High as Finance

image by imp kerr

All this coke, and not a credit card in sight

Thus should our travels have been: serious, dubstepped. It seems for a suspended moment that Spring Breakers purposes only to be the cinematic realization of a musical genre, a voyage to the holy land presented in increasingly swift cuts, repeated units arranged with precise variations unto the point of panic, dissolving into semi-lucid drift and just as suddenly summoning a euphoric wobble. We wait and wait for the film to pivot toward the cautionary tales it so much resembles, wherein a colloquy of underdressed teens find themselves drunk, high, and sexed-up, and the die-off begins. We wait, in short, for the drop which will replace Girls Gone Wild with the 80s slasher Welcome to Spring Break.

It does not come. We are on the far side of a trench that separates us irrevocably from that era. Harmony Korine’s lurid spectacle is a cautionary tale about something far more terrifying, a horror the film sets loose well before the story proper begins.

Spring Breakers unfolds in a world without credit cards. This remarkable lack is the film’s premise, one that allows it to glimpse a future that awaits those without access to fictitious capital.

Four college coeds dream of trading their rote lecture halls and cinderblock dorms—is this a for-profit university?—for the debauchery of Florida spring break. Standing between them and their escape is a shortage of ready cash. Lacking alternatives like Mastercards, they solve their liquidity crisis by knocking over a local fried chicken joint. Most jarring in these opening moments is not the violence of the robbery, but the obviously incredible possibility that four college students in the United States lack access to easy credit. After all, what is a student today without the potential for indebtedness?

To note the absurdity of the film’s premise is to recognize Spring Breakers’ world without credit cards as a dreamworld. Told from the perspective of finance capital, this dream quickly reveals itself to be less paradise than nightmare. Spring Breakers is a cautionary tale of what would happen to the subjects of finance capital were student debt to become impossible.

Once we take up these categories, the film’s fantasia comes clear. On one side, the world of fictitious capital, played by “spring break” itself: money for nothing and your bodyshots for free, the unmoored utopia of until-the-world-ends hedonism on which floats the endless array of healthy white bodies, notably female bodies charged with standing for that freedom beyond reason that characterizes the “new economy,” exploitation always elsewhere. Jeune fille indeed. On the other, that place of actual toil, grime, and danger where our coed protagonists must venture to get hard currency once the cash and Smirnoff run dry: the real economy, played here by employees and criminals, who turn out over and over again to be lacking in either six-packs or camera-ready boobs. Also? They’re mostly black. It is a strange movie that casts Gucci Mane as production itself.

Gucci, as Arch the drug lord, has his other in his childhood friend, the rapper/thug aspirant Alien played by James Franco, whose profound whiteness allows him to pass from one world to the other. He raps, he burbles Britney ballads. He slangs product, hangs with the breakers. But this is an unsustainable double life, as we will discover, in a way that is at once racialized and economic. From his grillz to his home décor, he is a racial poseur. But he is as well a one- man crisis of overproduction, a mad agglomeration of commodities unable to find outlet. “Look at all my shit” he cries over and over again flaunting his collection of burners, body sprays, and bricks of dope, desperate to play this off as triumph and not catastrophe.

Rather it is Candy, Brit, Faith, and Cotty who succeed in crossing from one world to the other and safely back again. The latter two do so only partially; they retreat before the climax, one with a cross, one with a bullet. Their reason: a preference that the shirtless strangers groping them be white rather than so obviously other. They favor the intimacies of spring break’s whitewashed poolside parties, not the working class pool halls of St. Pete. When insolvency strikes again—this time brought on by cops and possession charges—the real economy gets too real.

The two who complete the final sally across the line and back are the pair who performed the armed act that sets Breakers in motion: a sequence which will be shown a second time, to clarify the film’s duplicity. When the robbery initially unfolds, the exterior tracking shot conceals the dirty work underway; it unfolds with choreographed irreality. In a liquor store parking lot following their arrival to spring break, Candy and Brit recount the events in all their amped-up ferocity. “You really did that?” Faith asks, wishing to have remained oblivious to the source of the cash funding her Florida respite.

On second showing, we find ourselves inside the business, closer to the perspective of customers and employees. We discover further that the girls single out a black man quietly eating a plate of fried chicken. This startling detail reveals the racialization that undergirds the film’s real economy and fuels the spring breakers’ gangsta film-inspired fantasies. The film asks us, somewhat banally, to understand the girls as products of simulation: “Act like it’s a movie,” Candy and Brit tell each other right before beginning their masquerade of Menace II Society. And, “just pretend it’s a fucking video game.” But this is a symptom of a symptom. It would be clearer to note that the sequence repeats to capture events once from the perspective of fictitious capital, once from the position of the real economy.

There’s something right here: the way that finance’s coldly erotic dream of money minted from pure desire must always rest uneasily on the brutalities and immiserations of the real economy; that the world is structured to preserve this fantasy of autonomy for its beneficiaries; that when the fantasy collapses, it is revealed not simply as illusion but as dependent on racialized violence. It is the nature of crisis to disclose this; it is the moment when the fatal entanglement of the two orders is revealed, precisely as they fall out of joint.

It is hard to know, then, what to make of the film’s conclusion, wherein the white girls’ expropriation of a black man is replayed with higher stakes all around. We could say it is Django’s finale dialed up a notch, at once more absurd and more historically accurate.Or perhaps it is as if, having cloaked themselves in the most powerful media iconography of the global white female—Snooki and J-Woww’s DTF sweatpants, Pussy Riot’s masks—they have become masters of the universe.

Well, better them than Gordan Gekko or Lloyd Blankfein; we should trust a woman in a pink unicorn balaclava a lot more than we do those dudes. But we know too that fiction can never do away with the real, and that the bubble they ride into the sunrise will burst again, and that the money has to come from somewhere, and what then?