Girls, Interrupting: The Guns, Girls, and Gender Dynamics of Spring Breakers
There may be guns, girls, and pink balaclavas, but beneath the veneer of the naughtiness of spring break in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an interesting look at women who are able to be empowered despite the oppressive patriarchal environment around them. Spring Break itself cultivates this oppression. This sense of feminism is so strong that the lead girls, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, are able to subvert the very notion of the patriarchal environment and take a hold of it with a bang. And by bang, I mean with guns.
From the moment the film begins and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares non-diegetically over bodies slathered in booze, it is clear that we are encountering the New American Dream from the male perspective. Spring Break is not only a very “white” thing, but a very “male thing”. As aforementioned, there are tons of women in these Malick-esque Girls Gone Wild montages , but these women are subscribing to a very male oriented fantasy. Who really holds the power here? Who really is dictating these fantastic images, both from the point of view of the camera as well as culturally? Guys. Modern Spring Break is essentially created for the modern male. Who else would even come up with a title like Girls Gone Wild?
So, in this male driven fantasy, the images of girls are purposely being objectified to present a very specific view and perspective: the Male Gaze. Women fellating popsicles, close-ups of twerking and jumping up and down; this is what people my age (apparently) dream of doing. The subservience of the women, though, is obvious by the above examples: the women are not exactly exerting power in these; they’re performing for a male audience. While one could argue that the performativity of this could be power in itself, it’s the unknowingness and apathy with which the women perform that suggests their submission.
However, this dynamic of the conventional Male Gaze objectifying its minor characters, as naked as the day is young, changes once we finally meet our main characters. The ogling does not stop, per se, but it takes on a different power and a different message. It isn’t ogling; it turns into staring with wonder, shock, and possibly horror, suggesting that the Male Persona that inhabits the camera, that is the camera might have underestimated the women in the film.
One of the first indications of a power shift, a subtle one in the film, doesn’t even seem like it. Towards the beginning of the film, Ashley Benson fills a squirt gun with water and pulls the trigger while aiming the barrel into her mouth. While snickering, she puts her mouth around the barrel and continues to squirt water into her mouth. Obviously simulating oral sex on the gun, it seems like something more similar to the montage that was seen moments ago in the film. But that it is a gun changes the dynamic. They have not even arrived in Florida yet, and Hudgens is testing out how wild and powerful she can be.
Many examples follow later, at least in terms of the girls interacting with guns, but they all seem to suggest the same thing: the girls finding empowerment where men usually would. Guns in and of themselves represent a very masculine ideal. They’re created to kill, which is, culturally, a very masculine thing. But the Freudian motivations behind this are shown in the phallic nature of the weapons. Weaponry in general takes on very male-centric images, resembling phalluses and testes, but when women hold guns, there’s generally a sexualiation of it. The women are made to be sexy, as opposed to embracing their own agency and power. This seems most indicative of the scene with Hudgens and the gun.
Their rampage begins, however, with the simple robbery of a chicken joint. These scary monsters who parade as nice sprites unleash a very masculine rage inside the chicken joint, using weapons, and even using sexist terms like “bitch.” Even something as seemingly tame as that term presents the characters as transcending their nubile façade, taking charge of the location. But they laugh at their rage, brush it off, and willingly admit that they used squirt guns. They basically got away with impersonating the “typical male,” one that exudes violence, power, and a strong sexual drive to dominate. This impersonation, however, becomes much more real later.
There are more guns down in Florida when the girls meet the human manifestation of their original alienation from society: James Franco’s Alien. His masculinity also showcases in how much power he has in the Spring Break habitat. Although he embodies the “get rich or die tryin’” archetype of rappers, his masculinity is embodied in the gun show that exhibited in his bedroom. Walls upon walls of firearms! Guns, guns, guns! And, as Franco says, his teeth gilded, “Look at all my shit!” This is further epitomized by Alien’s obsession with Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface. He’s got the film “on re-peat”, as he says several times. This idolatry of one of the most villainous anti-heroes of film is telling; what’s the most memorable moment of that film? When Al Pacino shouts “Say ‘Hello’ to my little frien’!” of course. He bursts through with an M-16 with a grenade launcher, which explodes, again representing the phallic nature of the gun. Burst, load, the barrel. All of these terms aresexualized, and all of them are staples of power, dominance, and masculinity.
