Month: March 2013
Some Notes on Spring Breakers (Round 2), Gummo, and Kids
Lately, after being so high on Korine’s latest film, I’ve had the chance to look at some of his filmography, and rewatch Spring Breakers. So, here are some notes on my experiences and my thoughts on the films.
- The second time around, Spring Breakers was just as good, just as hallucinatory, and just as fascinating.
- There were seven walkouts in total.
- Tragically, four of them occurred during the “Everytime” montage.
- I am rather happy and proud of myself in how perceptive I was the first time around. Most of my notes were just reiteration of what I’d already articulated earlier in my review. But I still caught some things.
- There is, throughout the film, a persistent motif of water. Rain when the chicken joint is about to be robbed; pools; sharks in the water; etc.
- There seems to be a lot of comment on the relationship between masculinity and guns. In a Freudian way, the girls’ use of guns as a way to gain power is also treated as a sexualization of guns as a phallic object: witness Hudgens in the beginning squirting water into her mouth and later when Hudgens and Benson have Franco fellate a gun silencer.
- This sequence in particular is fascinating and, as I said in my review, comparable to Killer Joe: with Joe, there is a pretty conventional D/S Male/female role being portrayed. That role is subverted in Spring Breakers, with the girls’ controlling the power. After his initial fear, Franco buys into that concept, which is all the more empowering and frightening.
- I mentioned that the film plays more like an album than a song, and this is evident in the Malickian manipulation of time through images. The images function as certain chord progressions that repeat themselves throughout the film.
- The use of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” is telling and, essentially, could be an essay by itself.
- Martinez smartly changes the style of music depending on the locale and environment. Dubstep fills most of the spring break scenes, but it changes to electronic hip hop around Gucci Mane.
- The gun cock noise is disturbing.
- Picture taking and the desire to snapshot a moment in time forever is resonant with youth.
- The lecture that the girls are clearly not paying attention to in the beginning of the film hints at the film’s look at racism.
- Communal circles also appear as a motif.
- The baby dolls in the dilapidated house party recall Gummo.
- The girls convening behind the house also recall Gummo.
- The use of “y’all” with such repetition, to me, sounds like it’s intentionally provoking discussion about its generalization of youth.
- Everyone is drawn to the concept of superficiality, including the film’s audience, which might be one of the points.
- Alien probably has such a name because he is a representation of teen alienation. This is why the girls are drawn to him. But his importance becomes less so and more doused with modesty as the film goes on and the girls “find themselves”.
- When the film stock morphs hypnotically, so does the film. I mean, it was already pretty dark, but then it goes off the rails.
- There’s a lot of attention paid to the point of power, as Benson (or Hudgens?) tells Gomez she should become more violent and dominant because the power is alluring. Yay female agency!
- “This wasn’t supposed to happen” could refer to the economy, but that might be me stretching it a bit.
- The overlapping dialogue of the girls as they describe their robbery enhances the legitimate fear engendered by that scene. The chaotic camerawork also accentuates this element.
- YouTube, because of ubiquity.
- “I don’t like where we’re from” helps my theory about her rebellion.
- There is a collision of styles in this film. In one corner, you have Terrence Malick’s hallucinatory visuals, voice over, and fragmented time. In the other, you have the nasty indictment and rhetoric of Jean-Luc Godard.
- There’s a lot of neon in this film, and that seems to symbolize pleasurable desire. And, for all of the pink in the film, which is often associated with femininity, that is subverted, especially at the end of the film.
- Someone commented about the film’s somewhat vague message and commentary and that it sort of just throws stuff at the wall to see what sticks. That may be true, but that, in itself, may be a message. Throwing stuff against the wall might be a way of portraying the numerous messages and ideas that are thrown at youth culture, things that often contradict one another or don’t stick.
- The use of Ellie Goulding’s track “Lights” embodies the hypnotizing power of what draws the protagonists.
- I did not despise the film, funnily enough.
- It felt like a walking tour through a museum of very sad people.
- It seemed to be about a collection of broken people, broken homes, broken minds and the community and culture that is created in spite/despite those factors.
- The question remains, though, to what extent is Korine treating his characters like sideshow freaks and mocking them or looking at them with genuine awe, pity, and fascination?
- I would surmise a bit of both.
- Its collage style was actually very interesting and kept my attention for the whole of the film, which I didn’t think it would do.
- Some truly heartbreaking scenes.
- Some of the music choices are genius.
- Unsurprisingly, much of the imagery is repulsive.
- I was aware that Spring Breakers was sort of a spiritual sequel to Kids. But, while that’s true, the former film is far more mature and complete feeling.
- It is, in many ways, the opposite of Spring Breakers.
- I had a lot of issues with Kids.
- While its general plotline was all fine and interesting, there was a surprising lack of depth to the film.
- Although I understand that opposite to Spring Breakers, the film was supposed to be pretty much from a male perspective, I felt that Larry Clark’s insistent use of the male gaze ended up undermining any sort of feminist comments in the film. Instead, the viewer just has to kind of buy into the inherent misogyny of the film.
