“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends” - Joseph Campbell
“Just pretend it's a video game. Like you're in a fucking movie.” - Brit (Ashley Benson) in Spring Breakers
I think that the American mythologist Joseph Campbell would have loved Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers a lot.
This has been said many times before, but it bears repeating: Whatever you bring to a film has a direct correlation to whatever you take away from it. That isn’t as simple as it sounds. Contemporary mainstream commercial filmmaking is machine-tooled and polished to conspire against that. “Product” is burnished to an inoffensive sheen, with all subtlety and ambiguity sanded off to ensure that the widest possible audience can gasp at the same stunts, laugh at the same jokes, jump at the same scares. Everyone is supposed to feel the same thing at the same time for the same reasons. Its all urtext, no subtext, with a production entity as the primary authorial voice, and writers and directors drafted in and discarded as little more than skilled technicians.
None of that applies to Spring Breakers. For every viewer, there’s a different response and opinion. Lots of people like it, but they rarely like it for the same reasons. And lots of people hate it but, again, for a plethora of different reasons. From browsing various appraisals of the film, people are obviously seeing very different things. Like I said, whatever you bring to a film has a direct correlation to whatever you take away from it.
“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is Whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” - Joseph Campbell
“I think that's the secret to life - being a good person.” - Brit (Ashley Benson) in Spring Breakers
“Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.” - Joseph Campbell
I love Spring Breakers for a lot of reasons. Because it’s Miami Vice and Cape Fear and The Wizard of Oz. Because in the same way that Korine's previous feature Trash Humpers was a woozy, discomfiting nightmare, Spring Breakers is an intoxicating, mesmerising dream. Because it also reflects and refracts ideas that Korine seeded in the film before that - Mister Lonely. Like that film’s celebrity impersonators, our four heroines in Spring Breakers are looking for a place where they can all belong. Where they can try on another skin to see if it fits. To see if it makes them more comfortable. To see if it makes them happy or free. And at the same time, the girls are also like Mister Lonely’s skydiving nuns, jumping out of planes and holding on to the belief that if you are true of heart, God will protect you. A leap of Faith.
“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” - Joseph Campbell
“Faith, we're not going to let anything happen to you.” - Brit (Ashley Benson) in Spring Breakers
“The adventure of the hero is the adventure of being alive” - Joseph Campbell
“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. Same depressing streetlights. One gas station. The grass, it’s not even green. It’s brown. Everything’s the same and everyone’s just sad.” - Brit (Ashley Benson) in Spring Breakers
And so our four heroines follow their bliss and go on a trip to an Alien land, where they encounter James Franco playing the Wizard of Oz for the second time this year. A huckster, a coward, a blowhard, a show-off. Great and Powerful. A bullshit artist not entirely devoid of resources and tricks.
“This is the fuckin' American dream. This is my fuckin' dream, y'all!” - Alien (James Franco) in Spring Breakers
“Aren't you the great man we've been waiting for?” - Theodora (Mila Kunis) in Oz the Great and Powerful
Instead of being greeted by the welcoming songs of the Munchkins at the beginning of the Yellow Brick Road, the girls arriving in this colourful land are met by a wall of pounding electronic beats and the call-and-response rapping of Franco’s Alien. To begin with, the trip is a good trip. Hallucinatory, intense, stimulating, exciting. And decadent, phantasmagorical and overpowering. Hypnotically repetitive. But they aren't quite entirely subsumed by the dream. We can still see traces of the young girls who do handstands in dorm corridors and convenience store parking lots, belting out Britney Spears songs.
“I'm starting to think this is the most spiritual place I've ever been.” - Faith (Selena Gomez) in Spring Breakers
“I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” - Joseph Campbell
It doesn't take long before it becomes a bad trip. A psychedelic crisis. As the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof concluded during his investigations into altered states of consciousness, bad trips can be “exacerbated by the inexperience or irresponsibility of the user or the lack of proper preparation and environment for the trip, and are reflective of unresolved psychological tensions triggered during the course of the experience.” Just as Dorothy eventually sees the man behind the curtain, the girls soon realise how much of Alien’s swagger is just bluster and bravado.
“I'm Alien. My real name is Al, but truth be told, I'm not from this planet.” - Alien (James Franco) in Spring Breakers
“I might not actually be a wizard...” Oz (James Franco)
“Yes, but they don't know that.” Glinda (Michelle Williams) in Oz the Great and Powerful
The dream starts to sour for the girls after a night in a police lock-up, followed by a scene far more disturbing than the sight of Robert De Niro’s Max Cady forcing his finger into Juliette Lewis’s mouth in Scorsese’s Cape Fear. (A connection I made watching the movie before I noticed that Korine himself had copped to the deliberate comparison in this interview.)
Here, Alien’s rough, dark, sun-coarsened hands seem monstrous, huge and threatening as they stroke Faith’s unspoiled alabaster skin. With every caress, he seeks to cajole and soothe her, but every stroke just frightens her more and pushes her further out of the dream, until the jig is up and the Wizard’s spell is broken.
“Please come home with me.” - Faith (Selena Gomez) in Spring Breakers
“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home...” - Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz
“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” - Joseph Campbell
It’ll take more than unwelcome pawing from a predatory male to snap the other three girls out of their reverie. But, sure enough, one by one, the girls will awaken from the day-glo dream to dull hangovers and smudged sunrises.
“It's a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts.” - Joseph Campbell
“People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about.” - Joseph Campbell