Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spring Breakers and the Defiance of Meaning

Of all the films I've seen this year, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is the most difficult to interpret. The plot screams exploitation film: four college girls rob a diner, go on a drug-and-booze-filled spring break, and wind up in the company of serious, violent gangs. However, Korine bends the narrative to avoid the classic exploitation lens, leaving the viewer asking a lot of questions -- not the least of which being, "Is he serious?!"

spring break forever

The chief way that Korine defies meaning is in motivation. Most exploitation films incorporate retribution -- slaves fighting their oppressors, women in a power struggle against men, etc. -- but not so in Spring Breakers. The only thing these college girls are struggling with is boredom. They feel that they absolutely must go out of town for spring break because nothing else will fill that Solo cup shaped hole in their hearts. Of course, it's not their responsibility to raise the money for such a trip. It's society's fault that they're boredom, dammit, so innocent diner customers must pay for their girlish shenanigans! Nevermind the fact that the ladies had enough cash to buy booze, coke, pot, and cigarettes; that was all from their drug allowance, not their travel funds.

But the girls seemingly have no true problems with their lives, so there's no real reason to support their conquest of hedonism. I mean, it's fantastic for college-aged women to strive beyond mediocrity, but I'm not sure that doing lines of blow off of someone's ass will help them raise to the challenge. It comes as no surprise when they are arrested during a drug-filled party, but it's difficult to muster any sympathy for them. Perhaps the girls would be more sympathetic if they entered the courtroom wearing clothes or robes. Instead, Korine avoids the serious by leaving his actresses in just bikinis. If you get bored of the dialogue, never fear! You can simply stare at some skin until the action picks back up again.

Such moments happen frequently throughout the film, undermining any sort of women-kicking-ass vibe Korine may have envisioned. It's true that the most successful criminal elements of the movie are executed by women, but they aren't better off for it. Instead of becoming a team of badass Foxy Browns, the girls are just as bored and lifeless as they were before. They gain nothing and lose nothing.

Perhaps Spring Breakers' ethos warns us against the dangers of ennui. If the only thing that moves us is a Britney Spears song from 2004, what does that say about us? Or maybe the movie is all style and little substance. Let's be real: going on spring breaker probably will not result in you getting shot and staging a massacre at a gangster's compound. If it does, I hope you feel something, or else I won't be able to elicit sympathy for you. Even if I don't feel empathy for the characters, one thing is certain: Spring Breakers is beautiful to look at, although it leaves something to be desired when watched.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is Mad Men Secretly Boring?

Since 2007 (okay, skipping 2011), the season premiere of Mad Men has generated huge amounts of buzz and viewership. This season's two hour premiere, however, was marked by a staggering sense of ennui. The episode was inundated with sidebars, throwaway characters, and pointless scenes. My boyfriend kept asking, "What's happening? Who is that? Why does this matter?" In previous seasons, I could passionately declare, "But Roger's married!" or "She didn't know she was pregnant!", but now I'm left without answers. I have to wonder if he's right; has Mad Men become dull?

Sally says it all

Even the marketing for this season felt like a giant yawn. The photoshoots didn't have that fire and style for which they're known. Instead of convincing us to tune in, they seem to say, "Yeah, you're already watching. Here are some pretty people in pretty clothes, I guess." For a show about successful advertising executives, you'd think they would know how to put together a compelling campaign.

Maybe it's because the uniqueness is lost. The throwback styles felt so fresh during the first few seasons. However, oversaturation through marketing deals with the likes of Banana Republic made the seemingly singular style more commonplace. Add in the obvious copycats The Playboy Club and Pan Am, and you've crowded the market faster than you can make a martini.

But the veneer has also worn off of Don Draper. The closer we get to him, the less interesting he becomes. There is something beautifully poetic about a man completely changing his identity and making his living off of lies; there's something pathetic about the same man devolving into a depressed alcoholic who pukes at funerals. While Don's unraveling should make him more human and, thus, compelling, it merely distances him more from the other characters and from the audience. It's not that Don changes over time; the problem is that Don doesn't change, even when all of the people around him are racing toward new ideas.


For a show centered on Don, the real success lies in the ensemble cast. I know that the world is obsessed with Jon Hamm's old school good looks and his giant, well, Jon Hamm, but let's look to the other characters for a moment. Peggy stole the episode with her new job at a rival firm. She demonstrated the difficulty of balancing work with relationships, pleasing a client, having huge responsibilities, and being a boss for the first time. Her humanity makes her an excellent foil to Don, but without them interacting, she becomes more compelling while Don just flounders. Roger, too, has become overtly vulnerable for the first time with the passing of his mother. Although he has been sensitive in limited circumstances before, he has never been such a raw nerve as he was after losing the boundless support of his mother. No longer can he be flippant and casual about interpersonal relationships -- he is a spoiled man who has finally discovered impermanence, and his vulnerability makes him more desirable to watch.


Mad Men has always been a show about people and ideas, not about things happening. While the first episode of the season was, frankly, boring, I do have faith that things will turn around (unlike Don). If they don't, well, I'll have to finally admit that my boyfriend was right all along.