||A Larry Clark
By ADRIAN MARTIN
Life in Motion
One of the great clichés of contemporary cinema is the use
of a sudden freeze frame on a character, with his or her name printed
on the screen, as if to offer a thumbnail portrait of that person.
The device is reminiscent of the vignetted close ups in the credits
of 1930s movies, boiling a character down to a few, superficial associations:
a name, a smile, a haircut. When Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets,
1973), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 1995) or Guy Ritchie (Snatch,
2000) use such portraiture in its modern, jazzy variant, it is invariably
at the start of a story, to orient us.
Larry Clark deliberately waits until the very end of Bully
(2001) to freeze, one by one, on his gallery of wanton teenagers.
When he at last does so, the effect is a powerful and chilling subversion
of the cliché.
It is paradoxical that Clark should eschew such effects of split-second
portraiture. After all, his fame came precisely from the photographic
portraits he snapped since the early '60s and collected in a series
of books, including Teenage Lust, Tulsa and The
Perfect Childhood. And he is often pegged, by lazy critics,
as a mere photographer-turned-filmmaker, lumped into that class
of prestigious American artists who, since the '90s, have indeed
produced some rather ungainly and inert movies (for example, Cindy
Sherman's Office Killer  or David Salle's Search
and Destroy ).
But the very essence of Clark's films - six features already since
his debut with Kids in 1995, with projects including Shame
(a remake of Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, 1986) and Interrupted
(an authorised biopic of Nicholas Ray) in the pipeline - is movement.
His films offer a continuously mobile, almost cubist form of portraiture,
the kind that is only possible in cinema. His sensitively hand-held
camera never ceases sculpting the flesh, tracing the gestures, gazing
into the eyes of the strange, too-beautiful creatures that inhabit
his amoral universe. It is impossible for these beings to be frozen,
summed up, nailed down. Clark is not a fetishist of the image; what
is rudely torn from our view, by the camera or the editing, is just
as crucial as what we do manage to glimpse. And the music - few
contemporary filmmakers select their collages of pre-existing tracks
more cannily or dynamically than Clark - always restlessly drives
the action into another mood, another state.
Larry Clark (1943-).
An Amoral Cinema
It is too easy to think of Clark as a realist, or even a hyperrealist,
absorbed in a contemporary practice of reportage. These are labels
he himself invites. To prepare Kids he "spent two years hanging"
with his blushingly young non-professional performers. The research
for his new film Wassup Rockers (2005) was partly derived
from his own teenage son, who "keeps me up to date" on the latest
musical mutations. He presented Another Day in Paradise (1998)
as a "real" version of "Hollywood jive", the "bullshit movies" that
have been made about lifestyles based around drugs and crime. All
of Clark's films are close, at some level, to the still vivid memories
of his own formative experiences:
Well, you know I was an outlaw. When I was fifteen I was a junkie
and I spent many years being an outlaw. I was a burglar, and an
armed robber, and a violent person, and I went to a penitentiary.
I took every drug on the map for many years, so I was very familiar
with that lifestyle.
Personally, I have no trouble believing that all of Clark's films
are broadly truthful in their social observation (although it is
at this preliminary level that many discussions of his work stall).
His particular kind of verisimilitude, however, does not pretend
to be transparent, neutral or objective, in the manner of much realist
art. Clark's approach and style owe a great deal to a tradition
of subcultural, underground cinema that includes the work of Andy
Warhol, Paul Morrissey and, more recently, Gus Van Sant (his executive
producer on Kids). Clark even has a 'shadow' in Catherine
Hardwicke, whose Thirteen (2003) and Lords of Dogtown
(2005) closely mirror his films.
I would describe this cinema tradition, unpejoratively, as amoral.
