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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3-D Horror and the Female Body

16 May 2010 at 13:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

***Before I begin, I want to pat myself on the back since this is the one year anniversary of my first blog post. 78 posts later, Dark Room is stronger than ever with May 2010 on track to be the highest traffic month in the blog’s history. Thanks especially to guest contributors and fellow bloggers Alyx of Feminist Music Geek and Kristen of Act Your Age, both of whom regularly plug this blog. But thanks to everyone who has checked out the site and to all of my friends and family who have encouraged me to continue writing.***

Playboy magazine broke another boundary this week, publishing its very first 3-D issue (2 color glasses included). I can’t help but wonder if Playboy has been taking notes while watching the latest 3-D offerings at the cineplex, including the 3-D horror films released since the development of RealD technology. Such films intensify the male gaze with their emphasis on shapeliness highlighting the benefits of 3-D technology.

Playboy 3-D center fold Hope Dworaczyk. Image taken from totalprosports.com.

To be sure, 3-D technology is not a necessary component to structure the male gaze, and analysts have identified such patterns in films that predate the advent of 3-D technology. But 3-D films have an incentive to constantly draw your attention to the novelty-factor that results from these films creating the illusion of depth, and boobs (always a hot seller) seem to be one of the quickest ways to remind viewers that they are getting a different kind of exhibition experience for their extra $5 per ticket.

With horror films in particular, there are additional factors that ramp up the expectation that a 3-D horror film will include voluptuous, naked female bodies. In particular, the genre has a well-known history of representing sex alongside the violence. The extent of this objectification, however, surprised me when I saw My Bloody Valentine 3D when it came out in January 2009. That film included a sex scene followed by a prolonged chase sequence in which the actress ran around naked. Below is a very short part of that scene:

I wish I could find a clip of the scene–it was so outlandish that the audience howled with laughter. The next big 3-D horror film, Piranha 3-D, appears that it will also use the female body for laughs as well as to draw attention to the technology:

With an absurd premise (ancient piranhas emerging from a crevice after an earthquake) and deliberately campy, referential casting choices (Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, and Eli Roth all make appearances), I expect that Piranha 3-D will walk the fine line between pastiche and parody, rather than playing it straight. The spring break component of the film’s plot plays nicely into this comedic approach. The filmmakers can have their cake and eat it too, poking fun at the excesses of the spring break ritual as codified by MTV while also taking advantage of all the hot bodies to spotlight the 3-D.

Still, a more blatant attempt to fuse horror, nudity, and 3-D technology can be found in the aptly titled Big Tits Zombie 3-D, a film likely more famous in the United States for it’s trailer rather than the full feature length version (I’ve yet to find an actual review). Here’s what’s been floating around the internet:

Pop Matters has a nice little piece about the trailer which points out the obvious irony of the clip. I agree that this film seems to be more about self-mockery than any kind of earnest effort at horror; in other words, it’s camp in the most deliberate sense.

It’s no wonder that these campy horror films use 3-D as a means of calling attention to the excessive bodies ever-present in our culture, given that camp aesthetics often include exaggerated bodies that emphasize the grotesque. Check out Divine, for instance, in the John Waters directed Pink Flamingos:

But the question–it’s always the question with irony–is whether or not these recent appropriations subvert or reinforce the very cultural standards they gently mock. With the particular trend of 3-D boobs, I lean against the possibility of subversion, especially with such self-promoting celebrities like Heidi Montag supposedly jumping on boardThe Hills “star” told People Magazine that she is “making the first 3-D beach comedy about a shark that attacks a small beach town and I save the day with my 3-D boobs.” She claims to have cast Dolly Parton in a cameo role. In other words, there’s more yet to come on the 3-D boob front. Brace yourself!

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