(Spoilers, obviously. Some stills contain nudity that’s been blurred.)
A sensual movie without any sensuality. It is something like a babushka doll or puzzle box, in that it is most definitely not the thing that it first appears to be, certainly not the movie it was promoted as, and yet what movie it is underneath is an even more contentious issue. Even if you see it as this more complicated thing, you may still reject it (I think I have), because it lacks some crucial essence. For me, this is the lack of any actual characters – they are not types, but something even more abstract, something around which your attention cannot give any focus. This is not a failure of competence or ability, but very deliberate design – and I just don’t think this design can possibly work. It’s the sort of movie that sometimes gives intellectuals a bad name – because though there might be something to think about here, and something to talk about at length, many of the obvious, easiest pleasures are missing – not the obvious, easy pleasures of a leering sense, but those of some character’s expression of feeling or some dialogue that acutely conveys a man or woman in that moment 1.
There are two things that I found helpful in thinking about this movie, and I think both are obvious, though neither has been given mention in the reviews I’ve read – though so much is now written about some movies, that I may well have missed such mentions somewhere. The first is the man who is now an all-purpose concept used a little too often, like the nettlesome concept of meta, applied to anything that works unconventionally, or as an excuse when something simply does not work, and that man is Andy Kaufman. Spring Breakers is not a comedy, but the same tension that is central to Kaufman’s work is in this movie, and the tension is this: am I joking now, or aren’t I? This dynamic is essential for Kaufman’s best bits to work – the foreign man who does one horrible celebrity imitation after another, who creates a sense of incredible discomfort in the audience at how terrible he is, the audience hoping somehow that this might be a joke yet certain that it isn’t, but: somehow, yes, it turns out it is – Kaufman does his Elvis Presley, a flawless one. When the bit became known and people were aware that that they were being set up, the tension was gone, and Kaufman had to stop doing it. That tension is there in his most extreme bits where he wrestled women – is he really going to do this? It is there in his appearances on “David Letterman” where he would get into an argument with wrestler Jerry Lawler (the argument was fake) while wearing a neck brace from a wrestling injury (the injury was fake as well). It is not as simple as acting crazy – there should be the genuine question, always, even knowing that he has put you on in the past, about whether he is putting you on again. Central to this is how far you’re willing to go for the joke, and for Kaufman, the answer was: as far as necessary for the effect.
An excerpt from Lost in the Funhouse by Bill Zehme, might convey this well. It’s an episode from Kaufman’s wrestling career:
[Kaufman] wrestled/rubbed a woman from the audience, pinning her one second before the three-minute bell, whereupon a bald-headed mammoth goon bounded onto the stage screaming, “Why don’t you pick on a man, you skinny little geek!” And this was professional Hollywood stuntman Jay York and he crushed Andy’s larynx in a headlock and twisted Andy’s fingers and lifted Andy by the neck and threw him all over the stage and Andy screamed, “George! George! [George Shapiro, Kaufman’s agent] Help!” and they had been rehearsing this all week, but Andy had neglected to mention such to his family, and suddenly Janice [Kaufman’s mother] started screaming from her seat, “George! George! Help him! George!” And Judd Hirsch [an actor who co-starred with Kaufman in Taxi], who was sitting with Janice and Stanley [Kaufman’s father] and Carol [Kaufman’s sister], would recall, “I’m looking at his mother and his father, who are clawing the arms of their chairs, thinking that their son is going to be injured. His mother grabs my wrist-she doesn’t even know me-and says, ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna get killed!‘ I’m now truly fooled because I thought she was part of the act. I’m thinking I’m in a room with another act sitting beside me playing his family. I thought, How did he find these people who look like him? He created the illusion that anything could happen in that auditorium. And, in truth, he was even fooling them!”
This might be considered a high minded, intellectual concept – towards the end of his life, Kaufman offered to lecture at universities2 – but this concept of staying in character absolutely, for keeping the pretense of the bit going and going so the audience doesn’t know whether you’re joking or not, is something Kaufman probably got from wrestling. You play the villain in the ring, but you stay the villain outside the ring as well. We assume that the person playing the villain is very different from the persona, but we’re never given this moment of release, as we are when an actor gives an interview to talk about the character he played. There was tension in Kaufman’s appearances on Letterman, and there is that same tension in the appearances by the creator of Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine3. He is a hyperactive put-on artist, but we’re not sure where the put-on stops – we’re certain he never directed Snoop Dogg in a theatrical adaptation of Ulysses, but we stop being sure of who he is after that. Were he simply a crazy person, a drug addled hermit, the tension is gone, and he’s simply pathetic. At the other pole, if it’s obvious he’s just doing an act, he stops being interesting. The audience laughs hard throughout his appearances, because of the very uncertainty of whether they’re being kidded or not. You can understand why Letterman wanted to have him back several times – until Korine supposedly rifled through Meryl Streep’s purse4. Was this a joke, or wasn’t it?
It is this uncertainty that gives Spring Breakers some of its power – we know there’s a joke, that we are not to take these images entirely straight, the question is how far the joke goes and what the punchline is. There is the possibility that there’s no joke at all, the opinion of Heather Long in “Spring Breakers isn’t just a terrible movie, it reinforces rape culture” – this is a film that simply puts forth the idea that women are there to be used and thrown away. It might be that this is simple guilt-free trash, and if you see anything else, the joke is on you, the perspective of a favorable review by Will Leitch, “The Kind Of Trash You Love”, and an unfriendly one by David Edelstein, “Is Spring Breakers One of the Perviest Movies Ever Made?” There is the possibility that the irony is simply a cheap cover for the simple pleasure of looking at women with bikinis on and off, “The Gross Hipster Sexism Of ‘Spring Breakers'” by Kate Aurthur. Is this movie a send-up of brutal culture, or is it just junk5, asks Dana Stevens in her review, “Spring Breakers: Dead-on satire of our sexed-up culture or dull piece of exploitative garbage?”. Is Korine’s leering camera held by a guy who’s into young girls, or a parody of how young girls are shown?6 asks Rich Juzwiak in his, “Girls Gone Stylized: Spring Breakers Is Gorgeous Hedonism” [archive link]. I genuinely think the movie is playing games with the audience, but they’re not the games that Arthur and Long accuse it of playing – but I also think the movie has very deliberately been made as something against which these charges can be made. Just as with a wrestling villain, there is no simple moment when it steps out of character.
There is the second thing that I found an even more useful compass for this movie, a non-surprise given away by this post’s title: this is a movie that can be said to embrace wholely, and at the same time is deeply critical of, what might be called the advertising aesthetic. It is the use of this aesthetic which is the reason for the utter lack of actual characters, lack of much of a plot, and frequent movement back and forth in time. A lot of successful advertising conveys an experience that we might want, and rather than establishing a particular product as essential for having that experience, instead associates the product with the coveted experience presented7.
A good example of this might be one of the most well-known and best-made ads ever, from around the turn of the century, the VW ad featuring Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”:
There is roughly a narrative here: those in the car experience some ineffable moment of youth and want to continue experiencing it, and so they put off going to a party. There are no characters, as there never are in such ads, allowing a broad range of viewers in the target demographic to place themselves in any of the roles.
Another ad, closer to the themes of Spring Breakers is Coca-Cola’s Open Happiness / Bottle Blast:
This has less of a narrative, and even less in actual characters. What is established again is a mood, a really great youthful summer. There is the experience of people floating in the air, but the experience is inessential, all that is necessary is that it create the sense of some place you want to be, some place you want to go. As said already, the ad does nothing so crude as insist Coke is necessary for such an experience, it only associates itself with this coveted moment of happiness.
We may easily conceive of a variation on such an ad, one which pays no attention to anything like character or narrative, whose sole purpose is to establish this sense of a coveted place. Some ads are more sexually explicit than others, and this one would be very obvious: at this coveted place, there’s going to be hardcore fucking. It is not difficult to imagine such an ad, we have seen something like them already somewhere, and we’ve already seen it in at least in one place: we’ve just described the opening montage of Spring Breakers. We see several variations on this footage until, finally, the four women join this world – and even this is a trope of advertising, the person in a dull existence who needs to get out, and somehow does, finding new happiness in a new life. The various methods of advertising are so ingrained that they pass unnoticed when they are used here – one in particular makes no sense in the context of these images, as documented experience, rather than as images designed for a consumer. The people on the beach in the opening montage are often looking at us, as if we exist, to be interacted with – there are plenty of moments in the film where we have the perspective of a bystander filming something on their phone, but in this beginning we have what we think of as an objective camera, held by no one, carrying no perspective. The idea of looking at the viewer as if they’re there is another way of bringing them closer to the coveted experience, the coveted place. These people are looking at us as if we’re there, we’re almost at spring break with them. This also explains the footage of women sucking on popsicles, an oh so obvious reference to something else, looking directly at the camera, an ostentatious gesture for us, the viewer. We expect to see some men who are the actual perspective of this camera, who these women are flirting with, but this never takes place – they’re somehow flirting with us. This makes no sense in narrative film – if a woman looks longingly into the camera, we expect to see the object of her longing at some point; but it is a common technique in advertising, where women are constantly looking out with erotic hunger at the viewer.
The advertising-like methods of Spring Breakers contrasted with actual advertising, “Adidas House Party”, through a split screen juxtaposition of excerpts of both.