It gazes, coolly and unflinchingly, upon the most extreme manifestations
(and sometimes the most pathetic dregs) of human behaviour. But
this gaze is not dispassionate. As viewers we are calmly invited
to not merely understand but imaginatively share the tawdry fantasies
of those we behold. The mood of such amoral movies is discomforting
and kinky, somewhere between decadent, bad-taste comedy and dark,
Under the Influence
But Clark brings something else to this mood. He is a filmmaker
devoted to sensuality and sensation. His films privilege the headlong
confusion of the present moment, rendered in all its messy, vibrant
immediacy. In this, he joins another cinema tradition, pioneered
by John Cassavetes (Faces, 1968) - Clark named his production
company Chinese Bookie Pictures in homage to Cassavetes' The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) - and his heir apparent,
Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, 1992). Like them, Clark is
drawn to characters in various states of intoxication, 'under the
influence' of drugs, drink, madness or obsession. But Clark goes
further than either of those directors in his depiction of erotic
experience. Ecstatic abandon is an everyday occurrence for his childlike
characters. This is abundantly evident, for example, in the lovemaking
scenes between Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner in
Another Day in Paradise.
It is often hard, in Clark's films, to distinguish the loss of
self that occurs in passion or intoxication from the sort of blankness
that sociologists label alienation or anomie. But the inability
to draw a hard line between these two states of being is precisely
Clark's great, inexhaustible subject, and the basis for the challenge
with which his amoral cinema confronts us. His films, so devoted
to the thrill of the moment, are also meditations on consequences
and responsibility. If his films contain more sex than most, they
also dwell on the consequences of sex (like pregnancy and AIDS)
more than most. Likewise, the spectre of death (or, less definitively,
the threat of long-term incarceration) hovers over all his characters
in their precarious lifestyles - albeit without the morbid romanticism
that mars so many films on similar subjects.
For Clark the big issue is: how can we make strict moral judgements
about people who can hardly be said to be 'all there', consumed
as they are by impulse and sensation? Ultimately, the metaphoric,
even mythic dimension of Clark's work becomes clear: his tales of
on-the-edge characters constitute merely the most immediate and
truthful way he knows to address that lack of definition, that zone
of amorality, in all individuals and social formations. This is
why, for instance, flashbacks seem almost taboo in his films, except
as strange, indefinable, David Lynch-like apparitions: such visions
that, in more conventional films, serve to define the path of a
personality, here belong to no single consciousness. They emerge
from the flux of shared, sensory experience and disappear back into
A certain vein of twentieth century thought, culminating in
the philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze, makes
poetry of the simple question: what's happening? How do we know
when a true event, big or small, is taking hold of the world and
subtly but surely transforming it? And how do we tell the story
of that change if we no longer believe in the agency of the 'sovereign
subject', the individual consciousness that grasps and filters all
data and translates it into decisive actions? How does an event
move a modern, fragmented, 'decentered' world?
Cinema has, for the most part, accustomed us to a relentlessly
narrativised succession of happenings, all of equal importance and
intensity, affecting characters in complete possession of their
subjective faculties and empowered by the capacity to take immediate
action. So it too rarely engages these prime philosophic questions
of our time. Clark's films are different. They are not non-narrative
or anti-narrative, but what 'happens' inside them is not reducible
to the moves - generally very few - of the storyline. Clark is what
Manny Farber once called a termite artist, who works in the fine
grain rather than the broad strokes.
His films are absorbed more in description - of a time, a place,
a mood, a character's particular way of being or feeling - than
in action. They plunge into the intricate swirls of transpersonal
events. We can rarely tell, as his films unfold, from where the
familiar 'plot intrigue' is going to come. This is why, post Kids,
he has enjoyed monkeying around with the trappings of genre (especially
in Another Day in Paradise): on the one hand, what little
fiction he needs (an encounter, a betrayal, a murder) is already
built into the formula, so he need not labour it; on the other hand,
he can lead us astray from the preordained narrative line at any
or every point, burrowing inside and stretching out those plotless
passages in which his characters simply hang out or kill time or
wander in pursuit of some diversionary fun.
Another day in Paradise (1998).
