This year has seen the release of two films by Gen X auteurs about wanton, indulgence-worshipping millennials: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Both could be seen approaching from months away, led by a storm of pr and anticipation, and their arrivals made them seem like a diptych of aesthetic zeitgeists.
These are the latest works by two 40-something American directors who both put mood and gesture before traditional dramatic devices, and as such their reception has sustained interest and ambivalence about the ambiguous moral positions and narrative shapes each represents. Both films revolve around cliques of contemporary high-school girls (and, in the case of The Bling Ring, one boy) who, grasping at material fantasies, naively enter into criminality and spiral into cartoonish albeit vulnerable caricatures of their supposedly lost and nihilistic generation.
Of the two, Spring Breakers was almost universally favoured, perhaps because it appears to be more original, expressionistic and overtly critical of consumer culture. Korine’s girls are from a nowhere town in the Southeast. They are hot, dumb and, if not benign, then at least sweet. The friends rob a restaurant with hammers and fake guns in order to fund a spring break in Florida. While vacationing in a perpetual savage haze they decide it’s ‘spring break forever’, but are jailed for illicit partying. After being bailed out by a low-rung gangster played by James Franco, they squirm or revel in the underbelly of whatever awful city they are near and take up real arms. One by one they head home, until only two remain. By the final sunset, they have faded into indistinguishable approximations of each other.
By contrast, The Bling Ring appears subdued, though it is sumptuous in its cinematography and frighteningly authentic in its portrayals of suburban la teens. As a Los Angeles Times reviewer noted of the eschatological Brad Pitt flick World War Z (2013), ‘The Bling Ring is the summer’s true zombie movie.’ This is not to say it’s any less interesting than Spring Breakers. The root difference is that, rather than a strung-out poem, it’s essentially a procedural re-enactment of real events, some of which have already been televised. The story is spliced together from two sources. The first is a 2010 Vanity Fair article chronicling how a pack of bored, covetous high-schoolers from Calabasas snuck into the unlocked homes of A-list celebrities to steal their couture and hang out in their bedrooms. The other is a reality show called Pretty Wild, which was being filmed at the time the article was published, about two of these girls – aspiring actress/models who were homeschooled the teachings of The Secret, a self-help book popularized by a non-denominational cult – just as the group had been busted, fast-tracked onto tabloid websites and prosecuted.
The appropriation of hip-hop, reality television, celebrity culture and all the other social and media (not least social media) demons that imbue American adolescence with dangerous superficiality provide the structural frameworks for these movies. Nearly every visual or aural cue in either film can be traced to some sub-genre of mass entertainment, but the more haunting coding of contemporary cultural logics can be seen in their respective brands of Brechtian distance or, in the case of these films, ‘virtuality’ effected through the use of repetition.
Sometimes the stuttered and repeated lines in Spring Breakers evoke the hampered mental state of being fucked up, but often enough – along with the broader plot – they reference the narrative progression of a virtual reality. The way the girls convince themselves to commit armed robbery is by intoning to one another: ‘Just pretend it’s a video game …’ The metaphor is repeated ad nauseam, with wishes for painless restarts to life when things get bad. The parade of raucous vignettes follows a level-based logic, where the ante is arbitrarily but incrementally upped as the protagonists hurtle through increasingly threatening situations.
‘Act like you’re in a movie or something,’ goes the second part of the spring breakers’ refrain. This is exactly what the real-life Bling Ring did between 2008 and 2009. Four years later, the characters onscreen enact an eerie simulation of deeds whose original perpetrators must have willfully muted their sense of cause and effect, pretending to inhabit some other fantasy plane of existence. The Bling Ring has been criticized as feeling apathetic, recycling the source material without its own vision for the events it portrays. Many of the quotes in the Vanity Fair piece are spoken verbatim and there are scenes from Pretty Wild that have been replicated, right down to the girls’ wardrobes and speech inflections. By glamorizing the Bling Ring mythology in the epic register of Hollywood, Coppola advances a meta story. The movie’s narrative may feel like only a glossy reiteration of known events, but the film itself is a transformational device that remakes conspiring kids as subjects of the celebrity culture that infatuated them. This is a parallel form of narrative levelling that extends beyond The Bling Ring’s screenplay and into the business of popular culture. As the end game of this already famous story, Coppola’s arguably trite rendition becomes its decisive apotheosis, in part because the film is banal enough not to constitute a creatively independent tangent to the source material.
True to synchronicity, there are many other strands of reflexivity and contradiction tethering the two films. Both employ stunt casting, with Emma Watson – at the time of the Bling Ring’s activities the highest paid actress in the world thanks to the Harry Potter films – slumming it as a sociopathic valley girl wannabe, and Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, also former child-friendly child stars (who are both products of the Disney machine), exploiting their newfound versatility as barely legal starlets marooned in hell with little clothing. For Spring Breakers, Korine commissioned a score from Skrillex, the messiah of stadium dubstep, a type of dance music synonymous in the us with new drugs and being a douchebag. Deadmau5, featured on Coppola’s soundtrack, is a staunch advocate of that sound. The other artists on The Bling Ring’s soundtrack amount to inter-genre, cross-promotional curation hovering around the notion of edgy, mainstream taste – Azealia Banks, 2 Chainz, M.I.A. – whereas Korine’s selection functions like a trash concept opera. Both extensively feature rap from their respective regions, furthering the trend of white teenagers co-opting black culture that hadn’t waned as of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Nearly every frame of Spring Breakers seems drenched in at least three tints of coloured light. It’s a feast, a rave, or whatever, for the senses. All shots in The Bling Ring are seductively choreographed to evoke the empty thrills of luxury or teenage rebellion – they alternate between looking like commercials for denim or perfume.
Things, of course, are the essence of both worlds. In The Bling Ring, every article of clothing belongs to an order of labels that corresponds to actual brand endorsements of the actually burgled stars. The most surreal location in the movie is the most real: the home – notably the closets and personal nightclub – of Paris Hilton. Imagining Hilton’s experience of filming and watching the scenes of girls fishing fistfuls of jewellery out of her wardrobe inspires an uncanny meditation on site and performance.
Few things that make up the lifeblood of the spring breakers are explicitly branded. Korine treats material excess with alchemical absurdity, as in the set for Franco’s bedroom, littered with a profuse display of weapons and cash. He speaks the name of Calvin Klein’s perfume ‘Escape’ and lavishes the girls with the cheap scent marketed to existential morons.
Both movies channel the disturbing inanity of thrill-obsessed millennial boredom (as a kind of bogeyman wrought by chic, adult ethnographers), in part by being both boring and constantly stimulating themselves. Spring Breakers is a riotous closed loop, while The Bling Ring is an unimaginative transposition of life into art. Both succeed in conveying a culture that thrives on memes and redundancy, by banging its head either in rhythm or against the wall, in a monotonous motion that’s vitally stupid.