"Most prefer satire when it's dealing with the distant past to the extent that one can feel morally superior to the subject of ridicule without recognizing oneself in the mix."
Many regard Total Recall as one of Verhoeven's lesser films, but really the satire runs so deep in Total Recall that it seems as though Verhoeven is in a battle with himself in creating a film absolutely drenched in the Hollywood formula. In his attempt to embellish American consumerism, Verhoeven chose to dress the film with blatant product placements (Coca-Cola, Fujifilm), mini-malls, faux-vacation technology, and, of course, the most bankable star in the industry (at the time): Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that Elizabeth Berkley—fresh off the after-school special known as Saved by the Bell and destined to suffer the flailing career of a teenage celebrity—came to star in Showgirls. And knowing Harmony Korine's distaste for Hollywood and traditional storytelling, it's no surprise that this generation's batch of teenage celebrities are the stars of Spring Breakers.
The guy who hates Hollywood/writer and director: Harmony Korine
The innocent Disney star/the brunette/Faith: Selena Gomez
The rising teenage stars/the blondes/Candy and Brit: Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson
The independent star/the one with pink hair/Cotty: Rachel Korine
The personification of Hollywood/Alien: James Franco
What It's Good For:
-an incredible performance from Franco
-a comment on the rise-and-fall stories of Hollywood
-condemning the industry for objectifying rising stars
-a soundtrack that makes Skrillex sound poetic/gain actual purpose
-growth for Harmony Korine as a storyteller
-helping Harmony Korine's career gain more recognition
-severely mismarketed; not the fun affair depicted in trailers; very slow, liquid narrative
-lots and lots of nudity (especially in the first few minutes)
-lots and lots of cursing
-lots and lots of deaths near the end
-you hate Harmony Korine (you wouldn't be alone)
Think of all of the failed careers after being a child star, both men and women. There just isn't enough room for all of them, is there? I mean, hell, look at the Harry Potter cast. Emma Watson may be the only one from the bunch with a legitimate shot in the industry (I'm hoping Daniel Radcliffe just sticks with Broadway).
Although I wouldn't be against a sequel to Thunderpants...
Anyway, child/teenage stars are no strangers to ridicule in Hollywood, as many of their highly publicized careers have devolved into porn, drugs, crime, unexpectedly flashing your crotch at the paparazzi, whipping your dick out at a movie theater, [insert career-ending/rock-bottom stunt here]. But, more often than not, careers simply whimper out. For every Shia LiBeouf, there's a couple dozen Christy Carlson Romanos. For every Leonardo, there are some crazy Kirks. For every Hilary Duff, there's a crystal meth addicted LaLaine.
And, if you don't count what Mario Lopez does as "acting" (or "work"), not a single member of Saved by the Bell went on to have serious movie careers (although you could always just write an INSANE BOOK if film isn't panning out for ya).
I should probably note: Spring Breakers and Showgirls aren't giant metaphors for Macaulay Culkin and Lindsay Lohan, aka the rise and fall of teenage stars. Characters aren't necessarily defined by where they're standing at a certain camera angle. Rather, both Verhoeven and Korine (each in their own way) are attacking the lie sold to up-and-coming, aspiring stars of the industry. The happiness accompanied rising to the top. The dream glamorized on the television and movie screen.
In fact, you can probably find the word "dream" preached (or perhaps muttered during the inevitable downfall sequence) several times during any film of this nature. David Lynch was no stranger to attacking Hollywood's mistreatment of its stars, which he did most prominently and directly in Mulholland Dr. The oh-so-naive Betty is absolutely beaming early in the film, saying:
"I couldn't afford a place like this in a million years...unless, of course, I'm discovered and become a movie star. Of course, I'd rather be known as a great actress than a movie star. But, you know, sometimes people end up being both. So that is, I guess you'd say, sort of why I came here. I'm sorry. I'm just so excited to be here. I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I'm in this dream place. Well, you can imagine how I feel."
As mentioned earlier, Verhoeven cared deeply about how American critics reacted to his films, but also wasn't afraid to call them out on their bullshit:
"American critics always complain about the blandness of mainstream movies, but when you do something more ambiguous and ironic, they are pissed off too. I like putting certain aspects of American society under the magnifying glass and showing them for what they are."
"Offended critics...are reacting not to the fact that they've been punished for wanting titties (after all, the titties are there and they are spectacular), but that they're being more slyly punished for wanting Nomi to succeed (or fail, as the case were) specifically because it will fulfill their preconceived notions of the archetypes of wish fulfillment."
"Did you win?" asks Jeff while driving away from the City of Dreams (of all places!).
"What did you win?"
