This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Korine's masterpiece thus far - it's remarkable how much more this film opens up when removed from the cultural zeitgeist that in part inspired it. It's a film about America and American youth upon the dawn of the 2010's sure - but it's as much a film if not more so about American visual and cinematic aesthetics. If not the ending - with its hooded Whites massacring African-Americans - or the shifting colour schema using predominantly primary colours (akin to the tinting of 1910's silents) it should be obvious from the opening - a college lecture on the Reconstruction after the Civil War...which the whites could not care less about, if they are even listening: Spring Breakers is Harmony Korine's remake and revision of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
Actually, the film has almost nothing to say on the subject of race relations, but a considerable amount on the subject of racialized aesthetics. Within a minute we're alerted to both its manner of expression and representational schematic (this is also the film where Korine's love of the silent masters like Stroheim and Eisenstein is most apparent) - totality in sensory perception + ironic perspective on that totality at once. Perhaps it's something that is more apparent after having already seen the film, but these opening sections depict a remarkable understanding on Korine's part of linking hedonism and sensory perception as bilateral, and how this aesthetic principle functions at its most immediate (so at its **most** sensory) via mechanical representation of sexuality. But what makes Spring Breakers infinitely more complicated and complex upon study is that Korine does not insist on a moral position - merely an ironic one. Thus, we can actively get to more difficult and challenging questions: namely, that sensory perception is (though not always) generally speaking, quite pleasurable. What we see here then is a reduction of the rational human back down to animalism - though without even the aspect of procreation between sexes (which not even an animal can work around) - Korine perceives this period of American youth culture as one that seeks to exist within a liminal space of and only of hedonism itself. The American dream then, is to feel pleasure for eternity - the most repeated line in the film is "Spring Break forever." So if this is a film about "modern superficiality" as some critics have said, it is also a film about the superficiality of the sensory aesthetic, all the while reveling in it.
This only begins to describe Korine's magnificently constructed thematic structure, in that it only describes what is (in 2012/13) the immediate present. But it's mere minutes before history is introduced: the aforementioned lecture on the post-American Civil War reconstruction, completely ignored by the principal characters for dick drawings, but this aspect is sidelined (appearing only in subtleties) until Franco's character is introduced, where it takes centre stage. Korine chooses to primarily expand on the inquiry established by the films opening scene - though where this second aspect appears is key to reading the film: for example the girls rob unsuspecting citizens at a diner for money to go on Spring Break - one doesn't have to look too carefully to notice that these citizens are primarily black, and (as though expanding the examination and critique of TBOAN to a wider range) done as the girls espout African-American vernacular.
This resembles another rather strong American picture of recent years - the Safdie brothers Good Time, which similarly tries to chart the impact and functions of racialized aesthetics. But the Safdie's film (though rather admirable in its own right) charts this by applying a Farber-esque Termite art schema to the subjectivity of its principle character (in effect, the film is about the *white* gaze) functioning as immediate critique but nevertheless never quite leaving the established framework which it is critiquing itself. On the other hand, Spring Breakers aesthetically resembles a cross between late Terrence Malick and digital Michael Mann (this shouldn't be news to anyone by now, but Korine specifically did cite the latter's 2006 Miami Vice as a key influence), in effect working through the subtraction of Griffith with the addition of perhaps the two most idiosyncratic American film artists of his generation - this really is a film about America and its relationship to aesthetics! If the film is also a discourse on contemporary mixed media production (which, given Korine's production methods, is certiainly some aspect to a degree) it is perhaps because that aspect is already evident in the work of those other filmmakers. But it speaks to Korine's own understanding of the filmmaker's responsibility: in dismantling one language, he sees the necessity to build another. So if the language here dismantled is Griffith's, it is replaced by one that, while recognizing the sensory, spectacle of those filmic methods, incorporates layers of self-awareness and reflexivity into those methods as well. This only speaks more to the films remarkable sophistication: if it's Korine's most commercial work, it's because the nature of the subjects given make that commercialism a necessity.
