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.
The Virgin Suicides, The (1999)
Far from Heaven
The Limey (1999)
The Lords of
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
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
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 storyline.
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 pioneer.
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