About halfway through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the titular Gatsby—a rich criminal with an angel’s face, a showy set of mannerisms, and an actor’s knack for reinvention—ends up being reunited with the pretty and airheaded woman he believes he is in love with, and along with his friend Nick, he walks her through his vast and well-appointed mansion, clocking her reaction to his lavender silk drapes and his brushed gold vanity set and his piano. “He revalued everything in his house,” Nick suggests, “according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.” When they reach the bedroom, he pulls open two enormous cabinets, inside which are “massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.” In a 2013 adaptation by Baz Luhrman, Gatsby is played by Leonardo DiCaprio at his most radiant and cool, the previous few years of doggedly unstarry paparazzi pictures and unglamorous roles delicately sanded away to make him Leo once again—bright, cherubic, and iconic. (That his fellow Pussy Posse member and significantly less glamorous peer Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway is, I believe, a glorious one-two punch of perfect casting, a metatextual nod to the difference in charisma and effect between an A-List actor and a B-List one.) Because this is a Luhrman picture, anachronistic garishness is the order of the day, the soundtrack playing not something period appropriate, but Lana Del Rey asking will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful? “I have a man in England who buys me clothes,” DiCaprio’s Gatsby exclaims to Carey Mulligan’s simpering Daisy, and then—manically, bizarrely—he begins to pull handfuls of shirts out of his closet and then throw them at his paramour with an abandon that is, presumably, meant to signify how easily won all of this money and luxury and beauty is. Daisy, initially delighted, starts to cry. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she wails, in both the novel and the film. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”
In Fitzgerald’s telling, there are two ways to interpret Daisy’s tears, one generous and one more likely to be accurate: either she is weeping because she is overcome with love, and her suggestion that she’s crying over Gatsby’s “shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange” is a cover for how newly vulnerable she feels, or she is really crying at the shirts—at their obvious expensiveness and flash, and at the fact that Gatsby is now richer than her husband. Luhrman, an extremely literal reader, has Nick Carraway explain in voiceover that what we’re looking at is love rather than avarice, a cowardly move that robs the scene of its implicit note of ugliness and greed. Happily, the very same year this Great Gatsby adaptation was released in cinemas, another auteur had a crack at bringing a lurid, updated version of the novel’s famous shirt scene to the screen, and did not pull any punches when it came to the depiction of cold-hearted, dead-eyed and conspicuous consumption. In Spring Breakers (2013), a bright and Bruegel-ish vision of St. Petersburg, Florida c. 2012, the writer-director Harmony Korine plays out the same seduction, or else the same con, in a fully contemporary setting, replacing the signifiers of wealth that characterised twenties excess (silk shirts, imported goods, dapper linen, and so on) with the kind the viewer is most likely to recognise from music videos, or episodes of Cribs. His take on Gatsby is also a rich criminal with an angel’s face, a showy set of mannerisms, and an actor’s knack for reinvention—a heavily-tattooed white rapper with bright silver grills and slick, appropriated cornrows who goes by the name of “Alien.” In the scene, Alien has just liberated several teenage girls from jail, where they were locked up for underage drinking, and three of them have followed him to his excessive, tasteless Floridian bachelor pad. Drunk on power as well as being stoned as shit, he launches into an astonishing, freewheeling, maybe half-improvised monologue directed at the group’s two blondes that is worth reproducing here in its entirety. “This is the fuckin' American Dream,” he roars, grandstanding like a champion boxer. “This is my fuckin' dream, y'all!”:
“All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit! I got... I got SHORTS! Every fuckin' colour. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin' VAM-pires. I got Scarface. On repeat. SCARFACE ON REPEAT. Constant, y'all! I got Escape! Calvin Klein Escape! Mix it up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice? I SMELL NICE! That ain't a fuckin' bed, that's a fuckin' art piece. My fuckin' spaceship! U.S.S. Enterprise on this shit! I go to different planets on this motherfucker! Me and my fuckin' Franklins here, we take off. TAKE OFF! Look at my shit. Look at my shit! I got my blue Kool-Aid. I got my fuckin' NUN-CHUCKS. I got shurikens; I got different flavours. Look at that shit. I got blades! Look at my sheeyit! This ain't nothin, I got ROOMS of this shit! I got my dark tannin' oil... lay out by the pool, put on my dark tanning oil... I got machine guns... Look at this, look at this motherfucker here! Look at this motherfucker! Huh? A fucking army up in this shit!”
