We live in a culture of surfaces: filtered Instagram selfies, photoshopped magazine covers, autotuned pop hits, elective plastic surgeries, countless screens of every shape and size mediating all aspects of our lives. We curate these lives, online and off, dictating their public contours and colors, surrounding ourselves always with beautiful tchotchkes, keeping up with the Kardashians as much as with the Joneses. Poses in lieu of people, we forever wade in the shallows—a superficial generation of summer bodies and beach bums as opposed to scuba divers and submariners. We recoil at the thought of the deep dive, for we seek pleasure rather than meaning, style instead of substance, ephemeral beauty over timeworn truth. “Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow, / He who would search for pearls must dive below.” Or so the story goes.
Yet that couplet about trifles and pearls is one that Edgar Allan Poe said had “done much mischief.” Poe argued the opposite tract: that we often err by seeking the greater truths “at the bottom” in the “huge abysses,” looking for these pearls in cavernous depths, when these greater truths can be more readily accessed “at the top” in the “palpable places.” True genius, for Poe, is the ability “to seize truth upon the surface of things.”
Enter idiosyncratic director Harmony Korine and his masterpiece Spring Breakers, which, upon its American release in early 2013, looked like an attempt to usher in some millennial resurgence of the ‘60s sexploitation flick or to project what seemed like a Skittles-soaked Girls Gone Wild video on the cineplex’s big screen. If surfaces reveal truth, as Poe promised, then indeed Spring Breakers should be in some way a neo-sexploitation film, a modern Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And it does fit into that metaphorical swimsuit, neon thong clenched tightly between tanned buttocks, but it is also so much more. If it’s Russ Meyer revisited, it’s Meyer by way of Terrence Malick. If it’s the ultimate Girls Gone Wild video, it’s Girls Gone Wild elevated to the level of tone poem. Yet the “more” in Spring Breakers is not buried beneath the surface, it is surface too—a “dance of surfaces,” as Korine called his film.
“I wanted to make a movie that was about a culture of surfaces,” Korine said at the time. His goal was to have whatever meanings, ideas, truths, critiques, pathologies, or questions that might be found in the film “come from the residue and the bleed of the surface.”
In this the Terrence Malick connection is key; it’s not hard to imagine Korine having plundered this concept from late-stage Malick (director of The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life and fellow purveyor of sleek surfaces). Malick, especially in The Tree of Life and beyond, makes metaphysical cinematic poetry focused intently on life’s sublime surfaces and the transcendent resonances that can be gleaned from them.
At the same time that Korine released Spring Breakers to American audiences in the spring of 2013, Malick released To the Wonder, which is arguably his most “Malickian” film to date (i.e. the one that, for better or worse, gives itself over completely to his eccentricities). To the Wonder is beauty captured in snapshots—pretty people, twirling skirts, blinding sunflares, and whispered revelations. What little plot exists therein is almost trivial; it’s the images that erupt with emotion, that evoke meaning.
Critics finally turned on Malick that spring, after 40 years of near-unanimous praise. It’s become cliché to call To the Wonder a feature-length perfume ad that advertises no actual perfume, but that’s still the best way to look at it, whether meant as criticism or as compliment. (I, for one, mean it more as the latter than the former.) To the Wonder may not be Malick’s best film—of course it isn’t, can’t be—but it is the one that best achieves its intended aims. The film perfectly distills the feeling (the fragrance?) of our wonderment at being in the world, those rich moments where surface and subterrane seem indistinguishable, where matter and meaning merge, become inseparable, are lost and found, found and lost.
Spring Breakers, then, is To the Wonder’s shadow, its doppelganger, its evil twin, and, perhaps, its better half. It’s Malick through the looking glass. If what Malick does in To the Wonder can be maligned (fairly or unfairly) as twee navel-gazing, then what Korine does in Spring Breakers is borrow Malick’s cinematic language, drain it of its supposed sentimentality, and train his eye on something other than the navel—something a bit lower, or a bit higher, or round the other side.
As the film opens, we find revellers on a beach, bare-chested, frolicking on the sand. Boys pour drinks over proffered jiggling breasts. Girls fellate red, white, and blue popsicles. They all seem to be flipping the bird. One of these figures mouths the words “spring break.” No one here is a character. Together they comprise a texture, a surface, a setting—an America, the America, where anything goes, where all dreams are possible (and all nightmares too). Cut to black. The ominous sound of a gun cocking and firing.
Elsewhere, on some college campus, four undergrads dream of such spring break revelry. Each is what might be called “not a girl, not yet a woman,” in the words of Britney Spears (whom we later hear a character in the film describe as “an angel if there ever was one on this earth”). While a professor lectures about the “Double V Campaign,” which attempted to promote “victory at home and victory abroad,” the idea of defeating Adolf Hitler and the racism of the Nazis and at the same time defeating Jim Crow and the racism in our own country, two of these girls write notes to one another. Brit (Ashley Benson) draws a heart and writes “I want penis” in its center. Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) responds by sketching a penis with the words “Spring Break Bitch” written on its shaft. She then holds the paper up and simulates oral sex. They haven’t heard a word their professor’s been saying about Civil Rights or the second World War. Meanwhile, Faith (Selena Gomez) attends a Bible study where she is warned that Brit and Candy have “demon blood.”
