Entertainment and Dystopia: Sonic Devices in SPRING BREAKERS

Originally written for Visual and Environmental Studies 72 (Sound Cinema), taught by Professor Laura Frahm, at Harvard University, in May 2014.

Since antiquity, entertainment has been a staple of society. Richard Dyer argues in “Entertainment and Utopia” that one aspect of entertainment that may explain this trend is its ability to “[offer] the image of ‘something better’ to escape into.” He continues by saying that though it does not necessarily “present models of utopian worlds,” it captures the emotions associated with utopianism. It thus reveals to its audience a diegesis that, though perhaps imperfect, relates feelings that are associated with an ideal world (20). This theory claims that the purpose of entertainment is to make its audio-viewers temporarily forget the imperfections of reality. Harmony Korine’s film Spring Breakers (2012) plays with this notion of entertainment as utopian sensibility through its complex soundscape. Its use of various sound devices, including emanation speech, atonal music, and looping, creates the sense of a downward spiral and of the lack of a thematic anchor. This contributes to a rather interesting take on Dyer’s argument, suggesting that, through the formation of dystopian sensations, Spring Breakers critiques modern manifestations of entertainment while simultaneously relying on such ideas to express its argument.

One prominent feature of the soundtrack of Spring Breakers is its score. Composed by Cliff Martinez and notable dubstep artist Skrillex, the score is heavily dominated by electronic dance music (EDM). Taken literally, this seems to be of little interest: electronica is the de facto anthem of the masses of spring breakers that raid Florida’s beaches every year, and it naturally plays a conspicuous role in the film’s party scenes. This musical choice, however, has strong implications for the emotions the film conveys, and thus for its fundamental statement about entertainment. Some of the tracks most prominently featured in the film include Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and “With You, Friends (Long Drive)” as well as his “Goin’ Down Mix” of Birdy Nam Nam’s “Goin’ In.” These songs represent what is commonly referred to as the “brostep” subgenre of dubstep, a genre that, though still considered dance music, tends to have a “‘dark’ feel generated with minor keys and dissonant harmonies” (Zimmer and Carson 193). This aspect of the score creates a juxtaposition between entertainment and bliss (associated with dancing) and a sense of discomfort and unease (associated with dissonance and the minor key). Steven Shaviro expands on this effect by writing, “EDM doesn’t abandon tonality, [sic] but no longer uses it as an organizing principle” (“Seeing into the Light”). The dubstep used in the first half of the film still seems to have a base and an underlying center, but it does not adhere to this anchor by rule and instead seems to take its own course. This relates closely to the idea that what the film shows is not entirely anarchist as a matter of course but is rather a perversion of that which could be normally structured. The elements required for entertainment—utopian emotions and qualities—are present, but discomfort results from a lack of fidelity to these elements and an exploration of a rebellion to traditional controls.

The second half of Spring Breakers features fewer “brostep” tracks but still captures the essential elements of this subgenre through different means. In one scene toward the film’s end, Alien sits at his piano alone and repeatedly strikes one key while singing about past and future events. This music, if it can even be called that, has no real rhythm or tonal center. It is a random series of notes that represents the complete devolution of music to its fundamental core. Alien’s song reveals the other devolution that has taken place by the film’s end: that of the supposed entertainment in the film. There is still nudity, there is still violence, and there is still laughter, but what was once titillating now seems cold and bare. We hear music stripped to its core, and we see what modern society typically deems “entertainment” stripped down as well, and neither is as utopian as we once believed. The stereotypical “teensploitation” tropes of sex, drugs, and violence are presented without the decoration and revealed to be meaningless. It is important to realize the stark differences between the beginning and the end of the film. The dubstep tracks are essentially lipsticked aversions to the traditional use of tonality and contribute to the numerous superficial party scenes in this part; though the sexuality and substance abuse artificially evoke utopian emotions within the audience, there is a quite fundamental abhorrence of a traditional grounding. Indeed, Minett writes that EDM “can provide a sense of pain as well as excitement…using the formal features of EDM to give sonic substance to thought” (199). This explains that the rebellious nature of the music captures the rebellious nature of the characters and that they are acting contrary to what they (consciously or subconsciously) consider normalcy. As this gives way to the wholly atonal and arrhythmic musical ramblings of Alien on the verge of his demise, the film exposes us to the heart of the issue and to its true nature. It provides an unflinching prediction of the effects of reliance on the previous experiences for entertainment. In the attack on Archie’s house, when Alien loses his life and Candy and Brit lose any semblance of innocence that remained, we are not surprised, for this seems to be the natural result of the earlier events.