This technique is part of the film’s advertising as well. The actresses are in the ads, but not presented to be seen as their characters, and they do not keep their gazes to themselves, but rather look out at us in a beguiling fashion. What is being conveyed with such sensual looks is perhaps best captured by Jeb Lund, when he discusses a piece of casting entirely designed to appeal to comic book fanboys, in “‘Dollhouse’ Update: Still Misogynistic, Fanboyist, Shitty”:
“I love anal, obesity and watching men play video games. I also love taking care of people. Doing laundry, chores, running errands. I could do all this in a maid costume. Without panties. So, you know, it’d be easier for me to do anal. With you. The fat one.”
Advertising is one of three forms I can think of where function entirely overwhelms any other story elements – the mood conveyed must be such to sell the product. The story is dictated by this function, not the other way around. The other two are both referenced when people write about Breakers: one is pornography, the other is the morality play. Pornography only requires the people to have sex; whatever brings the woman in the latex nurse’s outfit and the woman in the dog leash together is of secondary or no importance. The morality play requires that people act in a manner that makes an explicit lesson. The most well-known and hysterical such treatises of our age are those concerning drug use – they allow no possibility for a character study of someone who is a functional drug user, or someone who has a mild addiction rather than any crisis. The protagonist must become addicted, then sell everything they own and become a prostitute to support their habit so that a lesson might be imparted. That there are plenty of people who have lived such a downward spiral does not prevent such a movie from being a morality play – if you tell the story of such a person’s life for the purpose of telling of that life, it is one thing. If the life only serves for the moral lesson it imparts, with all details bent into the direction of that lesson, it is a morality play. As said, when you write of Breakers, you can reference all three8.
The women, as said by many, do not exist as characters. I, along with many others, get mixed up among the blondes, Cotty, Brit, and Candy. Faith has one attribute, and it is there in her name: her religious piety. The dialogue of the women remaines almost entirely generic; Candy says of the robbery, “Pretend it’s a video game”, but someone her age would speak in terms of a specific game – “Pretend it’s Call of Duty”, “Pretend it’s GTA.” They are so generic that certain traits have not even been filled in. These are women in their late teens, living now, and yet there’s a striking omission: they almost never use their phones, except to call their parents – I wasn’t even sure they had phones until they made these calls9. The closest to anything a character comes to expressing their inner thoughts is Faith’s monologue of being bored with her life, and it too is something generic, something that could be said by any of these women, or by almost anyone:
I’m so tired of seeing the same things every single day…everybody’s miserable here because everybody sees the same things, they wake up in the same bed, same houses, depressing street lights…one gas station…grass…no sign of green, it’s brown…everything’s the same, and everyone’s just sad. I don’t want to end up like them, I really want to get out of here. It’s more than just spring break, it’s our chance to see something different.
The lack of character is something we associate with advertising, with pornography, where the only important trait is erotic hunger or the feigning of it, and the morality play, where character is overwhelmed by the lesson to be taught. The four women are something like characters in a very safe pornography, in that the situation is designed only for arousal, or the camera is placed in such a way that conveys no information, it only highlights their bodies. One of the first scenes of them together has them in their underwear, where they sing “Hot in Herre”, mime oral sex on each other, and do a joking imitation of bodies seized with sexual excitement. The girls smoke up and get an inhale by kissing each other. In class, Candy mimes oral sex, again, and Brit writes “I want penis”.
There’s nothing in their character that suggests why they do these things, and all these actions feel unspontaneous, something wanted by an outside viewer, as natural as if we saw them suddenly have a topless pillow fight. When the women reach Florida, they are dressed almost always in bikinis. The three girls talk while in a pool, and the camera keeps dropping under the water, as if distracted, to gawk at their bodies, before returning upwards again. Candy and Brit march along the bridge, right before the massacre, and the camera cuts to their behinds. Why does it do this, what purpose does it serve, except the most obvious one?
After the robbery, when the women go to Florida, we have an example of the way the movie uses the advertising aesthetic’s use of time – there is often no time in an ad, no sense of a linear before and after. We move back and forth through images that establish a good time, a place you want to be, each moment independent of each other, no moment before or after another. As the women travel on this bus, we hear a voiceover of them talking to their parents – it’s a splice of two later conversations in the movie Faith and Candy separately have. Candy’s part of the conversation is from the very end of the film, the phone call she makes to her mother after the massacre and after Alien has been killed.
This is the voiceover:
Hi grandma. Having so much fun here. This place is…special. I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. God, I can’t believe how many new friends we made. Friends from all over the place. I mean, everyone was so sweet here. So warm, and friendly. It’s way more than just having a good time. God, it was so nice to get a break from reality for a little while. We’ll always remember this trip. I want to come back next year with you. Something so amazing…magical! Something, so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect! Like it’s never gonna end!
That we get this voiceover before the trip has barely begun, ties in with the idea that they are part of the world of advertising where things are pre-packaged, things are pre-experienced. A trip portrayed in an ad for Mastercard or a cruise line implies that all trips must be good, must fit into the contours of a pre-imagined experience, no matter what. The trips that are offered us become more organized, more confined to cruise ships, or resorts, or itineraries, so that there’s less possibility of them falling outside the expected experience. The trip of the women has already begun and it becomes very clear that it is not at all what’s described, and yet it must become this, some generic variation of the best thing ever, “Something so amazing…magical! Something, so beautiful.”
This leads into what I think is one of the strangest things about this movie, one seemingly unnoted by many – though, again, my caveat that so many people write about some movies these days that there may well be, probably are, others who’ve seen this same thing. Though these women travel to spring break, though it is made clear that this is a rabidly sexual bacchanal, the usual hormonal festival, there’s no hint that in this section of the movie any of the women actually have sex. You expect them to message furiously some boys they meet, or to get all moony about the possibility of somebody calling, but there’s nothing of the kind. There is no footage of any long caress, or a regretted hook-up.
Faith is presented as a woman of religious seriousness, and in another movie there would be the tension of her finding an attractive boy and whether she will have sex with him. There’s no hint of her finding any conflict between piety and lust; the surroundings are simply surroundings. These women are part of a world without actual experience, just as there is no actual experience in many ads, only the creation of a mood – and the only necessary element in that mood is for them to look gorgeous, to be part of a beautiful, enticing tapestry. An ad conveys that there is this coveted place, and if you’re simply there, you’ll share in the fun, without it being connected with any activity – just like looking, but better. Other detours into tangible female biology that might make such a trip more fun than usual, that four women together would talk about – menstrual cramps or the wonderful side effects from your birth control, are obviously left out, as they would unquestionably make “Something so amazing…magical!” a little less magical. The only brief byway into this area is, again, something for the voyeurs, when the women crouch down by the side of the road and take a piss.
Though the women don’t have any of the adventures, sexual and romantic, that we expect, they have reached an ideal place, they are in paradise. Faith makes a phone call to her grandmother and describes where they are as something like an eden, and we might mis-read this as a girl casually lying to a relative about what’s actually taking place on her vacation, but there’s no hint that the view she shares with her friends is any different. Faith’s phone call to her grandmother comes in the middle of a sequence at the pool where her friends talk about where they are as the ideal place. During the conversation, we cut to this phone call, but also to a moment where Cotty is drunk and surrounded by drunk boys, and it feels as if she’s about to be raped.
It’s like paradise here…
I know, I love it.
Wish we could all buy a house here together.
I never want to leave.
Ugh…fuck school. Just fuck it.
COTTY sprays water on CANDY.
Know what would be cool? If we could freeze life. We could just click it, and freeze it, and say: [COTTY gives a “you believe this shit?” to CANDY] this is the way it’s gonna be forever. Like have this moment together, forever.
That would be real cool, Faith.
FAITH goes underwater. FAITH comes up again.
You making fun of me?
No…we just think you’re cute!
We just want to click things and freeze them…
…and freeze them and buy houses together, and go to church services. And pray.
I’m serious, y’all. It’s different here.
Take it. Like. A stripper.
UNKNOWN BOY CONT’D
Goddamnit you look sexy, I want that pussy, baby.
You’re never gonna get this pussy. *singsongs the line* You’re never gonna get…this pussy…never gonna get this pus-sy…
She lifts up her bikini top on the last syllable, and starts cracking up. We then jump cut to her slapping the UNKNOWN BOY playfully, and then she laughs.
Hi grandma, I’m having so much fun here. It’s so cool lookin’. The people here are so much fun. They’re all really sweet. The food. The guys. You would love it here. I wanna come back again next year, with you. [cracks up while she says this] That would be cool. Nah, I miss you too. But I really like it here. I know, mom, I should have told you that I came. You’d never let me go. I’m fine. Mom, I’m sorry. I should have told you, I just wanted to go. I know. Well, we had enough money, so…we wanted to get away and…we’re fine, we’re safe…I’m not drinking, I’m just…we got scooters, we’re just driving around, we’re meeting people…I’m having fun. Well, great. [gives a heavy sigh] Well, alright. I love you too. Bye.
I never want to go home. Never want to go back.
Just finally feel like I can be who I was supposed to be here. I know we did a really bad thing, but I’m really glad we did it. I feel better here.