Nobody cries. Instead, what follows is a strange and psychosexual game, the girls just as entranced by money as Daisy but infinitely less inclined towards trembling and melancholy. Where Daisy was enamoured of Gatsby’s shirts, they are rather more interested in Alien’s cash and weapon stash, which to them represents a different and more modern kind of aspirational life. (That Alien is trying to impress two blondes to Gatsby’s one is equally reflective of the times, since one cannot be a swaggering winner in the game of manhood with just one girl now it is no longer 1922.) Giggling on the bed, rolling around in all those notes, both babes come to the same realisation at the same time, as if they are sharing one mind: that their youth and gorgeousness, having got them in the door, might be both more valuable and thus more dangerous than any of Alien’s firearms. As things turn hot and heavy, one of them picks up a loaded gun, and then the other follows suit; telling Alien to sit the fuck down on the bed, they slip the barrels of both weapons in his mouth, play-acting at being the ones with dicks. If Daisy had money in her voice, these two girls have it in their breasts and asses, and by this point in history the American dream of sex and luxury can be chased by women, too. Like Jay Gatsby, Alien lives in “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” occupying “a universe of ineffable gaudiness,” and as it does for Gatsby, this pursuit ends in his death, both men shot as an indirect consequence of their tendency to exaggerate and bluff. As Alien himself might put it: sheeyit!
Interestingly, the idea for this erotic power-play came not from Harmony Korine, but from the actor playing Alien, the talented—and maddening—James Franco. “Franco suggested that he should get turned on by the gun in his mouth,” Complex reported. “He wanted to suck the gun himself.” At the time, this felt like an entirely logical development of what was then an ongoing attempt at reframing himself as a sexual libertine, an artist and a character actor in a Gucci model’s body who enjoyed coyly suggesting that he might like sucking on any number of things in private; now, it feels like an unfortunate reminder of the numerous accusations of sexual misconduct with actresses that have derailed his career. Either way, it makes for one of the film’s richest scenes, a gender-fucked and thoroughly modern ending for Korine’s Fitzgerald riff, and a smart choice on the actor’s part for how effectively it helps communicate the character’s inherent submissiveness. (In spite of his passion for “big booties in bikinis,” Alien proves to be a natural bottom.) This is, fundamentally, the irritating thing about James Franco: that for all of his purported creepiness and confirmed terrible writing, he was at one time one of the most interesting young American actors working. “He’s fearless. He’s a maniac,” Korine told The Village Voice in 2013. “He’s attacking everything and just going for it… He’s process-oriented—making it up as he goes along. It’s something you don’t really see with actors. They become so corporatized. They’ve been drained of any personality. They’re zombies. Franco’s doing his thing, and even if you don’t like it, you have to admire that he’s doing it.” While I categorically did not admire Franco’s thing when it included, for example, describing a gunshot wound as “so much ketchup randomness” in a short story, I confess to being a fan of his performance in Spring Breakers—outsized, farcical, unsubtle, it nevertheless suggests a man whose catchphrases and bling act as a cover for his crushing feelings of inadequacy, as if Alien were a hollow Party City costume of a rapper standing up all by itself.
Spring Breakers, a film about a quartet of teenage girls who head to Florida for Spring Break, learn some valuable and chilling lessons about the insulating power of prettiness and white privilege, and then head home to their parents, is arguably as definitive an exploration of the American Dream as Gatsby was in its own era—in my personal opinion, as well as that of a number of other critics, it is also one of the most thrilling and important American movies of the still-young century. Like the Safdie brothers’ later Good Time, it is a film about the relationship between law and capitalism and race that is sometimes (arguably) misread as racist rather than as being critical of white supremacy, and like Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, a TV show with a similarly cinematic, overstuffed visual style, it toes an odd line between being provocatively sexy and being humorously conservative, forcing adult viewers to confront the frightening possibility that their barely-legal daughters might be doing drugs, committing murder, or, worse, having sex with white rappers in hot tubs. Korine was almost forty when he made it, an enfant terrible who’d unmistakably aged into a middle-aged homme, and part of the movie’s genius is the hint of masculine anxiety that hovers over it, the director’s depiction of these girls not as sex objects but as maenad-like monsters making Spring Breakers less of a cautionary tale for female teens than one for those who underestimate that group’s propensity for violence, power hunger, savagery, greed, and cold-eyed sociopathy. Unlike the aristocratic feminist writer-director Emerald Fennell, who asked Vogue while promoting her 2020 revenge thriller Promising Young Woman “who would [possibly] be scared of a woman in a floral dress, with her pretty blond hair spun into a braid, tied together with a ribbon?”, Korine knows full well how dangerous a gorgeous and entitled white girl can be given the right circumstances.