This scene is the most disturbing of all. When we are presented with Franco’s Alien, it’s clear that he’s the ringleader of his gang. But a critical change occurs when he’s showing off his belongings. Benson and Hudgens pick up a pistol and an automatic pistol, both fitted with silencers. Franco shows his fear, telling both to stop pointing at them and that they’re loaded and that they’re dangerous. But that, for the girls, is what intrigues them. It’s a shift in paradigm for the culture, not just the two of them, and how the culture, dominated by men, perceive this scene. The girls press Franco against the wall of his bed and shove the silencers in his mouth, whispering that they may have used him to get where they are now. There’s a carnal, animalistic sense to this scene. It is not exactly that the girls are letting out their wild side, not like they were in the parties and montage scenes, but they seem to be revealing their true nature. Now, these girls have the power, even over Franco.
What’s frightening about this sequence is that after Franco gets over his fear, he buys into this shift. This subversion of expectation is surprising, but the fact that Fraco accepts this also is. I suppose that it is a reflection of myself as a viewer that I was surprised by the power, or frightened rather, that these girls exerted over Franco. He has become the submissive archetype, and he becomes “turned on” by this shift. He seems to willingly accept this, and begins fellating the silencers. Together, almost unified, they’ve come to a silent agreement: Franco may still be the front for this gang, but now it’s all about the girls.
I was struck by this scene in particular and its resemblance to a scene in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which is based on the play by Tracey Letts. In the film, there is a similarly disturbing scene, and one that garnered the film an NC-17. The amoral cop-slash-hit man Joe (Matthew McConaughey) carries out his retribution by having the wife of his client (Gina Gershon) fellate a chicken wing from KFC. It’s a violent scene, that is also rather gross, but entirely commonplace in terms of BDSM dynamics. You have an archetypal dominant character who is male and you have an archetypal submissive person who is female. Spring Breakers turns this on its head and switches those roles, basically to subvert the expectations of audiences who think they’re familiar with BDSM scenarios. But even when the roles are switched in terms of male/female dominant/submissive scenarios, in mainstream media, this switch is often used to sexualize the dominant archetype. So, in most cases, the female, regardless of role, is sexualized and objectified. If my recollection serves me correctly, the scene in Spring Breakers is not sexy. Its eroticism may lie in how dangerous it all feels (which is part of the appeal to Alien and the audience), but the Male Gaze is fearful, as is the audience, and looks at these girls with awe and wonder. (Also, I think there’s a lot of time that the camera spends on Franco with his mouth full.)
Is there a double standard here, in terms of the NC-17 rating versus the R rating? I don’t know. You would expect (or I would) that the sexualisation of the woman in Killer Joe, regardless of how violent it is, would garner the R, as the MPAA has a tendency to let more conventional and archetypal “male-as-dominant” scenarios get away with things, and not subversive or transgressive scenarios. So, I don’t know.
This transition of power is also evident in the balletic sequence featuring the timeless track “Everytime” by Britney Spears. Undoubtedly the most elegant and show-stopping scene in the film, the women exert as much power as any man in the situation, toting their guns and pink balaclavas with fervor. Though, as they stand by the piano, they circle around with their guns, acting like typical young girls listening to their favorite song. This transition and change in personality only proves that the women truly embrace their power and agency in their ability to oscillate between the masculine and the feminine.
