Spring Breakers, dir. Michael Bay, 2013

You might think that it would be impossible for Bay to top his Transformers trilogy, that those merciless tributes to the twin glories of steel and flesh represented the purest distillation of his art.  On the other hand, you might not think that he could get any lower than that seemingly never-ending explosion in a cliché factory.

Whichever side of the divide you found yourself on, Spring Breakers renders your opinion obsolete.  This movie is Fear and Loathing to the Transformers trilogy’s hyper-modern war movie (with Florida standing in for Las Vegas just as Vietnam blurs into Iraq). It’s the Saints Row to The Dark of the Moon’s Call of Duty.  The adventures of Optimus Prime and co might have fleetingly simulated what the disorienting frenzy of 21st Century warfare would look like if it was fought on American soil, but Spring Breakers is the real deal – the story of four girls fighting the war at home with nothing but day-glo bikinis and raw fantasy. [1]

Oh, yeah, and did I mention guns?

Because – *SPOILERS* – guns are important too.

During a brief but invigorating discussion of the Bay Transformers movies back at Mindles HQ, Brother Bobsy offered the following testimony to the franchise:

I love the fights and the graceful lightfooted way they move, I hated it at first but it really works for me – precision engineered biometal, yeah light and balletic, the gun porn – but EVERYTHING is a gun – cars are guns, iphones are guns, girlfriends are guns, people are guns, robots are guns.

Spring Breakers develops this further, with Bay finding new ways to express his key theme, free of the spectacular special effects that had previously been his medium. [2]   Bay uses the opening act – in which our heroines are held rapt with boredom, strapped for the ca$h they need to activate their dreams – to indulge his preference for blurred action.   The camera swings around our protagonists, who dance listlessly through the bursts of blurred light that cut across the screen like so much gunfire.  When the girls so much as dream about using a lighter or taking a bong hit Bay drops in a gunshot noise to underline the effect: before real guns come into the picture, before anyone has even so much as fellated a water pistol, it’s made clear that every bit of flesh here has the potential to be weaponised.

One metaphorical gun cocking scene cheerful robbery down the line, the girls find themselves in Florida, flush with ca$h, free from boredom and carefully trapped by the bright, steady MTV-gone-wild format Bay adopts for the second act of this film.   In place of his usual commitment to fucking the frame, Bay teases(/threatens?) the possibility of fucking occurring within the frame as bodies and fluids collide in a series of luridly Ballardian (re)configurations.  Transformers aficionados will note that the grainy, hand-held footage that Bay edits into the most intensely Bacchanalian of these sequences develop his obsession with endlessly adaptable bio-metal further, with the quartet of fresh faces becoming unstable and unconstrained as they morph from one spot in bro-space, becoming aggressively unstable special effects at the point where they come closest to being reduced to cheap luxury meat. [3]

The appearance of James Franco’s Riff-Raff rip-off rapper Alien heralds the start of the Spring Breaker’s third act, which is to say, of its third phase of development, the point where Bay pushes his characters all the way into the fantasy.  It’s worth paying attention to where various characters find their limits in this weed-addled wonderland.  Having apparently found something holy in her previous encounters with coke-sniffing, crotch grabbing strangers, Selena Gomez’s Faith suddenly finds herself freaking out when she comes into contact with Real Live Black People; Rachel Korine’s Cotty, meanwhile, only starts to find Alien’s white-boy gangsta fantasies terrifying when she receives an unwelcome reminder of her own reality in the form of a bullet to the arm.  [4]

The departure of both girls is framed like the departure of a reality show contestant from one mediated reality to another, but apt as this is my personal theory is that they’re both heading back to earlier save points to try to make different movies – Faith’s mid movie blather about creating a “freeze point” to click back to certainly points this way, as does the “just pretend it’s a video game” motif and the glitchy ghosts of alternate takes that haunt the film.   Only Candy and Ashley Bensen’s Brit have the commitment to their Foucaultian prisons to make drones out of themselves in defiance of social and physical reality.  Perhaps they had the cheat codes, or maybe the versions of these girls that we see here had flunked out of an earlier version of the movie and knew what they were doing this time – certainly Bay’s fragmented looping of different versions the same scene over and over could be read as a series of brief, preparatory reloadings, the product of a mind trying to get everything just right this time.

Regardless of the hows and why of it all, what’s clear is that these girls share Bay/Alien(Baylien?)’s vision [5], and find themselves willing and able to see the madness through to its illogical conclussion, transforming themselves into instruments of destruction in the hope that when they’re done raising the stakes on Alien’s three-way draydreams they’ll be able to get on with the difficult business of being decent people.  Good maximalist that he is, Bay overdoes it in the end – the queasily hostile racial tourism and uncontrained male fantasy implicit in Spring Breakers’ premise (and which, lest we forget, were trailed in the Transformers trilogy) aren’t so much critiqued or resolved as they are indulged to the extent that their toxicity overwhelms and destroys the movie in a final sequence in which the girls shoot the shit out of Gucci Mane and everyone he’s ever met.