But what did she really win? "The dream" rears its ugly head and punishes everybody in the protagonist's path—as it always seems to during films that critique rise-and-fall stories in Hollywood (Mulholland Dr., Sunset Blvd.)—yet there's promise and giddiness in the shot where Nomi drives down the highway and Verhoeven pans up to Nomi's "Goddess" billboard. It's a false victory—a faux sense of catharsis that betrays every contradicting lesson her drive for stardom has taught her.
If this was indeed the ending's intention, and if there is indeed a lie being sold to rising stars, and if the viewer is indeed part of the problem in embracing and reselling that lie, then Elizabeth Berkley's role is undeniably a prototype for that tragic figure cast aside by Hollywood. Fresh off the Saved by the Bell train and attempting to create a name for herself, Berkley's career almost needed to fail if Showgirls' satirical observations were to hold up twenty years ahead—a time and place where rising teenage celebrities face as much ridicule and hardship as the batch from Berkley's generation.
You can look at the now 74-year-old director's interview with JoBlo and read his comments about current Hollywood films (including the 2012 disgrace of a remake of his Total Recall): "It’s all completely nonsense. It’s not about anything that has any reality to it, unless you fill it in. And you have to put your own personality into it." Verhoeven loved Hollywood for the props and stories it had to offer, but he also understood that Hollywood could be better. He believed a sense of reality needed to be pumped into movies, and Showgirls was the campy centerpiece of that very idea.
So we can look at films like Showgirls and Total Recall, and see that Verhoeven had a fascination with Hollywood that directly influenced and altered the course of his films. So what is Harmony Korine's relationship with Hollywood, and how does it affect his films? From the white-trash imbued Gummo, to the blatantly Hollywood idolizing/condemning Mister Lonely, to his current deprecation of lies sold to young actors and actress Spring Breakers?
You don't need to search the Internet for very long to find a Hollywood-related quote from Korine. Just take this interview where he says:
"When I look at the history of film - the early commercial narrative movies directed by D.W. Griffith, say - and then look at where films are now, I see so little progression in the way they are made and presented, and I'm bored with that. Film can be so much more."
"The worst thing for it would be this kind of indifference that I feel toward almost all other filmmakers. I have total disdain for almost all other filmmakers because they give me nothing that I want to see. They give me nothing that's true. They only give me process and lies. They just make the wrong moves and, again, I have nothing to do with them, and I'm not part of any kind of movement. I'm my own, and to me there's no great history of American new wave. There's only specific maverick, patriot type independent directors, maybe John Cassavettes and Sam Peckinpah, a few people, and that's more my lineage."
"How can an artist be expected not to be self-indulgent? That's the whole thing that's wrong with filmmaking today. Ninety nine percent of the films you see do not qualify as works of art. To me, art is one man's voice, one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person. Self-indulgent to me means it's one man's obsession. That's what great artists bring to the table. When fucking critics or whatever say, 'he's self-indulgent,' I don't know what that means. The reason I stopped watching films is because so many people lack any kind of self-indulgence. But I don't believe in being boring."
The most obvious (and most important) similarity is the cast. Elizabeth Berkley was the goody-two shoes from Saved by the Bell whose worst moment was becoming temporarily addicted to pain pills. Otherwise, it was nothing but four years of squeaky-cleanness for her character Jessie Spano, until Berkley shocked the world when she dry humped (and later hump humped) Kyle MacLachlan in Showgirls. As explained earlier, her first big role being a flop and her lack of legitimate roles thereafter keeps in line with the general image of teenage celebrities failing in the industry. But Berkley's failure wasn't Verhoeven's fault—our inability to recognize the genius of her role and performance in a film that's directly critiquing the audience is what truly destroyed her career. For a film dissecting the rise-and-fall stories of Hollywood, Berkley became the perfect prototype for Verhoeven.
Knowing Korine's relationship with Hollywood, it's no coincidence that independent actors (Samantha Morton, Chloë Sevigny, Ewen Bremner, Diego Luna) have starred in his past films. So it probably came as a shock when Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson—the stars of Wizards of Waverly Place, High School Musical, and Pretty Little Liars—were cast in the new Harmony Korine flick. In addition, we have Harmony's wife Rachel Korine—with a few independent films under her belt—playing a somewhat detached role outside this band of Disney stars. Perhaps most surprising was that Korine's new film was not about white trash podunks or disease affecting families or people humping trash, but instead a film about the epitome of America's current aimless generation: spring break.
