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Lust and Liberty 

Larry Clark’s teen dreams

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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”You‘re talkin’ about sex all the time,“ he tells me. ”What‘s up with that? And what is the underworld of sex? I don’t understand that. I think it‘s just teenage sex. I think it’s just sex.“

By now we‘re both cracking up, and I feel like Mary Poppins in a nun habit. I clear my throat to change the subject.

”What about teenagers and drugs? And why teenagers instead of middle-aged junkies? What’s your fascination?“

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Clark insists that he doesn‘t find the drugs fascinating. ”But it’s just there,“ he says. ”All these kids and drugs. It‘s just so available in America. It’s almost like a right in this country -- it‘s their birthright.“

”Do you think teenagers should take drugs?“ I ask.

”Of course not,“ Clark emphatically replies, looking at me like I’m a dumbbell again.

I tell Clark how I was glad I did drugs growing up, that they were a good escape and that they didn‘t ruin me.

”You’re comparing your insides with my outsides,“ he says. ”I mean, how do you know how I feel inside? Drugs didn‘t ruin you, and you think drugs didn’t ruin me. Well, they did ruin me. Of course they ruined me. I had years and years and years of addiction and I was miserable, absolutely miserable. You know, I don‘t want to go into it, but it was wrong, totally wrong. There was nothing glamorous about my fucking life when I did drugs. All I did was have a camera and document what was going on around me.

“So many musicians thought that if they shot heroin, they’d be Charlie Parker,” he continues. “That‘s bullshit. Total fucking bullshit. It doesn’t work that way. The drugs don‘t make the work, and they don’t make good work. They hindered the photographs. It‘s hard to work when you’re fucked up.”

He isn‘t saying any of this in a lecturing tone. He’s speaking from his heart. Clark has felt real pain and it won‘t let him go. Maybe that’s why teenagers will always be fodder for his art. He‘s interested in that time when life is about living. A life with no consequences. A life with no responsibilities. A life so carefree, it’s pain-free. For a while at least.

Plus, as Clark says, “The whole country is obsessed with youth. It‘s interesting, and visually it’s pleasing. Everybody‘s always watching how people grow up. I mean I watch how my kids grow up, and I’m interested.”

On another day, I reach Clark on the phone. He‘s somewhere in Texas and will probably make it to Memphis by sundown. He asks me if I recommend Graceland (yes), then starts talking about some of the reviews that have come in for Bully.

“Well,” he says, “there’s no middle ground for this movie. Some of the reviewers are really crazy about it. Did you see the review from Roger Ebert? It‘s an amazing write-up -- four stars. Then I get a review where The New York Times guy says that you can’t call me a pornographer because pornography is better, or most honest. Crash and burn, right? But those kinds of reviews aren‘t about the film; they’re about attacking me. I don‘t get it. Do I inflame people or ignite something in them that makes them crazy? Are they born again?”

“But as an artist,” I say, “don’t you like the controversy in some respects?”

“Well, yeah,” he says. “The worst thing would be to have everybody just say it‘s okay. And if everyone liked it I’d be doing something really wrong. So it‘s either love or hate. It’s either a masterpiece or the worst film ever made. It‘s like that, so I feel pretty good about that.”

“And then there’s that cool review from David Denby in The New Yorker,” I say.

“You read it?” he says. “He called me this punk Picasso. That made my week, I tell ya. Punk Picasso. How ‘bout that?”

Even on the phone he’s got the energy of a teenager. And maybe that‘s what keeps him going.

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