Games People Play
All of Clark's films are occupied with studying groups or communities,
no matter how they construct themselves: friends, social 'scenes',
biological families, ad hoc families like the criminal foursome
in Another Day in Paradise. 'The couple' - so central to
the cinema of F.W. Murnau, Jean Vigo or Kryzstof Kieslowski - is
significant to Clark only insofar as it forms a piece of a larger,
more volatile grouping. An intriguing aspect of Clark's development
as a filmmaker and storyteller in Bully and Ken Park
(2002) is the increasing inclusion of adults alongside his usual
teenagers - adults who are variously bemused, uncomprehending, excited
or intolerant in the face of what their sons and daughters get up
to. Ken Park's single-minded theme is the various forms of
sexual relationship between teenagers and adults. Virtually every
situation in the film is one of abuse, although Clark does not shy
away from the ambiguities involved in consensual sex that strays
from normal, socially sanctioned paths.
Although his characters tend to deliberately blur together (promiscuity
is not only a social fact but an artistic strategy in his work),
there is one, traditional divisor that sharply defines a stark difference
in behaviour. Like Cassavetes, Robert Altman (Short Cuts,
1993) or Mike Leigh (Naked, 1993), Clark arranges the pieces
of his meandering plots to expose an abyss between men and women.
Although the sexes join in rituals of intoxication and ecstasy,
in every other respect they split off into mutually alien tribes.
Kids depicts a world in which boys are heartless, rapacious
beasts, and girls (despite their feistiness) masochistic, suffering
victims. Another Day in Paradise equalises the power game
somewhat, but shows how the teenagers are each trained in the ways
of their milieu by their same-sex mentor - and it ends with a definitive
Clark moment, when James Woods stops the car to matter-of-factly
punch Melanie Griffith for letting his 'son' (whom he is planning
to kill) escape. In Bully, the guys do the dirty work of
murder (albeit clumsily) while the gals freak out or implode.
Bully is about a form of domestic violence that infects
intimate relationships - along with Ken Park, it marks a
more pointedly political interest on Clark's part in omnipresent
structures of social oppression infiltrating the sphere of sexuality.
The story of Bully is based on true events involving the
sadistic Bobby (Nick Stahl) and the best friend he long dominated,
Marty (Brad Renfro). When Marty gets involved with Lisa (Rachel
Miner), he starts to contemplate what his life might be like without
Bobby's tyrannical influence. So, one dark night near a crocodile
swamp, Marty galvanises a motley crew of friends and hangers-on
into killing Bobby. Once the reality of this becomes evident in
the cold morning light, this fragile group instantly falls to pieces.
The unravelling of each participant flows forth in a cascade of
confessions, recriminations and betrayals - a little like the way
criminal lovers used to animalistically turn on each other in classics
of the film noir genre like Double Indemnity (1944).
As a black comedy about family life in suburbia, Bully runs
rings around a comfortable, conventionally 'meaningful' film like
Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999). In a recurring gag, Clark
places the kinkiest tableaux shared by these wild teens scarcely
out of the earshot of befuddled parents elsewhere in the house.
There is a touch of Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor, 1963)
in Bully, a salutary shock-tactic mentality that gives rise,
for instance, to the film's very first moments: Marty, in close
up, doing a fine line in phone sex, while between verbal obscenities
his mother calls him out to eat. Without doubt, the punk, 'wild
adolescent' sense of humour in Clark has found its best outlet so
far in the outrageous auto-asphyxiation/masturbation scene in Ken
Park (set hilariously to the rhythm of quasi-orgasmic cries
emitting from a TV tennis broadcast); and the scrappy but amusing
remake of Roger Corman's Teenage Caveman (2003) - perfect
material for him! - made quickly for television in the style of
a shoot-it-while-you-can B movie.
