Lust and Liberty
What is with this guy, Larry Clark, who at 58 is still obsessing on the teenage underworld? Why all the sex and guns and drugs and loser characters? Clark is certainly no teenager himself, even has kids of his own in their teens. But no matter how much he moves forward as a photographer and filmmaker, he is always drawn back to that shitty part of life that some of us would rather forget.
Maybe we should look at Clarks past. He was a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he started lugging around camera equipment for the family business, Don Clark Photography. Young Larry, pumped up on speed, would make house calls with his mother and shoot baby portraits. Just walk into the homes and lives of complete strangers, shooting whatever they found there. And after art school in Milwaukee, plus a tour in Vietnam, Clark went back to his hometown and started taking photos, this time for himself, shooting whatever he found there.
Instead of babies, he found guns, young prostitutes, drugs and the law, Oklahoma style. He documented it all, and in 1971, nine years after he started taking pictures of his friends -- and getting totally sucked into his addiction again -- he came out with Tulsa, one of the most influential art photography books ever produced. (Its photos are credited with inspiring the look of Martin Scorseses Taxi Driver and Francis Ford Coppolas Rumble Fish.) His brilliance, what I am most envious of, is his ability to capture a genuine moment, the kind of authentic experience that most people dont want to look at. Im attracted to and have flirted with the same subculture depicted in Clarks photos, but he went all the way there. He presents it raw and real.
By the time I was trying to make art in Tulsa, in the early 80s, Clark was a legend. Id begun hanging out with the citys photography crowd and showing my work -- mostly of my friends and family getting drunk and fuckin around -- and right away people started telling me about this guy, Larry Clark, and how I should check out his book called Tulsa. No one seemed to own a copy though, so my only source was the city library. Every time Id look through its pages, Id want to steal the book (but I never brought myself to do it). I eventually settled for meeting Clark briefly and trading him my own painting of a Smirnoff Vodka bottle for a copy of the cover print of his next book -- Teenage Lust . . . of course. Ever since, that print has traveled with me; Ive been gazing at it for the past 13 years.
When I find out that clark is temporarily living in Los Angeles doing post-production work on three different projects -- including next years Ken Park, which promises to be his edgiest movie yet -- I know I have to take the opportunity to try to talk to him. Clark, more filmmaker than photographer these days, is famous enough to be hard to track down, but when he returns my call, his voice is low-key and unpretentious, sort of like a guy from Tulsa or something. Over the course of about four months, Clark and I talk several times about photography, movies, the art world and, of course, sex and drugs.
One day, though, we get together for breakfast and things dont start well. L.A. is a cultural wasteland, he scoffs when I ask him how hes liking our fair city. New York is where its all happening. Then he reconsiders a bit. You got the Getty, have you seen the Walker Evans show? And theres MOCA. I think some photos of mine are on exhibit . . .
All in all, Clark has grumpily come to appreciate California, and knows that hell probably end up being bicoastal, which he admits wouldnt really be that bad. And unlike me -- Im eating cream cheese and lox; hes eating granola and berries -- Clarks gotten into the healthy-juice-bar-lifestyle thing now that hes off drugs. Suddenly, Im starting to feel old. Very old. And Larry Clark is starting to look young. Very young.
Of course, he was in Hollywood before -- two years ago when filming his second movie, Another Day in Paradise -- but that was a different experience for him. Lets just say I was more chemically involved then, he says, then pauses a beat. Yeah, lets just say that. He starts talking about this year in L.A. Its been a good time. I was working 247 and, being so healthy now, Im on fire.
At this summers Hollywood premiere of Bully, Clark even goes to the trouble of showing up in a suit and tie -- something is wrong with that picture. The suit hangs on him as if his body is nothing more than a wire hanger and his normally elongated face seems to just get longer. He looks profoundly uncomfortable in this crowd that has come to celebrate him. At the afterparty (baloney tea sandwiches, salsa and chips), I bump into him as he makes a quick getaway from the scene. I wonder if Hollywood will ever be ready for him -- and if he will ever be ready for Hollywood.
Consider his reaction to the news that the next airing of Teenage Caveman, Clarks contribution to HBOs regular Friday-night Creature Feature series, is December 14 . . . at 3:30 a.m. on the West Coast. They dont even play Scary Movie at that hour. Well, fuck it. Very few people will get the joke anyway. FUCK THE WORLD. Fuck you, fuck me, fuck em all. Time will tell who has fell and whos been left behind when all the fucks go their way and I go fucking crazy.
Then, two months later, Im at Sony Pictures to watch Teenage Caveman, and I take a snapshot of Clark holding a Creature Feature toy, sold at Toys R Us, while supplies last. Something is wrong with this picture, isnt it? Is Larry Clark fucking with our minds again?
