Spring Breakers: Representational Images and Faith

After Noah Adrien Lyons posed me a question about Spring Breakers, I like to think he read my response with his mouth agape at my impertinence. This is one of his favourite films of 2013, after all. So the lovable rogue has written quite the rebuttal, and it's awesome. I present it here and I for one strongly look forward to reading more of his writing on these here pages. Do enjoy! I sure did.
I must disagree with the sagacious Scout regarding Spring Breakers. Not only is it one of the best films of the year, it is a textbook case study for film marketing (the actual business), social expectations of young female actresses, and the simulacra of youthful bacchanalia that began with MTV in the 90s and continues today as a hybrid of fantasy and reality (e.g. hip hop music’s fetishization of gangsta life, leaving us not really knowing whether the guns and girls are lyrical dreams or representations of actual street life). I am not arguing that music and visual mediums have sold themselves to the devil through encouraging Columbine or Newtown massacres – we all know that art does not “inspire” bad actions. However, the dreams of college freshmen about objectifying and/or raping girls have fused themselves with tabloid celebrity culture so that there really is no way to tell if these excesses are recreated or original images. More importantly, we must ask what is our object of desire – the representational image of body and corporeal YOLO excess, or the fantasized image. Is there a difference between the two modes of cinematic concern? W.T.J. Mitchell and other literary theorists argue that we can never truthfully reflect the reality of an image, because the very nature of representation hinges on distortion and perspective. While this may seem obvious to some of us, I offer up ekphrasis as a starting point for Korine’s crafty deconstruction. Traditionally, ekphrasis is defined as the “verbal representation of a visual representation”. Example: a verbal poem that tries to represent and expand upon, through poetic device and invention, an actual painting in the world. The goal is to bring the visual image to the reader’s mental eye (enargeia). I posit that ekphrastic theory needs to be extended to include films, such as any Peter Greenaway work, because our understanding of the film is altered by its presentation or enactment of actual paintings; conversely, our understanding of certain paintings become distorted by a film’s appropriation or commentary upon such. We should define film ekphrasis as the “visual representation of a visual representation”. In conclusion, we have a triadic – often paragonal – relationship between reality, the original image, and the cinematic image; the triangulation is negotiated by the director/camera and our choice of which layer to invest our faith into. Perhaps it dwindles into a fractal with no hope for catharsis or destruction; or maybe we can discover a liminal space between all these contesting ontologies, where meaning and faith (in Self, God, our agency to determine our own spatial location) crystallize and triumph over the trite conclusions reached by most critics, scholars, and general audiences –  that there is never anything but illusion, that our lives are dictated by dreams of running away from home, dreams of peeping at Isabella Rosselinis from closets, and safely man-handling the tabloids and scandals of celebrities, those rags which like the best magicians of alienation (Godard, Antonioni, Coppola, early Haneke) claim to penetrate the core of reality through distance and framing, when actually the tabloids are more fantastical than fiction novels, and the characters in a Haneke film more monstrous than the people he purports to be revealing through that cold, steely, unwavering gaze!!!

Spring Breakers is challenging the assumption that most of us, you the reader included, make all the time when we consider a movie. The question here is not whether Korine penetrates the dark recesses of youthful debauchery and nihilism for our edification. The question is not about morality, the ethics of spring break orgies or gangsta life, or the tragedy of how MTV and reality television both distorts reality and creates new fantasies that are gobbled up by the kids without them even knowing – or caring – if it's real or not. To criticize Korine for failing to deliver a morality tale is erroneous. To claim that Korine loses his focus and hold on the narrative, and resorts to repetition and a loop of convenient and cheap cop-out shots of breasts, partying, guns, and pseudo-racial commentary is also off the mark. Before I defend my refutation of Scout’s analysis, I’d like to turn to the afore-mentioned facets that give the film significance beyond our discussion of aesthetics and technique. 

Mismarketing. Unless one took notice of Korine’s name in the trailer, which I and many others appear to have not, nobody went to see the film. As I look at the DVD in front of me, the cover resembles a teenage sex comedy that’s both edgy and goofy. The back is a pornographic tableau of the four girls showing their bods; behind them, James Franco displays his sex quartet to us like a pimp. The brightly colored quips inform me that, yes, it is “wickedly funny” and “electrifying”, - you won't believe what crazy situations these bad girls will get themselves into!!! No respectable film scholar/buff would see this unless they felt like jerking off like a 13 year old. On the flip side, the marketing targets the older teen and young college crowd that like their movies and music fast and furious, with some tits and guns thrown in for good measure. The irony being of course that this target audience is also the abusers, victims, and mass of deformed bodies which Korine is quick to ridicule – or is he? Regardless, the frat kid will walk out in ten minutes even if Skrillex and raunchy trap music pulsates to the rhythm of bouncing naked breasts. The significance in all of this is not just to bemoan Lionsgate’s gross mishandling of the film’s release – these elements support my claim that a bizarre ekphrasis is occurring. Our expectation of the image and Korine’s deliverance of the image conflates and we are left confused and disturbed by how we are supposed to invest faith in the film’s credibility, and how we are supposed to react to Korine’s almost giddy montages of candy-colored titillation that deliver no actual sex and no actual gore. “Maybe those pink masks represent the obscuration of the authentic American self? Maybe the warfare between the white pseudo-gangsta and the black hardcore gangstas is a comment on how white America fetishizes black culture and is racist by consuming black music? Maybe it’s all a sick joke! Aha! You got me, Mr. Korine!!!”

