Spring Breakers and the Carnivalesque

11 July 2013 at 23:31 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

It may be hard for some to imagine that Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, who died in 1975, might have anything relevant to say about the MTV-popularized spring break partying rituals of American college students. Yet, Bakhtin’s work describing medieval carnival clearly applies to this contemporary example. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin describes “the carnivalesque” as a period in which class structures break down, normally forbidden behavior becomes the norm, and rules get broken without consequence. All of this and more occurs in many a beach town in late March, but this carnival ethics gets taken to its logical extreme in writer/director Harmony Korine‘s latest opus, Spring Breakers.

The film follows four young college women, Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), who desperately want to leave their boring college campus for an exciting spring vacation. Lacking the money to afford such a trip, all but Faith rob a chicken restaurant to fund their adventure. With the loot, they travel to a Florida beach town where they spend lavishly and party vigorously until they get caught in a drug raid at a party. A rapper called Alien (James Franco) bails the ladies out of jail. While Alien’s drug dealing, gangster lifestyle repels some of the girls, it attracts others, leading to a violent, but not punitive, end to the spring break festivities.

The depiction of youthful indulgence in Spring Breakers has literary antecedents stretching all the way back to the Renaissance genre that Bakhtin and others describe as grotesque realism. This literature uses hyperbole to depict the depraved behavior that takes place in a carnivalesque setting. Spring Breakers also uses exaggeration in several montages throughout the film. These sequences depict the provocative behavior of college co-eds, many of them half-dressed, simulating sexual acts, and engaging in homoerotic displays. The cinematography emphasizes the grotesque nature of these acts through slow-motion photography and close-up shots. All the more interesting, Korine uses the same series of shots several times throughout the film. This uncanny repetition produces a ritualistic effect, lending credibility to the equation of spring break to carnival.

The film also deploys markers of class and race to signal a breakdown of hierarchies, particularly later in the film. As with carnival, the spring break rituals flout traditionally middle-class conventions around sexuality and respectability, reveling instead in overtly sexual performances. All four girls seem comfortable with the scene, until Alien arrives. At that point, he introduces them to a different crowd, one that is populated by far more blacks than whites. It is at this point that Faith decides to return to her college town, indicating her discomfort in the change in the social scene. Here, then, we get a further breakdown of distinctions, not merely in terms of class, but also race.

While Faith departs, Cotty, Candy, and Brit remain, further embracing the criminality that got them to spring break in the first place. Alien, it turns out, makes most of his money selling drugs, much to the chagrin of his former best friend and local kingpin, Big Arch. Sex, violence, and money, all get wrapped up together in the climax (I won’t give too many details away). In the end, though, it’s the women who most fully embrace this ethos of excess who reap the greatest rewards. In other words, Spring Breakers upends the typical narrative in which young adult characters face grave consequences for their excesses.

While some reviewers have criticized Spring Breakers for its violent and sexual overtones, I read it the way Bakhtin read grotesque realism: as a satire. Spring Breakers, through its excesses, critiques the materialism and hedonism of American popular culture:

Of course, the classist and racist slant of the makes the satire problematic; nevertheless, Spring Breakers can be read as commentary on the ways in which the carnivalesque rituals of spring break reflect a deeper cultural impulse toward money, violence, and sex at all costs.

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