As soon as Franco is introduced we should be privy to at least what's now completely obvious: how cultural appropriation plays into the revitalizing and restoration of white aesthetics and hierarchies. Franco's Alien doesn't appropriate early 2010's African-American hip-hop culture, but he appropriates the *image* of that culture - which is far more dangerous. The drug culture, the gun collections, the idealization of money all come without the socio-economic context, so when he chants "This is America!" this strikes us instinctively not as appropriation but direct statement - this IS America, indeed: right to arms and unrestrained capitalism, all by the sexually dominant white male.
The relationship between Selena Gomez's character and Christianity is interesting but perhaps not clearly developed (I suppose this is why we lose a half star) - after all America is a fundamentally Christian nation (perhaps it's my non-Americanness which prevents me from seeing fully here) but what is fascinating is Gomez's narration: "This is where we're supposed to find ourselves...where we're supposed to find who we are...." which read almost as though pulled from a Malick picture. There's a curious desire for spiritualism even outside of the Christian sphere - perhaps as a result of the Christian upbringing. Rationality is never posited as even a possibility - Gomez's aptly named character "Faith" goes from spiritual search outside of Christianity to back to Christianity again...Logic is never considered - mysticism is the only possibility. But how can one get to truth through mysticism?
Gucci Mane's introduction clarifies the thematics even more: a financially successful black man. Franco and Mane's rivarily is most telling: the latter tells the former that he taught Franco everything he knows - which he agrees with. But Franco - for no particular reason - states "sounds to me like someone is getting greedy." Franco finds himself...or rather, perceives himself, suddenly in the position of the "oppressed white male" - which, because of our own relationship to reality, we know is not true. Franco operates from the position of fear: the white males inevitable loss of social privilege and dominance in the span of the 21st century.
So - as with every social shift, there are inevitably reactionaries. Perhaps the most astonishing sequence in the film, where Franco performs Britney Spears' 'Everytime' before a montage of violence where the song itself plays - hones in on the films principle racial and aesthetic theories. It seems even clearer in 2018 - the image of whites dressed in masks dancing with guns is utterly terrifying - but lets also note where they are: situated on a beach overlooking a sunset: the typical Wagnerian German romantic. It almost looks like a white supremacist recruitment video. The intercutting that happens next makes the point even clearer, if not linking together all the films thematic trajectories at once - robberies of Latinos and blacks, while whites hug and dance with each other (and guns) at sunset. For Korine to include the simplicity of embrace within this intercutting is truly brave: the classic romance after all is for people to unite and cut themselves off from the world, right? Yet by definition that implies disconnect, and furthermore, it's a notion that renders equality ambiguous. And dragging pop music into this is even more striking - The Birth of a Nation in 2013, with Skrillex and Britney Spears instead of Wagner. What is it exactly that comes at the cost of instinctive beauty?
What remains striking now - even stripped from its initial cultural relevance, is that it remains a provocative and dangerous work even five years out: Korine depicts white women ostensibly wrestling back cultural capital from the socially ascended black male. Not only that - in Birth of a Nation, a racialized assault is motivated by the death of a white woman, here it is reversed: it is the white woman as racial crusader, motivated to assault by the death of the white male at the hands of the black male. One does not have to look far to see the relationship to that film which made cinema a popular art form - Franco, Hudgens and Benson riding a speedboat into the sunset before killing Gucci's gang mirrors the ride of the Klan in BOAN. And even the neon lighting schema should alert us - the girls masks are pink, but in the final sequence, the lights reflect off of them as though they are white masks instead.
The final monologue of Spring Breakers: "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 new friends we made. Friends from all over the place, everyone was so sweet here. So warm and friendly. I know we made friends that would last us a lifetime. We met people who were 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. It was so nice to get a break from reality for a little while...so amazing, magical, something so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect! Like it's never gonna end."
The final intertitles of The Birth of a Nation: "Dare we dream of a golden day where the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead - the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace. Liberty and Union, one and inseperable, now and forever!"