A Larry Clark Portrait
Life in Motion
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.
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.
An Amoral Cinema
is too easy to think of
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.
I have no trouble believing that all of
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.
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, despairing nihilism.
Under the Influence
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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 it).
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.
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, 1996). 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.
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 children.
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 9 Songs (2004).
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.
© Adrian Martin September 2005