Down the Nihilist Rabbit Hole: A Quick Review of Spring Breakers
As I pulled into the parking lot to see Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers I noticed flashing police lights and yellow caution tape, and learned that a man had been shot to death here only a few hours earlier. This was my gateway into what was – without a doubt – one of the more nihilistic films of the past decade.
In fact, for 94 minutes, I couldn’t stop conjuring scenes from Menace II Society, where the protagonists’ grandpa asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies, and he answers “I don’t know”, or when O-Dogg, one of cinema’s great unrepentant nihilists, explains his lack of concern with shooting innocent children or seniors with a string of “Shit nigga, I’ll smoke anybody, I just don’t give a fuck. I don’t care who the fuck out there!”
There’s no way around it. Spring Breakers is going to be a misunderstood film. A quick glance at the IMDB user reviews reveals highly divergent comments ranging from “This is by far the worst movie I have ever had to sit through” to “One of my most compelling theater experiences”. But I don’t blame audiences for not getting it. We haven’t had a lot of practice.
It has been some time since the gritty heyday of cultural nihilism in the mid 1990s, when a large chunk of the film’s target audience would have been in diapers. In many ways, Spring Breakers seemed to me a throwback to those dark days, whose soundtrack was a mix-tape of Korn, Marilyn Manson’s ‘Antichrist Superstar’, Insane Clown Posse’s ‘Fuck the World’, DMX’s ‘Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood’, the music video for Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’, films like Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, The Doom Generation, games like Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D, Postal, and which would eventually culminate by spilling over into reality with the 1999 massacre at Columbine. It’s been a while since the kids have had a nauseating overload of the ol’ truly meaningless ultra-violence.
If the nihilist satire of the mid-late 90s was a warning, a threat of what was looming on the horizon, Spring Breakers finally holds up the mirror to a world that ignored all the warnings, and laughed in the face of individuals like Karl Popper who – at the wise old age of 91 – lamented the invasion of violent images being injected into children who “adapt if constantly exposed to extreme situations”, and act as the key driver to the “now evident deterioration of the Western world…a moral corruption of mankind“ marked by the “growth of crime and the loss of normal feelings of living in a well ordered world“.
Spring Breakers offers up a glimpse of a culture that teeters on the brink of total failure and breakdown. It’s a confused state, a kind of neo-tribalism, replete with totems including a hollowed out baby doll bong, an animal carcass helmet, posters of Lil Wayne, and monitors beaming forth the hallucinogenic bright colors of My Little Pony. In other words, Korine succeeds masterfully in presenting a world that is in the process of internalizing the ‘morality’ of 4chan’s notorious /b/ image board.
The film plays out in the manner of a fairy tale, a kind of kamikaze death spiral down the vibrant, glowing, neon rabbit hole of popular culture. Every step of the journey into the new American Dream feels cartoonish, meaningless and directionless. But that’s precisely where Spring Breakers succeeds, in uncomfortable scenes like the one where James Franco’s character Alien – the drug dealing embodiment of infantile and irresponsible gratuitousness – grotesquely sucks the barrel of a handgun as if he were performing fellatio on his neon bikini clad Spring Break “soul mates”.
The irony – and what makes Spring Breakers so delightfully subversive – is that the girls (who include in their ranks former Disney princesses) are driven by the highest and most respected ideals of their MTV pop culture: the carpe diem of #YOLO, the lolita-hedonism that underpins the forever-young gyrating ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ of rap culture, and the hypnotizing idol worship of cash wads and glimmering ‘bling’. A particularly memorable scene has one of the girls, upon seeing Alien’s bed lined with rows of bills, exclaiming something to the effect of “all this cash makes my pussy so wet”. Without being preachy, the film offers an forceful absurdist lifeline to the (clearly under 18 year old) kids in the theater, viscerally demonstrating that the drunken, sweaty, infantile ideal of an eternal Spring Break is a nauseating nightmare.