What anyone will focus in on is the unsettling contrast created in this sequence, where Faith is in a church, then we cut to her in the pool saying emphatically, “I’m serious, this place is different”, and we’re in the room where it feels as if Cotty is almost assaulted – it makes it seem as if Faith has made a rape kingdom into a holy site. Though Cotty would no doubt share with her friends what took place, it does not change Faith’s attitude – this place isn’t a hunting ground for predators, it’s paradise. This is not used solely in the secular context, but the religious one as well – they have returned to Eden. We have no sense either that Faith is a fallen angel, that she has abandoned her christianity in this Gomorrah. We have the paradoxical situation described earlier, where she remains a sincere, virignal, committed christian, surrounded by an orgy, but where the orgy is only a surrounding, where life is like advertising, just like looking but better. That Faith looks upon this place as paradise makes the viewer think she’s a lunatic, but it also makes full sense – these women are now in a world, the unending happy celebration of advertising, that is always presented as an ideal place that you should want to be part of. The desire to stop time is simply what advertising which conveys a particular mood does, a series of images unconnected with each other, where it becomes impossible to tell which is before or after, and where the images, being unconnected to each other, like the opening sequence of this movie, could theoretically roll on and on, without end, spring break, forever.
This movie’s approach is often suggestive of advertising’s aesthetic, and yet it undercuts it, suggesting that what we are seeing is a denial of this eden’s most degenerate elements, the montage of people on the beach moving into Faith speaking of a blessed place while we see footage of Cotty, on the verge of something terrible almost taking place. I say that this movie is the future of advertising because I can see an ad campaign incorporating all the elements of this movie, a Spring Breakers tribute that we might see a year or five years from now, because advertising, like the market, can absorb almost anything without being subverted. The only goal in advertising is to sell a product, and everything else is of no consequence. That an ad carries elements which suggest advertising itself is corrupt, that looking at an attractive model is a form of dirty voyeurism are not things antithetical to an effective ad – these things may even be helpful in a campaign as these are things acknowledged and admitted by the ad viewer. That the ad acknowledges them as well only helps create a connection with the potential buyer, rather than to cause the buyer to further question the entire process.
We may see some of the approach in the ads for Diesel jeans, which proudly take a famously unconventional approach. In one series they deride the association of a particular ethos with a product, in this case, “Be Stupid”, and it’s also a ridiculing of the lazy celebration of the idiotic. The ad creates a connection with the potential buyer on these terms – you and I, the I being the very brand embodied by the ad – are able to discern this nascent idiocracy. Another features beautiful models in the midst of a world overwhelmed by global warming – the potential consumer knows that buying clothes and looking at ads is a foolish superficial thing in the context of these overwhelming problems, and the ad creates a connection by acknowledging this. Advertising can even contain elements like the near sexual assault of Cotty – a few years ago, a Calvin Klein ad carried the theme of a possible gang rape. I stress this to eliminate the possibility that the advertising aesthetic can ever be refuted within the aesthetic itself. There is something in us that wants illusion, that wants partialities, and advertising sates this. It is only outside the advertising aesthetic that we see what it cannot do, and Spring Breakers never leaves the aesthetic, which is what provokes its passionately divided reaction, and what makes it so similar to controversial ads of the past and future – which may well contain elements that admit to the shallowness of consumerism, the cruelty of sex, and yet: advertising survives10.
Spring Breakers is like advertising, but also like celebrity, which is supposed to be an unending series of great times, without any actual work, and why being famous is something you should want, why being famous is your fated place: “I can be who I was supposed to be here”. This is one of the points of casting teen stars who’ve won this brass ring, for this is Faith talking about finally being where she aspired to be, but it might also be seen as Selena Gomez talking about where she is, a place of fame where we all want to be. Because being a celebrity is usually presented as entirely a series of happy events, as the parties of Breakers are presented as events, but without any consequential activity. There is no focus in stories about successful actors and singers on mic checks, or rehearsals rehearsals rehearsals, getting the lighting right – only red carpets and crazy times at St. Bart’s. Faith says that they are in paradise, and she is correct – the state of life that they are in now is presented again and again as paradise.
It is only after the women are bailed out and they are in the pool hall, that Faith has a sudden change of perspective on their trip. Here, Korine again plays a game of: where does this joke end? Because the images in the pool hall are filled with racial menace. The cornrowed Alien holds Faith in his grip, and then we cut to a black man who looks on as if he’s inspecting her in a market, and as if this point has not already been made emphatically enough, we cut to the perspective of a dog looking at Faith; the man is something like an animal, something like this animal staring up at this fragile girl. I do think the menace here is real and intended, but also to create a contrast. Faith feels no such fear when her friend is nearly raped; instead, when her friend is nearly raped, it is spliced together with her in the church, her eyes closing, as if in regret that this predators’ ball is suffused with a holy magic that her church lacks.
“Life Lessons”, by Richard Brody, perhaps the best review of this movie, acutely sees many of these racial undercurrents. Aisha Harris’s “In Spring Breakers, Black Lives Matter Less Than White Ones” is equally insightful, though I think I am in minor disagreement with both. There is the idea that somehow the women cross a racial line when they meet Alien – they become true gangsters, killing Archie and all of his associates at the end. Faith serves as a compass of how certain situations are always seen, images viewed unskeptically – spring break is mostly harmless fun, a paradise, while the men in the pool hall can only be a source of menace. That both places might be seen as equally menacing – though in only one is one of the women almost raped – does not keep the movie’s own images from presenting them as heaven and hell, though we are also given the possibility of questioning those same images. It is a racial difference, and not just a racial difference – there’s a black man in the room where Cotty is almost raped, and Dangeruss, the rapper who would coach Franco on his character, would point out that the neighborhood where they filmed the pool hall scene was a genuinely scary place11. The difference, again, is advertising – spring break can be transformed into a happy, painless bachannal, but no one will do anything like that to the pool hall – a political ad, a GOP attack ad, might, like a morality play, capture only the menace, and eliminate anything like underlying characters, which is exactly how things are presented in the movie.
The menace is racial, but not just racial – the pool hall is in a deeply poor area. If advertising presents the illusion of infinite possibilities, the pool hall is a world of no possibilities. For there to be the illusion of infinite possibilities, there can be no memory of what has taken place before, and there can be no characters – for you to be anyone, whatever the situation, requires that you be no one. This is very much the world of Spring Breakers – a woman is nearly raped, and it is as if it never happened. Those who are at spring break can engage in this orgy, and then forget about it afterwards. They will move from this role to the next12. The men in the pool hall have only one role, and will not have the possibility of playing any other.
This playing of parts, of switching into one and then out, is there in the scene in the parking lot, where the women sing Britney Spears, then re-enact the robbery where they are suddenly very brutal, very cruel, and suddenly they are back to a picture of happy innocence.
I was in the car…I was sitting there, looking out for all the muthafuckin po-leec.
We in the back, we just open the door and we go, “FREEZE MOTHERFUCKERS! HANDS IN THE MOTHERFUCKIN AIR!”
GET YOUR MOTHERFUCKIN KNEES ON THE MOTHERFUCKIN GROUND, you piece of shit. DOWN, MOTHERFUCKERS. DOWN. [smacks FAITH in the arm.] Get down on your motherfuckin knees, Faith. Get on your fuckin knees. GET YOUR MOTHERFUCKING KNEES ON THE FUCKING GROUND.
What’d did they do?
They fucking got on the ground. [laughs]
I get up to this bitch, and I was going: yo. Fuckin get on your goddamn knees before I shoot your motherfuckin face out. Give me your motherfuckin money, I won’t kill you.
You wanna fuckin die tonight? You wanna fuckin die tonight? GIVE ME ALL YOUR GODDAMN MONEY. GIVE IT TO ME, NOW!
GET ON YOUR KNEES.
CANDY (to COTTY)
Get on your knees. GET ON YOUR MOTHERFUCKIN KNEES, BITCH!
Get on your knees. Do you wanna die tonight? You fuckin scared?
COTTY is now lying on the ground.
You like that, you piece of shit?
Don’t kill me.
Give us your motherfuckin money, NOW. Now, bitch.
GIVE ME ALL YOUR MOTHERFUCKIN MONEY, NOW.
Faith is a compass to how these two separate situations are presented, and correspondingly she is also happily, willfully blind. Spring break is a paradise, so something like an attempted rape does not take place. She really wanted to go on spring break, so the brutality of the robbery is blocked out, avoided: “I know we did a really bad thing, but I’m really glad we did it.” She is there to be an external moral conscience, though her placement feels deliberately false, a placement required by the situation – how did this goodygoody end up friends with these naughtynaughtys? The answer doesn’t matter – a situation might require these girls to dance around in their underwear, or it might require a good christian girl to be friends with this coven, and no character or memories prevent this, just like in advertising. She leaves the movie, and though she is supposed to be someone closer to our moral conscience, we don’t want to go with her. That her conscience itself is false, not seeing a potential rape, not acknowledging the brutality of the robbery, is important, because her leaving is supposed to signal a sort of downward spiral for the remaining women, when I don’t think they change at all. They are brutal during the robbery and they are brutal at the end. It is they who initiate the killings in the finale – Alien is at first too scared to go through with it.