Korine has acknowledged a strange fascination with spring break, calling it an "American cultural phenomenon" and a "right of passage" for youth culture. Much like Hollywood and the film industry, spring break is glamorized on the screen, full of kids having a good time, aka gettin' drunk and gettin' laid. That image (indicated by the repeated statement, "spring break bitches") is what's sought after by these four girls.
First and foremost, both Verhoeven and Korine established the "dream" associated with Hollywood. For Verhoeven, it's establishing Nomi's misdirection in life. Stripped of a family and left to wander the endless west coast highways, an image of Las Vegas' sign displaying a population of "342" says a lot about the exclusivity of the film industry and the difficulty of breaking in. "You gotta gamble if you're gonna win," Jeff says as they pull into Vegas. Nomi is unperturbed, clearly fueled by nothing but misguided ambition and a shallow need to succeed and become famous. "I'm gonna win," she responds, foreshadowing a constantly and drastically up-and-down lifestyle that Nomi never seems to learn from.
The first thing Nomi does in Vegas is test her luck on the slot machines. She wins big immediately—what a magical place! But a quick cut reveals Nomi to lose all of her money soon afterwards. Even when Nomi "wins" (foreshadowing the final line), it's clear she hasn't learned a goddamned thing. What does this loss do to her drive? Absolutely nothing. She is soon gambling with her career in order to rise quickly to the top. She's in a constant state of denial, ignoring the grim signs the "City of Dreams" keeps tossing at her. There is only flashing lights, extravagant dancing, endless opportunities—there is only the biggest show in Vegas: "Goddess".
Spring Breakers opens with an elongated sequence of titties and ass—bright beach landscapes splashed with yellows and pinks, booze pouring into mouths, and girls ripping off their bikinis while Skrillex buzzes in the background. There are nothing but smiles on these kids' faces. There is nothing but bliss associated with spring break by the MTVs of the world. This is a magical place these four girls must find.
Breaking out of the teenybopper scene and shifting into a world of mature and challenging roles, Gomez, Hudgens, and Benson become prototypes for such a hardship. Spring break, just like Hollywood, looks glamorous and inviting and promises a bright future. And much like Nomi's moment at the slot machine, the vision is realized, and then immediately stripped away. Faith (Gomez) tells her grandmother that spring break is the "most spiritual place I've ever been....It feels as if the world is perfect. Like it's never going to end." This level of attachment to a place Faith has literally been at for one day is a scary realization of how shallow their collective attraction is.
Their misconception of the horrid realities of spring break is exemplified in a paralleled moment featuring a robbery and a reenactment of the robbery. Candy's sense of reality is clearly warped through mass media influences, as she attempts to motivate her robbing companions by saying, "Just pretend you're in a video game. Act like you're in a fucking movie." What follows is a quiet sequence shot from Cotty's (Rachel Korine) car, as Candy and Brit smash dishes and force people to the floor in order to steal their money. We hear nothing, and only see the robbery taking place. Cotty remains calmly in the car and celebrates with the girls afterwards. Once at spring break, this shot is brought to life for Cotty as Candy and Brit retell it, forcing Cotty to the ground to physically experience the horror she was sheltered from inside her car. Korine cuts between shots of Candy and Brit's jarring recreation and the actual, formerly unseen robbery. Here we have two images of the industry: what's depicted on the screen from a safe distance, and experiencing the scary reality.
It's in these moments we actually start to see some differentiation between each of these characters' and their roles in depicting the rise-and-fall storyline, and it seems to directly coincide with their real-life counterparts. Hudgens has already begun her sidle into Hollywood, starring in slightly raunchier features like Sucker Punch, while Benson has broken into the industry through not-so-innocent television shows such as The O.C. and Pretty Little Liars. They're each primed for a seemingly breakthrough role, ready to capture the dream. They've tested themselves beyond their Disney reputation, and the robbery was just another step toward realizing their trip to spring break. "It's the best way to live," Candy says to a terrified Faith after they finish recreating their robbery. "You'll have all this money and all this power."
Faith, who still candidly clutches onto her faith in God and her Church life, is nerved by the recreation of the robbery. Before the dream seemed "perfect" and spring break was a "spiritual place". But now, as reality and doubt settles in, Faith's real-life counterpart Selena Gomez displays a similar predicament. After all, Gomez's most daring film so far has been Horton Hears a Who!, and her role in such a sexy feature is quite the leap. Witnessing the darker side of the industry could very well drive her away.
Rachel Korine, already a star in a few Harmony Korine films, Rachel Korine embodies a somewhat seasoned individual that has gone through the motions. But notice how she's never a part of Candy and Brit's sinister games. She's the lookout for the robbery; she is absent when Candy and Brit bang Alien; and, most importantly, the moment she gets shot ends her trip to spring break. She's an independent star with no place in Hollywood's sick, self-servicing games.