Actually, there is no joke; Mr. Korine is not performing a magic trick. When we maintain our ekphrastic analysis and consideration of various image-relationships, it becomes clear that Spring Breakers is above all a horror film. (Like Gummo before it). Perhaps Spring Breakers’s only surefire way into the public eye was the casting of Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. Pushing once-innocent young girls into dark and/or sexual pictures is no novelty – I will refrain from a Disney sex work metaphor – but it usually works, or at least gets the attention of tabloids, worried mothers whose daughters idolize these older teenagers, and especially the ephebophiliac Humbert Humberts who can now safely fantasize over these young women – their not-so-subtle perversion approved with a stamp of approval by the entertainment industry! What makes Spring Breakers so spectacular in this regard is its critique of this very process – both in the film industry and in the transformation of the four “dreamers”. Korine effectively frames this ephebophiliac trend in American entertainment as a grotesque horror show. The girls’ desire to “grow up” is actualized through drugs, booze, and plastic guns. We are watching the creation, or revelation, of monsters. The increased level of rage/pleasure/rapture in the girls is not a caricature or a parody; it is the Miley Cyrus-wrecking ball destroying everything in its path. Excessive, hyperbolic, exaggerated? The ekphrastic image certainly is, but what is so horrifying is that we convince ourselves that the representation has no relation to the images we think should be there. Korine is not engaging in exploitation; he is exposing the perverse inevitability of our perception of young actresses while also confirming that despite the excess of his mise-en-scenes and the fact that the girls’ guns are fake, it is all very real and very American. Reality is the image and the film is the image undergoing representational violation. Does this turn you on, boys? No? Oh yes, because it is not a fantasy. It is the ekphrastic image of your fantasy. 

Let us affirm, then, that we have a visual representation of a visual representation – the cinematic representation is of the representation of spring break, sex, drugs, et al that we see on television and other fantastical renderings of the spring break experience. Keeping the above affirmations in consideration, I will directly respond to Scout’s own criticism. I do not think Korine perceives his critique of “youth culture” and materialism as a unique or rare point of view. Rather, he is responding to the standard methodology employed to moralize the decline of youth. As noted, he focuses on several forms of image and their particular effects on how we see fantasy image, representational image, and the original image believed to underlie the whole schema. This hybridity frees the film from accusations of exploitation, fetishization, and didacticism. 

As to the robbery scene: Korine definitely has good reason to repeat the sequence. The first exterior perspective’s circular motion is both reflective of the film’s overall circularity of socio-location. Spring break by nature is not a permanent state of being but an incision in the rhythm of normal life. The girls who choose to remain reject temporality and reason, their old images as well as the new images they briefly wore as masks. The point of view is a standard but successful tool to create distance between us and the action so that the robbery is mystified; the alienation makes it seem that the action and the girls are more plausible while at the same time we feel we cannot access their thoughts. So far, so good: the “problematic” repetition of the scene later on, now from the interior with sound and extreme close-ups. Scout, you argue that this detracts from the first sequence’s power. However, I would say that he is not showing off, but deliberately violating the usual employment of alienation and distant framing that, as I said earlier, is used often to, ironically, create more of a sense of connection and validity to the action. I also noted that we may be mistaken in thinking this: Korine is suggesting that such alienating / silent POV can have the opposite effect through deceiving us with a guise of realism and the unbiased cold gaze. Throwing us into the diner negates the reality of the first sequence; we are not dealing with objective reality here, but a hybrid of representational images. The second sequence highlights the inherent dream-like representational fantasy of the girls, and questions whether alienation and structurally sound framing can actually get to the core of the image in question. Finally, it punctuates the scary potential of rage and insanity in these girls, which grows and grows to the very end. If it had remained the “breathless” exterior take, the girls would appear cartoonish, unrefined, and not compatible with the very image the film is juxtaposing to a traditional realism.