With the appearance of Alien, the movie becomes both like a morality play and a critique of one. He is the perennial bad influence under whom these women will fall sway, and though the movie has some of these contours, the joke is that they are already depraved and cruel without his help. He does not teach them to be cruel, for they have already been joyfully sadistic in the robbery. Candy and Brit have three way sex with him, the nadir of their descent, but this moment is as ludicrous as a symptom in their moral decay as Faith describing spring break as paradise – though they seemingly did not participate in any of it, we assume sex like this was happening all around them in the earlier scenes. The movie ends with Candy speaking of their how she’s changed, but what’s more obvious is this: these women do not change at all. Alien’s name is, I think, supposed to be part of the joke – his values are supposed to be alien to them, but they’re not alien at all, Alien’s values are theirs already. There is perhaps the implied criticism that the modern day morality play’s purpose is not to teach anything, but to provide possibilities for the voyeur, that the morality play and pornography are closer than you’d think. A movie exposé into the seamy world of strip clubs or drug dealing is not intended to be an exposé at all, but to allow one to look in on strip clubs, to fantasize about being a drug dealer, while providing the viewer a pious remove – to allow us to deny our voyeurism. You can see the similarity of this attitude to Faith’s. Are the last few scenes about the corruption of Candy, or about seeing Vanessa Hudgens naked? The perspective of the movie is that the true purpose is always the second, with the first always a fig leaf, which the viewer is grateful for its figurativeness.
It is after they meet Alien that we have the most memorable scene of the movie, one that is in some ways so very simply designed, but devastatingly effective13. The women are by a piano in their masks and bikinis when Alien starts to play “Everytime” by Britney Spears, which segues into the original itself, playing over a montage of the crew robbing various people. There is nothing ironic or fun about this scene – when Alien smashes a man into a cake there’s nothing funny to it at all. It’s very powerful, very disturbing, intentionally disturbing. The women may be beautiful, but in their ski masks they are monstrous. The song adds a power because it is so well known, a song known by the victims and the persecutors, one of the benefits of a global music distribution system where everyone can know the same music, and be supposedly bound together by love or knowledge of the same music – “We met people who are just like us. People just the same as us”, says Candy in her end conversation with her mom – yet nothing of the kind happens here. This crew looks at their victims as subhuman – “You like that, you piece of shit?” says Candy when re-enacting the diner robbery. The sequence is a continuation of what is done in the spring break footage and which culminates in the massacre, the idea that anything, whatever its cruelties, can be aestheticized, everything can be made beautiful. That truly ugly things are made into sequences in movies where the suffering is blanked out is something this moment explicitly references, movies where music is used in an ironic fashion, where our reaction lies in the contrast between a sentimental song and some act of great brutality. Here, we may perceive this contrast, but our focus is on the way we have been distanced from the violence, and yet we haven’t been distanced at all – that we are able to perceive the victims’ fear over the song and the slo-mo only makes us feel this fear more deeply. The sequence has the bullying quality of the most vile commercial movies and propaganda: you will find our cruelty gorgeous. The nadir of this idea is the movie’s ending, a mass killing that’s made up of beautiful elegant light, like a dark ocean aswarm with phosphorescent fish.
“Pretend it’s a video game,” says Candy, and this is not just about how the women see their violence, but how we the audience see it, and how ostensibly realistic violence in movies is so often shown. Above, a comparison between the hyper colored shoottings of Breakers and GTA IV and V. GTA footage excerpts are taken from the following, in order of appearance: “GTA 4 Bloody Shootout & Car Chase “Massacre”” by xturkishdelight and “GTA V: Strip Club Massacre” by calloftreyarch.
The ridiculous shooting at the end conforms to the structure of many morality plays. The hero ends up under the sway of some malevolent force, and for a brief period as an outlaw, they live vicariously a fantasy of the audience, something that involves violence maybe, or obscene amounts of wealth. There are many examples, and I casually list among the possibilities, Wall Street, The Devil’s Advocate, Point Break, The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, etc. This, the movie declares, is not to sate any fantasy, but to make clear how wrong such conduct is. Sure it is, chief. The hero then demonstrates their true heroic virtue, again by sating the audience’s fantasy that violence is simple or clean, either by destroying the malevolent influence or some other, even greater evil. Some equilibrium has been restored, and the hero is able to return to society after his passage through the dark side. Everything else is secondary or of no consequence to this arc. Breakers has this same structure, and turns it into a joke. The women are already callous thieves before they meet Alien. He somehow corrupts them in sex, though they robbed people to go to spring break, whose advertised essence is depraved sex. The shooting at the end defies anything like the outward bounds of realism, its absurdities well enumerated, again, by Dangeruss14. The women, who do not appear to have ever fired weapons like this before, are able to kill every gang member without difficulty, firing out in the open, with sniper precision and fearlessness, the bullets of their opponents always missing. The women are not deafened by their gunshots. The police should surround the house after the amount of noise from such a massacre, but the women are able to get away with ease. This is an exaggeration, but only a mild one, of gunfights as constantly illustrated in movies, gunfights that have nothing of the qualities of actual gun violence, which is chaotic, loud, and frightening.
Both Brody and Harris insightfully point out an effect that too many critics missed, that the skin of these two women goes dark as they enter the house. They are now in blackface, killing their opponents as if they were fully black gangsters15. I think these two writers are absolutely correct in identifying the effect, but I think they are incorrect in identifying the intent. If the men of the pool hall are brutal, if the pool hall area is so frightening because of the bruality of the men, a place where people will die and be killed for little or nothing, then these women are also brutal. And I think this change in skin color asks the question, are these women less brutal than the pool hall men because there is something inherently different in their deeds, or because of their skin color? Either their brutality, and their brutality alone, ends a white audience’s sympathy with these women, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then that audience is willfully blind, like Faith. There is the ambiguity described already, of what is the joke and what isn’t, but I think there’s a clear hint that the joke goes further than Brody and Harris grant it: a movie that is as indifferent to the victims of a heroic massacre as such a movie usually is, would not grant each victim a close-up in death.
That the dark skin of these killers disappears again after the massacre is what makes these killers women of infinite possibility, characters who have no character at all, no memories. The event has taken place, but they are now different. Not different in the sense of maturity or their being transformed by the experience, but in the sense of being someone else, in terms of: this didn’t take place, and there will be no accountability. The movie required that they dance around in their underwear, that they be able to kill people with marksman precision, and now the movie requires a return to moral equilibrium, that they now be better people. This vacation has already been pre-remembered, the memories we hear before the women even arrive, these are the memories the women speak of now, and in these memories, the massacre never happened.
Hey mom. I’m good. Yeah, I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately. I just want to do better. Better at school, better at life…I just feel different, for some reason. I feel changed. I just want to be a good girl now. I want to be happy, and have fun…yeah, mommy, I think that’s the secret to life. Being a good person.
Hey mom. It’s Candy. I’m sorry I haven’t called in so long. No, I know, I know. No, I apologize. Yeah. Look: we went on spring break. Yeah. It was so much fun. You have no idea. We had such an amazing time. It was a blast. Yeah. Listen, I just wanted to let you know that I’m coming home…back to school and everything, and I just love you, so much, mom. I’m gonna do better, now. I’m gonna be the best I can be.
Yeah mom, it was really great. I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. God, I can’t believe how many friends we made. Friends from all over the world, friends from all over the place. I mean, everyone was so sweet here. So warm, and friendly, and…I know we made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. People just the same as us. Everyone was just…trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. We’re different people now. We see things differently. More colors, more love, more understanding. God, it was so nice to get a break from reality for a little while. I know we’ll have to go back to school, but we’ll always remember this trip. Something so amazing…magical! Something, so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect! Like it’s never gonna end! At night here, we can see way past the stars…we can see into the light, it’s just…ugh [pleasured exhale]…beautiful. I never want it to end. Spring break forever! Spring break forever, bitches! Spring break, forever. Spring break forever, bitches.
That this movie did connect with people, that people did want to talk about it, is not simply an intellectuals in raincoats thing, people wanting to talk about a movie whose appeal was entirely base – but because, I think, of the way it captured a contemporary corruption, though this corruption is not sexual. If you look at something that is close to a national newspaper now, the Huffington Post, you’ll see two divisions of life very clearly, what might be called the real and the fantastic. The real would be a story on the vast number of people living paycheck to paycheck (“Living Paycheck To Paycheck Is Reality For Two In Five Households: Report”), or students buried in loan debt (“Class Of 2013 Student Debt Reaches New Heights”, “Francisco Reynoso, Grieving Dad, Files For Bankruptcy To Resolve Dead Son’s Student Loans”), and the other world, the fantastic one, would be of obscene wealth or what some actress wore to a movie premiere (“Rihanna Attends Chanel Show, Poses With Karl Lagerfeld, Is Generally Fabulous (PHOTOS)”, “Katy Perry Instagrams Mystery Shot, Possibly Of Herself Hugging John Mayer (VIDEO, PHOTO)”, “$53 Million California Mansion Has Five Underground Floors Of Wonder (PHOTOS)”, “Sean Parker’s Wedding: Internet Billionaire Rails Against Media In 9,500-Word Defense Of Wedding”). This division is not occasional, but there every day, and it is economic – but not simply economic, but the difference between the illusory and the actual, the advertised and the tangible. The women of this movie are never quite of our world, but they move from something closer to our world of actual consequences to this world of illusion and euphoria. That they have to rob a diner in order to enter this place of illusion makes intuitive sense, because this world, as we read about it or catch glimpses of it, feels impenetrable and unassailable, a world that is ever present, yet impossibly distant. Though this place is depicted as something like an inferno, the two women who do leave it, Faith and Cotty, don’t want to. The film emphasizes the departure of each to make clear that what’s felt is not specific to one character, but something connected to this place that they feel to be paradise. We see them on the bus ride home, and they are like people detoxing, experiencing withdrawal, but also like people on their way to prison. They touch the bus window like they’re about to leave free space. This makes intuitive sense, as this world of illusion is the one that is tended to now, where everyone outside it is left to struggle in the dirt. No one doubts that this world of illusion will continue to survive, sustained simply through the power of wealth, but whether a woman of Faith’s age has something to look forward to, outside of this world of illusory promise, buried in debt and with terrible job prospects, a world that feels entirely a con, rigged against her, is doubtful. It is why these women do not want to leave this Gomorrah, and it is why Faith finds here a true eden, something stronger than her own church – because this world that she briefly visits, is believed in, whereas the possibilities of her life are not.