- I’m honestly not used to so much moral ambiguity in my films, but while Gummo and Spring Breakers are able to use this technique wisely, letting the audience judge for themselves, there’s so little in the way of any morality in the film that it overplays its hand in that respect.
- Thus, its function as a morality tale doesn’t work quite as well. But it is, nonetheless, still somewhat effective, if only because of its shock and awe approach.
- While you could accuse Spring Breakers of having misogyny, I believe heartily that the film, because it gives its female characters a lot of power, portrays a world of misogyny that is then subverted. In Kids, misogyny exists and the audience is just supposed to accept that as de facto.
- Its substance about the AIDS epidemic was… lacking.
- It just sort of reveled and rolled around in its own filth at times.
- Overall, I actually liked Gummo more. Kids had too many problems in the way of characters and shock for shock’s sake.
- Another question I have is the authenticity of the portrayals of the characters in all three films.
- To my understanding, although the films are scripted, Korine (and Clark) gave a lot of freedom on set to just let things happen.
- However, I believe there is some hyperbole in the way of language and actions in all three. Not too much, but it is still there. This might have a purpose, but one does think to oneself, “IS this how people really act?”
- I’ve heard accusations that Spring Breakers does not portray girls accurately. I actually kind of disagree with this, speaking from some experience. Just with the way the girls interact with one another, I see some similarities between the characters and my friends.
- That said, it is refreshing, I guess, seeing pieces of society and culture that we refuse to admit exist portrayed on the screen in some way related to reality.
- Could the three form some sort of Death of the American Dream Trilogy? Or, if we include Trash Humpers (which I have not seen yet), a “quadrilogy”?
Two Dances with the Same Devil: Tim Burton vs. Christopher Nolan
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Even though they may seem to be of the same species, the same kind, even the same ingredients, there is a world of difference between bright, almost jovial look of an M&M and the dark, distinctly grittier and bolder taste of a square of chocolate with the flecks and dustings of cocoa throughout its center. They both taste good, and even though they are essentially the same thing, they are so fundamentally different that they serve different purposes. M&Ms are for fun. They’re pretty looking, not very serious, and appreciation is rooted in fun and good humor. That square of cocoa, however, is bolder, leaving a certain tingle on your tongue, the cocoa dust either causing you to run for a glass of water or making you salivate even more. It is, honestly and blatantly, more serious in nature. Is it possible to enjoy both? Certainly. But they are different nonetheless.
The same can be said of Tim Burton’s approach to bring Batman to the screen and Christopher Nolan’s vision. Burton’s candy coated, expressionistic techniques are fun and closer to the older comics. Nolan’s gritty psychoanalytic revisionist take is bolder and more real. They both have their merits, however. Burton’s two films, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS, were major successes, as were Nolan’s two films BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. Their content, thematic approaches and style, however, differ in dramatic ways, each one suiting a particular mindset.
Tim Burton is well known for his distinct visual style, one that is very reminiscent of expressionism. His sets, props, even characters rarely resemble what they are modeled after and instead are heightened to a point of disbelief. It works for his Gothicism that has been imbued in his work from the beginning, even with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. With his first Batman film, BATMAN, filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, and his Gothic/Expressionist style would once again take the center stage. His Gotham City resembles less the metropolis of New York or Chicago, but the Metropolis found in Fritz Lang’s titular silent sci-fi masterpiece. His buildings and his architecture are dark, tilted, almost seedy and crooked in nature. The sets that inhabit the Gotham City in both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS almost seem to be the manifestation of the crooked villainy within Gotham. Even Burton’s cinematography, which occasionally takes on the tilted and jarring angles of Carol Reed’s iconic noir THE THIRD MAN, oozes an expressionistic style, in a way that realism is pushed onto the back burner in favor of something more exciting and fun. Burton’s color scheme, however, remains as dark as Batman’s cowl. Greys and blacks permeate the entire film, again recalling that of film noir.
Despite its noir-ish stylings, the tone of the film is light hearted, clashing against the dark expressionism that Burton utilizes. It’s cartoonish. Both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS present a tone and style that is deliberately a juxtaposition of the dark villainy and the cartoonish fun that was a part of the Batman comic in the 1960s. It almost seems like a contradiction on Burton’s part to have something as dark, even sadomasochistic as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman slink into frame in a very dominatrix-esque suit and then hiss comically at Batman. But that contradiction and clash of tone and style is exactly what Burton seems to be going for. His two films seem to be more of an accurate representation of the comics, thus recalling flair for snappy dialogue and action sequences that seem like they were paneled from cut to cut.