This idea that the supposed sources of entertainment provided in Spring Breakers are not sustainable in the long run is augmented by the film’s use of audio loops. At various points in the film, characters repeat particular lines multiple times for no apparent reason. For example, when Alien is showing the girls his money, clothing, and weapons, he chants various forms of the mantra “Look at my shit” upward of six times. We are shown thousands of dollars worth of material goods while seemingly stuck in what Michael Koresky calls “an arrhythmic, circular song on repeat.” This verbal description of the images presented adds nothing to our understanding of the diegesis and does little to advance the plot. This appeals to the lack of what both Shaviro and Koresky refer to as “forward motion.” As the film progresses, we begin to hear fewer and fewer original sounds and sentences and instead fall into a pattern of hearing the same phrases uttered repeatedly. These catchphrases, which include the threatening “Get on your knees, bitch,” and Alien’s dreamlike intonation “Spring break forever, y’all,” act as examples of stereotypical lines heard in films whose mode of entertainment this film criticizes. The addiction to violence, sexuality, and “fun” are used to create feelings of utopia in many mainstream films released today, but Spring Breakers argues that, rather than utopian sentiments, these lines are more fundamentally dystopian, showing that a constant adherence to these ideas results in nothing more than a death spiral into monotony and anarchy.

David Noh’s analysis of the repetition in Spring Breakers provides a contrary view to the opinions expressed in the previous paragraph. Noh writes that this stylistic device is essentially “basic numbing repetitiveness” and that it helps in making the film “cadaverously thin, content-wise,” going so far as to say that it “should have been a lot more fun than it is.” Though these are quite negative criticisms of the film, this is exactly the effect that Spring Breakers intends to have on its audience. The constant repetition of key phrases is a mockery of a widespread form of entertainment used in modern cinema; Spring Breakers develops this statement by way of imitation. In repeating these same lines throughout (and especially in the second half), the film points out how “cadaverously thin” the oversaturation of the familiar themes of sex, alcohol, and violence can make it. Noh’s observation as to the discrepancy between the expected and actual entertainment values of the film is an interesting one and a very important one. We as an audience have been trained by the constant onslaught of raunchy comedies, “stoner” movies, and summer blockbusters to expect entertainment from the depiction of the themes mentioned earlier; upon viewing Spring Breakers, it is natural to assume the same. This film, however, shows the inherent unsustainability and pointlessness of derivations of entertainment from such subjects. By refraining from imparting utopian emotions, Spring Breakers lacks traditional entertainment value, arguing instead that entertainment derived from the subjects it discusses is false and misleading.

The presence of voiceover in Spring Breakers also contributes to its thesis. Perhaps the most apparent observation to make about this device is that it invariably uses dramatic irony by contrasting the words with the image. For example, when we hear Faith tell her grandmother, “I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” we see topless women dancing and Faith and her friends urinating in bushes. The initial shock of this juxtaposition is humorous, but a more careful analysis sheds light on two possible implications. The first assumes that Faith is lying to her grandmother. This act itself would be somewhat abhorrent, as at this point in the film, we know that Faith is a devout Christian and the “good girl” of the group, so this sudden transition to sinfulness may be shocking in itself. The second, and more likely, potential implication assumes that Faith is telling the truth. Korine himself once said on the matter, “I think they mean what they say in some weird way” (qtd. in “Seeing into the Light”). This suggests that the spring break destination has altered the girls’ perception and sensibilities; Faith actually believes she is undergoing a spiritual experience, as she has become prey to the idea that fun and friendship imply goodness. Later in the film, as the girls are being arrested, there is again dramatic irony involving voiceover. Faith’s voice whispers, “We were just having fun; we didn’t do anything wrong,” but the camera shows us Candy snorting cocaine from a girl’s chest. Such a blatant untruth could not be a lie. Faith truly believes that the behavior that she would have disdained at home is now somehow morally correct because it is carried out in the name of fun. Reynolds writes about this that the “point of carnival is that it’s temporary.” Entertainment of this sort convinces its audio-viewers that actions typically deemed “wrong” are justified by their ephemerality. Spring Breakers rejects this philosophy that everything is good in moderation in its condemnation of the supposedly innocent fun-seekers to jail. By showing images that directly contradict the words being spoken, it also paints this behavior in a bad light, associating it with lying and deception.

