"Spring Breakers" vs. "The Great Gatsby"

Harmony Korine's latest hews closer to the themes of Fitzgerald's novel than Baz Luhrmann's glitzy adaptation

Published May 16, 2013 4:25PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinDubstep, the social glue responsible for connecting an entire subculture of kids whose common interest is often just partying, has provided a unifying thread an unlikely place: it’s on the soundtracks to both Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Harmony Korine’s recent Spring Breakers. Though the connection may seem at first superficial — Luhrmann’s, after all, resurrects the classic 1920s tale of a self-made man in vain pursuit of past glory, while Korine’s follows four young girls on a spring break bender that turns violent — they actually raise similar questions of the American Dream.

Or, at least, one of them does: Luhrmann’s indulgent, over-the-top adaptation misreads Fitzgerald’s novel, whereas Korine’s self-aware, sexed-up critique of a generation is, while unrelated plot-wise, a more faithful extension of the spirit of Gatsby.

You’d only have to ask a high-schooler, or even a precocious middle-schooler, to appreciate the basics of the The Great Gatsby’s thematics. It is at its core a study of people who want: Jay Gatsby yearns for his former love Daisy Buchanan; Daisy is in turn taken with the conspicuous consumption of Long Island, along with the hordes of New Yorkers who attend Gatsby’s legendary social gatherings. Gatsby and Daisy’s emotional desires are masked by materialism, and the veneer of wealth eclipses all.

Luhrmann confuses that veneer with something of real substance, fundamentally misinterpreting the novel. His airbrushed aesthetic, bright lights, and rowdy soundtrack serve more to romanticize glamor than to question it. The difference between the two films, then, comes down to how they present the pursuit of glitzy revelry, and then how thoroughly (or flimsily) they ironize it.

Luhrmann’s approach to filmmaking resembles a carousal. Gatsby was made in the absence of inhibition, with every impulse indulged. Should we gratuitously use massive, swooping shots to set every scene? Let’s do it. Should we depict the death of Myrtle Wilson, in all of its slow-motion, 30-feet-in-the-air glory, not once, but twice? I can’t see why we wouldn’t. Oh, and can we just take all of that and, you know, make it 3-D? I’m one step ahead of you.

Luhrmann’s childlike inability to draw the line somewhere — anywhere — becomes apparent throughout the movie. When Fitzgerald writes, “A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling,” Luhrmann represents it in a way that is meant to fascinate rather than reconstruct; his curtains, at least 25 feet in length, billow so thoroughly that the room turns into a white kelp forest. And that says nothing of his depictions of Gatsby’s parties, which tend to look like gin commercials. When Jay Gatsby first speaks his name to Nick Carraway at one such event, fireworks explode behind him and an orchestra beings to play.

All this would be artistically sensible if Luhrmann only included an asterisk — some sort of acknowledgement that these parties are not the sort of fulfillment humans should strive for. But instead, he presents glitz without irony, and in doing so curiously allows his movie to endorse the same hedonistic tendencies to which Fitzgerald seemed to be reacting in the first place. The film’s lighting is, shot-for-shot, perfect. But just as an airbrushed supermodel might make for a poor life partner, Luhrmann’s overly-polished aesthetic leaves little room for substantive characters. Even after we learn that Gatsby has been throwing parties in hopes that Daisy comes to one of them, the glamor of Luhrmann’s revelry shots — and the dubstep that accompanies them — continues to uphold the idea that the parties were worth attending.

Spring Breakers is grounded in a similar yearning, as its main characters — Faith, Brit, Candy, and Cotty — descend on St. Petersburg, attempting to vitalize their stagnant lifestyle by exposing it to sunlight and shorelines. Without the money they need to make the trip to Florida, they decide to rob a local restaurant at gunpoint, which allows them eventually to speed on down the Eastern seaboard, toward the trimmings of American spring break culture. Even though their search for meaning involves more cocaine and pistols than most, it’s still a search for meaning.

Whatever it is the girls are looking for in Florida, they find it. One girl calls home and leaves a message on the phone for her grandmother: “I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. I think we found ourselves here. It’s way more than just having a good time. It’s so nice to get a break from reality for a little while.” Another one of Korine’s characters, the cornrowed, metal-toothed rapper Alien, has a proclivity for showing off his belongings. “I’m all about making that money, always and forever,” he likes to say. In one scene, he walks the girls through his weapons collection in the way that Gatsby tries to impress Daisy with his wardrobe.

But what Korine makes clear is that his protagonists have quixotically chosen to conduct their quest for something more in a land of excess, where the beer bongs overflow and the neon burns a little too brightly. Korine’s interstitial shots of parties on the beach, which appear periodically throughout the movie, make it clear that partying may not be the answer; the images portray undulating bodies in oversaturated colors as dubstep music writhes and twists in the background. Shots of colorful lights at parties weave seamlessly into shots of the blue-and-red of cop cars.

It becomes clear that there is such a thing as too much — too much skin, too much alcohol, too much pleasure. Breasts appear so often in the movie that they become props. Luhrmann’s party sequences can be alluring because they remain tasteful, but Korine lets his party scenes surge far beyond desirability. That the film’s hedonistic scenes are punctuated with moments of real tension and grit — at one point, Alien tends one girl’s gunshot wound — only further suggests that Korine is aware of what he’s doing.

Spring Breakers is about a generation whose every need can be catered to with the right mix of drugs and technology. Today, filmmakers have similarly helpful technologies at their disposal — they can use CGI to make characters where there were none, or 3-D to make movies seem larger than larger-than-life. The human tendency to always want more suggests not just that filmmakers could abuse these technologies, but that they will. As Luhrmann filmed and edited The Great Gatsby, it seems that he, along with Faith, Brit, Candy, and Cotty, still didn’t know when enough was enough.

By Joe Pinsker

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Baz Luhrman Books F. Scott Fitzgerald Harmony Korine Jacobin Movies Spring Breakers The Great Gatsby