Jan 30, 2014

Streaming: The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers

After the collapse of Wall Street, the mortgage crisis, Bernie Madoff, the advent of the 1%, there is a rising concern in the public consciousness that something has gone deeply wrong in America. Off the top of my head, here are some recent movies that in some way or another all deal with the ways in which the American dream, that euphemism for rampant capitalism, pretty much decimates everything: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Blue Jasmine, Nebraska. Even 12 Years A Slave makes very clear that Solomon Northup's tribulations were the product of a totally legal economic system, and that American slavery was simply capitalism at its most extreme.
Sophia Coppola's The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers both touch on the same theme: the loss of a moral compass in the frenzied pursuit of happiness.
In the case of The Bling Ring, which is based on a true story, a bunch of entitled high school girls and a guy from Los Angeles easily rob famous celebrities' houses. They get the addresses on Google and let themselves in. It is hard to believe that Paris Hilton would leave her keys under the doormat (well, maybe not so hard), or that minor stars leave their Hollywood Hills sliding doors unlocked, but these kids stole millions of dollars worth of stuff. As in Spring Breakers, there is the barest outline of a plot. Coppola is interested in the excess wealth, in the addictive behavior triggered by doing something bad and getting away with it, and in our unhinged obsession with celebrity.
The gang gets into Paris Hilton's tacky abode (apparently her actual home -- this woman is the greatest publicity whore of all time). Coppola trains her camera on the mountains of handbags, shoes, jewelry, clothes, cosmetics, perfumes with her usual sharp eye for the surrounding detail: bling engulfs the screen. The kids salivate over the Louboutins and all the luxury brand hoarding going on. Yet theirs is not only an obsession with material things, but with the material things owned by celebrities, demi-gods who live in their own back yard; so close and yet so far.
What is the point of robbing the unknown rich when you can swipe a pair of shoes worn by Demi Lovato (whoever that is?). Coppola regards this insufferable clique with their annoying upturned intonations and their almost psychopathic social detachment with a calm, acerbic eye.
At first we see Laurie (Leslie Mann) giving an inspirational morning pep talk to her horrid teens, Nicki (the excellent Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) about being good human beings, an exhortation that obviously goes in one ear and out the other. Laurie is a believer in the philosophy of The Secret. These people are so vapid that they can't even muster belief in a real religion. But at a dinner scene she kvells at the prospect of Nicki attending modeling auditions. Nicki announces she has a meeting with a manager in the middle of the night and Laurie is utterly pleased. I thought of the real mother who left her daughter in the care of Roman Polanski at the house of Jack Nicholson, in the middle of the seventies, with no adult supervision. Laurie covets celebrity just as much as her daughters, which is apparent once they are on TV for the wrong reasons. Instead of feeling shame, Nicki seems to have a ball, and uses her notoriety to advance her "celebrity".
The gang's transgressions seem mild, mainly comprising lots of smoking bongs, inhaling lots of bumps, underage drinking and stealing from the rich, the movie is chaste. Nothing is more feverishly lusted after than a Hermés Birkin bag. However, Coppola builds up to a quiet outrage. This is not a case of the poor robbing the rich. A bunch of perfectly fortunate, affluent young people steal from others who have more, not to screw the 1%, but to be more like them. A subtle queasiness sets in as Coppola shows how the inseparable "friends" quickly betray each other once the jig is up. Nicki, a media savvy bitch on wheels, feigns interest in charity work in Africa and gets a reduced sentence and her own blog. The Bling Ring is an elegant indictment of our national obsession with nothingness.

In contrast, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is a stomach-turning ode to the new American outlaw. Forget about Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde. Apparently, we have lost all class. There is nothing subtle about Spring Breakers, which somehow glorifies antisocial behavior from a similar group of girls from the wrong side of the tracks. These are a quartet of college girls who live somewhere in or near Florida. None of them looks like she has the brains to graduate to a single-cell organism, let alone go to college, but they do live in a wasteland of strip malls and evangelical churches. Their one goal in life is to catch spring break, that American orgy of mindless intoxication where girls shake their tits and their asses across the southeastern seaboard, while guzzling alcohol from hoses. Our heroines are so bright that they can't put together more than 375 bucks between the four of them in one year (though they seem to have money for plenty of drugs). So three of them decide to hold up a diner with a toy gun. They are naturally vicious, and they enjoy torturing people.
Korine trains his voyeuristic camera on the tits and asses and the tanned bodies of that communal marathon of puking that American college students confuse with fun. He is not interested in spring break as a social phenomenon, he is not interested in character, he wants to create a metaphor. This is everything that is wrong with America concentrated to the nth degree: a lust for guns, a lust for money, a lust for anything that smacks of prohibition, be it booze or drugs or sex. Only Faith (very subtle name), the one churchgoer in the group (Selena Gomez, quite good), is delusional enough to think of spring break as an opportunity to see the world, to meet new people. The way she talks about it, you'd think she's enlisted in the Peace Corps. She calls her grandma, describing her experience of that ninth circle of hell on the beach as an innocent trip, full of wonder. That a bus trip to St. Pete is these girls' lifelong dream is beyond sad, considering they are citizens in the most powerful country on Earth. They probably don't even know there is a Europe.
The movie, beautifully shot by Benoit Debie, captures the Dantesque horror of spring break in slow motion, on the beach, in trashed hotel rooms, over and over and over. A movie about excess cannot be demure by nature, but Korine extends a flimsy plot into 90 minutes of repetitive dialog and imagery. Perhaps he was aiming for an incantatory, hallucinatory experience, but this soon dissolves into boredom.
Even though everything in this world is extreme, not much happens. The girls are arrested at a party that the authorities randomly decide is just too much, and they spend the night in jail. Luckily for the girls, Alien, a rapper, drug dealer, and self-proclaimed rotten guy, (James Franco, sporting gang tattoos, cornrows and grills on his teeth, having the time of his life), decides to bail them out. Faith takes one look at him and his very bad friends and cries sensibly that she wants to go home. You root for her, because she comes up with the best idea anyone has had so far. But the other three girls are mesmerized by the rough crowd, by the freedom conferred by an underground life of crime, and they stick with Alien. Like the gang of The Bling Ring, Alien is also obsessed with the accumulation of material possessions. His lair is not unlike Paris Hilton's: he displays guns on his walls as if they were works of art, he has loads of cash lying around; instead of Louboutins, he collects weapons.
The movie is a leaden, humorless satire on everything that is wrong with this country, yet Korine seems to get his rocks off on the meaningless badassness, and on the young female bodies that never wear anything but bikinis. The camera swirls endlessly around the baddies, but never once alights on their victims, on normal citizens that have to deal with the disgusting chaos that is spring break in the name of "open for business".
The movie becomes more and more sleazy, more deliberately shocking, and over the top ridiculous. One of the girls gets shot in the arm in a fracas, so she bails out. The two remaining dumb blondes, now wearing hot pink balaclavas and fully turned into gangstas, fellate Alien with one of his own (real, loaded) guns in an obvious, pornographic metaphor for America's lust for firearms. I would have admired them more if they turned the tables on him and brazenly absconded with his guns and his loot, but they decide to be his groupies instead. Korine's deliberate casting of young stars like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, who were stars in more innocent entertainments, smacks of exploitation. Whatever its more pretentious intentions, Spring Breakers is a masturbatory fantasy.
However, these two films are worth watching for a more accurate zeitgeist version of the real state of the union.

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