The final use of voiceover in the film comes in the last scene, as Candy and Brit attack Archie’s gang. We hear Candy tell her mom nearly the exact same words Faith told her grandmother at the beginning of the film: “I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here, things we’ll never forget…. Everyone was so sweet here…. It feels as if the world is perfect, like it’s never gonna end.” By having a different character speak some of the same lines, the film shows that the characters have fallen into the trap of the cult of this entertainment. The girls are not developing independent thoughts but are rather being force-fed ideas through their desperate search for temporary entertainment. It is the last line of this final monologue that is the most disturbing, as it relates directly with the idea of utopia. Candy says that she feels the utopian sensibilities that are related with entertainment, but what we see (a shootout between two bikini-clad girls and an entire crime syndicate) imparts very dystopian ideas on the film’s audience. This discrepancy is vital in the development of the idea that the events depicted are not sustainable, that any entertainment provided by Spring Breakers is bound to lead to destruction.

Throughout the film, there are various instances of emanation speech, which Chion refers to as “a secretion of the characters, a facet of their being” (68). For example, a lot of what Alien says does nothing to drive the story but instead serves to define his character and fill the space of the film with his presence. When he shows Candy and Brit all of his guns and clothing, he gives a monologue of emanation speech, talking about everything that he has without providing any reason for why it is important. The mindless repetition of “Look at all my shit” serves to embody an aspect of Alien-ness but does not “drive the visuals or significantly affect the characters” (Kickasola 63). Similarly, many of Archie’s lines are quite literally unintelligible. During Archie’s sex scene, he spews a string of admirations to his sexual partner that serve no purpose other than to portray him as a cold and materialistic character. This speech does not progress the plot but rather characterizes Archie as another person who has bought into the hedonistic idea that temporary pleasure has inherent value. Both of these cases relate to the idea of a lack of forward motion. We as audience members seem to be trapped in these scenes, watching as the exposition of the ideology this film attacks is carried out in slow, painstaking detail. Alien and Archie, in these scenes and in others, are often not so much characters as concepts, manifestations of the philosophies they represent.

Noh criticizes the use of this device as “Korine’s futile attempt at the elegiac,” an argument that seems to agree with this interpretation of the emanation speech. It is unlikely that the speech was meant to be elegiac, as Alien’s intonations about spring break seem to be akin to extensions of his character rather than expressions of grief, but the fact that repetition of “Spring Break forever, y’all,” appears elegiac at all validates the hypothesis that the entertainment provided from this film and the actions in the film can only be temporary. The haunting nature of this phrase reveals that any attempt to make permanent the enjoyment provided by the images of sexuality, drugs, and violence will be unfruitful, and that a treatment of these sensations as having been noble in any way will fail in providing emotional stimulation.

