At a fairly pithy 74-minutes, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears articulates its desire to be about control even in its runtime. It hurriedly attempts to establish the authorship the pop star had in her early career, even within the confines of a misogynistic industry (“industry” here can mean so much), and the ways in which it was wrenched from her in a litany of ways and from a myriad of sources, interpersonal and institutional. Even the documentary’s title bristles with its thematizing, the star wavering between the agency of self-assured diva and object beneath public, and private, thumb. That early in the film, we see her former assistant, Felicia Culotta, take the cameraperson on a tour of the various records kept behind glass, is indicative of both the obviousness of many of the film’s points and the labyrinthine nostalgia the internet has crafted for such public figures to make even the most cynical viewer quiver with sadness.
The impulse for this film is supposedly rooted in a kind of advocacy on the part of the Times; locked in a decade-plus conservatorship by her father, Jamie Spears, Spears’ safety, work, and full autonomy has come into question by many both reading into her cryptic behavior (primarily online) as well as her subtle public acknowledgment of this growing issue (and the people supporting her) regarding her rights as a mother and, perhaps, worker. With an unusual network of power and money possibly fueling the complicated situation, the film poses itself as a contemporary analog to muckraking, on behalf of a celebrity whose ubiquity made it easy to project onto and thus, moreso, manipulate. The film, however, feels more like yellow journalism.
Here are my new writerly offerings, because I am unemployed and I live a very exciting life.
Over at Movie Mezzanine, I wrote about one of the best scenes in film last year.
There were snickers in the audience when James Franco began warbling on screen, three balaclava-sporting young women surrounding him at the ivory piano. Such derisive, incredulous laughter is only justified if one hasn’t been investing their attention in what Harmony Korine’s madcap nightmare Spring Breakers has to say. When Britney Spears’s “Everytime” floods the speakers, it’s so gorgeous and alluring, the inherent sadness of the song subverted by playing it over horrific, dreamlike images of empowerment. It’s ironic and cynical and strangely powerful, and certainly one of the most captivating things about Korine’s hallucinatory treatise on youthful indulgence.
I tackled Lars von Trier and Rape Culture.
Lars von Trier wants to hold us accountable. His films sear and contain a rawness that’s rare in cinema. He shows a small town community protecting people who abuse a fugitive, sexually and emotionally, and a religious culture that allows its elders to be dispassionate towards a woman who expresses her sexuality in an unconventional fashion for the love of her husband, subsequently deeming it unworthy of being saved. His fictional congregations do not respect women. They do not abide by the idea that a woman owns her body. They allow men to get away with sexual assault and violence, allowing the women to be dehumanized. They perpetuate this dehumanization through subtle ways, feeling entitled to these women’s bodies. The seemingly meek female protagonists subject to this abuse, though, transcend the very culture that takes advantage of them, revealing its rotten core. The Danish auteur isn’t just being sadistic for his own sake; he confronts it. Lars von Trier is attacking Rape Culture.
I’ve started writing some review over at Under the Radar Magazine, first off with an AIDS drama…
As Pina Bausch once said, “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” Set against the exponentially growing AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in 1985, Chris Mason Johnson settles his eye on the intimacy of dance, the irony of the body and its treatment in dance versus sex, and the gradual paranoia of the era in his film Test.
…and secondly with a cliched, but clever teen sex comedy.
The vague pleasures of Premature are intermittent and inconsistent and fairly conventional, and yet they are there. The story of a young man who gets stuck in a time loop that is only ever reset when he orgasms, the film will probably be tiresomely described as “Groundhog Day meets American Pie”, though this only slightly eclipses the latter for the sheer fact that it seems kind of sincere, despite its vulgarities.
And I’m really happy to announce I’ll be doing a bi-weekly column at SoundOnSight.org about music videos and film. I’m kicking it off with OK GO and a call to conversation.
