Marfa Girl 2
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
The material shot for Marfa Girl 2 has been around for a while; Larry Clark was already mentioning this sequel-continuation project in interviews before the Parisian adventure of The Smell of Us (2015), but it has taken this long for it to finally exist in concrete form. There has only been a handful of public screenings, so far, in France and USA; Clark has abandoned the online self-distribution method he earlier employed for Marfa Girl (2012). When The Smell of Us appeared, Cahiers du cinéma hailed it as “probably the final film” and testament of a guy then 72; three years later, it’s great to see him proving his commentators wrong.
Marfa Girl 2 picks up the trajectories and destinies of most of the key characters of the original film, probably a year or two later. But gone, this time, are the lyrical images of landscape, the long lateral tracking shots, the jolly vignettes of art-making and garage-band practise, the sense of restless mobility that has so often characterised Clark’s cinema. The only glimpse of teens skateboarding, for instance, terminates swiftly with the vision of a key character flat on his back; and the only picturesque feature of Marfa Girl that remains, in brief cameos, is the train passing through town. It’s a pretty sad vision. Even the drug-and-booze-and-music partying (another Clark staple) has here been dialled down to an ephemeral minimum.
This time around, there’s precious little time for anybody to have any fun; their sad priority is to either do or find work – not to mention looking after their brood of babbling kids. Clark has always given us stories in which the consequences of fleeting desire acted upon – consequences in the form of disease, pregnancy, birth, death – figure, and matter; in Marfa Girl 2, these somewhat negotiable consequences have become something more like an inescapable Destiny. So, everything is bleaker here, colder, and also literally more shut-in: it’s a jolt to realise, some way into the action, that almost everything happens in the small, hellishly circumscribed space of just one house, yard and live-in caravan.
This is where almost all the characters – at least, those who decide to stick around, or have no option in that matter – congregate. The film opens with the couple formed in Marfa Girl by Adam (Adam Mediano) and Inez (Mercedes Maxwell); they now have a small child, mainly looked after (it seems) by Adam’s put-upon mother, Mary (Mary Farley) – still with that green parrot on her shoulder. Then we pass to Donna (Indigo Rael), driving to pick up somebody only referred to but never seen in the preceding film: Miguel (an uncredited Jonathan Vasquez, frequent musical and acting collaborator with Clark), now released from jail, but finding it hard from the get-go to adjust to the fact that, alongside his own little son, Ty (Nathan Stevens), Donna has also had a child with Adam (from the tryst we saw in the first film). That is, until she splits (almost immediately after her re-introduction here), angrily dumping both kids into Mary’s household, and Miguel into the caravan outside.
In the original film, the character identified only as “Marfa Girl” (Drake Burnette) was, despite her name, pegged as a typical outsider, an artist breezing through town and (in some sense) exploiting and/or looking down on the lives of locals. (This makes for an intriguing comparison with the woeful TV series adaptation of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, also set and shot in Marfa.) She was older than the kids, and a bridge of sorts between them and the official adult figures (teachers, law enforcers). The first film built to a shocking event: Marfa Girl’s rape at the hands of a psychotic, lawless cop, Tom (Jeremy St James). Now that she has had a child as a result of this trauma, Marfa Girl has truly become a local resident: stuck in a fearful depression, spending most of her hours zonked out in bed in Mary’s house, she is unable to relate to the son who reminds her, at every moment, of Tom. This problem will eventually provide the film with its principal drama and shocks.
The running tally, in case you’ve lost count (and I had to take some time to figure it out in the unfolding), is eight people (three of them little kids) in a cramped space of precarity. There’s no longer any soulful New Age wisdom of cosmic vibration and reconciliation, as was redemptively preached and enacted by Tina (Tina Rodriguez) in Marfa Girl (in a curious spiritual coincidence with the first season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake series); now, in this second instalment, both nature (the social environment) and nurture (biology) exert their overdetermining pressures in pincer mode upon the characters. It is intriguing to see how a twisted notion of “blood lines” and their formative effect on personality, uttered by Tom in the original, has now been absorbed and integrated as Marfa Girl 2’s own, overarching concept. Clark’s themes, and his pessimism, have hardened. As a net result, all the people herein are, basically, well and truly screwed.
Screwed and screwing. Sex is the one absolute constant in Clark’s cinema. Setting aside the usual grumbling complaints (with which I’ve never vibed) about his supposed old-guy voyeurism – here, the fascinated and curious camera-gaze upon naked genitalia follows a strict equal-opportunity policy of gender – we once again have to marvel at what Clark can do with sex scenes (and how he achieves them with his predominantly young players). On the one hand, sex is seemingly the only thing his characters can do to kill time and scratch whatever itch of discontent or desire is swimming in their heads; on the other hand, it’s the sole site of life, almost an everyday Utopia, where energy, intensity, creativity and even tenderness still reign.
I cannot count Marfa Girl 2 among Clark’s major works – it’s quite a drop from The Smell of Us, where he hit a peak of cinematic experimentation and complexity. Here, things occasionally go flat amidst the generally unadorned naturalism, and the amateur performers are not always up to their allotted tasks of conversational improvisation. But the diptych formed by the two Marfa Girl movies, the play between them over the span of years, is undeniably fascinating. Clark uses several flashbacks from the first instalment in an inventive, generative way, not simply to remind us of backstory (which he almost never does – I found myself compelled to immediately re-watch Marfa Girl to glue some plot pieces together): a clip of Marfa Girl advising the younger Adam about best sexual technique leads to a hilarious moment of fantasy (with Inez still visibly lying beside him in bed); and a fragment of Tom’s monologue triggers an unforeseen plot development that closes the film in a brutally stark fashion.
© Adrian Martin 22 October 2018