Skeptics might question whether Harmony Korine would constuct a movie that has what might be called these complex political implications, but I don’t think the film was drawn up by any schematic, just intuitively, and that it is entirely intuitive only makes it more keenly felt – the same way that the vision of thousands of civilians killed off so callously in a superhero epic is a more devastating statement, a greater indictment, though unintended, than a more explicit examination in a so-called serious movie of how little value is placed on the lives of the powerless by the powerful16. The world of wealth the women eventually enter is one fueled by drugs, and this makes intuitive sense, makes sense because looking at the elusive fortunes we see made now, they so often seem corrupt, and it makes sense because this illusory life is a narcotic both in its creation of a solipsistic, hyper-sensational world, and its addictiveness.
The movie almost throughout uses hyperbright colors – though not always, not, notably, when Faith and Cotty return home – and the ending is the apotheosis of this, saturated brightness in a dark night, and this is something like the divisions of the hardened addict, the beautiful euphorias surrounded by depressive lows. It makes sense intuitively as well, that our world becomes diminished, while this world of illusion grows brighter and brighter. And it makes sense in the context of a series of highs, where after sex and drugs, there is only death. The flick of the lighter is enhanced and made louder on the soundtrack, this click becoming the click of the cocking of a gun, this ominous sound heard over and over, the two highs connected, but also connected to a third – this hard metallic flick also sounds like a camera taking a picture.
This high of death is not just death, actually experienced, but death seen by a voyeur, which makes sense for a movie so often built for the voyeur, and built to tweak the voyeur as well. One might imagine the stages of tabloid life for a young actress, where there is first the young actress looking beautiful, then the young actress accidentally exposing herself, the young actress posing naked, the young actress caught committing crimes, the young actress finally dying young. The women of the movie trace through almost all these steps, and one can see here another reason why former Disney stars have been cast. The movie doesn’t quite give us these women dying young, but it comes close, it implies that the nihilism has this possible end – some in the audience might even be surprised that the women don’t die in the shoot-out. What I think of as this inevitable, end state of voyeurism comes close to being described by David Thompson, in “Don Simpson: Hollywood Death”:
These are big themes as the millennium draws close. Death now is the trip and the turn-on. Look at the kind of photography we’re getting in pictures. You can say it’s the influence of MTV or the result of special effects edging out classical photography. Whatever it is, we are into a style now where the imagery is increasingly non-naturalistic, more and more fantasy-driven, ghostly–no longer just a record of appearance. Once upon a time, movies were a sensation because they let us share the sight of real things–even if in fantastic or fictional circumstances. But now we are seeing the unreal, the impossible, the electronic. It can be dinosaurs, morphins or James Dean and Marilyn Monroe dancing together at Rick’s Cafe– which they never did or could have done. I can’t stand most of what Oliver Stone does, but I will give him some credit: In films like JFK. he has found a way of showing the real and the merely possible on screen at the same time–so you’re not sure which is which. It’s the weird feeling you get in Pulp Fiction when you know John Travolta is dead already, but there he is still walking out of the diner. I tell you, movies are going to do this more and more. Why? Us, sweetheart. We are fascinated with the big D.
This is Norman Mailer:
“Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long. An emotion produced from the chum of the flesh is delivered to a machine, and that machine and its connections manage to produce a flow of images which will arouse some related sentiment in those who watch. The living emotion has passed through a burial ground–and has been resurrected. The living emotion survives as a psychological reality: it continues to exist as a set of images in our memory which are not too different, as the years go by, from the images we keep of a relative who is dead.”
Intertwined with this idea of voyeurism is that of domination, of control. The guiding ethos of the women is this, the dominating of others, and this is what we see when they re-enact the robbery, and Cotty lies on the ground, the women gleeful over her submission. There is domination, but also the idea that you can get what you want through submission, or feigning submission. The women demand that Alien suck their pistols, and he submits. This submission is part of why Candy and Brit have sex with him later – he has submitted to them, and they will submit in turn. This is the dynamic created between the voyeur and the viewed: I want to see you naked, you take off your clothes, and do you have the power, or do I? Because this is very much part of the dynamic in the advertising for the movie, the casting, and the movie itself.
We are teased with the idea that this movie will be something soft-core, and it is – but the drink is spiked. Cotty finally lifts her top, the moment we’ve been teased with, but it’s in the scene where she’s almost raped; she is surrounded by predators and because of what we want, we feel as if we’re one of her predators as well. Later, she’s fully naked in a shower, sobbing, recovering from a bullet wound. It is both what the voyeur wants and doesn’t want at all – she is nude, but there is nothing erotic in this setting. We are not part of the crowd as we are in the early spring break scenes where the topless women turn toward the camera as if they’re meeting eyes with another friend, but instead, we are an intruder. She is vulnerable, in pain, and naked – we are predators, again. Candy and Brit are in the pool with Alien, yet the angles are always artful, so we never quite see what might be called their most important parts. The man closest to them, the man we envy, who we wish to be, is the designated villain of the piece – yet somehow in that moment, the viewer might wish to be this man, and the scene is designed for you to want to be this man. What good is a moral life if it keeps us from this? And perhaps whatever would make us part of that moment we would look at with the same glibness with which Faith views the robbery: “I know we did a really bad thing, but I’m really glad we did it.”
That the actresses are being exploited for their wholesome image in scenes like this was raised during the publicity junket17. Again, we have the question of who has the power, you or me? The actresses view this in purely practical terms: they are applying business methods to being young18. John Podhoertz sneers that the actresses have gotten a raw deal out of this, taking off their clothes for a movie he thinks is terrible, and I don’t think I would associate his attitude with empathy or compassion19. I can’t imagine him showing the same contempt for Michael Fassbinder, whatever he thought of the quality of Shame. The women are gleeful at the submission of the robbery victims; Podhoertz is gleeful at the submission of these actresses before Hollywood power. The attitude feels like something inevitable when a woman takes off her clothes. You take them off, and you’re laughed at because your body is too old. Or because you’re so stupid to think it’s beautiful enough. If it’s gorgeous, then you’re laughed at because you must have been conned into this moment. These actresses are, arguably, part of a long, nasty game where they are eroticized, though no one admits this, and where this eroticization has somehow led them to being naked, though no one can give away the game and say that the eroticization was designed to lead up to this moment. The audience to all this plays the part like Faith. She is a good christian, but somehow she’s ended up at this summer orgy. She’s a good christian, but her trip was paid for by a brutal robbery. We are good, decent people, yet somehow this Disney star is now half naked on the cover of a magazine or a movie – how exactly did that come about?
We have a very good discussion of making these teen stars as sexual as possible, though no one can admit that this is what is taking place, in a very good profile of Gregory Dark, ex-pornographer and director of videos for Britney Spears and Mandy Moore, “The Devil in Greg Dark” by Tom Junod, from the turn of the century20:
But that’s the thing with all the video work he’s been getting. It, like, comes to him. He was a pornographer, sure, maybe even the worst pornographer … but it’s not like he sits around plotting to direct Britney Spears, Mandy Moore, and Leslie Carter so that he can corrupt them and the little girls who idolize them. And it’s not like he has to worry about making them pornographic, either–about straying over the boundaries of taste, about eroticizing them, about fetishizing them, about doing all the things he used to do as a pornographer. They’ve already been eroticized and fetishized by the culture itself. In 1985, he directed Traci Lords and he was very nearly a criminal … but now the entire culture is besotted with the erotic promise of teenage girls, and so by the time they come to Gregory Dark, the girls have already been, well, pornographied. Britney Spears? That’s a porn name if there ever was one, no matter if it’s her real name or not. That Rolling Stone cover of Christina Aguilera with her shorts unzipped and her athletic tongue licking her lascivious lips? That’s a porn box cover, though without the usual accoutrement of bodily fluids. The lure of jailbait now supplies the erotic energy to a popular culture desperate for what’s new, what’s young, what’s alive; and the pornographication of the American girl has proceeded at such a pace that, as curious as the phenomenon of Gregory Dark directing a girl like Leslie Carter [the sister of Nick and Aaron Carter, who, at the time, was hoped to repeat the success of her brothers] in a music video seems even to Gregory Dark himself, it also makes perfect sense.
We have perhaps the best expression of the denial of the process by Britney Spears, who briefly discusses her erotic appeal, an appeal she is supposedly entirely unconscious of – and where I think it was absolutely necessary for her to act as if she were unconscious of it. That it was one thing for there to be this lust for her, but it would be dirty to actually acknowledge that lust. Again, another piece from the turn of the century, not long after her career began, “Bending Spoons with Britney Spears” (not quite SFW), by Chuck Klosterman:
Over the next ninety minutes, I will sit next to a purportedly fully clothed Britney and ask her questions. She will not really answer any of them. Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton: Regardless of the evidence, she does not waver. “Why do you dress so provocatively?” I ask. She says she doesn’t dress provocatively. “But look what you’re wearing right now,” I say, while looking at three inches of her inner thigh, her entire abdomen, and enough cleavage to choke a musk ox. “This is just a skirt and a top,” she responds. It is not that Britney Spears denies that she is a sexual icon, or that she disputes that American men are fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, or that she feels her success says nothing about what our society fantasizes about. She doesn’t disagree with any of that stuff, because she swears she has never even thought about it. Not even once.