Just over a week ago, OK GO premiered the video for their new single “The Writing’s on the Wall”. Appropriately, the Internet responded with the expected “oohs” and “ahhs”. But, of the dozen or so articles I checked out regarding the video, said articles were no longer than a couple hundred word blurbs that briefly mentioned that OK Go makes cool videos and this was another one of them. I would not call myself a music connoisseur by any means, but I do adore music and I adore music videos. I think we should talk about them with more respect. Let’s talk about their relationship to film, both formally and textually. Let’s talk about how film informed music video aesthetic and how, subsequently, music video informed film aesthetic. Let’s talk about how directors have jumped back and for between the medium and how that’s affected their overall style. Let’s talk about how music videos are just as interesting a short form cinematic medium as the short film, with a wealth of possibilities to experiment with narrative and style. So, I have this is statement: We Need to Talk About Music Videos and Their Relationship to Film.
Have a good week, folks!
For all of its universality in portraying seemingly good people revealing their true nihilistic selves and behaving badly, Harmony Korine purposely focuses his debauchery filled new film Spring Breakers at contemporary youth, or what some people have labeled as “Millennials”. But he does this neither in the choice of Spring Break in general nor even choosing the nubile actresses themselves, but, most notably, in the choice of music. Korine is, like Tarantino (but perhaps less well known), good at choosing music, often to ironically tonally subvert a scene, or, in this case, an entire film. Korine’s choice to hire Cliff Martinez and Skrillex is telling, as well as their decision to include certain tracks and music in the film. All of these points to a focus on a particular group of people and how nasty they really are. Three tracks in particular perfectly illustrate the themes of the film and the personalities of the characters: Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, and Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. The three tracks work not only as a representation and epitome of the generation that this film is directed at, but also as a distillation of the film itself.
The “Monsters” Within
It may be one thing to choose Cliff Martinez to score your film, whose nostalgia drenched Drive is one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, but it is entirely something else to also have Lord of the Bass Drop, dubstep mastermind Skrillex, to also be on board. So, while the film’s score oscillates between various transmutations of dubstep, electro-hip hop, and something a little ‘80s driven as well, it might be a little surprising at first to hear Skrillex’s most famous track begin the film. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” is originally off of the DJ’s second EP of the same name, and its title alone suggests the characters. When you listen to the track however, the thematic elements of the title play in reverse, almost as they do in the film. Something sweeter and nice starts playing, sort of like an electronically produced candy land, with something sinister underneath. This is, of course, juxtaposed against images of teenagers “celebrating” in Florida. But that sense of unbelievable, too good t be true pureness in electronic sound suits the film’s four characters, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.
When you just look at these four attractive actresses, you wrongly have the sense that they’re nice and sort of angelic. Their neon bathing suits, streaked hair, and distinctively feminine qualities are exemplified in the beginning notes of the track. Once you get deeper into the film and get to know the characters, the monsters are let loose. For, what is scarier to the general male that the concept of a woman being in control of her own agency, her own sexuality, and using that as a form of power? These “scary monsters” are scary from a popular cultural perspective, a society which undermines young women’s intelligence, their abilities to decide for themselves, and the fact that they can give any man a run for his money when it comes to toting a gun. The femininity of their “sprite-like” façade is subverted by Skrillex’s trademark “bass drop”, where you hear the screams of a young girl saying, “Yes, oh my gosh!” This is a shout of triumph, the girls perhaps being stunned by their own power and subsequent prowess. The progressive house tone that the song transitions to is intentionally cacophonous, thereby showing that the girls can be mean, but drawing the line at evil. Who are we really to classify these girls as monsters? Or are these the monsters we made ourselves by our reflexive oppression and objectifying? However, the song is able to transition back and forth between these two qualities: the sound of the Nice Sprites and the sound of the Scary Monsters. The girls themselves oscillate between being those sprites and monsters; between the immaturity of young girls and the maturity of grown women. These women are in control, in such a way that we, as an audience, cannot even fathom it.
