Spring Breakers: A Future Exploitation Classic

Curator's Note

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 But by aping outdated forms, these retro-styled throwbacks also sidestep the question of how our present moment might be more straightforwardly captured via exploitation cinema’s long tradition of capitalizing on timely and quickly outdated subject matter.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.


Thanks for this - I think you're absolutely right that we shouldn't confuse Spring Breakers with, say, Hobo with a Shotgun. And the parallels you draw between earlier exploitation forms and Spring Breakers seems appropriate. I'm wondering what we gain by dubbing Spring Breakers "exploitation"? Does it help us crystallize what other films might be labelled exploitation in the contemporary moment (I, for instance, like to teach Springs Breakers with The Bling Ring - is their something about the latter film that also earns an exploitation title)?

I admit it's perhaps an obvious choice for nomination as "exploitation," but I was thinking of the film's exhibition and reception as part of what separates it from others. As Korine's only film to date with more than a limited arthouse release in major cities, it reached far wider and had more ability to "exploit" an audience of young folks in flyover college towns (which is where I first saw it). One thing on my mind was Thomas Doherty's notion of 1950s teenpics as providing both representations of rebellious teen characters and an opportunity for teens to subculturally unite during the screening experience--a contextual quality typically missing with the arthouse film that goes direct-to-video in most locales. When chatting with students when the film was still in theaters, I was struck by how many of them read it "straight" as a wild-and-crazy thrill ride featuring characters not unlike themselves (demographically speaking), while I couldn't help but see it as satirizing its own excesses--which is why I sometimes use it as a contemporary example for teaching Comolli & Narboni's "category E" films. In terms of reception, the film also reminded me of how blaxploitation films offered straightforward genre thrills to a demographically specific audience (and could thus be denounced as "exploiting" base pleasures), but could also be seen by some critics as implicitly critiquing the larger social milieu of urban criminality. It's precisely this polysemic quality and the sheer datedness that the film will soon acquire that makes me think it will soon stand as a key text in whatever today's "exploitation cinema" will seem to be a few decades down the road.

That notion of "datedness" is a really striking one to me, and I wonder if Korine's other films don't seem as exploitative because they seem more "out of time." Which also makes me wonder how well Kids has aged, since I haven't seen it in some years, while its subject matter screams "exploitation."

As someone who teaches this film to students in a "flyover" college town, I share your experiences with students reading this film as "straight" over satire. In fact, they often react to it with hostility because they are offended by how it generalizes their generation (to your point about the target being white Millennial entitlement). In this sense, I think your linkage back to blaxploitation is apt. I would, however, want to think through how this is still a classed Millennial entitlement, with the 4 protagonists living on the outside of middle-class Millennial privilege, desperately wanting to break it. The instance on "spring break" as a place where the women have "found themselves" seems to speak back to class aspirations/position as much as it does to the exaltation of play within a Millennial-entertainment conceptualization.

I haven't seen "Kids" in a long time, either, but I recall finding it overly exploitative even for its time. It seems to have been marketed by Miramax as such a contemporary slice of life (all the bad things that the KIDS are doing these days), but I found its particular portrait of urban youth to be quite disingenuous. "Gummo" seems to exist outside time a bit more, although that may have more to do with its overt class connotations than anything else (e.g., the working poor as supposedly being more inclined to only afford the outdated and déclassé). I wonder if we've gotten far enough down the road of historical perspective for Korine's earlier films to be now seen as "exploitation" texts, or whether enough distance has not yet accumulated to make such distinctions. It has always struck me that the very label "exploitation" seems reliant on a certain amount of historical distance, especially from the contemporary audience presumed to be "exploited by" such films. In many cases, it seems only in retrospect that "exploitation" can be clearly discerned as such--and that is perhaps all the more true now that the hyperbolic appeals of old-school grindhouse cinema are perhaps a thing of the past and we now have to contend with the generalized exploitativeness of the average Marvel comics adaptation.

I like your time capsule idea...and the idea of a film that will be deemed exploitative at some point in the future. Gordon brings up KIDS. And, while it does hold up to some degree, it topicality exploits a moment.

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