“That’s just a weird question,” she says. “I don’t even want to think about that. That’s strange, and I don’t think about things like that, and I don’t want to think about things like that. Why should I? I don’t have to deal with those people. I’m concerned with the kids out there. I’m concerned with the next generation of people. I’m not worried about some guy who’s a perv and wants to meet a freaking virgin.”
And suddenly, something becomes painfully clear: Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I’ve ever met, or she’s way, way savvier than any of us realize.
Or maybe both.
It is this relationship between the film and the audience which limits it, and why I think I ultimately reject it. With another movie, with well-drawn characters, it is within us to decide how close we get. With Spring Breakers, we are dealing with a movie that plays with forms, advertising, pornography, the morality play, where the audience is required to remain passive, almost an object of contempt, to be, respectively, tantalized, aroused, and lectured to. This film plays with these forms, and maintains its distance, ultimately something of a con man where the only choice we have is deciding how far the con goes. Is the wrestling for real? Is the reaction of Andy Kaufman’s family fake or real? Is that actually Kaufman’s family, or a group of actors?
We may connect this lack of character to another moment in Kaufman’s work, when he appeared on the Letterman show with his three adopted sons, grown men who were black and cast to give off a vague air of menace21. They were not there to be anything other than an effect, the very sense of racial tension part of the bit. The images of the men in the pool hall and Archie’s crew exist only as images of menace as well. There is no possibility of looking at anything like a surrounding character, of placing the moment in context – all you have is the image of the man in sunglasses inspecting Faith. You can accept that there’s a larger, deliberate critique that requires such images, and requires them to be without character, you can disbelieve that there’s anything like a surrounding intent, or you might think that the racial imagery in this movie and Kaufman’s bit are so toxic as to overwhelm anything so flimsy that tries to hold it; these images cannot be briefly touched anymore than you can briefly touch a third rail. And we might find a similar distance between ourselves and the characters in an episode where Kaufman again appeared on Letterman’s show (this time his morning program) where he started out with snot dripping from his nose, telling the host that he wasn’t working, then explaining how he was desperate for money, before going about the audience begging for change, until being asked to leave by one of the ushers22. We do not find ourselves laughing at any point in sympathy with what Kaufman says, we never feel close to him as we might some of Charlie Chaplin’s pathetic characters. We laugh at him because there must be a release to this pathos, it must be fake because we need this release. We laugh, but our laughter indicts us. There is a similar connection between Spring Breakers and a viewer; the relationship is one of contempt for what the viewer might have wanted from this film. The only refuge the audience can have in either case is to say that they’re in on the joke.
The movie’s characters are specifically designed as flat, so that Spring Breakers is as close to the played with forms as possible. We cannot have empathy or connection with the women of the movie, though we might be fearful for Cotty or the robbery victims. Alien is a distinct and striking creature, animated by an actor who has gotten so much success early on that in other work he sometimes seems bored by how little he’s asked to do, Alien’s very outsize quality causing him to stand out; there are no false notes in the performance, yet Alien is no more a character than the women. An inner life cannot be imagined for this man, in fact, such an inner life would be an obstacle, requiring us to reconcile a hardened gangster who suddenly takes on a group of women as his crew. Only without such a life, without an actual character, does this impossibility become something not quite plausible, but not something we constantly question. Without characters, we are left untethered from the film, the only relief the occasional flourish applied to a line or gesture. You have such a moment when Archie and Alien meet in the strip club: Archie shows he’s strapped, and Alien casually lifts up his shirt to show that he’s brought something to the party as well. There’s a moment with the women where they are mercilessly cruel and funny in a way entirely expected of characters their age, when they play at being deaf if someone they don’t like tries to pick them up. It feels so natural that the dialogue must be ad libbed, and you wish for more like this, but that’s all you get. The respite has nothing to do with a sudden burst of humanity – their jokes are mean, after all – but with them suddenly inhabited with random, vital life, however briefly.
He was so weird.
Next time, with those people we don’t like, we’ll talk deaf. We’ll pretend like we’re deaf.
(everyone does imitations of this)
That is so mean.
CANDY (doing deaf)
DO YOU WANNA FUCK ME?
In his review, “The Life Lessons of Spring Breakers”, Richard Brody makes the case that what the women experience on their spring break is their true education, that they’ve just learned how the world, especially the world of business, truly works23. I think the argument is convincing, but I am not entirely convinced. The movie makes a joke about the usual morality play arc, with the heroes already corrupt, falling under the sway of an agent of malevolent influence whose influence they do not need and never reject (they give him an affectionate kiss at the end), and who now emerge from this darkness as changed, better people to return to the world. So, we have them suddenly declaring on their phonecalls that they are different, though we see no evidence of that. If the movie makes fun of the various perfunctory nods of the morality play which disguise its true appeal, to live vicariously through the outlaw life of the hero, the end of the movie is another joke on the last of the morality play’s tropes – the hero returns from their exciting criminal life to a normal one, though truly, we in the audience don’t want to actually leave this outlaw life, and in Spring Breakers, maybe the heroes don’t.
We see the women on their phones, we see them driving at night, now they are driving in ordinary light again, not the heightned colors of the massacre, it feels like we’re returning to normal life – and then suddenly they’re on the bridge again. This is after the massacre – we clearly see what took place immediately after Alien was shot, with the women first firing back at Alien’s killer, then moving on, mowing everyone down. This is after the killings, and so when we see Candy and Brit bend down to kiss Alien, we expect them to move along the bridge back to the boat, but instead they go the other way, back to the mansion. This movie might be a morality play upside down, and this last moment is shot upside down, too. The end credits music comes on, it’s Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”, and the lyrics are apt24, though they have a slightly different meaning in this context from their original intent. The bright lights of this movie get brighter and brighter till its very end, and they’ve drawn these last two women close. They aren’t going home, they’ve found home, and they’ll never leave.
I had a way then losing it all on my own
I had a heart then but the queen has been overthrown
And I’m not sleeping now, the dark is too hard to beat
And I’m not keeping now, the strength I need to push me
You show the lights that stop me turn to stone
You shine it when I’m alone
And so I tell myself that I’ll be strong
And dreaming when they’re gone
‘Cause they’re calling, calling, calling me home
Calling, calling, calling home
You show the lights that stop me turn to stone
You shine it when I’m alone
(Originally this piece stated that the cutting suggests that Faith looks out from inside the church as if witnessing Cotty about to be raped – there’s a shot in between these two, and this was corrected on July 6th. On April 19, 2015, this post underwent a copy edit – some very long paragraphs were broken up in the process. On May 15th, 2015, the supplementary gif contrasting the violence of this movie and that of the Grand Theft Auto videogame was added. On May 16th, 2015, the gif contrasting the movie’s party montages with an Adidas ad was put in.)
(All Spring Breakers images copyright A24 Productions, Anna Purna Pictures, Hero Entertainment, Muse Productions, and all associated producers.)
1 A crack about intellectuals and Spring Breakers is here, in “Are We Ever Going To See ‘Spring Breakers’ This Weekend” by Stuart Ross.
Another dis can be found in David Edelstein’s review, “Is Spring Breakers One of the Perviest Movies Ever Made?”:
But wait: Korine is the festival darling who wrote Kids (they do drugs, they get AIDS) and directed Julien Donkey-Boy, featuring arthouse cinema’s answer to Jar Jar Binks. Is Spring Breakers deliberately stupid and asinine, a transgressive parody of Where the Boys Are that brazenly acknowledges what Korine’s admirers in the academy call the “commodification of the female body”? Does he mean to have his cheesecake and deconstruct it, too? Either way, I think the movie is swill – but I wouldn’t be shocked if a whole crop of cinema studies papers affirms the case for its genius.
Either to the satisfaction or frustration of Edelstein, The New Inquiry, upon the film’s release, brought out a supplement devoted to the movie and related themes: “Spring Break Forever”.
In search of new credibility, he decided that he wanted to go out on the college lecture circuit. That fall, George set him up with a Pasadena lecturing agency called Stofan/Blancarte and postcards were printed and later mailed out to universities everywhere. The postcards featured photographs of him playing Elvis and Latka; of him snarling as a wrestler; of him eating ice cream; of him wearing a straitjacket.
The words on the back of the postcard read:
On Creating Reality:
The Physics of Human Response
Andy Kaufman’s career of the past 10 years has been a series of experiments which form the groundwork for a thesis. Using film clips and telling stories, Andy will set you straight once and for all about his controversial career and how it relates to the dynamics of human behavior.
For the first time, Andy tells the TRUTH!!
3 Of varying video quality, here are three:
The throwaway detail about Snoop Dogg in a stage version of Ulysses is here:
4 From “Last Night on Late Night: The Real Reason David Letterman Banned Harmony Korine” by Caroline Shin:
Last night on The Late Show, James Franco was out touting Spring Breakers and the “revolutionary” work of its maker, Harmony Korine, whom David Letterman had banned in 1998, for reasons only speculated until yesterday. “I went upstairs [to the green room] to greet Meryl Streep,” recounted Letterman. “I looked around and found your friend, Harmony, going through her purse.”