Burton’s presentation of the characters is just as cartoonish as the tone of his films. Less Gothic in nature than SWEENEY TODD, but less comical in style than BEETLEJUICE, Burton balances both, tight wire walking between silliness/action of the comics and the drama/darkness of Burton’s traditional style. The two manage to compensate for one another, neither element outweighing the other for too long. Between Batman and his rogues, though, they maintain the same unbelievable twistedness of some of the early incarnations. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is campy, and it seems that the Joker is definitely aware of how campy he is. Perhaps his self-awareness (the only character in both films that seems to be that self-aware) is another part that makes Nicholson’s Joker so insane. Nicholson’s Joker emblemizes the campiness of Burton’s films, as well as the dark expressionistic tones. He’s campy like Cesar Romero, but he’s dark and insane like Dr. Caligari. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the epitome of the weirdness that seems to have always been a part of Batman’s rogue gallery. He seems to be a fairly traditional villain with a fairly traditional motive. What he does have that the others do not is his look. You would never expect a penguin to be so nasty and conniving. And Selena Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman, is the archetypal femme fatale that brings the series’ film noir connections full circle. She is at once profoundly irresistible and utterly repellent. She’s Barbara Stanwyck in polyester.
Batman himself, and the playboy Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, seem like late era Sean Connery as James Bond, but with more sensitivity. He is handsome, wisecracking, and Kim Basinger can’t resist him. What Burton does not do, however, is make his Batman hefty or over emotional. Rather than make the audience strain, Michael Keaton’s Batman is a relatively simple guy. There’s less of an internal conflict regarding the secret identity in Burton’s Batman, with more concentration on Batman defeating the bad guys. And fun is exactly what the audience has.
What Burton’s films do is tap into the character, not bothering to establish an origin story, or even giving the character much weight, in a very lighthearted way. Burton is able to manifest the darkness of the series without it being overbearing. His films are theatrical representation of the comics.
But, as most heroes do, Batman evolved in order to best reflect the social anxieties. James Bond did it. Iron Man did it. Every hero does. And yes, Joel Schumacher’s films were arguably campier than the 1960’s TV series, but jump to 2005 and you get an entirely new breed of Batman. In a post-9/11 world, a campy and light approach to the character won’t cut it. Not only does the tone of the series change, not only do the motivations change, and not only does the entire presentation of the universe and the people that inhabit it change, but Bruce Wayne himself gets a revisionist makeover, seemingly starting from scratch in BATMAN BEGINS and continuing in THE DARK KNIGHT.
Christopher Nolan is a man who likes his protagonists enough to give them a reason to live. In FOLLOWING, MEMENTO, and INSOMNIA, his leads all deal with heady internal conflicts that make his films darker and enrapture the audience even further. For Batman and Bruce Wayne, he and David S. Goyer, established an origin story that is stronger than most origin stories that have appeared on the screen. Concise though it is not, it is a morbid, psychoanalytic approach to the character. This is an approach that gives the hero palpable, realistic fears and motivations for Bruce Wayne to become the Dark Knight of Gotham City. More than before, the dialogue carries the same punch that the action has, and the action has the same emotional weight as the dialogue. The characters matter as much as the tone. Christian Bale portrays Bruce Wayne and Batman with grit and vulnerability. He’s still pithy, but not clownish. He’s sexy and eligible, and he’s also a badass. And he is able to perfectly convey the layers within the character, all in one scene, all in one moment.
Nolan’s Batman Trilogy may take place in Gotham City, but this Gotham is the real world where danger is very real and possible. The mobsters that live in the seedy underbelly are kind of like the guys in GOODFELLAS, as opposed to the romanticism of the other mobsters in the Batman universe, which might be more comparable to THE GODFATHER. Its Chicago/New York look, again, presents a new kind of realism. This kind of realism is even applicable to the police station and the way that the government is set up in this universe. Before long, you forget that you’re in Gotham City.
The realism that Nolan gives the series is best represented by the villains that exist in it. The mobsters are ready to embezzle and whack people off, of course. But, first up, you have the Scarecrow (aka Dr. Crane, played by Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). The former is a psychotic doctor who employs various drugs to kick his victim’s phobias in to a point where it incapacitates them; the latter was at one point Bruce Wayne’s martial arts mentor. Both villains represent something that Wayne/Batman must overcome. The Scarecrow is the manifestation of all of Wayne’s fears (including bats, in this revisionist history) and Ghul, the overcoming of the past. Nolan manages to apply the microscope to nearly every facet of his films, and whatever character or piece of the universe is analyzes, it all relates back to Batman himself. The way that both the Scarecrow and Ghul are able to exploit Batman and make them extremely vulnerable make both villains unique to the film franchise. In THE DARK KNIGHT, a fallen political hero takes the form of Harvey Dent, who becomes Two Face. He plays loss and revenge with a coin, by chance. This symbolic answer to the public’s perception of vigilantism is striking.
Let us not forget the biggest bad guy of them all: the Joker. Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal brings a sense of insanity, fear and socio-political awareness that accentuates the realism in the series. Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker, who has no reason to create chaos other than for chaos’ sake, is the answer to domestic terrorism in the United States. Yes, villains, including the Joker in Burton’s films, have threatened the people of Gotham City, and the various pieces of architecture, but in Nolan’s Batman, these attacks feel more personal and more frightening. The Joker’s obsessive need to constantly counterpose everything that Batman stands for, even in a way where he shakes Batman’s footing and confidence as a hero, makes the portrayal one of the best in cinematic history. Ledger’s Joker is like Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE plus Charles Manson multiplied by Nicholson’s self-awareness. What the Joker offers, besides a very yin and yang symbiotic relationship between him and Batman, is a veridical threat. Their relevance to contemporary, post-9/11 society is all the more obvious with the inclusion of the Joker. He is the perfect nightmare.