When Brit, Candy, Faith, and Cotty (director Harmony Korine’s wife Rachel) meet up and pool their money together, they discover they’ve come up short. The girls (sans goody-two-shoes Faith) execute a plan to rob the local chicken shack in ski masks. “I know you did a really bad thing,” Faith later says to her friends, “but I’m really glad you did it.”
They get to live out their spring break fantasy, for a while anyway, before they end up in jail. There they meet a white rapper named Alien (James Franco) who posts their bail and becomes the white rabbit these girls follow down the proverbial rabbithole. Faith doesn’t last long. Scared of this Riff-Raff-inspired gangster and the mostly black men who surround them at a party, she soon leaves: “This is not what we came here for,” she tearfully tells the other girls. But the remaining three become part of Alien’s criminal enterprise, committing several armed robberies and, ultimately, some gangland murders.
Most critics couldn’t make heads or tails of Spring Breakers at the time of its release. Some saw it as a frivolous festival of the flesh, glamorizing the beachside debauchery and urban criminality it depicts; others found a scathing social critique taking aim at capitalist excess, millennial superficiality, white privilege, and cultural appropriation.
“Are you being serious?” Faith asks Alien soon after they first meet, and the question could just as easily be posed to the film’s director with regards to this whole production. I suspect Korine would answer in much the same way Alien does: “What do you think?” For Korine isn’t interested in dictating a single interpretation; he’s neither the acid-tongued moral-mad satirist nor the imprudent promoter of hedonism. These roles are too restrictive and too easy when taken on independently. They both—each in their own way—weigh the surface down, tethering the film’s ambivalent and ambiguous texture to didactic readings of a culture that resists instruction, understanding, meaning.
In an interview Korine called the movie a “cultural mash-up,” and that’s exactly right. This tale of American culture and capital is everything at once: a scathing satire, a dark teen exposé, an after school special, a Girls Gone Wild exhibitionist video, a Malickian poem of surfaces, an extended cut of a hiphop music video, a modern Russ Meyer schlockfest, a manic and maniacal live-action Looney Tunes animation, a repetitive EDM banger, a video game, a horror flick, a silly comedy, a crime drama, a beach noir, a fever dream, a sexual release, a religious ecstasy, a montage of moments.
If Malick’s quests are always aimed “to the wonder,” then Korine’s quest in Spring Breakers is aimed “to the plunder.” A cultural omnivore, he ransacks everything, paying no mind to distinctions between high and low culture, stealing from the dominant culture as well as from various subcultures.
Spring Breakers doesn’t dodge issues of race and class and sex. These are foregrounded in the film—ever-present, floating on the surface—but it’s a film about cultural appropriation and societal chaos that offers no easy explanations, no profound moralizing, no woke indignation. The more you dig for answers, the more you miss the point. All culture is appropriation, is mash-up, is muddle, is collection, is sincere, is satirical, is surface, is surface, is surface.
“Look at my shit!” Alien declares in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. The character defines himself by his material accumulation, a “gangster mystic” version of Jay Gatsby throwing his shirts around to impress a pair of delinquent Daisy Buchanans. He measures out his life with an off-the-cuff inventory of his possessions, a sort of stream-of-consciousness spreadsheet of the various things he’s amassed: his designer T-shirts, his shorts in every color, his Scarface DVD, his two different Calvin Klein colognes, his blue Kool-Aid, his nunchucks, his shurikens, his machine guns, his gold bullets, his dark tanning oil. It’s all superficial stuff. Infinite regress. Surface all the way down.
He warns the girls at one point, “Y’all be careful with that water. Lots of sharks out there. The water looks real pretty, but the sharks are waiting. Bunch of vicious motherfuckers, just lurking.” The irony is that the sharks below aren’t the danger; the danger is right there on the surface. It’s Alien. It’s these girls. It’s this culture. It’s this world. It’s the world.
What these girls want is to cling to something, to have “this moment together forever,” as Faith says while they hang out in a motel pool. We hear Nicki Minaj sing through car speakers, “I wish that I could have this moment for life, for life, for life,” as the girls rob the chicken shack. They wish for the same. But surfaces always move, ripples on the water. Grasp at a wave and the liquid falls through your fingers. Any attempt to hold on to a feeling, an image, a moment ends in inevitable failure.
When I think of that Spring Breakers pool scene in which Faith adorably wants to “freeze life,” I envision the camera attempting to capture this moment on film, bobbing on the surface of the pool, lurking, just above, just below, and it evokes a different pool scene from a Malick film released a few years later, Knight of Cups. In that scene, a dog jumps into a pool and tries but continually fails to grab a tennis ball floating in the water.
Even though—or precisely because—the camera is underwater, from what could be called a shark’s-eye view, we needn’t dive deep to understand that image. Everything is on or near the surface. The truth we seek bobs alongside us, an easily graspable tennis ball, yet one always curiously out of reach, jostled by the currents created by the movement of our searching, our seeking, our spring-breaking.