The opening of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a slow-motion montage of white teenagers dancing and drinking on a Florida beach set to Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” is an invocation of MTV’s coverage (so to speak) of spring break. But it also draws a line to Chris Cunningham’s 1999 video for Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker,” which did a sort of absurdist parallel of Californian rap videos. Cunningham’s video makes its point through grotesquerie, placing video vixens around a dancer wearing the unsettling Richard D. James masks featured in most Aphex Twin visuals around that time. But Spring Breakers makes its point by not making any point at all. Seeming to realize that exposing the hollowness at the heart of the spring break experience is the equivalent of a joke about airline food at this point – it gives its viewers enough credit to already know that spring break isn’t 100% great and just shows it to us instead. It’s slowed down so we can concentrate on what’s happening, and to let us know that the sequence is about visuals rather than the events themselves, but it makes no explicit comment on the partiers’ youthful vigor. Its mere existence is taken to be grotesque enough, if that’s the value you want to assign to it.
In “All My Friends,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sings: “It comes apart the way it does in bad films / except the part where the moral kicks in.” What makes Spring Breakers such an enjoyable experience is that the moral never does kick in, though it does come apart a bit. (And it may be a bad film, whether in a genre or value sense.) By the end of the movie, the main characters are all pretty much fine. The bad guys don’t get punished, in part because there aren’t any clear bad guys. Compare that with maybe its closest full-length equivalent (though there are other actual influences), Oliver Stone’s 1994 media satire Natural Born Killers. Similarly using cut-up footage and depictions of nihilistic excess as a window into its cultural moment, Stone’s film goes way, way over-the-top in its determination to stick it to the media, having Robert Downey Jr.’s tabloid journalist character not only actually kill people but then, at the film’s end, be gleefully shot in the head. (If you would like to see what cocaine is like, Downey’s performance here is a useful benchmark.)
The difference, it seems to me, is between making a movie that’s critical of pop culture and making a movie about pop culture. Both are important, but Spring Breakers feels unusual in taking the second tack. A movie treating pop culture as a subject—the same as love, family, death, and power are all subjects for art—can leave the critiques elsewhere and instead produce an illuminating depiction of the pleasures and pitfalls of encountering the world through media. In Spring Breakers, the college students travel to Florida because going to Florida is what college students do, and loudly declare how unusual and important their experiences were, even though they do essentially the same things they did when they were home: go to people’s houses and drink. Before robbing a restaurant, one girl exhorts another to “be hard,” and to pretend like she’s in a movie or video game. In another movie, this might be a facile swipe at pop culture, but here it serves as a kind of magic spell, carrying the girls through not only that crime but their spree in Florida during the second half of the movie, having left their old selves behind and fully inhabited these hard characters to enact the kind of better, heightened life seen only on screen.
More than that, though, it’s about how groups of friends, particularly teenagers, organize their lives around pop culture and, more than anything else, it’s this friendship that forms the core of Spring Breakers. Our first view of the girls is of them getting high while watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and rather than being a throwaway joke, the image recurs throughout the film as they take the ponies as their gang’s sigil, stitching unicorn heads on their pink ski masks. Pop culture brings the four girls together but also gets them into enormous trouble, and neither of these things is seen as invalidating the other. The consequences are heightened but the pleasures are too, and the unlikely criminalization of the quartet is balanced with the exaggerated beautification of their love of pop, nowhere more memorably than the scene where they do a gun-assisted ballet to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” like a scene out of Maoist opera. The girls in Spring Breakers are taking issue-riddled bits of the culture around them and finding, as one of the characters puts it, a power in it.
None of this is to say that movies about pop culture can’t be critical of pop culture. Movies about family are often critical of families, and movies about love are often critical about love, and so forth. But pop culture is enough a part of not only our everyday lives but our interaction with the world that to treat it as an exterior, always-poisonous thing in need of moralizing surely reaches a point of diminishing returns. Spring Breakers works because it trusts the audience to already know that the things it’s depicting have their problems, and moves on from there to do what art, ideally, does: show us something new about ourselves.