Four college besties, fresh to death and bored with life, escape their dire environs for spring break in semi-tropical Florida. With faces like theirs, these girls shouldn’t need money, and with bodies like theirs, they hardly need faces. In any case, they get enough to get to the beach. At first, it’s all bacchanal and magic, but when a few mixers spiral into one bad scene, the Technicolor dream may sooner be a nightmare.
This is, of course, the plot of a controversial teensploitation movie: 1960’s Where The Boys Are. Directed by Henry Levin and starring George Hamilton opposite Dolores Hunt, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis, who also sang the titular theme song, Where the Boys Are was one of the first American movies not only marketed to those under 21, but also hip to their sexuality. From the shy virgin to the free-love machine, each very different girl-character sought her own route to … well, the exact same kind of hetero romantic coupledom their parents have.
If you watched the Season 2 finale of Girls, you know how little, below the surface, has changed.
Then there’s Spring Breakers.
Directed by Harmony Korine and starring Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine, it is the only American movie that matters right now. Harmony Korine revels in surfaces. Lubed girl flesh, bong glass, iridescent shades. The custom paint jobs on sick cars. Nail polish. Breakers shines so hard you could snort lines off it, and there’s plenty of coke in it, too.
True to form, Korine eschews plot in favour of an ocean-chewing performance by one of the most irritating men of our generation, and a great actor, James Franco. Skrillex scores, so Breakers is edited like a 92-minute cave rave. Phrases (“Spring break forever!”), lines (“It feels as if the world is perfect, like it’s never gonna end …”), and sometimes whole paragraphs morph into mordant refrains. There are not 10 consecutive seconds of silence. Gunshots pop like Bubblicious. Whoops become cries.
And people die. Men die. “Pretend you’re in a video game,” says Brit or Candy or Cotty, it doesn’t matter which, when they rob a fried-chicken place with squirt guns, for getaway money. Only Faith (Gomez) does not participate. She’s a Jesus Camp-style Christian. Her resistance is futile, like ours. If you’ve ever had a lucid dream on the stretched-elastic morning after an ecstasy trip, you’ve followed the logic of this film.
Men die because squirt guns, in a grinning send-up of the system that blames said video games for school shoot-ups, become real guns. Men die because the girls do not, with their real guns, shoot women, and because these girls do not, in the end, need men. When Cotty (Korine) goes alone to an all-boys kegger, the threat advances so fast she seems sure to end up like Melanie (Mimieux) in Where the Boys Are: wasted and raped. But this isn’t Where the Boys Are; it’s where the boys aren’t shit. Taunting her fratty aggressor, Cotty sing-songs: “You’re never going to get this …” Why? “’Cause you’re a little bitch.”
Later, when the girls get arrested for party rocking, they’re bailed out by RiFF RAFF-like rapper/impresario Alien (Franco) and his twin psycho sidekicks. Alien shows them a darker, predominantly black side of St. Petersburg; Faith, in a queasy harbinger of the hypersegregated violence to come, doesn’t like “these people” and goes home. Brit and Candy and Cotty, but especially Brit (Benson) and Candy (Hudgens), fall in love. They do not fall in love with Alien, or with Alien’s money, but with the realization that they are money.
Spring Breakers isn’t simply to girls what Kids, which Harmony Korine wrote at 19, was to boys. It’s not about girls. It is sometimes about how we gaze at girls, and what happens when they stare right back. Still, if this film is “feminist” in a barely plausible, bad-bitches-do-it-better way, that gets scary quick: When Brit and Candy are shooting cold every black guy in the house, you have also to address white girl power in its sickest extreme.
Breakers is about nothing so much as it is about things. Minutes after Alien crows, “Look at my shit!” the two blondes pick up guns said to be loaded, then turn them on their master. “We have everything we need right here,” they say, twisting the doubled barrels between his gold teeth. “You think you can own us?”
Which raises a rather interesting point: Can you own much from Spring Breakers? Is it selling any things? I’ve not recently seen a film with so key a demographic and so little product placement. A film about safety could sell you a Volvo. A film about girls could sell you Juicy Couture. This film refuses to shill its shit. Only Alien has a logo, and Gucci Mane has his Gucci Mane tattoos, and Brit has “Brit” on her shorts.
For my generation (I’m 27), having that kind of rad “personal brand” is the neoliberal American dream. Now it goes dark. In and after that double-barrelled sequence, our gun molls-turned-gangsters are filmed to appear as interchangeable as possible. Brit and Candy, Candy and Brit, are a new, impersonal brand of girl. They don’t sell flesh for money, or anything else, nope. They are money made flesh.
“The Young-Girl doesn’t kiss you,” the French intellectual collective Tiqqun writes in their Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, in which the girl gets ungendered. “She” signifies the consumer who consumes “herself. … She drools over you with her teeth, the materialism of secretions.” Or: The Young-Girl is “the purest product of the Spectacle,” the “end of seduction,” produced “when nihilism begins to speak of happiness.” Her violence “is proportional to her delicate emptiness.”
Turns out, all you need for the apotheosis of capital that can only precede full collapse is a girl and a gun.
“I want penis,” scribbles Brit to Candy, ignoring the entirety of a civil-rights lecture (foreshadowing!) in the film’s first minutes. She does want penis, but to have, not to hold. To become power, not to be “sexually empowered.” To shoot, not to score; to win. After all, what do you get when you’re the girl who has everything? Who is – like, literally – living currency? A body count, of course. It’s only correct that director Korine is a fan of French director Leos Carax, in whose 2012 film, Holy Motors, the key line is: “Nothing makes us feel so alive as to see others die.” Breakers, then, is a film not about sin, but about its wages.
Korine may have set Breakers in Florida because it’s where young girls go wild and pleasure is the only principle. But it’s also a state where loans go bad at hurricane rates, a place on the verge of a nervous bankruptcy. He has made a film about money and its malcontents. In interviews, he talks about “pop poetics”; about Skrillex and loopy, liquid narratives. There has never been, to hear Korine talk, a movie so loveless. Or so beautiful. He never disrupts his nothingness by saying a deep thing. He never mentions, as Alien does, idly, the sharks circling below.