And, of course, we can't forget about Alien (played by James Franco), who essentially becomes all of Nomi's teachers friends, and rivals (Cristal, James, Al, and Tony) all rolled up into one. He is the one that bails them out of jail and temporarily suspends their downward spiral. He is their ticket out of squalor, he is their ticket into the "beautiful" perks of spring break. He can show them the ropes (James), he can provide them with jobs to realize their dreams (Al and Tony), and he is the top dog in the industry (Cristal). And Alien, as the man in charge of the industry, is there with the smooth talk and compliments, creating a fairy-tale-esque aura about them while objectifying them in a scene where he makes a camera with his fingers and poetically states:
"It must be a fucking dream
These three girls in front of me
How can this be?
They're like three mermaids come up from the sea
Close my eyes, every time I look
They're like old-fashioned bitches straight out of a book"
Here we have four girls: one brunette, two blondes, and one with pink hair. After being arrested for drinking underage, we can see their individual reactions and how their separate groupings reflect their real-life counterparts. "This can't be the end of the dream," says one of the girls (it's hard to tell), indicating that jail definitely does not coincide with their magical, spiritual perception of spring break. But upon meeting Alien, who could be their spiritual guide through such a journey, their reactions tell the story.
First we have the brunette, a virgin to the society's dark underbelly (no robberies on her record), and hesitant about following Alien down an unknown path.
"This is not what we came here for. We came here to have fun," a sobbing Faith tells her friends as Alien's hoodlum posse rambunctiously prances around and forces her into a game of 8-ball. But Faith's attempt to guide her friends back home is a losing battle, as Alien has already enamored the other three girls (they gleefully pile in the backseat of his car, while Faith scowls and sits with her arms folded in front). All he needs to do is show off the materialistic portions of spring break these girls have been accustomed to through the screen: the nice cars, the bling, the wealthy lifestyle ("I'm fucking made of money! Look at my teeth!!"). Faith, however, requires some psychological tampering.
"Your name's Faith? Does that mean you got faith? You believe in God? You pray a lot? You praying for your girlfriends? I was just thinking—maybe you did all that praying and I'm the answer to your prayers...you was all in trouble, and here I am."
Preying on Faith's morals, Alien's scumbag move reflects much of the manipulation practiced on Nomi in Showgirls. The misguiding promises and the self-servicing lies, all of which are aimed at procuring these unknowing girls for an industry they hold a fairy-tale view of. Faith, however, has been burned by spring break through her arrest—an incredibly similar idea expressed through Molly's dark realization in Showgirls. Molly is enamored by Andrew, bewitched by his good looks and his celebrity status, thus she unknowingly puts her trust in a man that eventually rapes her.
"If you go home, you're gonna be thinking, 'Hmm, maybe I missed something out there,'" Alien says to Faith, but she's already seen the ugly truth of the industry. "You're gonna go, but your friends are gonna star with me," he says much more sinisterly. Girls are used and objectified, and then tossed out for the next rising star. If you can't fill the shoes, then other aspiring talent will. She would have to compromise her morals (her faith in God) to remain at spring break—a dilemma Candy, Brit, and Cotty (and Nomi) have no problem ignoring for the time being. Thus, Faith departs on her bus, leaving spring break.
Cotty (the out-of-place girl with pink hair) is constantly excluded from Candy and Brit's games. While she was messing with boys in earlier scenes, flashing her boobs and teasing their dicks ("You're never gonna get this pussssssy"), Candy and Brit were quietly sleeping in bed together, dreaming of something bigger. In these moments, we can see the two images of Spring Break—the image sold on the screen, and the mystery that lies beyond. Cotty is content with spring break's underlings—with their chiseled abs and horny aspirations, these boys are just glimpses into the industry. Small roles that lead to larger goals. But once with Alien, the pink-haired girl is separated from the two blondes. France writes a pretty "poem" about the three of them as a group, but only two of the girls are willing to work for stardom. They're willing to kiss Alien, indulge his mind games, show off their bodies, and eventually sleep with him. Cotty, on the other hand, remains on the periphery, still toying with Alien's posse and remaining stagnant on the ladder.
Cotty is, just like Faith, burned once the fire ignites. We soon meet Archie (played by Gucci Mane?!) who is fighting for control of the territory with Alien. Archie also employs many girls in his posse (he owns a strip club, after all), and wishes to recruit members who will aid in his robberies. Cotty does perform some robberies with Candy and Brit, but Alien and Archie's battle over the rising stars (which could easily be compared with Al and Tony's separate reigns in Showgirls) soon produces its first causality. Suddenly in the mix of a lifestyle Candy and Brit have been subjected to privately through Alien, Cotty realizes how expendable and vulnerable she's become once she's shot during Archie's drive-by. Thus, we receive the same shot of Faith on the bus, but this time with Cotty in her place, escaping an industry that did not live up to (or perhaps went beyond) her expectations.
