What is the object of Larry Clark’s desire? Could it be the endlessly photographed array of buff young bodies, which, as Abercrombie & Fitch know, represent the ultimate fantasy of marketplace success? With Bully, the grizzled outlaw poet of America’s adolescent lower depths plunges once more into the morass of teen debauchery. The pool is shallow and the mermaids elude him, but the glamour lighting never falters.
Based on a published account subtitled “a true story of high school revenge,” Bully was shot in the south Florida suburb where, eight summers ago, an overbearing 20-year-old deli clerk named Bobby Kent was lured to the edge of the Everglades to be stabbed and beaten to death by a group of his friends and acquaintances, including an old girlfriend and his best bud, Marty. When caught, everybody blamed everyone else. It was, as one lawyer cynically put it, as though the cast of Leave It to Beaver had ganged up to murder the obnoxious Eddie Haskell.
In Bully, the scenario is actually more innocent—it’s an MTV Spring Break or Real World episode that got out of hand. Bully‘s press kit capitalizes the word “KIDS” throughout as though Clark had a copyright on the very concept. Marty (Brad Renfro, like most of the principals a former child actor) is a dazed surfer who serves as a verbal—and sometimes physical—punching bag for his best friend, the smaller, smarter Bobby (Nick Stahl). When not hampering slow-witted Marty’s dating prospects, Bobby promotes his pal’s proficiency in male-to-male phone sex, encouraging him to take the stage at the local strip club on amateur night.
Barely articulate and largely devoid of short-term memory, Marty, out of school but living at home, is a pathetic puppy. “Why can’t we just move out of this dumb neighborhood?” he asks his family. Nevertheless, he connects with 17-year-old Lisa (Rachel Miner), the less self-assured sidekick of the supremely dissolute Ali (Bijou Phillips). “I got a new boyfriend now,” Lisa proudly informs her mom after she and Marty have managed some form of tantric sex in the backseat of Bobby’s car. “What kind?” “A hunk!” “Really?” Grazing contentedly at the movie’s margins, the adults don’t have the faintest clue about anything. In one mystifying non sequitur, Bobby’s father tries to get him to go for a piano lesson.
Just another day in paradise: Clark contrives to have his generally unselfconscious stars naked whenever possible (and has particular difficulty keeping his camera out of Bijou Phillips’s crotch). Bully is even more voyeuristic than Kids. There’s less distraction. The script is worse than slack, and despite its lurid premise, Bully doesn’t have Kids‘ tabloid immediacy. The attitude is worshipful yet derisive. Clark, who gives himself a cameo in a vaguely parental role, lavishes love on these beautiful dimwits. Even their puke is photogenic.
With Marty blubbering about Bobby—”He’s always been like this”—Lisa turns into an increasingly fierce Lady Macbeth, switching to dark lipstick and severely pulling back her hair. “We could kill him?” Lisa declares. “That’s what I was thinking,” Marty eagerly replies. Totally obsessed, she starts organizing the troops. Miner, maybe the best actor in the movie, has been misdirected into a one-note performance that blunts her character’s wealth of motivation: Lisa loves Marty, she’s pregnant, and she has her own reasons to resent Bobby, who took the opportunity to jump her after she’d been with Marty.
Despite its title, Bully never really nails the dynamics of the Bobby-Marty relationship. Is Bobby in love with Marty? Does Marty understand? Or are things even weirder? Bobby not only makes a porn video of Marty sucking a dildo but shows it to Ali as foreplay for their own notably unaffectionate lovemaking. Indeed, the title is something of a misnomer—the movie might more accurately be called Night of the Living Brain-Dead. Taking their cues from video games and dropping acid on a whim, these killers make the Manson family seem as rational as rocket scientists. Clark woozily pans around the conspirators plotting Bobby’s death, as if to encourage audience laughter. A similar sense of amusement extends to the murder itself: “Is he dead?” “Getting there.” Indeed, the scenes in which the various perps ponder their alibis convulsed the crowd at the screening I attended.
