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 Clark’s 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 Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver and Francis Ford Coppola’s 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 don‘t want to look at. I’m attracted to and have flirted with the same subculture depicted in Clark‘s 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. I‘d begun hanging out with the city’s 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 I’d look through its pages, I‘d 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; I’ve 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 year‘s 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 don’t start well. ”L.A. is a cultural wasteland,“ he scoffs when I ask him how he‘s liking our fair city. ”New York is where it’s all happening.“ Then he reconsiders a bit. ”You got the Getty, have you seen the Walker Evans show? And there‘s MOCA. I think some photos of mine are on exhibit . . .“
All in all, Clark has grumpily come to appreciate California, and knows that he’ll probably end up being bicoastal, which he admits wouldn‘t really be that bad. And unlike me — I’m eating cream cheese and lox; he‘s eating granola and berries — Clark’s gotten into the healthy-juice-bar-lifestyle thing now that he‘s off drugs. Suddenly, I’m 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. ”Let‘s just say I was more chemically involved then,“ he says, then pauses a beat. ”Yeah, let’s just say that.“ He starts talking about this year in L.A. ”It‘s been a good time. I was working 247 and, being so healthy now, I’m on fire.“
At this summer‘s 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, Clark’s contribution to HBO‘s regular Friday-night Creature Feature series, is December 14 . . . at 3:30 a.m. on the West Coast. ”They don’t 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 who’s been left behind when all the fucks go their way and I go fucking crazy.“
Then, two months later, I‘m 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, isn’t 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. ”Aren‘t 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? Aren’t most kids that age just discovering sex, not mastering it?“
”It‘s a sign of the times,“ he says. ”They’re raised with porn, and they have access to it at a very young age. When it‘s that available, it’s 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 it‘s not porn because it’s documentary. It‘s real things happening; it’s not set up. I mean why can‘t you photograph everything about life? Why can’t you photograph intimate moments? People say, ‘Oh no, I can’t take a picture of that.‘ Why can’t you? People photograph your first communion, why can‘t you photograph your first blowjob? It’s part of life. That‘s why it’s not porn.“
As we talk, Clark makes it clear that he doesn‘t care who overhears us. He says he doesn’t care if I rip him in this interview. He says he doesn‘t care if people think his art is porn. He says he doesn’t care if people think he‘s a homosexual. He doesn’t . . . ”Wait,“ he says, ”a homosexual? I‘m shocked.“
”You’re shocked?“ I say. ”Really?“
”Yeah,“ he says. ”I‘m shocked. You’re the first person I‘ve heard that from.“
I explain that some people — people who don’t know the whole body of his work — just assume he‘s 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 photographer‘s not done yet.’)
”I‘m dealing with the subject of teenagers,“ he says. ”It’s just the territory that I‘m 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. ”You’re obsessed with sex, Tulsa.“
”I am? You are!“ I argue, as I suddenly start to feel like an oversexed, middle-aged pervert.
”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?“
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.