What I often find surprising about Nolan’s Batman films is that Nolan is able to handle an enormous scale incredibly well. More used to his calculated, character driven small films like MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE, he is able to handle large set pieces, explosions, and the like in the Batman films like a pro. He is able to convey the adrenaline rush of any big budget director, but with a coherency and style that is often lost in the process of other blockbusters (ahem, Mr. Bay). It’s a spectacle, both visually and emotionally.
Christopher Nolan appropriates Batman’s timelessness in a very specific frame of thought, making the impending and inevitable violence and fear more real. He gives the characters depth; he gives his protagonist fears and desires. Taking inspiration from many a different comic, including ones by Frank Miller, Nolan’s revisionist take on Batman is new and powerful. Nolan makes Batman less a character from comics and more a human being.
Burton’s films have just as much merit, with their fun visual style and general lighter tone. Their exploration of a Gothic and expressionist visual style counterpose with that lighter tone. Most representative of the comics that existed prior to darker graphic novels, both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS have their place in the franchise as a nostalgia filled, retro joyride. Nolan’s films will remain just as memorable for their unique approach for character drama. The films are dark because the atmosphere that they were created in is dark. BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT and, soon, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, will become indelible in both Batman and cinematic history, just as Burton’s before them. Though the two auteur’s approaches are fundamentally different in tone, style, setting, and presentation, you have to admit: it’s just two dances with the same devil in the pale moonlight.
Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This: A Look at Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Before he was asking audiences what their favorite scary movie was, Wes Craven made a scream with the infamous and terrifying A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETin 1984. As profitable as that series would end up being, spawning six sequels, one cross over film, and a much maligned 2010 remake, Wes Craven stepped away after the first film. However, in 1994, he saw an opportunity to test out some of the self-referential and meta commentary that would pretty much define his work when SCREAM would be released two years later in 1996. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is the best of the NIGHTMARE sequels, and one of the best and most underrated horror films ever made. Not only did it set up the themes of SCREAM and its subsequent franchise, but it provided commentary on the process of filmmaking and what happens to that when a little nightmare called franchising happens.
Opening in on what looks like another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film, the camera pulls back from a dilapidated dungeon to reveal a film crew and… the making of another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film. So, it seems, from the first frame, Craven knows what audiences, regardless of their loyalty to the franchise, have come to expect from the series. There’s something different with the tone though. The sense of foreboding and classic Gothicism mixed the postmodernity people have come to be familiar with, but more than that, a sense of revisionism.
But, perhaps, we should explain what’s going on before jumping head first into the film. Heather Lagenkamp is married, has a son, and the NIGHTMARE franchise is pretty much behind her, since it’s been ten years since the original. She has, however, been receiving anonymous calls, having strange nightmares, and is getting the feeling that her past is coming to haunt her in reality. Her son, Dylan, is sleepwalking and experiencing similar nightmarish occurrences. He’ll be standing in the kitchen watching the original film on the television, transfixed by the man with the knives for fingers beckoning the audience towards the screen. Wes Craven, meanwhile, is working on a “top secret” film project, which turns out to be the product of new nightmares he’s been having. Parts of this sound familiar, don’t they?
Wes Craven’s reentry into the NIGHTMARE series is unique for a number of reasons, but probably first and foremost for its ability to uniquely blend fiction and reality, and address that approach head on. Heather Lagenkamp, who played Nancy in the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, plays herself. Robert Englund, Freddy himself, Robert Shaye, the franchise producer, Wes Craven, the creator and mastermind, and other cast and crew from the series all make appearances, setting up the film as if there really is going to be another NIGHTMARE film. This is instead of the audience knowing they’re watching another nightmare film. Even some of the camerawork set in reality, with its pseudo-documentary, cinema verite-ish handheld style, suggests that we’re watching something akin to a making-of instead of an actual film. This, however, only lasts part of the time. As much as Craven may like to tease his audience, he doesn’t like robbing them of the experience completely.
The nightmares Heather has been having bring the evil of Freddy Krueger, that notorious slasher icon who may or may not need a manicure, to reality. The nightmares her son has been having bring the horror home. Which may be one of the points Craven is making. Although the influence of horror on children or audiences has been touched upon once or twice before (Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES or Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE), it really has not been done with the nuance (yes, you read correctly) that Craven was able to achieve with his NEW NIGHTMARE. Several times, minor characters ask Lagenkamp if she has allowed her son to watch the films she’s done and vehemently declare that they have a negative effect on children. And several times we see Dylan standing in the kitchen, staring at the screen or chanting that devilishly catchy rhyme: One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Freddy looks different in this film. Wildly different. As if forged in the ninth circle of Hell, the revisionist approach to the design of the character is almost a reinvention, something that is, again, addressed directly in the film. Wes Craven, when speaking to Heather about the script, discusses the evil that has manifested itself as Freddy. In this conversation, he skewers the insatiable producers who feel the need to make sequel after sequel, saying, “But the problem comes when the story dies. It can get too familiar… or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell…” You see, folks, even Craven knows his limits! A good part of the film is spent illustrating the difficulties of coming to terms with reinventing or remaking something that is incredibly familiar and the hurdles that must be made in order to make that seem like a fresh sell the fans will enjoy. (The fans are a very demanding people.)