Their feminism and embracing of power comes to a climax with the raid of Gucci Mane’s mansion. Gucci Mane, too, represents a certain male archetype, just as invested in hedonism as Franco. But his dynasty of masculinity (with more sex and drugs than even Franco) comes crumbling down. Franco “leads” the remaining girls, Hudgens and Benson, to the assault, and only moments after they take a step on the neon lit dock, their dominant position in the gangsta hierarchy is solidified with Franco’s death. Still dressed in only a bikini, the somewhat cartoonish and unbelievable battle is in the girls’ favors. This weird, inconceivable battle depicts the girls being totally invincible. This invincibility may be a metaphor for their true empowerment, their true upheaval of the patriarchal standard in that society. It may be them finding “their true selves”.
As the girls drive away back home, on their journey to forget what’s happened, they still have that slick car to remind them that they’ve found power like no one else: by inhabiting a male persona and subverting that persona to its very core.
Korine’s film might have similar origins to Zack Snyder’s detestable pseudo-feminist videogame Sucker Punch, but where Korine succeeds is granting his characters legitimate power without being preachy, subverting the very Male Gaze that drives the society and culture it deconstructs, and creating characters that are nuanced and can oscillate between masculine and feminine personas. As I said, the girls get away with it all, and with a bang.
Dazed and Confused: Killing Them Softly
I believe in “Intelligent Design”, which is to say I am somewhat a proponent of the Auteur Theory. (Holla, Andrew Sarris!) And when one becomes a semi-proponent of such a theory, they are often inclined to fall in love with the director as much as the work itself. Even if it’s only after one film, if one is so enamored by the precise style, the instantly recognize camera movements, even the name itself, Lord knows said cinephile will be in line for the next film by whatever director they’ve fallen in love with. Such was the case with Andrew Dominik, whose incredible film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford left me intoxicated. But what happens when that director, well, shall we say, seems to lose his mind in a bizarre mash-up of unclear ideas, hack-y visuality, and heavy handedness? Uh, well, you seem to get Dominik’s extremely disappointing Killing Them Softly, or, as I thought of it, I Have No Idea What I Want to Say or How to Say It.
In Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, follows a hit man (Brad Pitt), as he follows a couple of people who turned over a card game and made it look like another guy did it (said fellow played by Ray Liotta, which makes one wonder where he’s been all these years). Meanwhile, as Pitt’s hit man talks with various people in bars and cars about the approach, the reason, and the morality of the hits, the two fellows who committed the crime, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), try, seemingly half heartedly, to avoid the new price on their heads.
I do not believe I have ever watched a film that was so incredibly heavy handed and yet had no idea what it was saying or how to say it. Prior to the official release of the film in the United States, back when it prancing around Cannes and competing for the Palme d’Or, Dominik and his team, whoever they are, decided on a fairly overt Americana theme. This Americana theme, which was not, however, very present in the trailers for the film, seems to try to set up some sort of thematic arc or thesis for the film, but, just as the film itself, it seems to be only vaguely related to the film. Throughout the film, there is a constant presence of some political figure on a TV or disembodied voice on the radio, whether it is McCain, Obama, or even W. Bush, talking about the economy. So, here lies the first problem: Less of a lesson or exercise in self reflexivity, Dominick goes for the heavy handedness outside of the direct dialogue (with the exception of certain scenes and certain pieces of dialogue), and feeds it to the audience in a very strange way. He feeds us his badly constructed lesson like a third party. A part of me would have preferred a Godardian lesson through the characters (knock on wood) as opposed to a fairly lazy attempt at chastising the American people. But, as often as these little sound bites from various political speeches featured on CNN and C-SPAN are there, and as often as they use buzz words like “Economy!” and “Fiscal” and “Community!” and “People!”, Dominik doesn’t really say anything about this. There are vague hints about why he’s trying to say something, with the hit man once or twice tip-toeing towards pontification about America being “a business” and the state of the country, but like an essay without an outline or any real thesis, the heavy handedness just seems loud, obnoxious, and vague. In a way, Killing Them Softly is like Andrew Dominik’s economically aimed, loosely neo-noir version of Dogville (whose thesis is far more clear cut, and yet excellently articulated cinematically). There’s some sort of attempt at juxtaposition in the film, with the gritty and slummy landscape of the gangsters (?) and the immaculate, expensive setting for the hit men. But, again, that try at visual cues does not translate well or effectively. There’s a hint of libertarianism, which left me sitting in the theater wondering, “Did Ayn Rand’s ghost possess Dominik or something?”
