Everyone has a different opinion of the guy who did Kids with Harmony Korine. Some say Larry Clark is a visionary auteur who bravely portrays the decay of innocence in today’s youth. Others insist he’s a grizzled old pervert who uses big movie budgets as excuses to film nubile youngsters naked and fucking. Some are freaked by the man but can’t turn down gratuitous close-ups of Bijoux Phillips’ ass in jean shorts. Others are would-be Pauline Kaels who brave the seediness because Mr. Clark is an artist with something to say.
They’re all wrong.
The truth about Larry is that he’s emphatically all of the above. He is a perv who gets off on statutory-daring sex. He’s not a saint or a sinner. It’s never that simple. He is both. He is a brave director that makes raw and dangerous films that scare you into an erection. There is no better example of all this than his latest film, Ken Park, a poignant look at poverty and pain that will make even the most hardened, overcoat-wearing adult theatergoer go, “Howe-lee-fuh-cking-shit.”
Inappropriately named after a random ’80s skater (apparently the Parks are not pleased), Ken Park is Larry Clark exploding into the camera. It makes Bully look like Bambi. Remember how Kids ended with a halfhearted roofie rape? Ken Park culminates in a finely detailed adolescent gangbang. It’s a loose bunch of vignettes depicting teen suicide, violence, drugs, hate, and rampant sex among a group of skaters in the predominantly Filipino and Mexican community of Visalia, CA. This is the most hardcore depiction of real teen sex and tortured adult libido you’ll ever see, skin-crawling shit that will make you simultaneously shudder and, involuntarily, get turned on. If Ken Park ever finds American distribution, it’s going to create completely new categories of controversy. The ratings board may know what to do with a semi-erect penis, but how the fuck are they going to cope with father-son blowjobs?
Of course, the trademark Clark dichotomy is all over this film. Aside from the weirdo boner fuel, it is an exquisitely photographed and finely realized piece of directing. Like the sometimes naive Kids and the existential 90210 that was Bully, this film implicitly indicts American culture and the decline of parenting skills. It is the truest portrait of youth ever made.
Larry describes Ken Park as “the most honest work I’ve ever done,” the movie he “always wanted to make first,” the one that’s “completely free of any self censorship.” It’s clear how proud he is to have actually pulled it off. Ken Park has been germinating inside him since just before he moved to New York.
When he did finally move there in the early ’90s, he met Harmony Korine and realized he had found the perfect person to flesh out the story he’d been carrying in his head for the past few years. He felt so sure of it that he became a surrogate father for Harmony’s friends (the skater kids that would hang out by the cube in New York’s Astor Place). Larry directed music videos to make cash and pay for everyone’s rent, and the kids paid him back by becoming the cast of Kids. That wasn’t exactly how it was supposed to happen. By 1994, Harmony had written the screenplay for Ken Park in exchange for a few prints. Unfortunately, Ken Park was too raunchy for their investors and the film was shelved. The duo made Kids instead, and it’s been a hate/hate relationship ever since. Harmony wouldn’t be Harmony without Larry and Larry wouldn’t be Larry without Harmony, but if Larry were with Harmony right now he’d kill him. It wouldn’t be hard. Even fans on Harmony’s website are taking bets on when he’s going to die. Harmony is a genius and an intellectual and is therefore doomed. He was evicted from his Lower East Side apartment earlier this year after it became a flophouse for junkies and the homeless. The last we saw him, he was in London doing so much crack that he made Page Six in the Post after dropping his pipe in a restaurant.
Larry, on the other hand, is doing pretty well. Excluding the generic Another Day in Paradise and Teenage Caveman (a truly insane B-movie remake where the teenagers run away from the evil adult cavepeople tribe to fuck and drink and do coke with weird 200-year-old people who still have young bodies), Clark’s films since Kids continue to be an intuitive reflection of the bluntness of his photography. Like the Cassavetes of our generation.
And that’s no coincidence. Larry’s apartment is covered in Cassavetes memorabilia, and the more you look at him in that environment, the more you see the similarities. While Casavettes hung around with a group of adult friends (who acted like kids a lot of the time), Clark hangs around with teenagers, portraying all of their undeveloped sexuality and emotion on screen without hesitation. You have to remember that Casavettes’ very first film, Shadows, was literally about following a group of teen beatniks around Manhattan watching them drink, have sex, get into fights over racial insults, and scrounge for money. It was basically Kids circa 1959.
Like Cassavetes’ films, Ken Park has gone in a hundred different directions since its inception. It’s hard to believe it’s finally here. Characters have come and gone, and even up to a few days before production the script was still morphing into something else. Larry was never satisfied with the way that Korine fleshed out the characters. As he puts it, “I don’t think a Jewish middle- class kid can inherently understand these disadvantaged kids.”
All of the action centers around the character Peaches, played by Larry’s real-life girlfriend, Tiffany Limos. After trying unsuccessfully to cast the role with professional actors, Larry decided to give Tiffany a shot at it. Her performance in Ken Park takes thespian devotion to some strange places. Fuck method acting. You know what? Fuck acting, period. Larry’s strategy in directing performers is to push them into submitting to the reality of the act that they’re engaged in. His own explanation of this method is vague: “I’m looking for the moment. It’s hard to put your finger on, but I know it when I get it.” When pushed, though, he puts it quite simply: “The secret to directing is to make people do exactly what you want them to do. And the secret to that is casting.” In Ken Park, this directing principle is stretched into truly harrowing territory, leading the mostly non-professional actors into a series of bizarre sexual encounters and familial traumas (often played out with the embarrassing bonus of full frontal nudity).
Teenage Caveman was censored heavily (they even took out lines like “Yo, I squirted!” after one of the characters cums), but the only way to censor Ken Park is to ban it completely. In his pursuit to make the most uncompromising film of his career, Larry Clark has left the viewer no room to maneuver whatsoever. You’ll either think this film is pure genius or you’ll flinch, writhe, jerk off, and hate yourself for growing up.