Larry Clark: A Portrait of the Artist as an Outsiders

Text by Mila Zuo
Photographs by Brigette Sire

Larry Clark is sometimes depicted as a detached voyeur whose books and films are a divination into the secret and seedy lives of teenagers. On the contrary – Clark is co-conspirator in his tales, whether by intimating the story via his own personal narrative of sex, drugs and incarceration, or by befriending his non-professional actors and subjects. Clark’s access seems to arise out of privileged insight and heartfelt affection towards youth culture. Best known for photobooks like Tulsa and Teenage Lust and mammoth cult films such as Kids, Clark’s uncensored eye helps create a more honest and stimulating visual folklore.

Clark’s latest film Wassup Rockers came about unexpectedly. One summer day, he decided to recruit some skaters for a shoot with Tiffany Limos of Ken Park for the French magazine Rebel. He met Porky and Kico on the beach, two young Latino skate-punks who declared that they were “from the ghetto.” “[They looked] really raggedy,” Clark recounts, “their shoes were falling off, really poor looking, and were held together with tape. They were 13 years old but they had style, they had presence.” Clark soon met friends of the boys – Jonathan, Eddie and Carlos – and photographed the group around LA. The magazine was so impressed by the photographs that they decided to print 13 additional pages and ran a second cover with Jonathan. Shortly thereafter, a friendship blossomed between Clark and the boys. “I took them skating every Saturday and I always showed up, so they knew they could trust me and I knew I could trust them. And there was this bond of trust that developed from me going out there for over a year,” Clark says.

“If you walk down the street in LA and talk to any white people about South Central, the first thing they’ll say is that they’ve never been there. Then they’ll say, ‘Don’t go there, you’ll get killed, it’s too dangerous.’” But Clark, notoriously intrigued by life on the periphery, kept returning to the predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood to visit the boys. “So when I started going out there all the time, it was really interesting for me to see how these kids struggle, the danger these kids live with everyday and how they survive.”

Wassup Rockers begins organically when Clark’s gruff voice prompts a handsome pubescent Latino boy to recount anecdotes about his friends. Shirtless and candid, Jonathan looks amused as he tells tangential stories about his friends to the camera. While fictionalized by Clark and writing partner Matthew Frost, the rest of the film is based on actual experiences of the seven rockers as they elicit attention and animosity from every corner – cops, Beverly Hill preppies, and hip-hop thugs who want to know why they “wear their pants so tight.” Reality and fiction mingle as Clark incorporates actual events like the drive-by shooting of the kids’ friend into the film.

Throughout the interview, Clark repeatedly refers to the boys as a great group of kids and his genuine admiration of the boys is evident in the film. The most compelling aspect of Wassup Rockers lies in Clark’s non-invasiveness as a director and his complete acceptance of these individuals. Making no effort to impose rigid dialogue on his young subjects, Clark lets them speak in their own voices, however inarticulate and immature. He simply allows the kids to be themselves, and in doing so, captures the charm and beauty in clumsy adolescence.

When asked if he consciously creates social commentary, Clark answers, “I think it’s what I do. It’s all social comment, you know what I mean? The only time you would see Latinos in film, they’d be so stereotyped, and so I made the kids real, and then I had fun stereotyping who might be rich and white and live in Beverly Hills.” Clark pokes fun at the gentrification of the working-class and exposes the image-conscious, shallow and even frightening facets of the rich and famous. When a rich Waspy Beverly Hills High coquette seduces Jonathan, she comments that his uncircumcised penis “looks dangerous,” and when the boys stumble into a pool party populated by fashionistas, they are doted on and called the “Mexican Ramones.” To the kids, however, their outfits aren’t an ironic trend – they embody a lifestyle of otherness, just like the original punk rockers they mimic.

“A couple of these kids were turned inward, didn’t have any self-esteem and now they do,” Clark says. “A couple of these kids thought they were worthless because that’s the way they’ve been talked to their entire lives, but now they see that they’re not worthless and they’re coming out of their shell. I’ve watched this happen and it’s made me very, very happy.”
In regards to using non-professionals, Clark is rightfully immodest of his ability to direct them as few others can. “It’s different. It’s really difficult to work with first-time untrained people, but apparently I can do it. It’s something I can do! And I’ve been drawn to doing that. There’s this realness, you know, that happens that it’s just like magical.”
The inexhaustible energy of the 63-year-old can be credited in part to his eagerness to constantly learn and adapt. “When I first started making film, I was just tired of photography. I just thought I had done everything I could do with photography and I was kind of brain-dead and didn’t really know that one could learn as you get older. But then I started making film and it turns out that your brain wakes up, it’s like a sponge.”

While his critics have used words like “degenerate” and “pornography” to describe his works, they focus on the teen sex and violence but conveniently disregard the other elements of his films, like the poignant domestic details Clark always includes. When Claude gingerly clips his pregnant mother’s toenails in Ken Park, the moment resonates just as potently as Chloe Sevigny’s unconscious rape scene at the end of Kids. In Wassup Rockers, the moment when Jonathan’s mother plays with his lips to rouse him from slumber is just as powerful as Clark’s lingering gaze over the young bodies. Clark merely tells the stories that others won’t.

“You know, I think that I’ve been trying to tell stories that maybe don’t get told, or maybe don’t get told as often and I’m trying to show aspects of life that don’t get shown. I’ve always felt that if someone else was doing this, then I wouldn’t have to do it. If someone else was making these photographs, I wouldn’t have to make the photographs. If someone else was making these films, I wouldn’t have to make the films. And I swear, that’s kind of how I look at it,” Clark says, laughing at the simple truism behind his unfaltering drive.