I was hoping that if the story was lackluster and all over the place, that at least the visual style would be interesting. And I guess you could call it interesting. Interesting in that it is a train wreck. While The Assassination of Jesse James’ style was refined, gorgeous, and purposefully shot (by Roger Deakins, no less), Killing Them Softly’s cinematography felt like the bastard child of J.J. Abrams, Julian Schnabel, and Guy Ritchie. Granted, some of the scenes do look good, but there is, by no means at all, any kind of consistency to the images on the screen. Nothing seems coherently placed together, its editing just as lackluster. Yes, the slow motion scene where Brad Pitt shoots someone looks pretty great (reminiscent of some of the finer scenes in Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline pumped reboot of Sherlock Holmes), but… why? With Russell’s heroin addict, some of his scenes are straight out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, OH THE LENS FLARE! It’s ironic that so many of the scenes should be dictated less by any real action or purpose or even character and more by music and sound, because a short film I recently made (which you can watch here) had just that as its thesis: editing has changed, and when used poorly, can send a film into jeopardy. There’s no purpose to this visual style. There’s no reason. There’s no perspective. It’s just messy. The incoherent mess of a political allegory paired with the hodgepodge visual style… gosh, that’s two strikes.
Stylistically, regarding the plot, we hit another bump in the road. A lot of it, I assume intentionally, feels like a neo-noir. But that tonality of the film shifts, fluctuates, and doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s a switch to something grittier, which under normal circumstances would not be inherently bad. The switch seems to be nodding to films like GoodFellas (which is sort of ironic), where the realism of the violence takes the center stage, disillusioning the audience of the romanticism they became familiar with two decades prior with The Godfather. That would be fine, you know, if it stayed that way. There’s another shift to something talkier, less noir and more “I don’t know what style I’m working with, so this is like an interstitial”. There’s some dark comedy in there for, like, two scenes. If the film had been sliced and diced into a series of vignettes, each short dedicated to its own kind of style and tone, maybe the film would work. But, as is, we get something confused. Excited, probably, but unable to know its own pace and something easily confused.
My last hope would be performances. Richard Jenkins, as a man (named Driver, for the record) who has long conversations with Pitt’s hit man, is good. Brad Pitt is fine. James Gandolfini is not very good. Ray Liotta is pretty good. Scoot McNairy is the only one who gives an enthralling performance, primarily within the first 15 minutes of the film. But no one really seems to bring their A-game. Pitt’s hit man, with his “inconsistent” moral views (he kills people, and yet criticizes the United States) make his character more pseudo-enigmatic rather than one of true depth. There’s no real good study of any of the characters, when this kind of film from this kind of director would definitely call for it. Its script, as well, is all over the place, with big chunks of dialogue and monologue fairly unnecessary and doing nothing to a) illustrate the character in a more detailed way or b) articulate and elaborate on whatever thesis it may or may not have. But, hey, Brad Pitt looks good in sunglasses.
Killing Them Softly is a confused film: stylistically, thematically, and in a narrative sense as well. With little rhyme or reason for many of the creative decisions made, little attempt to give meaty and interesting characters, and a severe allegory that inexplicably doesn’t have any idea how to articulate its thesis well, what is their left to say? What is there left to comment? I haven’t seen Chopper, but Dominik doesn’t really establish a precise and clear voice like he did with Jesse James. It looks like Dominik, maybe trying his hand at post-modernism, spent less time killing them softly and more time killing his audience haphazardly.