And then we're left with Candy and Brit—blonde, attached at the hip, and (just like in the real world) primed for a blooming career in Hollywood. Korine's clear disgust for mainstream Hollywood may shine through here more than ever, because these two girls become more confident than Alien before the final shootout with Archie. There's an insane scene where Alien is showing off all of his guns, clothing and jewelry ("This is the fuckin' American dream! This is my fuckin' dream, y'all!! All this sheeeeeyit!!!"), controlling the situation and attempting to seduce Candy and Brit. But in a turn of events, the two blondes pull out one of Alien's guns and force him to his knees. "Suck it," they say, forcing Alien to go down on his own gun. It's a power shift that suddenly swaps the roles: Alien is now at these girls' mercy, calling them his "soul mates".
"Scaredy pants," Candy repeats while their ménage à trois eerily reflects Nomi's moment with Zack in Showgirls. "Yeah, I'm real scared," he finally admits, revealing a sudden hesitancy on the boss' part. This moment is much different than Showgirls, where the owner sits above the stars as they eliminate one another. No, this time Korine's feelings leak into the moment and foreshadow a much different trajectory. Thus, Candy and Brit's victory vs. Nomi's victory shed very different lights. Both, however, are equally depressing. Each of these girls have compromised their morals and standards in order to achieve such a high status: for Nomi it's starring in "Goddess", and for Candy and Brit it's making it through the entirety of spring break. But while Nomi's faux victory is fueled by a continual denial of the industry's ugly truths, Candy and Brit's victory is one of conquering the system. Nomi wins, but she also believes she's become a better person while getting there, despite having to shove Cristal down the stairs and sacrificing her friends in the process. But Candy and Brit have chosen to take a lesson away from their trip and escape the ugly world of spring break:
"I feel different for some reason. I feel changed, like I just wanna be a good girl now. I wanna be happy and have fun. I think that's the secret to life—being a good person."
And then we have Candy's conversation with her mom. It holds the same aura and emotion as Faith's conversation with her grandmother, but in light of conquering both Alien and Archie, the scenarios reflect a feeling that is never compromised, but realized:
"I think we found ourselves. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. It was so nice to get away from reality for a while. Something so amazing. So magical. It almost seems like the world is perfect. Like it's never going to end."
The "reality" comment is what sticks out the most to me. Nomi experienced the dark underbelly of show business, yet came out claiming she "found herself". But Candy and Brit were able to recognize that spring break did indeed exist outside of reality. After all, spring break only lasts a week—eventually, the dream (and careers) must end. These two insights clearly reflect their respective directors. Verhoeven begged the industry and the viewer to realize they are part of the problem—we fuel such ignorance in these characters. Korine, on the other hand, has no hope for such an industry. It's constricting, unoriginal, and completely closed off from reality. Nomi's victory invites us to realize and solve the problem—Candy and Brit's victory asks us to realize and then transcend the problem. And looking at their career trajectories, Verhoeven's continued fight within the industry and Korine's continued fight outside the industry reflect both of these mindsets.
Did I like it:
Absolutely. I loved it. I'm not the biggest Harmony Korine fan, but Julien Donkey-Boy intrigues me from what I've seen, and Spring Breakers feels like a sign that he's directed better films than the somewhat overrated Gummo. I think he's evolved as a storyteller, as his images have now gained a coherent meaning instead of existing on their own...which is beautiful to witness, but as a cohesive whole, something wasn't clicking for me before Spring Breakers.
Franco killed it. KILLED IT. He's hilarious, he's disgusting, he's sinister. I really hope he gets a nomination for his role, which would also give Korine some recognition.
I still hate Skrillex, but damn it I might actually delve deeper into his music after this movie. That might be a bad idea...but we'll see.
Most people I've spoken to don't like this film. That's understandable. People hated Showgirls because it made them feel uncomfortable. But I think the discomfort stems from something deeper than T&A, and our awareness of these characters' scary situation rings truer and closer than we realize upon first glance.
I think it's similar to what Modigliani said about Killing Them Softly (and what's true of Showgirls)—people may not fall heads over heels for the film, but time will allow us to delve deeper into Spring Breakers and decipher its finer elements. If our distaste doesn't recede, at least our respect will grow. And I'll gladly take that.