Spring Breakers, Late Capitalism and Nihilism

My friend Marta just posted an analysis of Spring Breakers which we saw together a few months ago. I wanted to write something about this but found myself struggling to articulate anything despite being captivated by the film. I really like this section of the article in particular:

“Look at all my shit. I’ve got shorts, every fucking color. I’ve got designer t-shirts. I’ve got gold bullets for motherfucking vampires. Scarface on repeat. Constant, y’all. Got Escape, Calvin Klein Escape, mix that shit up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice, I smell nice. This ain’t a bed, this is a motherfucking art piece. My motherfucking spaceship. USS Enterprise, I go to different planets on this motherfucker. Me and my fucking Frankins’ here we take off! Look at my shit.”

If Alien is Spring Breakers’ image of the self-made man then it is not difficult to see why critics would see Korine’s representation of the American Dream as ironic. Franco’s characterization is nothing short of bizarre. With his cornrows, his gold capped teeth and a dollar sign tattooed on his neck (and many more seemingly incoherent designs decorating his chest and arms), he is much closer to Franco’s usual bumbling con-man persona (see this year’s Oz, the Great and Powerful, for instance) than the gangster image he is trying to convey. Yet there is an honesty and tenderness to Franco’s performance which counterbalances the parodic elements of his characterisation. Alien is something of a holy fool: a self professed “gangster with a heart of gold,” he takes real, innocent pleasure from having things. As he shows off his possessions he is like a child in a toy shop, gleeful and overexcited. He is equally pleased by his dark tanning oil as he is by machine guns, but above all he is delighted at being able to show it all off to the girls whom he adores.

If Alien is living the American Dream then that dream is composed of both stuff and stories about stuff. Possessing is only half of the success; the other half is flaunting those possessions. As Alien enumerates all he can think of, Candy and Brit sit on the bed covered with money squealing with glee. Although they are not particularly active or verbal in the scene their presence is key: they are the audience that Alien needs in order to live out his dream. As his monologue comes to a close, he pauses and asks with a hint of uncertainty, “You like my shit?” and then repeats with conviction, “You fucking love it, don’t you.” His treatment of the girls as an audience is similar to the way in which Faith casts her friends in her fantasy of “the time of their lives.” In her monologues she never refers solely to her own experience but speaks for all the girls. During the pool scene, Faith muses on the possibility of endless togetherness: “I wish we’d be able to buy a house here together… We could freeze life… Freeze it and say: this is how it’s gonna be forever.” Even though, from the very start, the girls are shown to be seeking quite different “thrills,” Faith refuses to recognize the very real differences between her friends’ desires.


What fascinated me about the film was its portrayal of the culturally inscribed hedonism of ‘spring break’ as a social institution. This demarcated time for celebration and ‘going wild’ affects a carnivalesque stance when in reality it seems little more than a reductio ad absurdum of expressive individualism – an institution grounded in a promise of personal meaningfulness, ‘finding yourself’ amidst hedonism, in fact stands as a culmination of the meaninglessness incipient in the circumscribed pleasures late capitalism allows. The private catharsis of drinks, drugs and sex is made public during ‘spring break’ and the film portrays the nihilistic collapse into a perpetual present which ensues when these are pursued as ends in themselves. The subjective well-being which late capitalism presents as happiness – attained through having shit, being able to flaunt it and narcotising the interaction to a sufficient degree to avoid confrontation with its hollow core – cannot actually sustain the experienced meaningfulness of one’s existence when it is lived rather than simply believed. What makes Alien such an astonishing character is the sense in which he does live this but only through a continual reaffirmation of the underlying logic: the film gets weirder and weirder as Candy and Brit join him on his collapse into the perpetual present. He moves ever more wholeheartedly into the reality of his own life but this in turn renders his existence ever more dreamlike, vacillating between outright fantasy and childlike indulgence of whim. In short I read the film as a parable about hedonism in late capitalism. I might watch it again and try to write something a little more extended about it. With the potential exception of Place Beyond the Pines this was certainly my favourite film of 2013.

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