There’s no escape in Spring Breakers, no going back for these girls, no space for anyone to “be a good person”.  As the girls make their way across the bridge, looking like the last living souls in the world, the camera twists so that they seem to be running along the ceiling, creating an impossibly beautiful reminder of the fact that they’re got nowhere to go back to, that in 2013 reality itself has finally succumbed to the Bayhem.

Wish you were here?

Soon you won’t be able to escape.


[1] Much has been made of the fact that Spring Breakers draws half of its main cast from the Disney training camps, and Bay uses these actresses tactically, deploying them on film like finite resources rather than plausible human beings, asking High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens to become whatever clothes and scenarios he places her in while allowing Selena Gomez to cling to a blanket of characterisation thin enough to be summarised by her character’s name:

Bay being Bay, he both uses this veneer of holiness to hint at the ecstatic nature of his product before tactically undercutting it later on, this seeming concession to traditional filmaking being just another tool in his arsenal.

It occurs to me that the smart, cynical awareness of the male gaze that’s obvious throughout Spring Breakers and the mechanical view of human sexuality implied by this makes for an amusingly arbitrary comparison with the other movie I saw in the cinema last week, so I’ve compiled a few shite jokes I made in an email which I will now attempt to pass off as competent movie criticism:

The Host, dir. Andrew Niccol, based on a book by the person who wrote Twilight so there’s precious little shagging in it, 2013

This is total fucking shit, unsurprisingly.  The stressy voiceover girl vs. horny alien body shtick makes for a sort of gauchely amusing once-removed exploration of a very traditional religious person’s attempt to deal with non-monogamous lusty feelings (“It’s not me that wants to hump that other guy – it’s the alien inside me!” – yeah yeah yeah, we’ve all heard that one before!), but otherwise this is a fairly dull take on that old “Perfection vs. What it is to be human” trope, with lots of spectacularly stilted dialogue just sitting there on top of some lovely desert scenery.  Unfortunately the aliens’ apparent love of white trousers and silver gear does not become an important plot point, despite the trailer’s many indications to the contrary; the expectation of this being important to the story, of it being a movie about the only look that matters, is one of two reasons I went to see this film in the first place, the other being the fact that my girlfriend wanted to see it, obvs.

There’s a speech early on in The Host where a cross alien speaks to the alien with the voiceover girl and warns her that “These bodies are not like other bodies. They have… urges. You must always be vigilant. Vigilant for boners.”   Reader, I laughed, and kept laughing, so imagine my disappointment when the finale came and the filmakers resolved their heroine’s central romantic dilemma (it’s basically the Scott Pilgrim problem – “How much would it suck if everyone fancied the shiny silver pants off of me?” – slightly complicated because eww, aliens) by separating alien from voiceover girl, and having them both live boringly ever after instead of having Hannah come to terms with her non-monogamous horniness (perfection vs. being human again), or – better yet – having male lust object number 2 implant the alien in his own head so he could spend the rest of his life wanking in a cupboard, thus making everyone’s dreams come true.

[Trust me, all of this makes sense if you’ve seen the movie.  Probably.]

What’s the point of all this?  Why am I talking about The Host in the footnotes to a review of Spring Breakers?  Well, maybe I wanted to make a point about how the juxtaposition of these two movies suggests that cultural expectations for female sexuality have yet to develop beyond the point where one can be either a nasty girl/fembot or a loving, functional human.  That argument’s as dusty as the viewpoint it’s attacking though, so maybe I intended to develop it into a discussion of the way our subjectivity is formed, and how indicative it is that even when imagining ourselves cohabiting with another, separate, literally-fucking-Alien consciousness our go-to resolution involves getting the fuck out of that situation so we can enjoy a straightforward romantic life (there are other narrative threads at work here, but y’know – whatever).

Or maybe, just maybe, I wanted to share that gag about the guy wanking in the cupboard with an uncaring public.  Yeah.  That’s probably it.

[2] One of Spring Breakers’ current screen rivals provides an excellent counterpoint to Bay’s latest picture, an exploration of the road Bay chose not to travel, so I asked ambivalent enthusiast Mister Attack if he had any thought on the film they call–

G.I. Joe: Retaliation, dir. Jon M. Chu, a dance as old as time

This is what he came up with:

INACTION FORCE – Mister Attack vs G.I. Joe: Retaliation

I hated The Matrix. Bored my tits off. Spent half the time laughing at the plot, and the other half wondering when the thing was going to stop feeling like an advert for sunglasses and bust out this jaw-dropping action I’d been hearing about. I don’t subscribe to the notion that they got worse as they went on. Although, it is pretty funny that their immense set piece in the second one is a big-ass fight where no-one appears to actually get hit.