There seem to be two critical perspectives on Spring Breakers. Is the veteran provocateur Harmony Korine’s most mainstream movie yet—the story of four college girls who go a little too wild on a party trip to Florida—a dead-on formalist send-up of our of culture’s sick obsession with guns, drugs, and the sexual exploitation of young women? Or is it a stultifyingly dull piece of exploitative garbage?
This false binary misapprehends the central Harmony Korine stratagem, which is to ensure that the viewer can have it both ways. The director of Gummo, Mister Lonely, Julien Donkey-Boy, and Trash Humpers creates objects that are somewhere between movies and performance-art projects. Often deliberately crude in their construction, Korine’s affectless spectacles comment on debauchery, alienation, and sexism by unironically, even lecherously, wallowing in them. You could attend a matinee screening of Spring Breakers with an eye toward either writing your master’s thesis or masturbating. I’m fairly sure there were attendees at the daytime showing I caught with both aims in mind. One guy actually brought a raincoat.
6 From “Girls Gone Stylized: Spring Breakers Is Gorgeous Hedonism” [archive link] by Rich Juzwiak:
Are these characters designed to titillate or satirize? Is Korine’s leering camera, which dips under the water while they relax in a parking-lot pool and lunges randomly at their asses as they stand lined up on a pavilion, being held by a creep who’s into young girls or a guy who’s out to parody the way spring break has been depicted on film for the past few decades? Certainly, his slow shots of beach—and pool—based hedonism (replete with beer bongs and Mardi Gras beads nestled between exposed, jiggling tits) envision what MTV Spring Break programming would look like if shot by someone who believed in art. Even when his girls look like shit, dirty and unkempt under fluorescent jail lights, they’re still achingly gorgeous, as young people are. It’s unreal and so real.
Korine has it both ways, but he’s uncommonly empathic with his characters. I was on edge the entire movie, waiting for something bad to happen to one of the four girls and not much does. One drunken partying scene feels like a setup for rape, but that goes unrealized. As the girls’ stay in St. Petersburg stretches on and their spiral widens, some need to check out and they do. Those who stay end up winning; they get exactly what they want.
7 Almost the exact point is made in a passage I came across by chance, in Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity & the Women Who Made America Modern, by Joshua Zeitz:
In this new era, the apostles of good living were no longer ministers and schoolmasters, but advertising executives and public relations professionals who saturated American newspapers, magazines, movie theaters, and radio stations with a new gospel of indulgence. As an adman coolly explained, “The happiness of the [consumer] should be the real topic of every advertisement.”
“Sell them their dreams,” urged an advertising professional. “Sell them what they longed for and hoped for and almost despaired of having. Sell them hats by splashing sunlight across them. Sell them dreams—dreams of country clubs and proms and visions of what might happen if only. After all, people don’t buy things to have them.… They buy hope—hope of what your merchandise might do for them.”
8 As an example, Scott Tobias makes reference to Breakers as both morality tale and soft-core exploitation in his review at the AV Club. We may also think of Scarface as another example of the double quality of morality tales, a tale that is actually treated by almost everyone as a happy fantasy through which they live vicariously.
The diabolical genius of Harmony Korine is that his films are so cloistered by self-consciousness and movie-movie artifice that all criticisms leveled against them are subject to the Pee-wee Herman Effect: “I meant to do that.” Think Gummo is an unseemly mix of poetry and exploitation? “I meant to do that.” Balk at Trash Humpers‘ total disregard for composition, depth, and meaningful connection between one scene and the next? “I meant to do that.” Find Korine’s new film, Spring Breakers, a vacuous, repetitive, hyperbolically stupid fusion of Girls Gone Wild, Scarface, and that lesson-filled after-school special where Helen Hunt snorts crank and jumps out a window? Of course! That’s what so great about it!
The overlap between exploitation and morality play is also made by John Podhoretz in his review, “Trip to Nowhere”, a rave where he declares the movie his favorite of the year:
The defenders of Spring Breakers say the movie has an incantatory quality to it, that its repetitions are purposeful because they highlight the banality of its characters. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, a decent prose stylist but easily the most ludicrous critic ever to write for a major newspaper, wrote with a straight face of Spring Breakers that Korine’s “transgressive laughter carries corrosive truth,” and that his movie is actually a study of “the pursuit of happiness taken to nihilistic extremes.” How utterly absurd. All exploitation movies, from Reefer Madness (1936) onward, purport to criticize the ways of life over which they are simultaneously salivating. A well-made exploitation movie succeeds in finding ways of working around this; a bad one makes you aware of its hypocrisy at every moment.
9 This strange lack of phones is noted in “The most ridiculous depictions of the Internet in movies and TV” by Daniel D’Addario:
“Spring Breakers” and “Frances Ha”
Aside from an early scene in which the Spring Breakers, still at school, sit on computers in a darkened lecture hall as a PowerPoint plays, there’s next-to-no internet use at all in either the millennials-gone-wild dark fantasy or the millennials-adrift saga. Do these films’ respective directors really think that a group of materialistic teens on a crime spree, or an aspiring dancer in New York with nothing but free time, wouldn’t be haunting Instagram? Then again, given how easy it is for one false note to stick out, maybe it’s for the best that these movies stayed offline.
11 From “What Did the Rapper Who Inspired James Franco’s Character in “Spring Breakers” Think of the Movie?” by David Drake, an interview with Dangeruss:
Do you feel like the film was trying to be authentic? Did it succeed?
I feel like it was trying to be authentic to an extent. It did touch that authentic feel. It still wasn’t like where-I-come-from authentic. The way he looked, the way he acted was a little different. But the way he was living was more authentic. It seemed like… where I come from, man-you see me in the movie, I wasn’t in there majorly, but when you seen us in the game room, shooting pool and all that, that’s me. That’s where I’m from.
The character Faith, played by Selena Gomez, freaks out when she’s in that pool hall. A friend said to me, “that’s racist,” because she freaks out in the pool hall, but not when she’s surrounded by white guys in jock straps drinking.
I don’t think it had anything to do with anything racial at all. If you put somebody in a house with a puppy, they’re going to feel comfortable because the puppy’s not a threat. You put them in the house with a fuckin’ tiger, they’ll be like, ‘Shit, I don’t wanna be here. The tiger might attack me.’ These motherfuckers is dangerous, you know what I’m saying? That’s how I look at it.
The area we was in was a threatening area. They touched on that and brought that to life. The hood is a scary place when you’re not from there. When you go to an area like that and there’s motherfuckers getting killed over $15, $20. Actually getting their life taken. It puts fear in people that’s not from there, that don’t understand it. As opposed to if you go to the suburbs, a motherfucker might give you $20. I like how they touched on that. It wasn’t no race thing with Selena, I think that’s how any white girl from a suburban area would be if they were thrown into a scenery like that in real life.
“When I first saw the pictures from my older brother’s spring break, and seen his videos, I went, ‘Damn, that’s sweet. I gotta go down there.’ And I get down there and that’s what it’s like: girls flashing you for beads or whatever. If a girl doesn’t like the taste of beer, they do a beer bong, and they drink the whole beer in two or three seconds. They know there’s not going to be any consequences, nobody’s going to find out about it. They’re more likely to cheat on their boyfriends, or just hook up with whoever. You don’t even see them the next day. It’s pretty much an understanding. Nobody’s down there for a relationship.”
From the Spring Broke section of Nathaniel Welch’s website:
13 Calum Marsh devotes a good deal of space to this scene in his analysis, “‘Spring Breakers’ is Not as Ironic as You Think”, though it’s an analysis that I disagree with. He makes one major mistake – Alien and the women are not raiding stash houses (places where you might store drugs, guns, or cash), they’re robbing college kids and other civilians.
14 From “What Did the Rapper Who Inspired James Franco’s Character in “Spring Breakers” Think of the Movie?” by David Drake, an interview with Dangeruss:
Was there a part you were most uncomfortable with? Other than him sucking on the silencer.
Yeah, he did that a little too well, on top of doing it at all. That’s my nigga though. But I would have left that out.
The part I liked the least was, by far, the ending. The ending, to me, was terrible. I don’t know if they were trying to make it kind of funny or what. But that was the most unrealistic ending I could ever have imagined to see. These fuckin’ two girls walk up with max ammo, like Call of Duty, like a never-ending clip, you know what I’m saying? They got like a thousand rounds and they’re just shooting motherfuckers. There’s niggas running up, 25 dudes with guns, but they don’t get shot once. They’re not even running or ducking; they’re just walking through, just shooting everybody like crazy. I didn’t like that part. It was very unrealistic.
They should have at least had one of them get shot in the hand or something. I mean, these guys are running up with guns, but they’re not pulling the trigger until the girl gets to them. They just walk in, shoot the guy. The other guy’s standing there with a gun, but it’s like he’s waiting there to get shot. I didn’t like that part. That part to me was very unrealistic.
Do you think he was trying to say something with that?