As was Kids, Bully is both prurient and moralistic. The filmmaker is having so much fun he has to blame you for it. Perhaps the abrupt switch to sobriety at the end signals Clark’s intent to confront the chuckling audience with their own brutal callousness. When one lad finally manages to put on a T-shirt, it’s emblazoned with the slogan “Dare to Resist Drugs and Violence.”
The cool kids of 20 years ago have been preserved in Downtown 81, a newly exhumed fossil of the Lower Manhattan boho nightlife as it was celebrated back in the day by Glenn O’Brien’s cable access TV show. The movie, which O’Brien wrote and coproduced, stars a teenaged Jean-Michel Basquiat—playing himself as a holy innocent only somewhat less charismatic than Jeffrey Wright.
Basquiat checks out of a hospital and spends the rest of the movie wandering around Manhattan looking for a place to crash. After passing through the old 42nd Street, he mainly plumbs the depths of the then bombed-out Lower East Side, dropping in on a succession of downtown scenes. This picaresque structure can be traced back to Ron Rice’s classic beatnik verité, The Flower Thief, but Downtown 81 is far more self-conscious and starstruck. En route to the Mudd Club, Basquiat is picked up by an Italian model, hangs with Fab Five Freddy, digs a Liquid Sky fashion show, and pauses to appreciate lively performances by various No Wave bands (DNA, James White and the Blacks) as well as Kid Creole.
Extensive postdubbing and a B-movie running time give the project a pleasingly frugal air. Downtown 81 doesn’t dawdle and, despite some eye-rolling dialogue, is a generally amiable time-trip. The movie’s archaeological flavor and its self-regard are telescoped by Basquiat’s propensity for embellishing the scenescape with graffiti: “I could see the writing on the wall—it was mine.”
Luis Buñuel began his movie career by coauthoring the most influential avant-garde movie ever made, the surrealist “incitement to murder,” Un Chien Andalou, and capped his oeuvre with a masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire. Such was the consistency of Buñuel’s worldview that much of the latter is anticipated by the former.
Pierre Louÿs’s 1898 novel, The Woman and the Puppet, the story of teenage femme fatale Concha Perez and the middle-aged Don Mateo she drives to distraction, had been filmed four times before (most famously by Josef von Sternberg as The Devil Is a Woman) when Buñuel tackled it in 1977. Actually, it was a movie he had tried to make 20 years earlier—a French producer rejected his treatment as too Buñuelian and gave the project to Julien Duvivier as a vehicle for Brigitte Bardot, A Woman Like Satan.
Although Buñuel’s version is in many ways the most faithful to the novel (including the hilarious scene with Concha’s chastity device), it is also the least misogynist. The very title directs attention away from the perfidy of woman toward something else—namely the fantasy that underlies desire. (The title may sound like a crib from Jacques Lacan, but Buñuel claimed it came from a phrase in the original novel.) Beginning and ending with images of a woman’s stained underwear, That Obscure Object of Desire is blatantly fetishistic—and also a satire of fetishism. Much of it is related by Don Mateo (Fernando Rey) to a psychoanalytically minded dwarf. That Concha is played by two randomly alternating actresses, Carole Bouquet and ·Angela Molina, serves to confound any desire for a coherent narrative—although, according to Buñuel, like the hapless Don Mateo, “many spectators never even noticed.”
Beginning with the forcibly sundered couple who attempt to reunite for much of L’Age d’Or, thwarted desire was a Buñuelian theme: The guests cannot leave the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel; the would-be diners never manage to feed themselves in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. That Obscure Object of Desire is an even more elaborate exercise in frustration. Fate keeps placing Concha in Mateo’s path, and she continually appears to offer herself to him. But an endless series of barriers and delays insures that he will never have her—only his desire is real. Buñuel’s last testament is a comic version of Vertigo (or A.I.) and perhaps even more profoundly universal: It’s the tale of a person madly in love with something that cannot exist.