One the great clichés of contemporary cinema is the use of a sudden freeze frame of a character, with his or her name printed on the screen, as if to offer a thumbnail portrait of that person. When Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle or Guy Ritchie use this device, it is invariably at the start of the story, to orient us.
Larry Clark deliberately waits until the very end of Bully to freeze, one by one, on his gallery of wanton teenagers. And when he does so, the effect is such a powerful and chilling subversion of the cliché that we are left in absolutely no doubt that we are in the presence of a modern master.
Clark doesn't need superficial effects of split-second portraiture in his movies, even if many pegged him as a mere stills-photographer-turned-filmmaker at the moment of his mannered debut, Kids (1995). In truth, his films offer a continuous, mobile, almost cubist form of portraiture. His camera never ceases sculpting the flesh, tracing the gestures, gazing into the eyes of the strange, too-beautiful creatures that inhabit his amoral universe.
To call this simple, salacious voyeurism, as some do, is way off the mark. Clark is in the radical tradition of directors including Abel Ferrara and John Cassavetes. 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.
Like Frederick Wiseman's epic documentary Domestic Violence (2001), Bully is also about a kind of 'domestic' violence that infects intimate relationships. The story is based on true events involving the sadistic Bobby (Nick Stahl) and the best friend he has 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.
These teens and their friends walk on the wild side, especially where sex is concerned. In a running gag, Clark places the kinkiest tableaux scarcely out of the earshot of befuddled parents elsewhere in the house. As a black comedy about suburbia, Bully runs rings around a comfortable, conventionally 'meaningful' film like American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999).
Clark's take on physical beauty raises him to the level of Jean Genet or Pier Paolo Pasolini. These teens are not just glamorous, they are sublime gods and goddesses. Their beauty harshly contradicts the acts they perform, and renders more profoundly mysterious their motives. Lisa is a femme fatale not from some cheap film noir, but a Greek tragedy. And Marty, for all his brutish 'thickness', is a soulful, sacrificial lamb, eventually 'bullied' by fate – and by 'the system' – rather than just one good-looking creep.
Some viewers will judge Bully to be a mere rehash of Tim Hunter's milestone, River's Edge (1986). Both films are about a severe state of teenage alienation, in which the characters, high on every imaginable impulse and substance, seem to be strangers to 'normal' behaviour.
If it was a midday tele-movie, Bully would be an angst-ridden meditation on declining family values and the deleterious effects of pop culture on young minds. Clark sometimes seems to be mimicking this form of 'social issue' drama (especially in his own cameo appearance) in order to mock and eventually detonate it from within.
Another Day in Paradise (1998), Clark's underrated artistic breakthrough, proved that he is most inspired when he can take a very conventional, generic mould and then monkey around with it. This adds up to an unusual trade-off. There are situations and subplots in Bully that, on the surface, register as thin and dutiful.
But Clark is what Manny Farber once called a termite artist. He works in the fine grain, not the broad strokes. No one can put together music, movement and personal presence like Clark. His films create complex moods and ambiences that cannot be spelt out in any language other than purely cinematic language. Clark has become, with his last two films, one of the most exciting and important directors in contemporary world cinema.
© Adrian Martin July 2002