Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 24, 2004 6:09 pm 
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Location: California/NYC

Ronde in Visalia

Larry Clark's Ken Park is a mind-boggling compendium of anger, meanness, rebellion, hypocrisy, sex and teenage angst set in the dead-end California community of Visalia. A ronde of scenes depicting individual youths and their environments, it's much more energetic than Clark's 1995 Kids and has far more graphic sex, including relations between a teenage boy named Shawn (James Bullard) and his girlfriend's blonde mother (Eddie Daniels) and a threesome of Shawn, a girl and Claude (Stephen Jasso), who has moved away from his parents as a result of his father's outright hatred and daily abuse. There's a pretty Latina girl named Peaches (Tiffany Limos) whose super-religious dad catches her initiating bondage sex with a boyfriend who faked piety to please the dad.

Ken Park (Adam Chubbuck) is a big freckle-faced, redheaded skateboarder. He goes to a scooped out cement skating lot, makes a couple sweeps across it, steps up on the edge, focuses his video camera on himself, and blows his brains out: thus the movie begins. Later a malicious kid named Tate (James Ransone) who lives with his affectionate but clueless grandparents enters their bedroom naked and stabs them to death in their sleep.

For those who've followed Larry Clark's career carefully Ken Park reads as a filmed apotheosis and ultimate compendium of the kind of scenes he captured in his 1983 book of photographs, Teenage Lust, a world, for that matter, that he first showed off in 1971 in Tulsa, the startling photo book of speed freak life shot by a speed freak named Larry Clark that made him famous and his black and white prints museum collectables. All his life Clark's photos and later films have shown him living and perhaps inventing a transgressive teenage subculture of bad boys and bad girls who do things parents don't want to know about. (It's been said that he's more interested in teenage sex than teenagers themselves are -- which would be quite a lot.) Clark's movies have had the same raw power to shock his stills had. Kids (1995) is a chronicle of New York skateboarding/drug abusing youths with a focus on one who irresponsibly deflowers virgins without a condom and is thereby spreading HIV. Bully (2001) is a true story of a gang of Florida youths who killed a guy they didn't like and got sent up for it. Another Day in Paradise (1998) is a sleazebag Bonnie and Clyde with a drug addict couple and their pretty young boy companion. Paradise is well cast with Melanie Griffith, James Woods, and Vincent Kartheiser and provides a bittersweet joyride, but it's a forgotten film, as is Bully. Kids got more play: as Clark has noted with pride it entered the cineplexes and thereby was wider seen and is better remembered. On it as on Ken Park he collaborated with Harmony Korine as a writer and liaison to the kids.

Ken Park differs from Clark's other movies in being too graphic even for the art houses in America (I saw it at a MK2 cinema in Paris) but also in having a hard edge of irony the other Clark movies lack achieved by its way of switching continually from boy to boy and family to family and continuing this ronde throughout. There are some obvious actors, including Amanda Plummer and Wade Williams as Claude's parents, but there are many semi- or non-actors and so much unsweetened badness that it looks unusually real. Many of the scenes are of sheer villainous malice, such as the one where Claude's beery father threatens him, mocks him, and smashes his favorite possession, his skateboard. Claude doesn't cave; he just curses his dad for what he's done. Later after a useless night of cruising street whores in a car with an older man Claude's drunken father sneaks into his bedroom and tries to fellate him in his sleep. The youth wakes up and stops it and this scene prompts him to leave home the next morning.

Clark is experimenting with a kind of dramatized vérité. The beer drunk certainly looks real. The erections and joyous three-way sex (presented as a montage late in the movie) and the grandparent-killer's masturbation scene and semen are all real. When the ultra-religious father beats up the daughter's boyfriend she was about to have bondage sex with, it too looks and sounds like a real beating-up.

Certainly some scenes in Ken Park are arousing if you aren't so prudish as to be repelled by them, and it's hard to say whether the movie's more titillating, disturbing, or amusing: it succeeds because it's continually all three of these things: it excites, it breaks taboos, and it dips lower middle class American whiteness in an acid bath. The real sex scenes Clark shows in Ken Park are not ugly; they're enjoyed; and the youths in them and the attractive blonde mom aren't movie stars (though they have plenty of credits between them) -- but they're good looking enough. This is one of those movies you don't watch neutrally; you're not meant to. Clark has always made the most of his personal obsessions, which he embraces wholeheartedly, just as he embraced the speed freak life he both lived and chronicled in Tulsa. He goes further into people's lives in Ken Park -- into their lives and into their individual houses -- and by depicting a cross section of disaffected youth he achieves artistic economy and unity. Good people have worked with Clark on this, like Amanda Plummer, and Ken Park's fine cinematographer and co-director Ed Lachman, who's responsible for the look of Mississipi Masala, Less Than Zero, The Virgin Suicides, Far from Heaven -- one could go on -- and who chose to work with Clark because he could go places he couldn't go with anyone else.

Clark is neither making exploitation nor being a moralist. He has obsessions, not agendas. He's simply doing what he does. But there is something moral about the fearlessness of his dedication to what he has seen and what he has dreamed. Roger Ebert has written: "I find Larry Clark one of the bravest of filmmakers, cutting close to the edge." If people think he cuts too close, that's because they aren't used to anyone this unique. A frequently heard criticism of the movie is that it reads as a series of unrelated segments saved and issued together arbitrarily. Not true: this is Clark's best film yet.

Ken Park has shown in France for over a year and debuted in Germany and Japan; it was seized by police at a film festival in Australia and has yet to find distribution in the US. Screened for this review in September, 2004 at the MK2 Beaubourg cinema in Paris.


©Chris Knipp 2004

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