Action should, well, have a change in energy. That moment when Jason Bourne or Indiana Jones lands a punch is sold to us in a visual and aural language so that we get it. Things get weird when you watch something that’s swinging in the direction of realism, and people keep slapping each other about in a way that is probably more realistic, but that we’re not as coded to accept as cinematic violence.

Then there’s this shit, which plays out like someone can’t let go of The Matrix…

Just shake the fucking camera, ramp the speed up and down, and hope it looks like people are hitting one another. Hell, that’s why the Tumbler sequence in Batman Begins is so pivotal (as a set piece), because most of the Bat-fu is obscure and vague.

The first G.I. Joe film? Yeah, it’s crap in places, but it’s also a bit of a giggle. And I don’t just mean trying to figure out what the hell we were meant to take from that sequence where Snake-Eye does nothing, but the baddies get stopped anyway. A few naughty words here and there aside, it seems to me that it was a pretty good boys action movie. It’s like James Bond copped off with Star Wars. Every other scene was about selling this product, these war toys. It took me back to days spend staring into the Action Force catalogue poster that would come with one of the vehicles, thinking up what I do if I had all those toys. Oh, the stories I would tell. Ray guns, ninjas, mole tanks, jet packs. It was silly. Hell, I simultaneously giggle and cringed as oh my God, are they doing a parody of FireFox?

It didn’t quite look like G.I. Joe or Action Force, but hey, it’s 2009 gramps. Kids like Halo these days. Just go with it. I’d never seen a Stephen Sommers movie before. I saw him interviewed once on TV where he sneered that vampires with little fangs weren’t scary, and that Van Helsing had made them scary by giving them 18 inch fangs. With that little snippet in my head, I was able to construct a picture. I imagined someone much like Michael Bay appears to be. Someone who believes their own bullshit and thinks that the success of things is their skill, and not anything to do with the brand. Bay thinks he took an silly idea, and made it a massive success. Nothing to do with, if Hasbro’s claims are to be believed, it being based on a product encountered at some point by 75% of males between the ages of 5 and 35. After all, he conceded that he though Indiana Jones was a terrible idea, and it somehow made millions. So, as long as they keep parts of it ‘toyetic’, these kinds of auteurs are free to put their stamp on it, make it not lame for people like them.

By contrast, the trailer for Retaliation was guaranteed to cause a massive cheesy grin. The mirrored mask is back! HISS tanks! What the hell is Bruce Willis doing in this? Maybe it was in the hands of someone who loved the source material…

In practice, this movie gets the look right, but there’s nothing under the hood. The audience will be as bored as Bruce Willis’ seems to be. Flat action and flat characters. The random episodes of Power Rangers Ninja Storm that never seem to be off Channel 5 when I fall out of bed on the weekend do this shit better.

Yes, I am mostly talking around this movie, because it was boring as fuck.


[3] Spring Breakers sees Michael Bay push past his shameless sexualisation of Megan Fox in Transformers 2 and on towards the strange space where stupidity and satire meet.  The fact that this gives the movie an easy marketing hook, while also providing the quartet of starlets with an opportunity to display their credentials as fearless risk takers is just one of many signs of the fact that Spring Breakers is the product of a mind terrifyingly familiar with the workings of late capitalism.

Well, did you ever really doubt it?

[4] If Cotty’s relative vulnerability to traditional firearms seems strange at first, just think back to how many scenes featured her passed out, or cut off from her group and surrounded by rapey guys – of all the girls, she is the only one who seems connected with physical reality, so it makes sense that she would want to get out before the all action finale.

[5] Based on my entirely un-scientific sampling of reviews, Franco’s performance has been perhaps the most consistently praised element of Spring Breakers, and his “big moments” seem to be the among main talking points.  Franco’s ability to disappear into this role shows a commitment to the props and scenarios that he’s provided with matches Hudgens’, and there’s little doubt tht the showstopping routines that result from this – most notably Alien’s “look at my shit” speech, his eager gun-sucking in the bedroom, and his rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Every Time’ – will no doubt define the film in the collective memory.

To avoid going over well-trodden ground, I’ve decided not to discuss any of that, preferring to focus on the overall themes and feel of the movie instead.  Perhaps that was a mistake, but before writing this I asked myself, “What would Michael Bay do?”

The answer?  FUCK YOU!

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