cryus wish to be taken seriously as adult artists, they don't necessarily make more adult-skewing music but rather become well, more overtly sexualized creatures for public consumption.  Ashley Benson's character on the soapy but amusing Pretty Little Liars deals with any number of 'adult' issues in regards to her friends, her family, and her relationships.  Vanessa Hudgens had to make adult decisions in all three of the High School Musical films, be it juggling what she wanted to do versus what was expected of her culturally and socially, or attempting to balance personal feelings versus academic and professional goals.  Yet those roles are considered 'kid fare' compared to their 'insert male fantasy here' characters in Spring Breakers, playing nearly interchangeable young girls who exist purely to be ogled by male moviegoers and/or be 'tut-tut'ed by moralists.

Young women are taught by society at large to express their alleged adulthood not by actually pursuing adult interests or increasing their foothold in society but merely by more overtly acknowledging or exploiting their sexuality in a fashion purely intended to carnally impress the men around them.  Former child stars signal their would-be adulthood merely by being, to be crude about, 'more sexy'.  Child stars who get starring vehicles or meaty supporting roles when they are too young to be "appropriately" sexualized get tossed into the token girlfriend box as soon as it's considered okay to lust after them.  Along with a more generalized societal condemnation of what constitutes 'freedom' or 'utopia' for young women, Korine makes a strong case against the whole 'no longer a girl, not yet a woman' shtick that's so prevalent in pop culture and general society as well.

I wish Spring Breakers were a better film, as its clear that Korine didn't really have the story material for a feature-length picture.  But the ideas trump the tedium and as such the film is worth sampling, even if I think it errs by so efficiently establishing its thesis so early on that much of the film is merely hammering home the core message again and again.  Like any number of allegedly shocking pictures, it's somewhat conservative in nature, arguing for a certain return to 'morality'.  Korine doesn't explicitly judge his female protagonists other than to point out the societal failings of what 'the American Dream' has become for young women today.  It's a film where its worthwhile messaging makes up for an admittedly slipshod and even occasionally dull narrative.  But the idea that its onscreen contents should be seen as 'shocking' or 'outrageous' is I'd argue more a sign of pundits wanting to write about their alleged shock as a way to put up posts with hit-friendly pictures from the film than anything actually contained in the motion picture.  It's actually a criticism of social rebellion in a safe, relatively non-challenging fashion.

As a thesis, Spring Breakers is worthwhile.  As a cutting edge or dangerous piece of cinema, it's merely rebellious in a conformist sort of way.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

obthavariable said...

A few corrections: there are five women in Sucker Punch (unless you're only talking about everyone except Baby Doll?); it's Britney Spears, not "Brittany"; Amber Benson is a completely different actress, more famous for being on Buffy, while the Pretty Little Liars-famed actress is Ashley.


I like that you brought up Sucker Punch because I've been feeling like Spring Breakers is like a spiritual sequel to that movie. Whereas SP tackled the idea of sexualized and oppressed women using the same tools used to oppress them as a means of empowering and liberating themselves, SB tackles the idea of sexually (and in other ways) liberated women using their self-begotten freedom as a way to attain their own "utopia" (or "heaven" as Spring Breakers referred to it, or "paradise" as Sucker Punch did), and it tries to explore what exactly that utopia consists. However, just like SP went beyond that initial message and ended up also speaking to anyone who ever felt oppressed or relegated and told them to get up and fight, SB also speaks to a broader audience by pointing out the accountable-free mindset of a certain generation as one that is laughable but not without consequences or benefits - it's just about whether they're willing to deal with those consequences and benefits. For every time that an audience member snarks or smirks at what the girls are doing or witnessing, that's another snark or smirk they're sending to themselves, and that's the ironic beauty of this movie.

I wanted to point out that Ashley Benson's role was initially going to go to Emma Roberts, and I was wondering how you think her involvement would've shaped the perception that this was a movie meant to give all these kid-friendly actresses a more mature role. I think the three main actresses kind of luckily fell onto Korine's project to give him a double-edged sword with which to argue his point of "girls becoming women in the wrongest way possible." Do you think there'd be less "controversy" if a Miley Cyrus or Demi Lovato, or just simply any other young-but-not-tween actresses had played a role?


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