For a long time — perhaps in between quaffs of red wine and diatribes about the declining state of English comprehension — literary experts have contemplated the Great American Novel: what it means, which string of words and phrases best epitomise a national zeitgeist, and whether any text can lay a stake in the ground as a definitive work representative of the American ethos.
In its depictions of exuberance and decadence, its descriptions of lush parties held by a mysterious and affluent protagonist who seemed, if not to live outside the law, then certainly to exist outside the grasp of ordinary people, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is often spoken of as a book synonymous with both the Great American Novel and the American Dream. The latter — broadly albeit crudely defined by that old line about life, liberty and the pursuit of justice — invariably feeds the former. What dreams (not of the sleeping variety) can exist without aspirations?
Gatsby is a sombre story of fractured romance, both remembered and imagined. It is a tale of personal tragedy saddened (not uplifted, despite the razzmatazz associated with Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated adaptation) by sensational parties and orgies of decadence, of flowing champagne, beautiful clothing and carefree existence. A glowing bubble of escapism that was always, irrespective of the shattered glass and vomit-stained toilet bowls, more fantasy than reality.
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For those who have seen the trailer for Luhrmann’s movie but haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, it may come as a surprise that only a tiny portion of the original text concerns the roaring Jazz Age parties that propelled the Australian director’s imagination, sent it hurtling into visions of wide-framed opulence. For protagonist Nick Carraway, the parties are literally and metaphorically on the other side of his fence, an element of Gatsby’s mysterious allure. Those big parties in Gatsby’s mansion weren’t parties per se — not, or not only, parties in a literal sense, giving credibility to the argument that the essence of the book remains unfilmable.
Fitzgerald ruminated on how the balloon eventually popped. The roaring 20s would come to an end; the magic of Gatsby’s life would be subordinated into grim realism; a generation of Americans’ capacity to create new dreams would be weighed down by the baggage of their old ones. As Hunter S. Thompson observed at the turn of the 60s, certain cultural movements ride the crest of high and beautiful waves, until the high ends and the hangover begins — that point where the wave peaks and begins to roll back. It happened suddenly after Gatsby. Less than five years after the book was first published, markets crashed and the Great Depression hit America.
Spring Breakers, directed by rabble-rousing indie filmmaker Harmony Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers) begins like a Pepsi commercial crossed with a porno: dozens of bare sun-baked breasts bounce gloriously in the hot and breezy breach air. Beer flows; people dance; a row of beautiful girls fellate icypoles coloured red, white and blue.
The Great Gatsby it is not. The key intellectual task Korine assigns his audience is to decide whether there is actually anything intellectual about it. Interpreted as a swirling cesspool of sex and violence, shallow and gratuitous, or an objet d’art of ironic postmodern filmmaking (the jury is, and one assumes always will be, very much out) one thing is obvious: the 40-year-old enfant terrible is using spring break as a metaphor for the American Dream.
Four girls (played by Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine and Selena Gomez) leave the safe and comfortable confines of middle class university life where “everything is the same and everything is just sad”. They have one goal: take a spring break vacation and revel in the insouciance of a life with no consequence. Lacking cash to get them there, they rob a restaurant with a fake gun and join the titular party which, betraying the film’s round-the-clock nightclub atmosphere — a sort of indie-ploitation on eckies — frays around the edges fairly quickly.
The girls get done for cocaine possession and are bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a filthy rich drug dealer who can’t believe his good fortune. He’s a sort of Gatsby for an undignified age: wealthy and generous with his riches, mysterious in his past and background, flashy and indulgent. His teeth are capped with silver; his car’s wheels are dollar signs. Alien has a beach-side mansion with a pool-side piano, which is the setting for the film’s best scene: a bizarre and stirring rendition of a Britney Spears song, Everytime.
As a reflection of the American Dream, sexy and spew-stained, pumped up and deflated, littered with impulses that indistinguishably blend profundity and vacuousness, Spring Breakers may be this year’s great Gatsby: a high-powered mash of cultural artifact populated by participants who knew from the start the party could never end well, and when the hangover would kick in, it would kick in hard. The American Dream explored by an artist who, like Fitzgerald, never really believed in it, but revelled in, as Fitzgerald might have said, something commensurate to a capacity to wonder.
It’s easy to look back through the mist of nostalgia. It’s easy to think of a time — real or imagined — in which dreams stood for something and explorations of national identity took on meaning and purpose, or at least the guise of it. Spring Breakers pushes the sobering contention that the search itself may have been pointless, an end to a means, and a means to an exploitation: the idea that anybody who tries to jump rungs in the party time social ladder may land with their spine snapped, their soul crushed, the hiss from speakers rumbling a message of misfortune and degradation.
By propelling such conversation, Harmony Korine may have got the last laugh, or at least a good giggle in between sniffs of the ether rag — the idea that an enfant terrible, punking the populace, could possibly be compared to a great like F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the circumstances that allowed that to happen pertain to context, not character, and the joke, if there is one, is one in which we all take a share in the punchline, all grasp the handle of the knife, Murder on the Orient Express style.
For the seen-it-before YouTube generation, is there a more appropriate film to represent the American Dream than one that tinkers precariously close to representing nothing at all? If that is to prize knowing emptiness as a virtue of self awareness, Korine’s failures extend far greater than his own work; his art would be nothing without the failures of others. If making an entertaining movie entails the creation of order from chaos, what we’re seeing here is this and the reverse. A cog in the propaganda arm of the American Dream machine that extolls something close to anarchy, and sequences all the pretty colours to make it tangible.
A 20th century author wrote, in his most famous book, a description of two well heeled characters that fits the five human wrecking balls in Spring Breakers like a glove, as if he saw these people — not necessarily their personalities, or their traits, or even what they stood for, but the culture they would inevitably be part of — through a hundred-year-old crystal ball. He described them as “careless characters” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess.”
One can barely imagine a better description of the lead characters in Harmony Korine’s new film. The writer who penned those words was F. Scott Fitzgerald. His book was called The Great Gatsby.