Films often suffer from a critical hyper-intellectualization. This can cut both ways. In the first instance, a frivolous movie has a layer cake of false significations baked into its stylistic mold through a happenstance critical consensus. I can think of no better example than Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a pompous bit of film-making which charmed moviegoers in the way a glib science enthusiast might impress you with the fervor of his malapropisms. By force-feeding a ridiculous premise to his viewers with an unwavering gaze, Nolan got away with praise for an actual dud.
Conversely, a movie like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers risks being flattened by an earnest intellectualization. Impressionistic beyond whimsy, it signifies abundantly. Like a good poem, it attests to something both distinctly modern and very old.
We may yet have something to learn from Spring Breakers if we take it at face value and resist the urge to read it rather than to witness it. There is value in trash, especially when it flips the bird at bourgeois notions of good sense and good taste. And there is trash aplenty to be had in this film, along with what some might interpret to be the glorification of unchecked consumption – especially as it is expressed in the fantasy of the endless summer. (Reified by shows like Jersey Shore and Ex on the Beach, I proffer that this is the definitive collective fantasy of my generation.)
After all, the girls – with the notable exception of Faith, the film’s would-be protagonist – epitomize consumption: it dominates their screen time. They are frequently seen smoking cigarettes or weed, drinking hard liquor, or snorting cocaine. They seem perpetually bored, perpetually in need of stimulation, perpetually engaged in flouting anything not directly related to the pleasure principle.
And yet, there is ample reason to interpret Spring Breakers as an allegorical critique of consumerism.
The first hint of a consumerist motif comes when the girls rob a diner to fund their vacation. It becomes especially clear the second time around, when we witness the crime from within the diner as opposed to the earlier, deliberately comical unfolding from without.
During the lead-up, the girls prepare themselves with a mantra: “Think of it as a video game.” Armed with water pistols, they enter and warn diners to “get on [their] mother fucking knees,” with an inflection more suggestive of gangsta rap than of Grand Theft Auto.
The emotional distance we are encouraged to maintain as we watch the first time – with the hyperbolic threats diminished by literal distance, and by the gleeful post-robbery giggling of the unmasked college sophomores – is an excellent example of film’s ability to destabilize its audience. When the scene is later revisited, placing us in the shoes of an unsuspecting patron, the crime feels heart-rending: it induces regret for our earlier ignorance. Our capacity for empathy in a world of deceptive appearances and of teleological decision-making is called into question.
The linchpin here is the only extended shot of a person during the holdup. A man has been quietly eating his meal, and he happens to be seated on the girls’ exit path. We get the sense that he’d like to keep eating as the girls approach him. He might be thinking that he’s not about to let himself be humiliated by a few kids.
As he invariably capitulates by offering up his wallet, he looks away not in fear, but in self-loathing. This man – maybe a harder man than most, the scene suggests – is powerless before the relentless and impersonal force of consumerism. It is the unseen and unfelt enemy of human rights. The masked girls are its metonym.
The real force behind the Spring Breakers montage is its absurdity. It involves a barely fathomable role reversal.
The scene begins with the three girls requesting that Alien play them a song on his piano. (The aptly-named Faith, the film’s conscience, has by now departed.) Alien selects Britney Spears’ Everytime, and proceeds to tenderly sing the first verse.
The girls soon begin to prance around, seemingly impervious to anything the song might signify. Yet their earlier parking lot rendition of Hit Me Baby One More Time would suggest that this song, too, was ostensibly written for them. If any cultural item in the film could rightly be appropriated by writ of their generational provenance, this would be it.
Instead, the girls appear to be capable of little more than celebrating their own consumption. The only discernible emotion in their reaction is nostalgia for their first encounter with the song. Nothing else could explain the elation they seem to derive from such melancholy. Masked, they represent the everygirl of their generation for whom consumption is not related to an act of appropriation, but is an impersonal event on its own and for its own. The goal is beyond even pleasure. The goal is to consume.
The girls don’t have a reason to behave as thugs, to emulate Alien. What Alien came to as a matter of course, the girls see as a lawlessness authorizing truly uninterrupted and unimpeded consumption. Whereas Alien’s lawlessness is a poorly measured reaction to a set of circumstances, the girls’ lawlessness is nihilistic. They rejoice in the anarchy of a world not simply without laws, but first and foremost without meaning. If actions no longer signify beyond their immediate purview, then anything goes and nothing is necessary.
Superficially, the girls’ nihilism is identical to Alien’s philosophy, inchoate though it may be. This is why he calls them his soul mates. What a coincidence it must seem to him that three wholesome American girls should be the answer to his prayers, a new breed of “old-fashioned bitches” rising out of the sea.