The phone sex detail was only one of many that Clark proudly boasted
he inserted into the script after consulting the rich documentation
of the real-life case. Where his writers had simplified the story,
Clark felt compelled to retain everything in it that was complex
and unclear. As a result, Bully is a rich but unforced essay
on the ambiguities of teenage homoeroticism. The question of whether
Bobby and Marty are secretly "queer for each other" (as one of their
companions charges) is left a mystery. All the behaviour that might
suggest this is shown to us plainly enough (such as the scene where
Bobby goads Marty into dancing in a gay bar, and seems to enjoy
But Clark is not interested in delivering us a magic key to the
film, outlining some fundamental pathology that would explain all
its events. Sexual desire - of any and every persuasion - is, in
his films, not an individualising character trait but a force that
sweeps up and entangles bodies, or as André Bazin said of Jean Renoir's
disquieting American psychodrama The Woman on the Beach (1947),
something which "goes from one character to another like a mysterious
ball of fire." This is an exploration to which Clark will undoubtedly
return in his Shame project.
Like the celebrated Australian art-photographer Bill Henson, Clark
is regularly accused of grubby, salacious voyeurism. His films are
damned by some reviewers as 'sleaze fests' or 'perve marathons', -and
a particular shot in Bully gave rise to an enduring joke about
'crotch-cam'. Such appellations are lazy, but not entirely wrong.
One doesn't require a degree in film theory to feel that, in Clark's
work, the medium of narrative cinema is being stripped down to its
fundamentals: a body in front of a camera, and an audience in front
of a screen. What theorists call the 'lawless seeing' underwriting
the entire institution of movies is admitted and eagerly encouraged
by Clark. But to stop at either damnation or celebration of this primal
'scopophilia' misses what Clark's movies are profoundly about. If
he gives almost surreal prominence to the raw physicality (and frequent
nudity) of his characters it is, paradoxically, in order to evoke
the inscrutability of their inner selves.
Every great director invents his or her own way of creating characters
in cinema - a distinctive way of separating and interrelating the
conventionally seamless amalgam of body, voice, actor, role, and
'inner' self. Altman, for example, renders the psychological processes
of his characters opaque - they float in a kind of amnesiac dissociation
(think of the men who go on fishing near a dead body in Short
Cuts) that is occasionally punctured by impulsive, territorial
strikes (like the sudden murder a woman performs on her soul-sister
in Kansas City ). Ferrara executes a kind of X-ray
cinema in which his characters, seen at first in their most everyday
settings and postures, are progressively stripped of all trappings
of selfhood and identity, until they are little more than bundles
of raw nerves. Clark, too, emphasises the insubstantiality of personhood
by paying strict and loving attention to the body.
Clark's take on physical beauty raises him to the level of a Jean
Genet or Pier Paolo Pasolini. The teens in Bully are not
just glamorous, they are, through Clark's lens, sublime gods and
goddesses. Their 'trashy' gestures (of walking, eating, fucking)
slowly come to resemble the postures and arrangements of classical
painting - and their (very evident) accumulation of bruises turns
them into veritable 'tarnished angels'. Their beauty harshly contradicts
the acts they perform, and renders more deeply mysterious their
motives. Lisa is a femme fatale not from some cheap film noir, but
a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. In an extraordinary moment, the
camera lingers on her naked body until she utters the ambiguous
line "it's Bobby" - which, in context, could mean either that Bobby
is the big problem in everyone's life, or that he is the father
of her child (and that, whichever scenario, he should be eliminated).
Marty, too, touches a larger-than-life realm: for all his brutish
thickness, he is a soulful, sacrificial lamb, eventually bullied
by fate - and by the law enforcement system - rather than by just
one good-looking creep. This is why the ultimate freeze-frame of
the movie - Marty hugging his little brother in an intense, Pieta-like
pose while a text spells out the court's death sentence upon him
- is so strong.