He is, of course, commenting on revisionism in general. As a director who has had his fair share of films remade (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc.), it’s interesting for him to approach the topic at all. But his reinvention of an iconic character would, in some ways, pave the way for Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman and his further critiques on remakes, reboots, and rehashes in SCREAM 4. Not to mention that the script itself makes several appearances in the film, further accentuating the meta-ness. Not only does it appear in the film, but scenes that directly correlate with scenes on the page are almost read from the page. Spooky, huh?
Oh, did I mention the film is actually scary? Apart from being a very smart horror film (with some flaws and pacing issues), Craven brings some Hitchcock worthy suspense. Although it is, at heart, a slasher film (if an intelligent one), the film is so rooted in how meta it is that the simplicity of the Boogeyman walking around and killing people in their dreams is not enough. Like Craven says, it gets too familiar. So, the fear and the scares come from the paranoia and worry from Heather and the maternal fear of what is happening with her son. Watching a child basically having an epilepsy episode just after growling “Never sleep again” is scarier than just having Freddy slash his way through Los Angeles. But when he does appear, the new look – more monstrous than a man just burnt alive – is terrifying.
It’s that fear of what will happen to a child if he or she does watch horror films which Craven is commenting upon. The end of the film takes place in the same dream world dungeon, straight out of Hell, as the set that we see in the beginning of the film. After the deed is done and Heather and her son fall out of bed back into reality, we are left with a thought: the dichotomy between reality and fiction has clearly been made. Therefore, why is it so hard for other people to discern that? The harsh contrast of the jagged edges of the fiction and the innocuous realism of reality are distinctly made, and yet there are people who confuse the two. Craven makes the point in saying that Freddy is “making his way from film and into reality”. That inability to distinguish the two might be the most fearsome thing of all.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is an underrated gem that shows that the writer-director could play the self-referential commentary game before SCREAM. With some nice performances and true terror, the film shines with its insightful look at the influence of horror films on the public and its very self-aware style. Perhaps the point of the film, besides making you think, is that you can and should sleep again. Because it’s all a dream, or rather, a nightmare…
“Spring” Awakening: Spring Breakers
In certain ways, many ways, Britney Spears, that former (or current?) Princess of Pop is everything you need to know about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. She was once a good girl, but, seemingly bored by that persona, dipped into a little bit of a wild and crazy lifestyle. (Remember Britney and Kevin Chaotic?) That descent, as insane as it was, granted her some media power in a way. She was, maybe unintentionally, controlling every viewer’s eyes. But, she was able to resurrect herself in a way, and that could speak for the careers of the four attractive stars of the film. There seems to be, however, a song to every part of the film. The film itself is, as described by its writer/director, “a violent pop song”. And, sort of like many of the people in this film, you will be hard pressed to find a more intoxicating experience at the movie theater this year. For better or worse.
Tired of the boring community college environment they’re stuck in and begging to get out of what they could easily call a social jail cell, four girls plan to fulfill one of the most American rites of passage ever: head down to Florida for Spring Break. Lacking the necessary funds to plan this getaway, three of them rob a restaurant. And, from there, it’s smooth sailing. Or drinking. And bong hitting. And coke sniffing. (You name it, they probably did it.) This is until they are, inevitably, arrested, only later to be bailed out by a strange benefactor: a narcissistic gangster rapper (in the most literal terms) named Alien.
Many of the sequences are, honestly, not to my taste. They play like a slightly more artful (barely) montage from Girls Gone Wild, but it makes sense. These scenes of women being drenched in beer and twerking (I think?) are the film’s establishing shots. And what a film they establish.
Can a film be both moralistic and yet morally ambiguous? If not, the film is, interestingly enough, a recipe thrown together in the most fascinating way, with elements seemingly contradicting one another and yet working cohesively as a whole nonetheless. (That recipe will, undoubtedly, get you drunk.) For all of the immoral, irresponsible, often terrifying things that the four stars partake in, the film empowers them with agency. Korine, who is previously known for art house experiments like Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and Mister Lonely, judges the generation, but not the individuals, it seems. By giving the characters agency in what they’re doing, sometimes offering them a chance at redemption, albeit in a snarky and sarcastic and heavy handed way, these girls represent an odd look at an ambivalent generation, but one that, if they wanted to, could exploit their power. Korine is intentionally grabbing the audience’s attention by portraying these real acts, but the ambiguity with which the material is sometimes served, or perhaps inconsistency, surprisingly gives a great amount of freedom to the viewer to decide how terrible or how bizarrely admirable these characters are.