I don’t know what the fuck he was thinking. On top of that, c’mon, man, they’re riding up on a speedboat glowing in the dark. You don’t think these motherfuckers can hear the speedboat or see them coming? You know what I’m saying? Like, yeah, let’s go rob these motherfuckers in the brightest shit we can find. But it’s a movie, a movie is a perception of what your reality is. That’s what Harmony saw, that’s why it’s a movie. That shit would never happen in real life. Just the fact that they walked up killing everybody at the end, it was a little cheesy. That’s the only thing I didn’t like, that and him sucking on them guns. Other than that I thought it was a good movie.
Above all, Korine emphasizes the story’s racial aspect with a strange twist of visual invention that occurs at the story’s climax. When the two women-wearing bikinis and pink ski masks-arrive, armed and ready, with Alien for their raid on Archie’s compound, they cross a narrow bridge through a field of blacklight that turns their bathing suits fluorescent, makes their masks glow blue, and-most remarkably-greatly darkens their skin, in a cinematographic version of blackface, with light bulbs (or digital effects) taking the place of minstrels’ cork. Because the women are wearing masks, only their torsos and limbs are darkened-and I think that, if they hadn’t been wearing masks and if their faces had been darkened, the effect would have been far more apparent and widely debated. In the event, their masks don’t merely conceal their faces from their enemies or from the law-they hide the most drastic effects of the visual blackening to which Korine submits them. The director’s ultimate spring-break fantasy is a vision of murder camp-and of “black camp”-and he doesn’t make any effort to distinguish the two. The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.
From “In Spring Breakers, Black Lives Matter Less Than White Ones” by Harris:
So should we understand this aspect of the movie as a “hyper-poetic” version of “the real world”? What, if anything, is Korine trying to say by showing dangerous white girls as anomalies among their peers but natural allies to a black “gangsta” lifestyle?
My sense? Not much. Korine may intend the obviousness of the racial divide to be provocative, but he fails to comment in any interesting way on this so-called “hyper-reality,” instead merely reproducing a racist vision of the world in which black lives matter less than white ones. This is most egregious in the final scene, in which, as Richard Brody points out, Brit and Candy don quasi-blackface thanks to a blacklight. Korine shoots the scene as if it were a video game with zero consequence: As Brit and Candy dodge in slow motion around the compound of Alien’s nemesis Archie (played by rapper Gucci Mane), toting guns to seek revenge for an earlier incident, the black characters fall instantly and with little fanfare. The bikini-wearing duo emerges unscathed.
Yet the moment that inspires this retaliation is presented much more realistically. One night, Archie and a gun-wielding female companion pull up next to Alien and the girls at a stop light. After a brief threatening exchange with Alien, who is uncharacteristically scared-proving he’s still not as “hard” as his black former ally-Archie drives off as the woman shoots at their car and hits Cotty in the arm. If only for a moment, the violence is utterly palpable and unfiltered by fantastical camera tricks. Later we watch Alien remove the bullet from her arm as she cries.
In this way, Spring Breakers is a mirror image of Django Unchained, in which the deaths of white slave holders in the Old South are treated with frivolity, while the deaths of their slaves are brutal and difficult to watch. Of course, the whole point of that movie is that slave owners deserved to die. What is the point of Spring Breakers?
I’m still not sure.
17 From “Vanessa Hudgens on Spring Breakers, Shotgun Ballets, and Sharks” by Amanda Dobbins:
What would you say to critics who feel you’re being exploited by the movie?
It’s a movie. This is such a special film, and I know it’s a project I’m so proud of. And I think that’s what’s so special about this, is that it’s shaking people up. It’s forcing people to have an experience. It’s not something you can easily brush off. So whether they love it or they hate it, at least I got to make them feel something.
18 The phrase is not my own. From “Eulogy on a Flapper” by Zelda Fitzgerald (via Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity & the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz):
Older people, except a few geniuses, artistic and financial, simply throw up their hands, have a great many heart-rending sighs and moan to themselves something about what a hard thing life is — and then, of course, turn to their children and wonder why they don’t believe in Santa Claus and the kindness of their fellow men and the tale that they will be happy if they are good and obedient. And yet the strongest cry against Flapperdom is that it is making the youth of the country cynical. It is making them intelligent and teaching them to capitalized their natural resources and get their money’s worth. They are merely applying business methods to being young.
Spring Breakers is soft-core porn without a core, a look into the dark heart of shiftless American youth that primarily reveals its own dark heart; it is a portrait of white-trash racists that proves to be more racist than most white trash. Most interesting, perhaps, is how it has positioned itself in the motion-picture marketplace. Spring Breakers is a story of corruption whose marketing strategy depended on seducing squeaky-clean Disney Channel and ABC Family starlets (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson) with the promise of big-screen stardom into ludicrous amounts of wildly gratuitous nudity and on-screen drug use.
Rather than using their nubility as a lever to lift them into A-list pictures, as Anne Hathaway did when she went from the inanities of The Princess Diaries to a nude scene in the Oscar-bait Brokeback Mountain, the girls of Spring Breakers have earned themselves a ticket to midnight-movie notoriety-just as Elizabeth Berkley did when she segued from the brain-dead kid sitcom Saved by the Bell to the brain-melting fiasco called Showgirls. Elizabeth who? you ask. To which I reply: Exactly.
20 Another moment from the profile:
HE WAS GOOD AT IT. That’s what always seems to surprise and excite him, even now. He was a good pornographer. He was good at pornography the way he’s good at making music videos. You see, at first he didn’t know that it was his calling–“I just had to make a living! I just needed a job!” He had gone to Stanford; he had gone to film school. It was the mid-eighties, and he was doing some work on a documentary about the pornography business called Fallen Angels. He met a guy named Walter Gernert, a businessman, a guy who was making money off of porn. He started asking Gregory some questions. Like, Do you have a car? Like, Can you pay your rent? Like, Do you have milk in your refrigerator? He offered Gregory a deal: my money, your talent. … And so were born the Dark Brothers. Their first hit was called New Wave Hookers. It came out in 1985, and it was a big success, not only because it featured sixteen-year-old Traci Lords rutting like a hog–of course, um, back then no one knew she wasn’t legal–but also because Gregory Dark asked people to do things … curious things … and they did them. And do you know why? “Because I was good at it!” he says now. “I was good at getting people to behave like animals! I was good at tearing away all their socialization, everything their parents had taught them. It was weird. I never even had to raise my voice. I just appealed to their egos, to the sin of pride. People will do anything for the sin of pride, even become beasts! And that’s what I was good at getting on film–that moment when human beings become something else, other than human.”
He liked weird shit, no doubt. He was interested not only in turning people on but in making them feel uncomfortable about it, just as he was interested in indicting his performers for the act of performing, for the sin of pride. His oeuvre includes various installments in the New Wave Hookers series and the Devil in Miss Jones series and Sex Freaks and is, from top to bottom, absolutely freaking filthy, dedicated to the task of making human sexual congress look inherently unwholesome and unnatural. No sentimentality here, and certainly no story–just dwarfs and clowns and people sniffing each other like dogs and snorting like pigs and screwing in cages or on top of mounds of dead fish. Once he filmed a girl getting gang-banged, and when it was over–the second it was over, when she was still lathered in sweat and spunk, when she was still breathing heavily, with a dazed look in her eyes–he asked her, on camera, if her stepfather had sexually abused her. And he made her answer. Creepy? Sure. But his audiences knew they were seeing something; they knew that this was for real … and you know what? There were people who loved it! They lapped it up, especially the kids.
21 Andy Kaufman on Letterman September 22nd, 1983:
A brief discussion is given of the casting of this bit in Bill Zehme’s Lost in the Funhouse:
He reported that he had been doing some hitchhiking and also that he was in the process of adopting three underprivileged sons whom he invited out onstage and they were three fairly menacing-looking black fellows in their early twenties named George, Herb, and Tony-also-known-as-Tino. Tony explained how Andy came into their lives-“One night I was walking on Broadway, and I was desperate-didn’t have no money. And I see this guy walking down the street. And I said, Well, I’ve been out here all night, and this is the guy that I’m gonna mug.”
Andy beamed proudly and said, “It’s true!”
He had shared the premise with the Letterman producers a week earlier and then cased city parks near Upper West Side housing projects for days until he could find them. He was always meticulous in his planning for the Letterman appearances-since Late Night was the only forum he had left. Letterman himself could only marvel at Andy’s dedication to comic conceit – “He was the best for us. No one was as careful and thoughtful as was Andy about his appearances and performances. Each one was something that he had orchestrated, rehearsed, and figured out to achieve maximum impact. He would always tell us, almost beat for beat, what was going to happen. And whatever the impact, good or bad, he would just savor it. Nobody could blow the place apart like him.”
22 Andy Kaufman on Letterman, June 24th, 1980:
The spring-break setting is only a backdrop for a crime drama of shooting sprees and body counts-yet, in a way, that’s the point. “Spring Breakers” isn’t about spring break but about the reductio ad absurdum of spring break-a sort of week-long murder camp at the end of which, having snuffed out a sufficient number of lives (and if not snuffed out oneself), a student returns to college refreshed, reënergized, and reëducated or, rather (here’s Korine’s satirical point), finally educated in real competition and rendered all the readier for a career in business. Ultimately, the movie is a manual of competitive ruthlessness that offers the repeated banal definition of the drug dealer’s life as “the American dream.” (A definition given by the gangster himself, Alien-his real name, he says, is Al.) The movie suggests that its spring breakers-especially its two most audacious-are getting, guns ablaze, the education of their life, and that college itself is, rather, the permanent vacation where privileged young people stay clear of the raw realities of America.