Materialism at the Multiplex

Spring Brayyyyk Forevah
December 12, 2013

Of the six films cited by A.O. Scott in his year-end list that represent "the big theme of our times: 'Just look at all my stuff!' It’s capitalism, baby! Grab what (and who) you can, and do whatever feels good" three in particular leap out as connected. Spring BreakersThe Bling Ring, and Pain and Gain are all about the various ways in which media manipulates us into wanting a certain lifestyle. The unrealistic desire for more is the new American Dream.

Spring Breakers opens with a montage out of a Girls Gone Wild video. Beer is poured on bare chests while idiots hoot and holler. The sun shines bright, the music is boisterous, and the crowds are intense. These young adults are living the life—the life as projected by MTV and soft core pornographers, anyway. We then jump to a dark college campus, where our four heroines are shooting dice in seedy, dimly lit frat houses when they're not ignoring their lecturers. The girls are desperate to get away, desperate to experience what TV tells them is the pinnacle of life. And when they get there, they buy into it, at least at first.

"Hi grandma," good girl Faith says on the phone. "Having so much fun here. This place... is special. I am starting to think this is the most spiritful place I've ever been. I think we found ourselves here." The "most spiritual place" she's ever been is one where the booze flows, girls squat in the street to pee, and one commits armed robbery to afford to visit. The absurdity reaches its zenith, of course, in James Franco's infamous "Look at all my shit!" monologue, in which he brags about having shorts in every color and a TV that plays Scarface on repeat. The Scarface reference is key: He is merely emulating the lifestyle of the rappers he adores. He sounds like a parodic version of MTV's Cribs because he is a parodic version of MTV's Cribs. All he knows to desire is what the television has told him to desire.

The Bling Ring, meanwhile, focuses on the deleterious effect of TMZ and America's obsession with celebrity culture. You're no one if you're not in da club. You're nothing if you're not throwing around hundreds of dollars on bottle service. You're not worth talking about if the paparazzi are not shoving a camera in your face. Steeped in this sickness—and surrounded by adults at home who focus on gauzy spirituality and psychobabble like The Secret instead of actual moral imperatives—the home-invading teens in The Bling Ring see little wrong with going on shopping sprees in someone else's house. They want something and have been taught that wanting a thing is sufficient reason for taking that thing.

Similarly, the muscle-bound protagonists in Pain and Gain are distressed that their maniacal effort to build their biceps has failed to pay off personally and professionally. "We all start out equal," one says early on. "If you're willing to do the work, you can have anything." But what happens when you do the work and put in the time and pump the iron and still wind up with nothing? What happens when we find out that the folks on TV have lied to us? What happens when we find out effort isn't enough? Well, then you're justified in taking what you want from those you think haven't worked hard enough. Armed robbery, torture, murder: Let nothing stand between you and your dreams!

These films reflect a growing anxiety that the American Dream is in trouble. The white picket fence is no longer enough: Now it's the McMansion and the Maserati that are needed to make one happy. Mounting income inequality and a skewed perspective on what is normal are driving Americans slightly insane. And things are apt to get worse before they get better.