I should go back: the four actresses in question are the main show, the main attraction. I mentioned in a previous post how fascinated I was by the film, primarily by its actresses and how they subverted their image for this film, and the subsequent exploitation of this to bring in audiences. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are former Disney Princesses and Ashley Benson is on the ABC Family teen soap Pretty Little Liars. The outlier of the group is Rachel Korine, the wife of the director, who is no stranger to subversion of persona; she was in Trash Humpers, though she is the least well known of the four. But, the four actresses are cunning in a way.
Gomez, utilizing her cherubic, good girl nature best, plays Faith, the most moralistic of the group. But her flaw is in her judgment of her friends’ character, and she seems perfectly willing to engage in some of the lewd acts depicted in the film as long as her friends are there. Yet the ideological crisis in the film presents something interesting. It is she who says that seeing the same people, the same campus, etc. is maddening. So, the most moralistic and the most bored is therefore the most likely to rebel, in a way. The bathroom where they contemplate Spring Break has the same color palette as the jail cell they end up in later. This urge and rebellion seems more extreme than the other girls, because they are already prone to such behavior, whereas Faith is not. If there were a Spears song to describe her character, it might be “(You Drive Me) Crazy”. Contextually, it obviously doesn’t make sense alone, but if the song is talking about the allure of being bad and the excitement of being too deep in a situation, then it works. But, Gomez, like the song, knows her limits. Her alternately coquettishness and naïve tendencies heighten some of the films ambiguity. When watching the film, you are, like she is, unsure if she’s really having a good time. Unsure if she should be being chastised for what she should be doing, after the numerous, pseudo-sincere phone messages she leaves on her grandmother’s phone, that repeat over and over like a song.
Vanessa Hudgens sort of subverted her image in Sucker Punch, a film that really shares a lot in common with its feminist spin, but, unlike Spring Breakers, fails miserably. Hudgens is given something to do, which is important. Not being thrown by the wayside, her furious, sexy and powerful character is scary, along with Ashley Benson. The two of them, especially, are easily able to channel their agency and submissiveness whenever they feel it necessary to use one or the other. They are, at once, “Overprotected” and “Toxic”, finally getting their desire in their ability to let loose and make their own choices and also being poisonously powerful. “Toxic” works not only for the two of them, but also Franco’s Alien. Between them (as well as Rachel Korine) is a frightening and electric dynamic, where power continuously shifts again and again. This is especially evident in one particular scene, one I shan’t describe beyond saying that it could give Killer Joe a run for its money.
Speaking of money, much of the strongest statements from the film, however thrown against the wall it may sometimes feel, is about the American Dream. Franco’s Alien is the epitome of how that phrase has evolved over the last several decades and how it has more fittingly become an American Nightmare. With Franco’s brilliantly narcissistic transformation into someone who seems to have everything, he attracts the girls in an obvious way. He runs the “Circus”; however often power may go back and forth between he and his “soul mates”, he’s the de facto ring leader. Franco’s accent may sound sort of goofy in the trailers, but within the context of the film, it works startlingly well. He has “shorts of ever color”, his bed is covered in guns and money, and the girls all want him. They are attracted to his status and the control he has over materialistic goods. The girls’ responses are, in a way, frightening; not only do they want those things (which is unsurprising), it’s shocking to see what lengths they’ll go to in order to retain that status. Then again, these are the girls that robbed money to go on vacation. They need the immediacy of pleasure, the instantaneousness of gratification. And that says a lot about the world we live in, considering people get pissed when Google Chrome is running slowly.
It is beneficial that the film does not have much dialogue, for it would pretty much undermine most of the performances and turning them into something less serious and less believable. But the dialogue that is in the film is used judiciously and sparingly, much of it being repeated over and over again. The comparison has already been made dozens of times, but it does have a connection to Terrence Malick’s dream like narration… that is, if the philosophy he were pushing ended up being kind of half assed and snarky. Here again, the film embodies the generation it depicts. There are lies told in the voice over that masquerade as epiphanies and changes, but we all know that there is barely an ounce of regret in there. And that’s what’s terrifying about it. How real it all seems, all that apathy and ambivalence.
In the narration, though, the faked innocence of the phone calls is eventually paired up with rhymes that Alien recites. These rhymes sound like deadly rewrites of typical nursery poems, corrupting the youthfulness of what was once pure.