After watching his HBO Creature Feature, I come to the conclusion that yes, Larry Clark is fucking with our minds. The feature, with teen sex, an orgy and enough blood and gore and guts to satisfy any horror-flick junkie, is so over the top, so bad and oddly brilliant that, naturally, John Waters comes to mind. But then John Waters never would have made Bully, a brutal film about teen murder and sex that left me shaken days after I saw it.
One day, I ask Clark about the sex scenes in Bully. Arent the kids acting too sophisticated for teenagers? I ask. I mean, teenagers making porn movies, using sex toys, wearing sexy lingerie and nipple clips, having group sex? Arent most kids that age just discovering sex, not mastering it?
Its a sign of the times, he says. Theyre raised with porn, and they have access to it at a very young age. When its that available, its not sophisticated because sophistication would mean that only a few kids, the sophisticated ones, would know about it. But all these kids grew up with Madonna. Everything is sexualized nowadays.
Okay, I say. But how do you respond to the people who say that the sex in your films and photos is just pornography?
Well its not porn because its documentary. Its real things happening; its not set up. I mean why cant you photograph everything about life? Why cant you photograph intimate moments? People say, Oh no, I cant take a picture of that. Why cant you? People photograph your first communion, why cant you photograph your first blowjob? Its part of life. Thats why its not porn.
As we talk, Clark makes it clear that he doesnt care who overhears us. He says he doesnt care if I rip him in this interview. He says he doesnt care if people think his art is porn. He says he doesnt care if people think hes a homosexual. He doesnt . . . Wait, he says, a homosexual? Im shocked.
Youre shocked? I say. Really?
Yeah, he says. Im shocked. Youre the first person Ive heard that from.
I explain that some people -- people who dont know the whole body of his work -- just assume hes gay. I mean, take his book Larry Clark 1992. Page after page of portraits of young teenage boys with dicks the size of a gila monster draped over their thighs. (I imagine a parent yelling for Billy to come to dinner while Billy poses with a noose around his neck, his stiff cock peeking out of cut-off shorts. Just a minute Mom, the photographers not done yet.)
Im dealing with the subject of teenagers, he says. Its just the territory that Im exploring and I try to make photographs like when I was a teenage boy. I just take pictures of teenage boys.
I try to steer the conversation back to Bully. You were able to bring out the underworld of sex. I mean, that would appeal to you, the teenage underworld, right?
Clark shakes his head in exasperation. Youre obsessed with sex, Tulsa.
I am? You are! I argue, as I suddenly start to feel like an oversexed, middle-aged pervert.
Youre talkin about sex all the time, he tells me. Whats up with that? And what is the underworld of sex? I dont understand that. I think its just teenage sex. I think its just sex.
By now were 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? Whats your fascination?
Clark insists that he doesnt find the drugs fascinating. But its just there, he says. All these kids and drugs. Its just so available in America. Its almost like a right in this country -- its their birthright.
Do you think teenagers should take drugs? I ask.
Of course not, Clark emphatically replies, looking at me like Im a dumbbell again.
I tell Clark how I was glad I did drugs growing up, that they were a good escape and that they didnt ruin me.
Youre comparing your insides with my outsides, he says. I mean, how do you know how I feel inside? Drugs didnt ruin you, and you think drugs didnt 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 dont 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, theyd be Charlie Parker, he continues. Thats bullshit. Total fucking bullshit. It doesnt work that way. The drugs dont make the work, and they dont make good work. They hindered the photographs. Its hard to work when youre fucked up.
He isnt saying any of this in a lecturing tone. Hes speaking from his heart. Clark has felt real pain and it wont let him go. Maybe thats why teenagers will always be fodder for his art. Hes interested in that time when life is about living. A life with no consequences. A life with no responsibilities. A life so carefree, its pain-free. For a while at least.
Plus, as Clark says, The whole country is obsessed with youth. Its interesting, and visually its pleasing. Everybodys always watching how people grow up. I mean I watch how my kids grow up, and Im interested.
On another day, I reach Clark on the phone. Hes 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, theres no middle ground for this movie. Some of the reviewers are really crazy about it. Did you see the review from Roger Ebert? Its an amazing write-up -- four stars. Then I get a review where The New York Times guy says that you cant call me a pornographer because pornography is better, or most honest. Crash and burn, right? But those kinds of reviews arent about the film; theyre about attacking me. I dont 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, dont you like the controversy in some respects?
Well, yeah, he says. The worst thing would be to have everybody just say its okay. And if everyone liked it Id be doing something really wrong. So its either love or hate. Its either a masterpiece or the worst film ever made. Its like that, so I feel pretty good about that.
And then theres 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 hes got the energy of a teenager. And maybe thats what keeps him going.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.