In considering the contemporaneity of exploitation cinema, a broad historical view might allow us to predict which films future generations will consider exemplary of our present moment. There is no current shortage of direct-to-video genre films that might fit an older industrial model of producing sensationalistic, low-budget schlock, but their cultural longevity is perhaps imperiled by the whims of Netflix algorithms as even physical video formats become endangered species. Meanwhile, the celluloid fetishism of “retrosploitation” films like Grindhouse (2007) and its ilk has given way to self-parodic takes on VHS-borne exploitation flicks. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, these textually internalized nostalgias for bygone exhibition sites and viewing formats anxiously refigure what it means to be a fan amid the ever-increasing, internet-age accessibility of once-obscure films from the past. But by aping outdated forms, these retro-styled throwbacks also sidestep the question of how our present moment might be more straightforwardly captured via exploitation cinema’s long tradition of capitalizing on timely and quickly outdated subject matter.
There is, however, no better candidate for future exploitation canonization than Harmony Korine’s crossover hit Spring Breakers (2012), a film combining Korine’s penchant for lo-fi surrealism with the commercially exploitable hook of former Disney starlets “gone wild.” Its tale of spoiled college girls who rob a fast-food restaurant to fund a hedonistic Florida vacation plays out like a debauched updating of AIP’s squeaky-clean Beach Party cycle (1963-67), complete with hip music (a pounding Skrillex soundtrack in place of surf rock), characters flirting with racial/sexual difference (James Franco’s gun-fellating rapper instead of Tiki chic and homoerotic beach boys), and more bad behavior than in Annette Funicello’s worst nightmares.
Whereas Korine’s earlier films like Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) use class and disability as unfortunate shortcuts to grotesquerie, his more deserving target here is white Millennial entitlement. The camera leers at exposed flesh and post-adolescent rituals with all the good taste of a mondo documentary, while gun noises and inane mantras about “finding themselves” punctuate the soundtrack, emphasizing the ironic disjuncture between these white girls’ “gangsta” fantasies and their constant ability to return to a realm of suburban privilege. Like the most durable exploitation films of yore, Spring Breakers offers a time capsule open to multiple readings: a cautionary tale about going “too far,” a sly satire of its presumed audience, a (post)feminist story about female rebellion, a regressive spectacle of nubile bodies, etc.