Spring Breakers feels throughout like a horror film. It obviously was not going to be the fun, raucous adventure that the campaign is pushing so hard, but I was not expecting how scary it would be. Not only in what the characters were doing, but the attitude that they took with each activity. Seeing the film with an audience full of tweens managed to add a weird new way of looking at the film. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but their reactions are what scared me. I had been interested as to what the audience response would be, but I wasn’t expecting what I got. There was a lot of guffawing and laughing involved, and during some of the most critical and unsettling scenes. Granted, there were a few moments in which Franco’s outlandish portrayal was funny (intentionally so), but other moments where violence was committed or something disturbing was being said or shown on screen, the audience laughed. This is, I guess, the film’s biggest success. It recreates, almost perfectly, how these kinds of people act when shown various scenes of truly questionable and upsetting scenes. The girls themselves think that much of what they do is a joke or a game or something to laugh at. “Pretend it’s a videogame,” is what one girl says before robbing the chicken joint. And not only do that do that with gusto and aplomb, the audience responds to it exactly how the characters do; as if it isn’t serious. It’s just a videogame.
Undoubtedly, my favorite sequence involves a Britney Spears song, a white grand piano, and guns. Not only for the sheer fact that it is deeply disconcerting, but also because it casts a spell over you, as does the entire film. As terrible as the images may be, it’s intoxicating. But, I would disagree with Korine as to his assertion that the film is like a violent pop song. While it has hooks, verses, and a chorus that take the form of repeating images, sounds, and words, it feels more like one solid composition that covers the expansiveness of an album. It’s a symphony of violence, debauchery, morality, immorality, and insanity. And its soundtrack, provided by the likes of dubstep king Skrillex, Drive maestro Cliff Martinez, and co-star rapper Gucci Mane, is the popular sadism in sonic form.
The films insanity is further shown in the gorgeous and dizzying cinematography from Gasper Noe’s DP Benoit Debie, who worked on the celluloid LSD trip that was Enter the Void. The film’s neon and candy colored visuals create a false sense of security, juxtaposing the perceived innocence of the girls (actresses and characters) against their harsh and hyper-real world. It looks gorgeous, easily lulling the viewer.
Korine dissects the American Nightmare, the loss of innocence, the immediacy of pleasure, etc. Aside from that, Spring Breakers is the horror film it never knew it could be, reflecting a society and a demographic that is all too real. And despite the moralistic ambiguities and grey areas, the film is nonetheless a sublimely made tale, almost like a documentary. If there were one song to describe how Korine, a known provocateur, might sing to articulate how successful his film is in portraying these things, it would definitely be “Oops! I Did It Again”.
Rhapsody in Beautiful Black and White: George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Woody Allen’s Manhattan
The swell of strings, the melancholic brass, the two people sitting on the bench, and the gorgeous night cinematography of said two people looking towards the Queensboro Bridge as the sun rises. There is pretty much no more iconic cinematic still than the scene from Woody Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan, as Isaac and Mary sit on a bench, well into the morning talking about life. One of the film’s greatest attributes, besides the splendid photography from Gordon Willis, its sense of humor, its pathos, etc., is its brilliant use of music by George Gershwin to illustrate New York. And, as we know from the beginning of the film, as “Rhapsody in Blue” paints the City That Never Sleeps vividly, Isaac, and Allen to boot, loves New York. He “romanticizes it all out of proportion”. So, thus, it would be fitting not only to use some of the composer’s greatest selections for the film to heighten the stylized romanticism, contrasted against the urbanite intellectualism of the setting, but to use one of Gershwin’s most well known standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, over the most memorable scene from the film. Granted, when you think about the song from a lyrical standpoint, you kind of wonder, why this song? Who’s watching over whom? It doesn’t make sense for Isaac to look over Mary, but what if it’s the other way around? Aside from the sheer romanticism of the song, Allen may have slyly used the song to further characterize the slightly insecure, undeniably pretentious, and oddly alluring Mary Wilkie, as portrayed by Diane Keaton, as well as a love letter to the city the film takes place in.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” was originally written by George and Ira Gershwin for the musical Oh, Kay! in 1926, and soon after it became a jazz standard and a staple of the Great American Songbook. The song details what could be unrequited desires for a romantic guardian and, what sounds like, a co-dependent romantic entanglement. The persona is vulnerable, sensitive, and even, perhaps, insecure. My two favorite renditions include a classic recording by the great Ella Fitzgerald and a nicely traditional performance by Cheyenne Jackson (who briefly was on 30 Rock). You would be hard put to find a more romantic song that was able to articulate those kinds of yearnings without sounding overly sappy or, even, needy and desperate. Instead, it sounds more like a contemplation of one’s own weaknesses and the need for some kind of protector. The song is normally performed by a female vocalist, which, maybe unfairly, accentuates the submissive nature of the song. This aspect is important, which I will get to in a bit.
If 1977’s Best Picture winner Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s transition from from absurd laugh a minute jokey comedies to more mature, thoughtful, even philosophical comedy films, Manhattan was the filim that firmly planted Allen’s feet in the ground as a master writer, director, star of comedies with nuance and depth. Though he had backfired with his venture into the Bergman-esque realm with the previous year’s Interiors, Manhattan was another bunce back. Although Allen himself hates the film (he even offered United Artists to completely reshoot the film for no pay), it represents one of the most mature and beautiful comedies ever projected on the silver screen. And, oh, that silver screen! Shot in glorious black and white by the Prince of Darkness himself, cinematographer Gordon Willis (known for his work on The Godfather), the classical look imbues the film with sophistication and romanticism.
