I'm sitting here thinking that I don't
really know what to say about this movie. On the one hand, I want to say
nothing. On the other hand, I want to write a book about it. Maybe that
is a story in itself.
Ken Park is the latest film from Larry
Clark, the Oklahoman who had already established a controversial body of
photographic work when he decided late in life to make his still
photographs move. He was 52 years old when he took up filmmaking. His
subject matter is ... well, I think the title of one of his books of
photographs says it all: "Teenage Lust." His entire life seems to be
devoted to cataloguing the sexual urges and escapades of adolescents.
His filmmaking career seems to combine that interest with a need to keep
pushing the outside of the "decency" envelope, to test what can be shown
by the camera in the storytelling process.
For better or worse, we live with
conventions, and we assume that they will be followed. We assume that
when people go into the bedroom in a film, that we will see nothing more
than some romantic, inexplicit coupling accompanied by syrupy music. Mr
Clark is not one to follow the conventions. Some of his earlier films
had been more explicit than people expect from movies about teenagers,
but Ken Park goes all the way. It never pulls the camera away. If there
is oral sex going on, we see genitals being licked and swallowed. If
there is masturbation, we see it in real time, complete with erect
penises and dripping fluids. If someone goes to the bathroom, we see the
penis and the stream emerging from it. Larry Clark knows he is courting
controversy with this level of candor, and he seems to relish it.
The thematic material is no less
disturbing than the explicit visuals. The film forms a loose tapestry
from the stories of four teenagers in Visalia, California who know each
other. Each of their relationships with the adult world is abnormal.
Tate lives with his grandparents,
nice enough old codgers who show genuine love for one another and for
Tate. But Tate is some kind of darkly disturbed individual, and he
terrorizes the oldsters, as well as his dog. When Tate is not
exhibiting sociopathic behavior, he's busy practicing sexual
asphyxiation while he masturbates. (We see all this in real time,
including the money shot.) Finally, he gets naked and slips into his
grandparents' room one night and kills them. For our benefit, he
narrates the murder, including his report of how it aroused him
sexually. He tells us that he killed his grandfather because he was
bad at games. It is fortunate that he didn't live in Detroit, or he
would have killed all the sports teams.
Shaun seems to have a normal life
and a sweet girlfriend with a nice family. Except that Shaun is also
having sex with his girlfriend's mother. In bed with the mother, he
discusses what she has in common with her daughter. No, he's not
discussing their smiles or their favorite flavor of ice cream. It's
stuff like, "you have the same pussy smell".
Peaches is a straight A student
being raised by her deeply religious father. In appearance, she is
virtually a clone of her deceased mother, so you can bet that dad will
eventually decide that his daughter can fill in for mom in certain
ways, but not before he comes home early one day to find his beloved
and presumed virtuous daughter mounted on her boyfriend, who is tied
to her bed.
Claude has a problem with his macho
dad, who abuses him physically and berates him for being a pussy and
preferring sissy sports like skateboarding to manly stuff like
weightlifting. Dad does make an unusual attempt at reconciliation with
his son. He comes home drunk one night, goes into the boy's room, and
starts sucking his cock.
That pretty much runs the entire gamut
of dysfunction and incest.
As you might imagine, the film has
already left behind a trail of controversy. The Office of Film and
Literature Classification in Australia refused to classify it, so it is
currently banned for screening in Australia. Last week (July 3rd, 2003)
an imported DVD was projected at the Melbourne Town Hall but the
exhibition was shut down after a raid by the Police.
Mr. Clark says his movie is not
pornographic, but that he's just being honest and revealing events that
happen in real life. He says all of the characters are based on real
teens who have modeled for him over the years.