A great deal of Spring Breakers’ masculine worry coalesces in the character of Alien, who embodies it in several overlapping forms: anxiety about class and cash and status, about manhood, about the Caucasian skin that makes his rapper schtick so self-consciously phoney. What do we know about Alien?1 1There has been some controversy around Franco’s inspiration for the character, with most viewers looking at him and immediately seeing RiFF RAFF, the heavily tattooed Texan rapper best known for his deeply surreal freestyles and his wild, cartoonish clothes, and Franco—seemingly for legal reasons—strenuously denying the connection. In a sense, the actor is correct: where Alien is a buffoon, RiFF RAFF comes across as genuinely eccentric, self-aware, and very funny. If Harmony Korine, already given to absurdist flights of fancy, were to write a rapper truly based on RiFF, it seems unlikely that he’d have him speak in clichés, when the real man’s lyrics are more-Korine-than-Korine just as they are. Unlike Alien, RiFF RAFF is an outsized and cartoonish freak who may in fact be totally authentic, embodying the lighter side of the American Dream by being paid to be exactly who he is on the inside. Very little. We know that his life is about “stackin’ change, y’all! Stacking change!” and that he is from Florida and actually named Al, and that he was reportedly the only white kid at his school. If he is the same age that James Franco was during production, he is thirty-three, chasing booty in his Jesus year. (He and Jay Gatsby, then, are also similar ages, and die at a similar age.) His appeal to the teenage girls of Spring Breakers might be inexplicable if it were not for the fact that Alien and Franco share a smile, a broad and dazzling thing that might be said to have “a quality of eternal reassurance in it,” and to concentrate on whoever it is directed at “with an irresistible prejudice in [their] favor.” In Alien’s case, even the smile itself is tricked-out, the grill meant to make him look more fearsome—not unlike the sharks that he says populate the Gulf of Mexico, a “bunch of vicious motherfuckers”—and also to make him look a little richer: like Daisy Buchanan, he carries obvious evidence of his money in his mouth.
There is a scene intercut with the one in which he goes full Gatsby, as if Korine means us to connect the day-glo dots between Alien’s boasting and his lowly status. Taking his new charges to a strip-club, he runs into childhood-friend-turned-enemy named Big Arch (Gucci Mane), and with the kind of inscrutable expression only ever worn by those with genuine power, Big Arch tells him that he’s operating on the wrong turf. “Go back to doing what white boys do,” Arch says coolly, “and robbing Spring Breakers.” Alien, a chancer, might be able to briefly convince two or three teenage cuties that he is the Floridian Tony Montana, but to a professional like Arch, he is little more than an embarrassing irritation. When he first pays the girls’ bail, he is seductive to them because he reflects them back at themselves in exactly the way they want to be seen: as hot and dangerous baby gangsters. By the time we see them writhing around his cocaine-coloured piano while he plays the Britney Spears song “Everytime,” however, they have established their dominance, and Alien’s home planet has been transformed into Girl World—an intoxicating playground for his charges, over whom he swiftly loses all control. A montage follows, in which scenes of criminal mayhem featuring Alien and his babes are overlaid with the familiar, crackling swell of Spears’ voice, and it becomes clear that at best, he is the manic pixie dream scumbag of Korine’s all-American tale. Alien may dictate the breakers’ crimes, and he may arm them, but the colour scheme of their transgressions is pure Barbie, the soundtrack pure fucked-up Disney, the mood pure Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill!
