Thursday, July 4, 2013

SPRING BREAK, THE AMERICAN DREAM, AND LOVING THE ALIEN


At long last, this being the 4th of July, the time has come for me to write on Spring Breakers, in which writer-director Harmony Korine Sharpie-d a dick and balls on the forehead of a sleeping America. It's a fabulous movie, his best by light years. While a lot of people seized on the casting of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as bikini-clad hedonists, and yeah, that's good for a momentary “fuck you” chuckle to The Mouse, from whose empire their careers sprang forth, it's also the least interesting element of the movie. The fact that it's told from the point of view of its female protagonists is far more intriguing (and sadly fairly unique in the modern cinema), as is Korine's proudly idiosyncratic direction and stunning visual palette. But Spring Breakers' gravitational center is the part-time rapper, would-be gangster, full-time dreamer Alien, played by James Franco in what—barring something truly extraordinary in the years to come—is the apex of his ongoing performance art project/career.

This is not a new insight, and I'm not trying to pass it off as one, but in a movie concerned with the layers of reality surrounding the much-ballyhooed “American dream,” it's fitting that Alien is, in a very cynical and nihilistic sense (career-best though it is, it's still a Harmony Korine film) the 21st century Jay Gatsby. He tells the quartet of spring breakers, after seemingly hanging around a courthouse looking for someone to bail out of jail, that his name is Al but that he had a grander and stranger idea of self, that he proceeded to actualize. And, of course, his fatal attraction to the girls parallels Gatsby's to Daisy, updating it for an era of emergent polyamory.

The Great Gatsby is not the only text of the American dream, though, just its most celebrated. Reinvention is the great theme of America, starting from the initial one of the moneyed class of white male landowners deciding to be an independent nation rather than a colony of the British Crown. Then we were to be a transcontinental entity, despite what the people already living between us and the Pacific had to say about it. Then, in several fitful stages, we were (in theory, if not in practice) a nation of liberty for all. Then we were a global superpower. The individuals who together constitute the body politic get to reinvent themselves as well (again, in theory), either by immigrating from other lands and becoming Americans or (can't stress this enough, in theory) ascending from humble beginnings to magnificent riches.

The lucky few are able to realize the theoretical capacity of America as being a place where will and perseverance are sufficient tools for metamorphosis. Gatsby resonates, and will continue to do so, because it illustrates the reality that the naïve many end up with the shit end of the stick. James Franco's Alien—in Spring Breakers; don't worry, he isn't flying on the Nostromo just yet—is very much a Gatsby figure in that regard, although Korine is (unsurprisingly) even more fatalistic than Fitzgerald with regards to Alien's ultimate fate. Gatsby is ultimately a victim of his past, where Alien gets killed because he's just, doo-do-doo, walking along in front of Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens into Gucci Mane's heavily defended lair without taking any means to defend himself; Benson/Hudgens then quickly dispatch the anonymous slayer and every other male at Chez Gucci Mane, concluding of course, with Monsieur “Bitch I Might Be” himself. Alien, though, simply had no idea of his own mortality: the lights just went out.

Alien's naivete is truly and purely American, not to mention tackiness, obsession with guns, and mystical, holistic belief in spring break (his refrain “spraaaaaang braaaaaayk . . . spraaaang braaaayk 4evaaa” is one seriously potent aural meme) as heaven on Earth. America is still a young country, comparatively, and one whose privileged classes have never known true hardship. In a way, as a country, we're all calmly walking toward horrible experientially inconceivable danger. To paraphrase the late James Gandolfini's great line in Zero Dark Thirty (fittingly, a tale of the aftermath of one of the only times in history America has ever been attacked by foreign nationals), we're all James Franco in Spring Breakers, Jeremy.

Franco's performance in the role is astonishing. His acting work has been wildly variable in quality, and he's frequently either miscast or in roles where he finds himself ambitiously stretching beyond his means, but in Spring Breakers he disappears almost completely into Alien, and gives the character (who could have just as easily been a loud-mouthed one-dimensional doofus with a perpetual erection) surprising and deeply moving emotional layers. Miraculously, his bailing the bikini'd foursome out of jail and bringing them along to his mobile non-stop party manages to not even feel exploitative. It reads as kindness, and his subsequent behavior with them, even with the kinky sexual shenanigans/gun fetishism, just as miraculously has a genuine warmth and sweetness to it. Hey, don't look at me, I was just as surprised as you are.

The added layer—because James Franco's heart cannot beat without something meta happening—that puts his characterization of Alien over the top and renders it perfectly American is that Franco apparently appropriated the speech patterns and quite a bit of verbatim text from a rapper and popular YouTube personality by the name of Riff Raff. Because America reinvents far more than it invents. Thomas Edison's fortune was made by securing patents, not by innovation.

One thing America has on fucking lock, though, is fun. At the very moment we declared our independence, we included “the pursuit of happiness” in equal standing with life and liberty. If Alien were merely a guy adopting a new identity being played by an actor playing a guy in a YouTube clip, he wouldn't be the perfect avatar of 21st century America. But here is a man who smokes weed like it was air, who keeps the company of beautiful women, drives fast cars, has Scarface on repeat, spends his days in the sunshine, and has no idea any of this could ever come to an end. He embodies the pursuit of happiness. A lot of other things as well, sure. There is a (fairly obvious) dark side to the blissful ignorance of consequences, but in the moment, if only for a week, it's fun as hell. America will come to an end some day, as death comes for us all, but until then: spraaaaaaaaang braaaaaaaayk . . . spraaaang braaaaayk 4 eva.

Happy 4th, America. To the rest of y'all, happy Thursday. Try to be patient with us.