The girls’ relationship with Alien is a testament to their vapidity, juxtaposed as it is against his fuller personhood, though it could hardly be called polyamory: they love him and are loved by him as a single entity. At first, Alien is surprised and impressed by how ice cold they are. Later, when they turn on him with loaded pistols, his adulation turns to fear. Maybe he had misjudged them. Maybe they’re even colder than he is.
When Alien fellates those pistols, he is terrified. We begin to suspect that he is not the film’s villain. He may be reprehensible, but his humanity is palpable. His lot led him to a life of crime, but his is a historically rooted character who has appropriated – albeit clumsily – an authentic lifestyle.
In their barely conscious consumption of criminal culture, which begins vicariously but quickly becomes participative, the girls subsume and overwrite it. They preserve none of its warped principles. They are faux criminals. To use a popular phrase: they commit an act of cultural appropriation.
The final, bloody showdown between the girls and Gucci Mane’s character cements the consumerist motif, but its heightened violence also asks a terrifying question. Whom should we really fear: the law breaker, or the lawless consumer?
As the girls emerge triumphant, riding bikini-clad in a stolen Lamborghini, Korine provides us with his answer. The nihilistic consumer – who, in her apotheosis, has turned away from every moral impulse and towards the anaesthetic of unprincipled consumption – cannot be understood in human terms. The criminal, however morally despicable, can be.
What precipitates the consumer’s victory? The lack of any limit all but guarantees a trouncing of humanity, with its sentimental attachments and commitments. The nub is that the true culprit of modernity is the psychopathic potential for which the girls of Spring Breakers are merely a symbol. It looks out at the world from within each and every one of us, and it stands ready to subdue what we have hitherto admired as our humanity.
In the absence of a transcendent set of principles to situate us in the world – in the presence, in other words, of the abyss of nihilism – what are we to do with this aspect of our being?
On one of my recent grocery runs, I witnessed a stock boy try to sell a shopper on organic eggs from a local farm.
“I don’t care if the chickens are raised better. If the eggs taste better, though – that’s a different story.”
Consumerism can be understood as the consequence of nihilism and capitalism. Its occurrence at once authorizes capital’s domination, forming with it a feedback loop and positing nihilism as the objective truth of modernity.
Capital invests and appropriates when its internal logic requires it to; it divests and abandons just as readily. Nihilism is the absence of any absolute moral standard. Combine the two, and behold a system in which the organization of production is chaotic, but pliable and optimally responsive to limitless, self-perpetuating demand.
It would be one thing if nihilism were confined to the owners of capital. In that case, the masses could force their hand. But nihilism is secular modernity’s default modus operandi. For the scholar, there appears to be no other way to accommodate a rich multiplicity of value systems. For the philosopher who has escaped rationalist dogma, there is no denying that reason itself is turtles all the way down.
For thoughtful people in general, there is a pernicious constellation of inconvenient truths. Global supply chains are complicated, and their implementations and effects are not uniquely terrible; statistics paint a muddled portrait of global development; it is difficult to fathom functional alternatives to the current economic system; many of the accoutrements of modern life have been a net benefit to humanity. A kind of selective nihilism – the homage vice pays to virtue – is grudgingly necessary for anyone swayed by the convincing, persistent logic of classical liberalism.
But for the consumer – for each and every one of us – a practical nihilism is so personal and so obvious, it becomes all but invisible. It is even a step too far to call it nihilism: it would be more accurate to call it a solipsism. But if I were permitted to move the goalposts here, I would argue that solipsism is a form of ersatz nihilism.
To state my case plainly: if the self and only the self is the measure of all things, then there are no things in any meaningful sense. All things become absolutely relativized and thereby emptied of content, divorced from reality. Modern thought is solipsistic because it presupposes the individual as supreme, and it sanctifies humanity’s emancipation: from nature, through the promise of a technological utopia, and from social obligation, through the promise of material wealth. Because wealth in a market society can only become manifest in acts of consumption, it is the latter principle which comes to predominate – as both the symbol and the effective power of emancipation.
The ‘ersatz’ in ‘ersatz nihilism’ points to the last remaining shroud. Whereas God once stood between humanity and the abyss, now only the self stands in the way. Yet the self so conceived is not substantial. In our actions both personal and collective, and in our newfangled ideologies, we assert time after time that the self is at once all-important and disposable. For the emancipation of this self is a universal project which excludes the other in all its forms: any threat to emancipatory consumerism is a threat to the self, and therefore to humanity. The supremacy of the individual is only feasible when the other is denied the right to exist. Classical liberalism rests on a titanic contradiction.
We therefore come face-to-face with a translucent reflection of ourselves, the post-modern wisp at the mouth of the abyss. The chasm is present. We fill it with things – things we do not appropriate. We would swap them for something better in a heartbeat. They have no special significance to us.
“If the eggs taste better, though” – the last remaining principle is consumption, on its own and for its own.
What does it mean? It need no longer mean a thing.