Clark's films always have a limited
story line. One reason is that he tries to create a cinema verite feel,
a sense that we are watching real people in real time, and that they
don't know they are being filmed. If the plot were highly contrived, it
would detract from the sense of "reality". Another reason for the
minimal story is that when one shows sex, masturbation and urination in
real time, it doesn't leave much time for plot development. Those
activities take up a lot of screen time without moving the characters
forward. In terms of storyline, this film will never be mistaken for The
Man Who Would Be King, but it manages to develop at least some kind of a
forward movement. It ends the film with a threesome between the three
main characters who are still alive and free. In one sense, the
threesome is unexpected, since we have not previously been aware that
the characters are intimate, and have not seen them together at all. In
a larger sense, the threesome represents their refuge from the
abnormality of their family lives. The tone of that scene is unlike that
of the rest of the movie. This coupling is loving, and the talk is
gentle and harmonious. These characters find with each other a degree of
peace they can't achieve with their families.
We don't know if the final scene is
actually happening. Maybe, maybe not. In a sense, it simply represents
the time when one generation breaks away from the previous one and tries
to build its own sense of cultural values. The sweetness and mutual
acceptance in this scene represents a ray of hope in their otherwise
Clark has not only taken explicitness
to new levels, but has also refined his production values over the
years. The look of "Kids" is primitive, and "Teenage Caveman" is
virtually at a home movie level. That is not true with Ken Park.
Although the cinema verite feel is still present, Clark hired a true
professional to be his D.P. and co-director. Here are some of the films
in which Ed Lachman has been the cinematographer.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
The Virgin Suicides, The (1999)
Far from Heaven (2002)
The Limey (1999)
Light Sleeper (1992)
Mississippi Masala (1991)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
The Lords of Flatbush (1974)
Some pretty famous names sat in the
director's chair for those movies. Two of them were directed by Stephen
Soderbergh, one by Paul Shrader, one by Todd Haymes. There are some
brilliantly photographed films on that list, including one with a
deserved recent Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography (Far From
Heaven). That should give you an idea that Larry Clark is not only
making more explicit films, but also more professional ones. Not only is
there more to see than in his earlier works, but you can actually see
it, and it looks good.
Is it a good movie? Well, now, that's
complicated. Who the hell can give you an unbiased answer to that
question? Both Clark's explicitness and his cinema verite techniques
cause a lot of obfuscation. People tend to talk about the explicitness
of the content, and not the quality. People tend to fume about the
disjointed nature of cinema verite without trying to determine if it
produces an impact upon the audience that can't be achieved by a typical
You won't find me to be much more
objective than most people, but my bias is different from most people's.
I just get bored with body parts. Porn movies, for example, bore the
bejeezus out of me. I don't have any objection at all to explicit sexual
portrayals, but I think that they slow down the film too much when
presented in real time, and I'm not convinced that the real time concept
adds value. Take for example, the scene where the kid is masturbating
while choking himself. Is there any value to watching this for two
minutes? Couldn't the same impact be achieved more economically and
dramatically in a couple of seconds? After all, masturbation is just a
hand going up and down. OK, I understand the impact when you "show me
the money," but do I need to see every stroke?
The film has some merit, but it's
pretty damned tedious and doesn't have much content besides coupling and
sex talk. Let's face it, if they created an airline version, it would
barely fill up the flight from Miami to Ft Lauderdale. Merit aside, it
has been both praised and disparaged. Some people praise it excessively
simply because other people condemn it and censor it, ala the works of
D.H. Lawrence. Who knows, future generations may see Clark as a cinema
pioneer, in the way that we look back upon Lawrence as a literary
I think that Clark is evolving a
technique which may some day result in a very powerful piece of cinema,
given his daring and his inherent maverick nature. He has demonstrated
the ability to create strong moments. I'm still not convinced he has put
enough moments together in one place to make a really good film. I think
his best film was Bully, not Ken Park. In Bully, Clark managed to find a
way to keep his unique "eavesdropping" grittiness, while adding form,
structure, and cohesion. He was working from authentic source material
based on a true story, and he hired some additional screenwriters to
flesh out the story and characters.
Well let's see. He brought in writers
to work on Bully, and a cinematographer to work on Ken Park. I wonder
what would happen if he tried doing both in the same movie.
Jeez, he might be on to something there.