Hit Me Baby “Everytime”
The centerpiece of the film and what is, by consensus, said to be the very best part, is the use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. I made a point in my review to make some comparisons to Britney Spears as a person and as a songstress, but “Everytime” is the kind of majestic scene that only one could ever hope to conceive, never mind execute flawlessly. Calum Marsh wrote a very good, very interesting article about how the song and the scene essentially prove that Spring Breakers isn’t a satire. I would go a step further and assert that, not only is the song not used ironically, but that it fits the relationship between the girls and James Franco’s Alien. The song originally appeared as a single off of the Princess of Pop’s fourth album In the Zone, and was allegedly written in response to ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s hit single “Cry Me a River”. The song plaintively apologizes for all the harm and wrong that occurred in a relationship, where Spears’ persona basically “owns up” to most of those faults. Why is the song played at all? The remaining three girls, Hudgens, Benson, and Korine, ask Alien to play something inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps a little odd considering that the song is basically a breakup… but is it?
This is well into the film, and after the young women have asserted their power over Franco himself. So, now that the girls essentially have shifted the power hierarchy in their bizarre relationship, why not sing a breakup song? Or, rather, a “post-Breakup song”. The girls are saying goodbye to Franco, for they know, for all of their feminine power, they can supersede him in Florida and then return home as if nothing ever happened. That is what college spring break is all about: creating momentary relationships with people you don’t really know, creating a dynamic that doesn’t last, and then leaving it all behind. Not only that, but the song opens with the words “notice me”; by exerting this power, the girls are able to get people to notice them. Even Gucci Mane. It feels a little ironic and a little satirical, though, because of where the song is used and over what. In beautiful slow motion, “Everytime” is played over scenes of Franco’s gang assaulting people, pistol whipping them, while the girls are just as much a part of the action. Who the leader of this gang is becomes incredibly blurred. Even from an aesthetic point, the use of the song is transcendent and one of the film’s most dizzyingly beautiful moments. Like Korine said, it’s all about that haunting piano. It’s sinister yet innocent, and completely beautiful.
Turn On the “Lights”
The song that plays over the final the neon end credits is fitting to the film: Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. Off of her album of the same name, Goulding’s ethereal vocals and equally bedazzling song production become sonic manifestations of the glowing and neon soaked cinematography. Deep in the rain and under the water, on the streets and as they drive, the lights shine representing the danger that so entices the girls. But, that danger is what they find alluring and safe. As Ellie Goulding said, she feels safe sleeping with the lights on. By that, the lights reveal things about the characters that they seem to come to understand towards the end of the film. Their Malickian voice over messages colliding with their Godardian rhetoric and a little bit of a sneer of insincerity are the result of this change.
From the 120 beat per second drum/bass line to the star studded eletronica (reminiscent of bounding lights and bouncing piano keys), “Lights” assaults the listener with dark thoughts and a boom that seems like a blast of darkness and then of light. The lights flicker, as they sometimes do in the film. However, here the lights don’t obfuscate. They may be blinding, they may be alluring, but they reveal desire, lust, and dreams. They offer safety and clarity. The importance of light is evident in the film, as lens flare, bright colors, and the lettering of the title are used to intoxicate the viewer and the characters. There is a small bit of irony here, though. Since the song is about feeling safety when the lights are on, this reveals the childish aspect of the four girls’. They may be fascinated by the lights, but they don’t want the dark. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the girls, and the songs, oscillate between the immaturity of young girls and grown women.
Generationally, it makes sense for these tracks to be used. Dubstep is popular amongst the party scene, so Skrillex is an obvious choice. The girls, and the audience, grew up with Britney Spears, watching her rise to fame to her fall from grace and then resurgence years later. And Ellie Goulding is one of the hottest new artists on the scene. It was therefore a wise choice for Korine to use these tracks, appealing to his main demographic and yet fitting them to the characters specifically enough that the film’s commentary on youth culture was that much more on the nose.
If you couldn’t tell by the fact that this is my third post in a row about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, I’m totally enamored of this film, from every aspect. Every element, thrown against the wall or not, seems to fit. But the key tracks of the film shed light on the characters, the environment, and the commentary. Thus, Skrillex, Britney Spears, and Ellie Goulding all accentuate the atmosphere of the film. Spring Breakers is film fueled by its ability to stagger and stun every sense, and sonically, the film couldn’t do better.
“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” – Skrillex
“Everytime” – Britney Spears
“Lights” – Ellie Goulding
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”.