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Calum Marsh

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Calum Marsh is a purveyor of essays and criticism and a generally lovable dilettante. He lives in Toronto and was born in Great Britain, though regrettably he lost the accent.

Girls Gone Wild: ‘Spring Breakers’ and the Arthouse Pop Star

Though musicians have been attempting the potentially suicidal crossover into standalone Hollywood stardom since Al Jolson helped introduce the filmgoing public to synchronized sound in 1927, mainstream pop stars have never been welcomed into the acting world with open arms. Perhaps the stigma endures because, for every Kris Kristofferson or Doris Day successfully redefining their own iconography, there are legions of less reputable performers merely looking to expand their demographic base or cash-in on the popularity of their personal brand (“Glitter” comes to mind). Part of the problem with such vanity products is how deferential they tend to be to the very presence of the musicians themselves, functioning more like self-effacing vehicles for a star’s idealized image than as self-contained works appreciable on their own terms; these films are so intimately bound to veritably mythologized preconceptions that it’s hard for them to realize fictions of their own.

One would be hard-pressed to find more predictably market-friendly pop stars in 2013 than Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, two of Disney’s most meticulously micro-managed teen sensations whose cultivated image stands proud among their most lucratively branded properties. Gomez and Hudgens, of course, aren’t career musicians in the traditional sense—the two made their names in acting before graduating to singing proper—but their highly predetermined career within House Disney clearly dictate cross-platform success of this kind from the start. Their “real” breakout as “legitimate” actors (note the decidedly hectoring quotation marks) occurs this very month, as the arrival of “Spring Breakers” heralds a new chapter in their careers—one considerably more adult in graphic content, though they themselves remain no less (exaggeratedly) nubile.

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“Spring Breakers” is a prime example of a markedly different sort of pop star vehicle: For one thing, it’s directed by enfant terrible Harmony Korine, whose last movie was called “Trash Humpers”. “Spring Breakers” is an arthouse film whose sensibility necessitates a kind of exploitation of its principal cast. But it isn’t the exploitation one might have expected when it was initially announced that the Disney girls would be working with the often unduly provocative auteur: rather than demean or insult his chosen idols, Korine cannily reappropriates their broad pop allure, undermining their studied innocence and unspoken sex appeal in order to make a deeper point about the culture which produced them. It’s a very particular kind of stunt casting: it’s a film that comments and reflects on the imagery of its own star, deconstructing the mythology while helping to reconstruct it. Of course, Korine didn’t invent the strategy—it’s been employed, to varying degrees of success (and often to different ends), by auteurs of all stripes for years.

“Masculine Feminine” (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

The Star: Chantal Goya, a major icon of France’s youth culture in the mid-60s and a face of the burgeoning left.

The Use: Godard’s early films are defined, more than by any particular aesthetic predilection, by their engagement with some relevant facet of contemporary French culture, from a critique of the Algerian war in “Le Petit Soldat” (1962) to a righteous lambasting of consumerism in “A Married Woman” (1964) and “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1967). As the 60s progressed and students became more proactively political, Godard’s interests turned toward French youth, whose activism in time came to consume him. The beginning of the obsession was “Masculine Feminine”, his vibrant cross-section of Parisian adolescence and one of the most vitalic works of his early career. Antoine Doinel himself, Jean-Pierre Leaud, stars alongside pop star Chantal Goya, whose hit “Tu M’as Trop Menti” became the film’s unofficial theme song. Godard, as was his wont, is more interested in criticising the superficiality and solipsism of Goya and her friends than in actively celebrating their lifestyle, which makes this one of the more underhanded appropriations of a pop idol to date.

“Videodrome” (David Cronenberg, 1983)

The Star: Deborah Harry, lead singer of new wave favorites Blondie.

The Use: One of the more serious turns by a musician-cum-actor, Cronenberg is nevertheless acutely aware of Harry’s reputation as a world-famous pop star, and her place in a film about the toxic influence of cheapened popular culture on the brains of the urban masses is…well, it’s certainly pointed, if not quite explicitly satirical. Harry plays the sado-masochistic love interest of seedy TV broadcaster Max Renn (James Woods), himself based on the exploits of Toronto’s CityTV founder Moses Znaimer, and her obsession with the next dangerous thrill—no matter the cost to herself—leads Max down a winding road of conspiratorial intrigue and sexy breathing TVs. Just a regular night out for Torontonians.

“Mulholland Dr.” (David Lynch, 2001)

The Star: Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley’s dad and a certified country-western superstar in his own right.

The Use: David Lynch, it should be noted, is no stranger to using musicians to comical ends, and this spot on the list could have just as easily gone to the strange presence of Sting in “Dune”. But “Mulholland Dr.” is Lynch’s masterpiece and “Dune” is, um, “Dune”, so here we are. Billy Ray Cyrus shows up in one of the more plainly comic scenes in Lynch’s nightmare of a film world, playing the part of the pool repairman/daytime lover to the wife of filmmaker Adam Kesher. No insult meant to Cyrus, but part of the gag here is that he seems the picture of an American doofus, commanding Kesher to leave before slugging him in the jaw for pouring paint on his wife’s jewellry.

“Boogie Nights” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

The Star: Mark Wahlberg’s penis.

The Use: Prosthetic enhancement, but much more, too. Wahlberg had spent years branching out into self-professed “serious” acting, with such, er, star-making performances as the creepy obsessive boyfriend-turned-murdered in “Fear”, but it was still early days when a young Paul Thomas Anderson strove to make a name for himself in the indie film world by casting the former New Kid as lead of his Great American Epic. It’s hard to imagine now, but making Marky Mark the hero of the porn-industry version of “Goodfellas” in 1996 seemed a sure-fire way to sweep the Razzies. And the fact that the film was a kind of masterpiece was only bested, in terms of sheer unlikeliness, by the fact that Wahlberg’s performance was pitch perfect, equal parts unbridled charisma and deep, aching pain. This was a rare case not of undermining a star’s status but of drawing from somewhere within it the talent nobody else could see.

“Southland Tales” (Richard Kelly, 2006)

The Star: Justin Timberlake, performing the best stand-alone musical set piece of the last two decades.

The Use: Justin Timberlake lip-synching to The Killers in a self-contained musical number replete with can-can dancers in the middle of a three-hour sci-fi film that stars The Rock and half the cast of MadTV sounds like literally the stupidest thing ever put to celluloid, but what’s delightfully unexpected is that this abundance of ostensible stupidity is actually good. And good on its own terms: Richard Kelly’s deeply misunderstood opus collects the breadth of our cultural detritus and spins into a yarn for the ages, reconfiguring our ugliest qualities into something sort of astonishingly beautiful. Justin Timberlake, far from the star and far from “serious”, is the crux of Kelly’s argument: if he can transform JT’s beer-swilling army bro into a symbol of good and hope, singing in earnest, surely anything is possible.


Categories: Features

Tags: Billy ray cyrus, Calum Marsh, Chantal Goya, Debbie Harry, Harmony Korine, Justin timberlake, Mark wahlberg, Selena gomez, Spring Breakers, Vanessa hudgens