I left Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers thinking about the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA was a 70s organization, a group of left radicals who held up banks and took down a school superintendent under the sign of a seven-headed cobra.* They also kidnapped Patty Hearst. It was Hearst, in fact, who made the SLA famous – not only did her kidnapping make it onto the nightly news, but in a matter of weeks Hearst started espousing the party line. She became a radical alongside them, changing her name to Tania and swaggering around with a gun. Everyone said Hearst suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, that she wasn’t in her right mind. Another version of Stockholm Syndrome though might be when the viewing audience begins to sympathize with the captors, too. And this is what happened with the SLA: people didn’t necessarily support them, but having gotten Hearst (the granddaughter of a newspaper baron), they accepted them as part of the media landscape. The SLA became a pop culture item. They made political terror mainstream.
The first scene of Spring Breakers contains a trace of such 70s-era politics. It takes place in class, in a big lecture hall at a college in Florida. The professor is droning on about civil rights and social struggle, but Korine’s camera is elsewhere, focusing in on a couple of diabolical coeds played by teen queens Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson. They’re getting ready for spring break, or at least they’re talking about it. They trade notes. They want penis and they want to party. They don’t hear one thing coming from the front of the class. The problem, though, is that the girls don’t have enough money to go on vacation. It’s all they want to do, but they can’t make it work. Then they get an idea. Teaming up with another girl (Rachel Korine), they decide to rob a chicken restaurant. They put on balaclavas and get hammers; they put their hands in their jacket pockets like guns. And then they go to the chicken restaurant and hold it up, banging the tables and terrifying the clientele. They get the money they need, but it’s not about the money in the end. Like a group of urban guerillas they rob the bank for a cause – spring break.
So, the girls finally make it down to this mythical patch of Florida for fun in the sun. They party, get doused in beer, breasts and abs pound to the music. It all looks great. But having obtained their dream, the girls’ objectless reign of terror doesn’t end there. Falling in with Alien (James Franco), a small town gangster, they take things to the next level – to say too much more would give some of the fun away. What seems important though is not simply how distant their actions are from the quick political moment with which the film begins, but how they have somehow appropriated and emptied it out at the same time. They are mainstream terror. Despite any conception of what they want, they incessantly march on in hopes of something different. Equipped with their glam-pink version of guerilla fatigues (and Alien’s arsenal) they take the world on. It’s frightening to watch their mindless drive as they traverse the varied socio-economic terrains of south Florida, but ultimately one gets the sense that terror is not simply being on the wrong side of a gun. Rather, it’s holding one in your hands while having absolutely no idea how the hell you got there.
»Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?« These are age-old questions yet each generation asks them anew. And Spring Breakers is very much a generational film, albeit one for an historical moment in which generations are growing shorter and shorter. Having written Kids (1995) and created films such as Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) and Trash Humpers (2009), Korine’s work once spoke of a disaffected sensibility that looked disaffected. Now with marquee billing, he has moved into the mainstream, and he has adjusted his focus accordingly. His kids haven’t grown up as much as they’ve bottomed out. He feeds them (his characters and his audience) back to themselves in a movie that looks like a highly polished YouTube video. If Kids meditated on mortality (its main protagonist was unknowingly afflicted with HIV), Spring Breakers offers a vision of life after death – sparkling, choreographed, crazed, and endless. The film’s refrain is hard to get out of your head: Spring break, bitches, spring break forever. —
Alex Kitnick is an art historian and lives in Los Angeles.