Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Larry Clark, "Wassup Rockers" (2005)

Larry Clark has made it pretty easy for prudish America to vilify him. His 1996 debut Kids (co-directed with Harmony Korine) portrayed a bunch of teenagers doing plenty of drugs and having indiscriminate sex. That's certainly not the best way to endear yourself to the "Moral Majority". I can't say I was ever a real big fan of that movie either- but not because of its controversial subject matter. I just found it kinda boring. Even so, it was critically lauded and recognized as an accurate portrayal of a specific urban demographic. It was also responsible for launching both Clark and Korine into their film careers.

Before Clark began making films he was already fairly well known as a photographer. Although I haven't ever seen it, his 1971 photo collection Tulsa is said to have inspired a number of famous directors including Martin Scorcese, Gus Van Sant and Francis Ford Coppola. He also established his prurient interests with the 1982 publication of another photo book called Teenage Lust. Despite my suspicions about his sexual orientation, Clark has two children. He is also a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Clark followed Kids with Another Day in Paradise (1997), a film that also garnered decent notice. It stars James Woods and Melanie Griffith... but it was released in Austria, and so has completely eluded me. However, I did catch Clark's third film, and it is among my favorite teen movies of all time. It's NOT a film for teens, but about them. It stars Nick Stahl, who I believe will eventually be recognized as one of the best actors of his generation. Bully (2001) is a gritty drama, based on a true story of an abusive friendship between two boys, and a murder plot that arises to resolve the resulting conflict. As with Kids, there was plenty of controversy because of Clark's penchant for camera work that lingers on the nude bodies of minors (always played by adult actors)- both male and female. While it's foolish to deny that today's teens display more deviant sexuality than those of several generations ago, Clark's frank exploration of the theme can be unsettling. Nonetheless Bully is a compelling film.

Next Clark made Ken Park (2002), another release that got so little exposure that it passed me right by. Apparently it was more of the same, but even more sexually explicit. It was banned in Australia, and dropped by its UK distributor when Clark punched the man in the face. After that kind of trouble, one would think Clark would tone his act down a bit. And he did... but not totally. The year 2005 saw the release of Wassup Rockers- which follows the exploits of a group of adolescent Latino skaters from South Central L.A., and their journey to and from Beverly Hills.

Clark didn't entirely abandon his fetishistic inclinations, but confines himself mainly to protracted shots of the shirtless boys. Meanwhile, underneath the fleshy surface beats the heart of a sweetly odd film. All the boys are played by non-professionals, giving the proceedings a decidedly verite feel. It's obvious that Clark's attraction to the boys is more than skin deep, and he's oddly protective of the innocence of his heroes. Although they are exposed to prejudice, intolerance, police harrasment, physical violence, condescension, and exploitation- their spirits are left untainted. They remain likable kids all the way through. The denizens of Beverly Hills get to take their (long overdue) turns appearing alternatively ignorant, vapid or monstrous. And perhaps that is the way it should be. Latinos haven't had their fair share of positive roles in North American cinema. It's about time that we get a chance to root for them for a change.

It does take some time to get used to the cadences, rhythms and attitudes of the boys. As film viewers and US citizens, we aren't used to being asked to empathize with Latino youth. We are trained to look at them as alien(s). But Larry Clark has done us all a good turn. And for the first time, I leave a Clark film behind that doesn't end up making me feel dirty inside. What a pleasant surprise.

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Blogger Michael Breen said...

"Kids" is the only movie I can think of that has every made me physically ill. The song by Coil called "Slur" has also made me feel the need to vomit, but not as acutely. I'd want to talk to you before I tried to stomach another Larry Clark film.

1:59 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Well mike, like I said in my post- I do recommend "Bully", though it might be slightly tough for the particularly sensitive viewer. "Wassup Rockers" is actually kind of sweet, but some of the thrashcore soundtrack I could have done without.

12:47 PM  

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