Guest Critic – Mike Polizzi – Spring Breakers & Gravity

Written by Mike Lyon on December 30th, 2013

Spring Breakers is a kind of Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio, a play on the rites of Spring tuned through the mythology of the early aughts with Britney and K-Fed styled mythic lovers. What it accomplishes, in all its loopy, repetitive, and dayglo-ness, is a pretty quick excavation of entitlement, class and race around the business of having fun in America. James Franco’s nearly Floridian, almost consistently accented sleazing of the mantra, “Spriiiiing Breeeeeak,” wedges itself deep within the inner ear. Expect it to completely uncoil and leak out into some bikini clad silhouette grease spot on your pillow by the time you’re 82. The movie gets in your head. The structure is rhythmic and supple, hypnotizing and intoxicating. It is spring break, the music video, with all the menace and predation left in, and enough of a brain to keep the camera rolling through to the flip side of the fun, where—depending on your outlook—the fun ends or it really begins.

God bless Gucci Mane—for his name and his ice cream coned face. Franco provides the K-fed, gun-fellating (it happens) skeez and Mane provides the aura of gangsta authenticity, the glimpses into the business of fun. It’s enough to see the strippers working in the club to understand the price of the freedom the college students feel when they flash for the camera. But the movie deals in doubles, archetypes and personas and the girls we’re following are different than the co-eds at the end of the beer bongs. They do that too, but they robbed to get there. They each have their own limit to how far they’ll go. They peel off one by one in layers, like Britney’s morality, dignity, and sanity until only two are left.

In Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese originally wanted Travis Bickle’s final shoot out to happen in an all black brothel. Harvey Keitel was brought in to play the pimp late when they worried the scene might provoke a race riot (hey). That final scene is re-imagined here, as a video game cum rap video mash up in St. Petersburg, FL where machine gun carrying bikini-girls in pink ski masks provide something close to the first person POV (the camera hovers just behind them, their masks glow an eerie black-lit blue) and take out the all black personnel in Gucci Mane’s outfit, then Gucci Mane himself (he has another name in the movie, but why? Gucci Mane!). The girls ride the same wave of entitlement that brought them to spring break and follow the ride all the way through. Their sense of entitlement is up against everyone else’s and the girls win Spring Break. For nerds like me, who never really went to Spring Break and always thought it sounded like an invitation to the douche-Reich beach games, Korrine shows why it is important to pay attention. Spring Break is a rite of passage for a huge number of kids in America and it is so because in offering the opportunity to lose yourself in unbridled fun, it crystalizes all of the stuff of our culture: greed, gluttony, classism, racism, and sexism—it’s what we become when the rite is over.

How? Admittedly, whenever I watch a movie in the theater in 3-D that looks as good as this movie did, I lose a portion of my critical apparatus, but still—unbelievable. Cuarón’s films have impressed me in the past, even The Prisoner of Azkaban sticks out as my favorite of the Potter films, but this was something new. Gravity takes the weightlessness of space as its story, its setting and its main character and articulates lavishly. Sandra Bullock is central and enthralling, but also ballast for our capacity to view what the camera is up to here. Aside from the technical brilliance and breathlessness of the movie’s momentum, Cuarón even manages to fit in references, mostly silent nods, towards filmed weightlessness that preceded—aside from 2001 and Apollo 13, the image above comes from a scene that moves from frantic to sensual with such smoothness, I found myself wondering why I was thinking about Barbarella.

Space babies, physics, ballistics and the excellent recreation of evolution that occurs in the lake, this is what I’ve wanted from movies. For an added slap in the face, the plot revolves around a present-day space mission that goes wrong. The technology presented for space travel and inhabitation is all the humdrum stuff that the evening news rarely shows. Zero G? Ho Hum. It’s a shame it takes a stray Russian rocket to make the plot—I’d be happy hanging around and listening to astro-Clooney talk about the time in the bar with the girl in New Orleans, while Sandy Bullock stifles her nausea for a year as long as the camera keeps winding around. But as an assessment of where the culture of movie making is? I can see Cuarón’s point—why haven’t things moved forward? We have the tools and yet we have spent the last decade watching film impress its physicality on us to try to show its continued relevance. This may be why he chose to keep Sandy as his ballast. Her performance and physical struggle is as difficult and visceral as any heroine from a horror flick. So he’s speaking in part through one of the primary milieus of the past decade but doing so in the hopes of pushing it forward. This is the first confident digital movie I have seen and I can see why he took up the gauntlet here and pushed the envelope. To continue to do interesting things, our culture has to move forward, and our culture is predicated by and large by what we choose to watch.

-Mike Polizzi blogs at Grid Politics; find him on Twitter @mike_polizzi

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