At one time, James Franco seemed to make a project out of challenging the kind of values Alien extolls with his own life, suggesting with his pursuit of numerous simultaneous degrees, his art career, his poetry, his attempts at being a novelist et cetera et cetera that it might not, in fact, be enough to be extremely rich, extremely handsome, and internationally famous—that however unfashionable and un-American it seems to say so, being the face of Gucci or an Oscar nominee or the rumoured boyfriend of Amanda Seyfried may not be enough to keep a man from getting bored. Whether or not he excelled in an academic setting is a subject of debate, not least because he ended up being photographed asleep in class; ditto the actual number of degrees he ended up fully completing, although the answer is apparently somewhere around seven. Still, his desire to throw all the change he’d stacked doing something flashy he was good at into doing something quieter and less attention-grabbing that (it had to be admitted) he did not always appear to do particularly well was fascinatingly self-abnegating, as if motivated by some obscure need to suffer and repent. Maybe fame, which arrived early for him when he appeared in the much-loved Freaks and Geeks in 1999, had been too easily won, and perhaps the looks that saw him cast as James Dean in a 2001 biopic made it too easy to maintain. Like Alien, he appeared to have a Gatsbyish knack for reinvention, a perverse desire to make himself into something impossible and perfect: a great beauty who was also a great artist. Gatsbyish, too, was the seeming mania that accompanied this decision, his frantic prolificacy adding to the sense that he was not in full control of his new self, and his artiest tics as telling as Jay Gatsby’s tiresome repetition of “old sport.”
In 2013, Franco wrote a poem about his experiences on Spring Breakers, entitled Florida Sex Scene, and its boastfulness leads one to hope that he was still in character when he conceived it. “I’m the experienced actor now,” he gloats:
I am a teacher.
When I acted in Spring Breakers
My character was the teacher
And the young Spring Breakers
Were the students from hell,
The materialistic demons
From today’s celebrity age.
The actresses were enthusiastic
And sweet, they were so happy
To be in a movie that critiqued
Their world, rather than added
One more layer of deadly bubble
Gum. When we did the ménage
À trois in the pool at midnight
The girls were drunk.
It was the sweetest thing.
They had taken shots in their trailer
Because it was their first sex scene.
In the pool we went at it.
And between takes, while they reset the lights
The beautiful blonde one—
A realization of someone’s dream—
Stayed in my arms and told me
Everything she loved about my work.
As a poem, it suggests a lightweight, unsophisticated take on the work of someone like Jon Leon, whose deployment of luxurious iconography and sexual excess is used for good and evil, suggesting both hedonism and decay. As a poem about James Franco, it now reads as a confession of his egotism and of his purported fondness for much younger and less experienced women, some of whom he’d later reportedly go on to harass while they were students at his acting school, or at the very least as an attempt to launder his evident lechery and make it appear more like sweet, paternalistic care. Viewed with hindsight, the Spring Breakers scene in which Alien tries to pressure a nervous teenage girl into remaining in his entourage by telling her that if she goes home she’s “just gonna be right where [she] started, thinking ‘maybe I missed out on something’” has the ring of something said by an unscrupulous acting teacher to an aspiring starlet; in addition to his smile, Alien’s keening, empty charm becomes easier and easier to see as Franco’s, the apparent differences between the two men becoming less interesting than the unctuous qualities they both share. Is Alien a talented actor? He is skilled enough at projecting a certain image of success to temporarily fool at least three teenage girls, making him at least as good an actor as, well, certain other sleazy adult men before him. For a cocky, swaggering man with evidently arrested development, a barely-legal college girl might feel like an appropriate partner, and in general the less life experience a woman has, the easier she is to impress. Fantasies, though, much like lies, tend to be hard to sustain permanently, and all dreamers—even those of the American Dream—eventually wake.
At the tail-end of Spring Breakers, shortly after the scene Franco describes filming in his poem, adulation turns to shit and then to death for Alien, as a revenge hit he’s planned with his two blonde molls, Brit and Candy, goes awry. As they step onto the jetty just outside the mansion of Alien’s rival, murder on their minds, he repeats the same phrase in voiceover like a spell. “Seems like a dream,” he slurs, sounding either hypnotised or drunk, “seems like a dream, seems like a dream.” The light at the dock’s end that he heads towards is pink, not green, but either way it heralds not the orgiastic future, but his doom; an armed heavy slopes towards them and, abruptly, shoots Alien in the chest. The two girls, pausing only to unload and then reload their automatic weapons, move straight past Alien’s lifeless body and proceed towards the house, leaving him there—stripped of his catchphrases and gangsta swagger in death—to be borne back ceaselessly into the past, where he was just some guy named Al.
Philippa Snow is a critic and essayist. Her work has appeared in publications including Artforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, ArtReview, Frieze, The White Review, Vogue, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New Republic. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and her first book, Which As You Know Means Violence, is out now with Repeater. As a child, she was once on a parade float which caught fire, which she feels explains a lot about the woman she is today.