Images seem to be the forefront of this discussion, and Korine definitely cares about their composition. The shot in the rain, as Scout noted – the quartet under the setting sun – the sickly light illuminating the girls on the floor of a bathroom – the ballet dance of headstands and writhing hips in the dorm hallway – and of course the magnificent moment when Alien plays Britney Spears on the piano as the three remaining girls dance a circular invocation of some pop spirit, forming a ring with their guns and wearing masks of ritual and anonymity. You say many shots seem to have no practical purpose or ill-designed: watch any old tape of an MTV spring break party, or a hip-hop video, or tap into the dreaming brain of a co-ed who can only form images derived from other artificial images. This is the representation of those representations: if the opening beach party scene was shot any other way, it would devolve into a stylized masquerade of a beach orgy. Not only does the camera have no right to control these rabid out-of-control images (which do not actually exist); this is the scene which announces that all subsequent representations of these grotesqueries require non-structuralism to emphasize their position in the triangularity as the original image (i.e. the type we witness on MTV or during a teen-comedy frat party scene). The refusal to more formally orchestrate these scenes also underscores the ugly brutality and misogyny- two qualities we so clearly see in the twisted tongues and flopping breasts. I believe Korine wants these moments to lack aesthetic coherence (even negative aesthetic coherence) so that our understanding of which images are the right ones becomes confused (what I think it should be? What Korine does? What the revelers do? What the girls do?) Thus established, the beautiful shots and sublime tableaux that you and I have acknowledged would actually lose their power! I think he can have it both ways, because it is precisely the unbalance between the different forms of images that dictates how they interact with each other. If every scene was like the piano witch dance, the film would be so unified that the whole point of the disunity, in the various images we conjure around such subject matter, would be futile. The film would be a morality tale, or worse yet, its structural integrity would undermine the thesis that these images are unstable, explosive, and unfixable to any moral standpoint.

Moral hand-wringing? I disagree Scout. Of course we see breasts, and of course some of the girls go home. This is no contradiction or a lack of faith in his own ability to choose one moral view over another. As I’ve said, this is not a morality tale, for which I’m grateful. It is a film about the paragonal battle between different kinds of images, what occurs when the simulacra of layers over layers of images begins to implode (or explode) depending on what we decide to latch onto. You share a lot of other critics’ sentiments, that Korine cops out on his own narrative because he decided to teach us (x) lesson or reprimand us for not doing (y). Rather, Korine, like many great directors, is offering a subjectivity – not a moral subjectivity (i.e. all is relative) but a subjectivity to which doorway, which image, we decide to make our entry point and/or exit to the film. Time in the film seems to float, a record spun by a DJ who has no problem with repeating the same songs over and over again. The girls dance and sing as though they are performing rituals, the penultimate invocation being the circle of guns around the piano. As noted above, the film can seem confounding because it won’t make up its mind - is it using extreme excessiveness to make a point about the decline of our society? As with A Serbian Film, does commenting upon excessiveness or exploitation become the very evil it is trying to decry? (Like the ironic mismarketing?) Is it actually a morality tale hiding behind a pink mask soaked with booze and ironic gratuity? Does the fact that he does not go “all the way” in exploring the implications of (x) render it all pointless? Conversely, is it a political commentary on gangster life and racial tensions, augmented by cultural appropriation and gentrification; or even worse, could we read the ending as the little white girls killing the big bad black guys who hurt their daddy and shattered their vision of the American Dream? 

Korine’s job is not to teach us a lesson, but to provide portals – images – to enter his film. Spring Breakers is a horror film – usually when one labels something horror, it is because the work unveils or unearths something ungodly and feared, some entity or trend that we should have seen coming. But by horror, I am talking about the terrible feeling of vertigo that arises when our semiotic structures collapse. It’s worse enough when our comprehension of reality is challenged; but what when our comprehension of the representation of that reality starts to be challenged by the representation of that representation? This is not to say that one is more “real” than the other. With this film, Korine sneakily makes a hybrid not of genre but of cinematic representation that goes haywire inside of its own body. This ekphrasis begs the question: should we try to represent the fantasy if the fantasy represents the reality? Or should we begin with the reality? Should we really keep the camera outside the diner?

Some final points: Spring Breakers also achieves this triangulation through a bizarre meta-working of the aforementioned mismarketing and the casting/perception of post-pubescent actresses. The first obviously cannot be intentionally attributed to Korine; the second, perhaps. But if we include these schemas in our reading of the film, we open up interesting questions about how exterior forces can shape the interior of a film....how the representations of images that surround us are shaped and violated by a film’s representation of those others? A question often asked by scholars in art history: should I include an image of the painting in my book/paper, or describe it? Likewise, should a film attempt to truly include the image it wants to invoke, or should it re-create it a new way? The first girl to flee from the horrorshow of spring break is named Faith. She is the only one to actually have faith that something good will come out of their adventure; she is also the one to lose faith the quickest in the excesses of the body and the trust in others. She wants to change desperately, but nobody changes. She remains tied to her religion, which gives her faith in the representation of the image of god; the remaining two girls don’t turn into criminals, it was latent in their very nature. They have faith in the representation of the representation of their fantasy of spring break/freedom. We as an audience need not have faith in the reality of a film – did the general public not flee before the Lumière brothers oncoming train over a century ago? We need to have faith not in reality, but in the truth of the representation in its hybridity with all of the other images; the truth that it can never be more than an image. To have such faith is to know that while sometimes the fantasies of self-agency/liberation/self-determination sought out by the four girls can manifest as one truth, the ultimate truth is revealed to be just another image. But if the image is terror and death, our faith provides us with the “reels” (pun intended) to form a new image of cinematic fantasy. 

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