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All Tomorrow's Parties: "The Great Gatsby" Meet "Spring Breakers"

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik May 12, 2013 at 9:11PM

Within the span of a couple months, audiences and media have witnessed the debauched excess of the American Dream gone sour, of attractive young men and women imbibing themselves to delirium, violence and self-destruction. If there ever were a comment on the failed hopes and ideals of our current generation, "Spring Breakers" and "The Great Gatsby" – those strange fraternal twins of apocalyptic party cinema -- would not be it.
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Within the span of a couple months, audiences and media have witnessed the debauched excess of the American Dream gone sour, of attractive young men and women imbibing themselves to delirium, violence and self-destruction. If there ever were a comment on the failed hopes and ideals of our current generation, "Spring Breakers" and "The Great Gatsby" – those strange fraternal twins of apocalyptic party cinema -- would not be it.

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That's because these two movies – and I'm not the first to say it – are so clouded, confused and contradictory in their class, social and racial politics that to call these films savage critiques of America's culture of capitalism is to misjudge the audience's delight in their hedonistic displays of drinking, dancing and beautiful white people.

"This is the fuckin' American dream! This is mah fuckin' dream, y'all! All this shee-yit! Look at my shit," screams James Franco's amp-ed, over-the-top drug dealer Alien, listing his material possessions not unlike Gatsby's garment throwing binge, in which he throws dozens of fine cotton clothing atop Daisy Buchanan. (Alien displays shorts; Gatsby showers dress shirts).

These hallucinatory materialistic displays are supposed to be extreme, of course, so extreme to induce a kind of laughter and self-critique. But I don't think "The Great Gatsby's" $51 million take at the box-office is about self-critique. It's about Jay-Z's music, bling and partying like there's no tomorrow.

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Gatsby's quest may be about preserving an impossible past, but both films relish in the meaningless gaudiness of a superficial present, whether embodied in flapper pantsuits or neon spandex, endlessly gyrating and bouncing for the voyeuristic male auteurs behind the camera. (Black characters in both films are mere window dressing, either exotic or grotesque or both).

Why do both films end on ocean-side docks, one decorated with splashes of green neon, the other haunted by a green-light whose symbolism is as sentimental as its vapid? Bridges to nowhere, perhaps.

During these conclusions, I must admit I favor Korine's surreal blood-splattered cynicism; at least by that point in the film, if the kids haven't fled the theater, it's hard to take vicarious pleasure in the apocalyptic display of videogame violence. Unlike "Gatsby," where the most gullible are actually meant to identify with this claptrap, and pretend to forgot why they went to see the movie in the first-place. Not to feel anything, of course, for if they had, they would be sorely disappointed, but like the hundreds who were hoodwinked to see "Spring Breakers" because they thought it was about Spring breakers, but to see what the advertisements advertised: jazz-age bacchanalia, loose morality, fireworks, and smooth and sexist gangsta-like masculinity. As Alien says, “I keep it gangsta! GANGSTAAAAA."

At least Alien is a fake caricature; Gatsby's fake golden boy is surrounded by so much filmmaking fakery that it's near impossible to recognize the point of it all. Capitalism sucks, folks. But you wouldn't know it from watching a Baz Luhrmann film.

This article is related to: The Great Gatsby, Harmony Korine, Anti-Hollywood, Economic Issues, Racial Issues