Film

In Larry Clark’s Crime Films, the Bad-Man Indie Icon Refuses Sermonizing

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Larry Clark pulls no punches. His collected work, which covers photography and film, is scummy and sleazy; it has the crust of life stuck to it. Raised in Oklahoma by a mom who was a children’s photographer — his father, a traveling salesman, was rarely around — Clark would be injecting speed by sixteen, heroin by twenty. In between, starting in 1962, he’d begun taking photos of his young friends shooting up, fucking, and goofing off. The images, so pungent, contain the mottled feelings intrinsic to the intense material. Yes, there is agony, but there is also pleasure and fun being had through the self-harm of sex, violence, and drugs. The photos led to Clark’s first book, the carefully organized and designed Tulsa (1971), which caused a stir at the time of its publication. (In 2010, Clark rediscovered the long-thought-lost 64-minute film version.) Nearly a quarter-century later, Clark made Kids (1995), from a script by a teenage Harmony Korine and with a cast of nonactors; the movie set the film world ablaze with its controversial, warts-and-all depictions of AIDS and unprotected underage sex. Since then, Korine has matured into a notable filmmaker in his own right, via a handful of movies that are deliberately, sometimes tediously eccentric. (He also later reteamed with Clark, writing the script for 2002’s Ken Park.) Clark, for his part, has developed into a bad-old-man icon of art, fashion, and film. And yet, for all his notoriety, his movies neither compromise nor kowtow to industry trends. His small body of work mythologizes youth in chaos, wading into the entropy without apology.

Starting Saturday, Metrograph will host Clark and, for the following week, screen the majority of his features. Unfortunately, the series is missing what is perhaps Clark’s best film yet, removed from the program at the last minute: the prismatic, Paris-set The Smell of Us (2014). In its place, the organizers have scheduled the world premiere of Marfa Girl 2, a sequel to Clark’s 2012 social realism–tinged Texas film. Yes, Kids gets a screening — an opening-night slot, with Clark in attendance for a Q&A — but so do lesser-screened works: Another Day in Paradise, from 1998, and Bully (2001). With this pair, in fact, Clark is at his most intriguing, his most fascinating, grafting his trademark grimy vérité authenticity onto the ready-made structures of the crime genre.

Another Day in Paradise, Clark’s sophomore effort, represents the closest he’s ever gotten to making a mainstream film. The movie is Clark’s vision of the outlaw lifestyle — something he was all too familiar with, having served nineteen months in an Oklahoma penitentiary at one point in his crime-filled youth. “[W]hat I wanted to do was make a Hollywood genre movie, that had been made before, but make it real because the Hollywood movies are all bullshit,” Clark told IndieWire. Based on criminal-turned-writer Eddie Little’s novel of the same name, Another Day in Paradise is a kind of road movie, set in 1971 Middle America. It follows punk thief Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and his girlfriend, Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who get roped into the operation of a pair of low-rung stickup artists, Mel (James Woods) and Sid (Melanie Griffith).

Paradise begins with a botched petty theft. Bobbie, groggy, gets out of bed in his dingy flat, breaks into a community college, and proceeds to pry open a wall of vending machines with a long screwdriver. A guard comes up behind and delivers a sneak attack, punching him in the face; in the ensuing scuffle, Bobbie plunges the screwdriver into the guard’s chest before fleeing. He stumbles back to his flat — bruised, bloodied, sickly pale — and his alarmed girlfriend. Clark shoots this incident-packed opening with brio, using a handheld camera that lends both a visceral quality and a tactility to the tightly controlled shots. As in the rest of the film, soul and blues tunes (Clarence Carter makes a welcome cameo) play on the soundtrack, often adding an extra layer of commentary to the onscreen action. (“That’s how I feel,” croons Arthur Conley, lead vocalist of the supergroup Soul Clan, as Bobbie goes home battered.)

Bobbie and Rosie’s roommate calls his uncle — Mel — who nurses Bobbie with a shot of smack. Eventually, Mel recruits Bobbie as a protégé in crime, drawing him into a world of theft and pushing drugs. Mel is a typical Woods character — rude, sarcastic, conniving — whom the actor embodies with a signature robust turn. Mel is the leader of this ragtag family of makeshift criminals, always ready with a smooth line of bullshit to soothe his underlings’ encroaching fears regarding his constant violent outbursts, which accrete as Mel disintegrates from booze and junk. According to Clark, Woods improvised his performance during the production, which was a fraught one, to say the least. There’s an incredible moment where, after a swift shootout, the four are all in the car; Mel is in the front passenger seat, smeared with blood. And yet, while holding himself, loopy from the pain, he makes light of the situation. “How can you laugh like that — doesn’t it hurt?” Sid asks. “Yeah, it fuckin’ hurts,” Mel says, and, a beat later, “but only when I laugh.” Mel delivers his disturbing retort while crying and doubling over, before passing out as the other passengers uncomfortably chuckle.

This uneasy mixing of moods is even better sustained in Clark’s follow-up, Bully, in which one instance of the drugged-out comic relief provided by Michael Pitt’s zonked character is followed by the grisly murder, captured in sharp, gut-wrenching edits, of a boy who is repeatedly stabbed and beaten with a baseball bat. The screenplay is adapted from Jim Schutze’s true-crime account of the murder of Bobby Kent by his longtime best friend Marty Puccio and six others in Weston, Florida, in 1993. Passive Marty (Brad Renfro) is abused and manipulated by Bobby (Nick Stahl), seen sucker-punching Marty and coercing him into stripping for money at a gay club. Soon, Marty and Lisa (Rachel Miner) begin to go out, the latter fed up with the behavior of Bobby, who by now has raped a friend of hers. Lisa decides to murder Bobby, and it is here where Clark moves to detailing the beat-by-beat actions of Lisa and the crew: enlisting other friends, including a “hit man” (a simmering Leo Fitzpatrick, leading a group of early adolescents who cling to him like barnacles); strategizing the way in which they’ll lure Bobby to his demise; the inevitable murder in a remote patch of the Everglades; the fallout from the deadly deed. Yet even while laying out their vicious preparations, Clark provides no pat answer as to why these kids do what they do. It isn’t the sex, the drugs, the rap music, the Mortal Kombat, or any of the other social or behavioral circumstances a more judgmental director might use as a crutch. They simply act on their own free will to eliminate the negative thing in their lives, which is another human being.

What Clark does suggest in this confrontational work is a cultural condition in American suburbia by which relations between parents and children are strained or even nonexistent. In Another Day in Paradise, Mel exploits Bobbie’s feelings for him as a father figure to get the boy involved in his heists. As depicted in Bully, Bobby’s father is strict, pushing for his son to do better and not to associate with lowlife friends. He projects his fantasies onto his son, constantly reminding him of college enrollment or their prospective father-son window-tinting business. Lisa’s mom, meanwhile, assures herself that everything’s OK, closing the door to Lisa’s room as her daughter and her friends hang out. Marty’s parents just seem oblivious to his needs. Seated at the dinner table with his family, Marty — sporting a black eye from Bobby — asks his dad, “Can we move?” The father shoots back: “Haven’t we already discussed this?…Marty, we can’t just quit our jobs and leave because our son is having problems.” Even with the adults hovering nearby, the kids in Clark’s films pay for their play.

‘Larry Clark’
Metrograph
August 25–September 1

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