Recently many commentators have noted the thematic similarities between Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s dark pop-culture tone poem Spring Breakers. Both films clearly trade in themes of materialism and vain youth. In light of the the recent discussion comparing these two films, I thought it only appropriate to reflect on how some of the considerations about self-knowledge in my Bling Ring essay might pertain to Korine’s film.
The first thing to get out of the way is to stress emphatically that Spring Breakers is not a satire. It is true the film contains many ironic juxtapositions or situations and sequences that are rather comical in their absurdity and implications, but to call it satire is to suggest that Korine wants to be criticizing or discrediting the culture he’s outrageously depicting. This simply doesn’t seem to be his intention. Korine’s sensibility has always been one of empathy. He’s interested in understanding, driven by fascination and wonder, like that of a child. It’s a kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ aesthetic philosophy. Understanding doesn’t amount to either dismissal or endorsement, but rather honesty and earnest; which opens its themes up to various possibilities of critique and analysis.
Korine has mentioned that he’s most interested in focusing on “surfaces” in this film, but not in a judgmental way. This explains the influence of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on this film. Mann’s cinematic world of cutthroat professionalism is one sucked of all drama and emotion and submerged with a stylized digital obsession with mood, ambience, and visual presentation, whether scenic or material. His ultra-chic professionals are gridlocked in an oppressive socioeconomic network of crime and violence where the effect displays a world of workaholics obsessed with form, style, execution, and perfection (the film reflects back on itself as perfectionist Mann crafts a film obsessed with its own form). Such a world is ultimately alienating, as we see glimpses of interpersonal relationships breakdown barely held together by fleeting moments of intimacy and where emotional bonds seem deeper between enemies who share the same kinds of goals than those between romantic partners.
But what good is a film that’s all about surfaces? How can such a film ever be anymore significant than the empty surfaces it depicts? I think the significance stems from how you depict surface reality. It is from here that layers of complexity emerge. It’s through using cinematic technique that an artist is able to analyze what the surfaces mean and what they represent. There is a lot to say about Korine’s use of technique in this film, and much has been said, especially in terms of the use of anamorphic lenses, digital editing, sound-mixing, jump-cutting, scene repetition, and so on, but I will limit myself mostly to a couple of narrative elements at present.
In my Bling Ring essay, I suggest that the materialism and vanity on display is an example of an unaware, misguided youth. In particular, I argued that the supposed ironic hyper self-awareness of our (post)modern age is not what afflicts these teens (they simply aren’t that clever), and that the basic tools of a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism might be sufficient for reproaching their behavior. The utter obliviousness of the characters is a key element of the film. I originally identified one possible exception to the rule that might resist this kind analysis by noting the seeming self-awareness of the character Nicki as portrayed by a superb Emma Watson (based on bling-ringer Alexis Neiers). Nicki’s media exposure and attention only seems to heighten her vanity. She talks about her ambitious humanitarian goals of helping others and doing good, but her stated intentions are clearly in marked contrast with her actual depicted behavior, where her public persona is a contrivance of Hollywood-manufactured do-gooder idealism set in opposition with her self-obsessed private persona. Coppola’s device for opening up this contrast is juxtaposing interview segments with cut-aways to the teens’ reckless partying and criminal behavior. Korine uses similar ironic devices by overlaying dialogue of phone calls from his young spring breakers to their parents with images of them doing the exact opposite of the what they describe.
This is the distinguishing feature of Korine’s film. There is a knowing self-awareness about his characters that Coppola’s characters, outside of Nicki, simply do not seem to share. For instance, the much lauded James Franco character Alien makes it a point to establish the autonomy of his choices by highlighting his total self-awareness. He declares how he’s “Done about every illegal activity under the sun,” and perhaps in one of the film’s most telling, and in many ways even, most haunting sequences, he narrates, “Some people, they wanna do the right thing – I like doing the wrong thing. Everyone’s always telling me, you gotta change. I’m about stacking change, y’all… That’s it! Money! I’m ’bout makin’ money. That’s the dream ya’ll. It’s the American dream,” as a montage of images of drugs, money, and expensive merchandise scroll across the screen. Alien’s perverse take on the American dream gives one pause because it’s clear that his motivation isn’t one of rising out of poverty and self-actualization by misguided means, but it’s to pursue commodities and merchandise relentlessly for their own sake. For Alien, money, wealth, and excess is an end in itself rather than a means. It’s clear, then, that for someone like Alien, the classical Marxist formula, “they don’t know what they are doing, but they do it anyways,” doesn’t apply, and it’s rather the formula for enlightened false consciousness that obtains, where “they know what they are doing, but they do it anyways.”
It’s interesting that in The Bling Ring, Nicki is the exception to the rule with her cynical self-awareness in an otherwise oblivious culture of crime and materialism, whereas conversely, in Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez’s character Faith (with her name’s naive implications ever present) is the exception, but as as an idealistically unaware character in an otherwise cynically aware culture of crime and materialism. In contrast to Alien, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), Faith believes spring break is an opportunity to break from an empty and boring existence, a glimpse at an escape to a world of possibility full of rich meaning and novel experience. This is false consciousness in its most basic form. When we first hear her describe her trip to her mother, she may seem almost ironic, but it isn’t long before we realize that her words are genuine and reflect an exercise in wish-fulfillment. She’s utterly naive and oblivious to the reality of her surroundings, and her friends even mock her for it. It is for this very reason that once she realized “what she was doing,” she wanted to put an end to her seedy nightmare. She represents the perfect example of a successful critique of ideology in coming to terms with the reality of the situation, freeing oneself of a delusion and finally rejecting the harmful conditions of a false idealism.
This highlights perhaps the most interesting contrast between the two films and how they are slight, but very unique variations on the same theme. Faith is the naive and misguided ‘Alice’ figure that finds herself turning down a dark, unexpected path, and it’s her companions and the criminal culture she finds herself in that seems self-aware. Nicki, on the other hand, is the putatively knowing and self-aware agent of wrongdoing amidst a culture of largely unaware, misguided youth. The upshot is that Spring Breakers might seem to be the ultimately darker film. The portrait of youth it paints is far more cynical than Coppola’s, even if Coppola’s central protagonist would be right at home in the trashy spring break party culture of Korine’s film (and make no mistake, it’s Nicki’s film and not Rebecca’s). The vision of Coppola’s film suggests a culture full of naive, misguided Faith’s, with people like Nicki as a dark exception to the rule. The vision of Korine’s film suggests a much darker culture full of cynical Nicki’s, with someone like Faith as a small glimpse of light. But Korine is quick to secure a particularly grim worldview, as it becomes plain Faith is ultimately a negligible exception when in almost L’Avventura fashion, she disappears in the middle of the second act and a complete breakdown of morals haunts the remainder of the proceedings.