Two recurring sound effects used throughout the film are the sound of a gun being cocked and that of a gun being fired. These are typically used as scene transitions but are occasionally heard in the middle of a scene. At the literal level, this oversaturation of gun-related noises creates the impression that violence is omnipresent in the diegesis. It complements the violent images on the screen, and even when it is heard over tranquil images, it reminds the audience that violence is not far away. This assists in the development of the quasi-dystopian diegesis created by this film. At a more emotional level, the gunfire instills the feeling of fear and apprehension in the audience and complicates the benignity of the images (when they are in fact benign). For example, when Alien is with Candy, Brit, and Cotty on a pier, he pretends to take a photo of them, but instead of hearing a camera sound, we hear the cocking of a gun. This lets the audience know that Alien might not be completely trustworthy and that by continuing their relationship with him, the girls could be putting themselves in danger. At a structural level, the gunshots contribute to what Shaviro refers to as a “liquid narrative.” As an example of post-continuity cinema, Shaviro writes, Spring Breakers does not follow a traditional linear narrative format, where each scene results from the scenes before it and lead to the scenes that follow (“Seeing into the Light”). In this film, each scene contributes to the tone and message of the film in its own way, especially in the second half of the film. The narrative could easily be understood without the scene where Alien shows off his guns or the one where he has a ménage à trois with Candy and Brit, but the film would be very different thematically, and we may not experience the same sense of dystopia. The gunshots separate these small scenes, showing that each one is very clearly severed from the rest of the film. At the same time, however, the fact that the same noise is present in many of them unites them in a way, which contributes to the sense that they are all episodes in the same diegesis that build toward a common message.

The soundscape of Spring Breakers contains many recurring devices that assist in the rejection of entertainment derived from such shallow sources of pleasure as violence, sexuality, and substance abuse. In contrast to the way Richard Dyer describes musicals’ effect on their audience in “Entertainment and Utopia,” Spring Breakers shares the sensation of a spiraling descent into dystopia as the film progresses. The use of “brostep” and EDM in the first half of the film hint toward a rejection of the adherence to a tonic anchor and thus of a fundamental base for the characters actions, and the transition to atonality near the film’s end represents the complete absence of any moral foundation. The constant presence of various dialogue loops throughout the film creates the sensation that no progress is being made and that the themes presented in the film are not sufficient to lead to finality or resolution, arguing instead that we are trapped in a state of anarchy. The dramatic irony presented with the various voiceovers in the film contribute to the disturbing truth that the sex, drugs, and violence are captivating, destructive, and impermanent in their nature and that they cannot be trusted to provide lasting entertainment. The emanation speech used by Alien and Archie add to the sense of stagnancy as well as an overall understanding that the events of the film are uncomfortable and toxic. The use of gun sounds has a number of effects on the audience’s perception of the diegesis, perhaps most notably an added sense of dystopian sensibilities. Though Spring Breakers at times resorts to becoming what it seeks to denounce, as its critics argue, it is through this imitation that it can reveal the folly of deriving entertainment from such themes, and it is the sound that shows what is wrong with the image.

References

Chion, Michel. “The Ascendancy of King Text (1935-1950).” Film, a Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 67-83. Print.

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992. 19-35. Print.

Kickasola, Joseph G. “Leading with the Ear: Upstream Color and the Cinema of Respiration.” Film Quarterly 66.4 (2013): 60-74. JSTOR. Web. 9 May 2014.

Koresky, Michael. “Re-enter the Void.” Reverse Shot 33 (2013): n. pag. Web. 9 May 2014.

Minett, Mark. “Beyond the badass: Electronic Dance Music meets film music practice.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 11.2 (2013): 191-210. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 9 May 2014.

Noh, David. “Film Review: Spring Breakers.” Film Journal International. Film Journal International, 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 May 2014.

Reynolds, Simon. “You only live once.” Sight & Sound May 2013: n. pag. EBSCOhost. Web. 9 May 2014.

Shaviro, Steven. “Seeing into the Light: Delirious Perception in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.” Steven Shaviro’s Web Pages. International Colloquium on Phenomenology and Cinema. Lisbon, Portugal. 6 Dec. 2013. Lecture Notes. 8 May 2014.

—. “Spring Breakers.” The Pinocchio Theory. WordPress. 28 June 2013. Web. 9 May 2014.

Spring Breakers. Dir. Harmony Korine. A24, 2012. Film.

Zimmer, Benjamin and Charles E. Carson. “Among the New Words.” American Speech 87.2 (2012): 190-207. Duke Journals. Web. 8 May 2014.

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