As seen in the film Manhattan, the song drops its lyrics, as with the rest of the Gershwin score, giving its orchestral arrangement a certain power and sensitivity that, while native to the track itself, greatly imbues the scene with those same elements. As the song is about to play, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), an insecure nebbish who recently quit his job as a TV writer and is dating a 17 year old, is discussing his book about his mother with Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a pompous intellectual type whose favorite phrase is “I live in Philadelphia, where we…” But they pause for a moment as the song begins playing, filling the scene with as much wonder as Gordon Willis’ and Allen’s joint mise-en-scene. They pause their discussion of his book and just look at the city, in all of its beauty. A knockout, Isaac calls it. And this scene truly is.
So, with this in mind, the song’s meaning is twofold (maybe three fold, if you consider the song contextually). Manhattan tells a story of a very specific group of people and their very specific environment. Amidst this environment, Isaac is tries to break out of this environment by dating a nubile, but very intelligent, 17 year old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). This somewhat awkward relationship involves Isaac somewhat frequently undermining her intelligence because she’s young, but he can, nevertheless, be intimate and fairly honest with her. However, his encounter with Mary Wilkie, a woman who represents the kind of people he supposedly detests, suggests an odd polar reaction in terms of attraction. He claims to dislike the intellectual, high society he belongs to, but, as his attraction to Mary reveals, he does belong to that environment. But, in this relationship, the intimacy, like the academically driven society the film sets itself in, is kind of superficial with claims of being “deep”.
Throughout the discourse that Mary discusses, from the photographs that were “straight out of Diane Arbus, but with none of the wit” to the bashing of Norman Mailer, Mary is, at heart, insecure, unsure about her competency, worried about her failed marriage. But she masks it by saying she realizes that she’s a beautiful woman, by taking a job that is technically beneath her (writing novelizations of screenplays/movies), and being so sure of her relationship with Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). So, the relationship between Isaac and Mary is thus based on the surface of things, people so sure of their competency to make them look good to other people, that they never get deeper than that surface. Isaac, though, doesn’t need to make himself vulnerable to Mary. For that, he has Tracy.
Tracy, young, intelligent, but outside of that pseudo-intellectual stratosphere that he so uncomfortably lives in, is the antithesis to Mary. She’s modest, and that modesty and genuine sincerity should offer Isaac the perfect opportunity to connect with someone not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. And, at times, when he isn’t trying to discredit her intelligence, they do. She often initiates these conversations, but it’s there, much more evident than anything he has with Mary. After his relationship with Mary is done and over with, he realizes that, although he isn’t willing to initially admit it, he needs Tracy. Tracy is his ticket out of the sort of social environment he doesn’t even like. If anything, you could say that Mary was his transition out.
Anyways, let’s backtrack to the bridge scene. Because Mary is the much more sensitive of the two, masking that sensitivity with her proclivity towards pretension, “Someone to Watch Over Me” works more from her perspective than it does for Isaac’s. Isaac, as aforementioned, doesn’t need to make the kind of confession that the song makes; Mary does. Considering her track record with marriage and relationships with married men, emotional connectivity is what she wants but what she is afraid of.
There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone to watch over me.
I’m a little lamb who’s lose in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me.
The confessional begins with the concept of continually searching and never finding love, and that lost feeling when you can’t actually find love. But the connection that Mary seems to make with Isaac seems to be the one that she thinks she’s been looking for. Isaac, hardly the virile type, is, for Mary, someone to watch over her.
Outside of that, during this scene the music plays as the two of them, on the bench (a prop which was brought to the set), they gaze at New York, bedazzled. For these two people, sometimes confused and sometimes sure of themselves, New York watches over them as their home. Ironic though it may be that New York would watch over anyone to protect them, the place and the setting is so familiar to them, so homey for them, that the conclusion is perfectly reasonable. It is a love letter to New York, as much as the use of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the beginning of the film, as much as the film itself, and as much as nearly any film Woody Allen has ever made. The lights come up and he loves New York.
The overt romanticization works with the story, the characters, and the setting well, for, as much depth and nuance as they may have, a lot of it seems like a caricature. The intellectuals in the film are stereotypes, the same kind of stereotype that Allen has used numerous times; Allen’s Isaac is his alternate persona with heightened neuroses; and the film’s black and white sheen seems to fit an era more home to the likes of Casablanca and The Lady Eve than Annie Hall or Interiors. The song itself isn’t only romantic in its notion about finding love, but also in its deep felt desire. Its musical structure, major in its key and absolutely designed to make you swoon, again, accentuates this element. SO, the inclusion of the song as a love letter to this city makes sense, and can be, itself, a romantic notion.
The Gershwin filled score of Allen’s Manhattan is one of my favorite aspects of the film. I’ve listened to the album literally hundreds of times. But it serves a greater purpose as Allen uses it for illustrating one of its main characters, thereby fleshing out dynamics, and also by working as a song pining for a place, with people, stories, and quirks from a city he loves.