New Pornographic Wave
If there is one journalistic line that dogs Clark, it is this head-scratching,
ultimately vacuous question, the kind of binary reflex that allows
no real answer: 'does he criticise what he shows, or merely exploit
it?' The media spectre of 'moral panic' grips these movies, with commentators
either trying to whip up a panic from them, or imputing to Clark their
own fervent belief that our morally declining society, weakened by
the deleterious effects of all-pervasive pop culture, needs a good
wake-up call. In this light, some have judged Bully to be more
or less a rehash of Tim Hunter's milestone River's Edge (1986)
- another, somewhat less incendiary snapshot of severe teen alienation.
But Clark is not trying to make a midday telemovie about social
problems needing urgent, reformist action. His films exude neither
angst nor outrage. In fact, he sometimes mimics the form of issue-based
drama, purely in order to mock and eventually detonate it from within.
Nowhere is this more evident or hilarious than in his own cameo
appearance in Bully, glowering from the courtroom stalls
at the wayward miscreants - one of them, by this time, heavily
pregnant, and all of them bickering with each other like peeved
Although Ken Park is, a genuine sense, the most moral of
Clark's films so far, it has drawn hysterical accusations of being
his most immoral. Indeed, in Australia it aroused so much controversy
that it is still banned there. Ken Park was made in collaboration
with the outstanding cinematographer Ed Lachman. This dual credit
is not insignificant in terms of the film's achievement: the extraordinary
sense of intimacy it creates between the camera and its subjects
is due to the fact that Clark and Lachman were able to use such
a small crew.
The film (partly written by Harmony Korine) is part of what one
European critic has jokingly dubbed the New Pornographic Wave, an
international trend that includes Apichatpong Weerasethakul's masterpiece
Blissfully Yours (2002), Catherine Breillat´s Sex is Comedy
(2002) and Anatomy of Hell (2004), Lukas Moodyson's A
Hole in the Heart (2004) and Tsai Ming-liang's astonishing The
Wayward Cloud (2005). All these films place explicit sex scenes
into extremely complex, self-reflexive contexts. However, although
Ken Park is graphic and provocative, it certainly does not
boast the 'real' (unsimulated) sex scenes of Romance (1999),
Baise-moi (2000) or Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs
Ironically, the scene in Ken Park that gave the Australian
Classification Board the most trouble is the penultimate threesome
between three teens. Prefaced by a story related by one of the youths
about a primitive erotic utopia, it is one of the most beautiful
and intoxicating sex scenes in cinema history - a pure celebration
of pleasure, and indeed the only unproblematically happy moment
in Clark´s entire oeuvre. Perhaps the censors overlooked what makes
this scene so powerfully significant: it is the only key event in
the film where adults are not present.
There is a dimension of Clark's overall achievement that - as
is the case for all good cinema - escapes the reach of the written
word. His films create complex moods and ambiences that cannot be
spelt out in any language other than purely cinematic language.
That awesome, prodigious capacity for invention shouldn't render
us speechless, but it should serve to rivet our attention, for a
change, not on the literary or theatrical aspects of movies (characters
and themes in their traditional formulation) but on the special,
unique properties of filmic form. The fact is that no other director
today can put movement, music and the enigmatic aura of personal
presence together in quite the remarkable way that Clark does. Trying
to prove this assertion puts a fan in the same position as Jacques
Rivette back in 1953 when, in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma,
he sought to demonstrate the genius of Howard Hawks: "The evidence
on the screen is the proof ... Some people refuse to admit this, however;
they refuse to be satisfied by proof."
Likewise, it strikes me that people would have to deaf and blind
not to see in his magnificent, final passages - the moves that,
at a petrol station bathed by dusk light, lead to Kartheiser's dash
for freedom through a field as Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand"
plays in Another Day in Paradise, or the sudden flurry of
plot actions in Bully that, under a disconcerting Fatboy
Slim ambient-techno track constantly building up and cutting out,
culminate in those heart-stopping freeze-portraits - the irrefutable
proof that Larry Clark is one of the most exciting and important
directors in contemporary world cinema.
Ken Park (2002).
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