“People like Robert Frank inspired me. But I was really influenced more by people like Lenny Bruce.”
By Raphaël Cuir, Art Press, August 2007
A year ago, seven short films by Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Gaspar Noé, Richard Prince, Marco Brambilla, Sam Taylor-Wood and Larry Clark were shown at Cannes under the title Destricted. The idea of producers Mel Agace and Neville Wakefield was to deal “explicitly” with sexuality, and so blur the boundaries between art and pornography. The films go on general release in France this spring (April 25) and a DVD is due in October. Here was a perfect reason for making an old dream come true and meeting up with Larry Clark, whose short is definitely the most graphic of the seven.(1)
While the images from Larry Clark’s Tulsa series (1963 – 1971) may have lost some of their subversive edge over the last forty-odd years, they remain as intense as ever. Clark always claims that there is a price, an emotional price to be paid for such violence. In the past, this meant the return of the repressed, the other side of the American dream (some people still haven’t got over it). Today, still, it means opening “the whole of human nature to consciousness of the self” (Bataille). And, since “we cannot know what the body is capable of” (Spinoza), we must explore, and there are many surprises ahead of us (Nietzsche: “What’s amazing is the body”). Adolescence is a key moment in this exploration; it is when an individual discovers the possibilities offered by physical maturity. The physical omnipotence of teenagers, who balk at nothing but do not always measure the consequences of their acts, is at the heart of Clark’s concerns. How lives change, get trapped, slip away from themselves, how they avoid the worst, how, at each moment, our acts engage our responsibility, condition our lives, and what the world does with us—that is what Clark’s films home in on. Clark himself has looked deep into the abyss, and though he has stepped back from the edge he continues to show us what is there—what regards us there. He has chosen to exhibit the “brutality” of facts (Michel Leiris), but in the intimacy and the density of the moment preserved forever on film. Forty years on, Clark’s first images continue to remind us that the abyss is within us (Victor Hugo). His Kids is already a classic.
Larry Clark: People like Robert Frank inspired me. But I was really influenced more by people like Lenny Bruce. He was all about the truth and he cut through the bullshit and he was always commenting on the hypocrisy of America, which I was living and seeing. That was important to me, I was really influenced by those kinds of people.
Cuir: Concerning the Tulsa series (1971), you were really part of the scene you photographed, you were really into it, having drugs and sex with those people on the photographs… How did you manage to take the photographs?
Clark: Well, you know I’ve had a camera in my hands since I was super-young. And then I just had this epiphany one day that I could photograph my friends, cause I’ve never seen anything like this. I was coming out of the 1950s where everything was repressed and back then in America, there was no talk of drugs and things like that. It wasn’t supposed to exist, but it did exist. I was just kind of practicing my photography at first and if you look at the Tulsa book it’s mostly rooms. So we’re talking about fairly small confined spaces and the Leica was very quiet— I couldn’t have done it with a simple reflex camera, where the mirrors smash together.The Leica was very, very quiet and everybody got used to it pretty quickly. It was more like, if I didn’t have my camera, it was “Larry where’s your camera?” as opposed to, “you gonna take my picture?” I was just part of the scene, and it was very organic, it really came from a place where there was no thought ever to show the pictures or publish the pictures or anything for a while. It was very intimate in that way, and I’m very close to the people with a 50mm lens, so I’m like right here.
from Tulsa (1963-1971) by Larry Clark
“The book is laid out like a film: you’re seeing the same people over a period of years, so it becomes visual anthropology. I was seeing it as a film, I mean I was in the scene, but I was able, I think, to be two people at the same time.”
Cuir: For you there’s a cinematic quality in the Tulsa series?
Clark: The book is laid out like a film: you’re seeing the same people over a period of years, so it becomes visual anthropology. I was seeing it as a film, I mean I was in the scene, but I was able, I think, to be two people at the same time. I had lived in Tulsa and when I was 18, I went to a photography school for two years, which was in the basement of an art school. My friends were students who were sculptors and painters, and I realized what was going on, and I saw that you can use anything for self-expression. I would have preferred to have been a painter or a sculptor— anything but a photographer; a writer even—but I happened to have a camera.
Cuir: I was wondering how the drugs would affect your perception and if you could feel it?
Clark: I became much more focused; very, very focused. I mean, I was a very hyper kid, super hyper kid. Many kids today if they show any sign of being hyper active, they give them Ritalin to slow them down, or to calm them down they give them some kind of speed. When you have ADD or something, your brain is moving so quick that you can’t focus, you know? There is too many things going on, and the speed like levels you out or equals you out. And so maybe, just by accident, I fell into this world of drugs that calmed me down a bit, and leveled me out and gave me this terrific focus where I could make these photographs.
Cuir: It’s kind of the reverse of what you’d expect.
Clark: There is this calm in the storm, in the eye of the storm, that I would find through speed. So I was actually self-medicating myself without knowing what I was doing. And I think that calmness enabled me to make photographs, like in the book, especially when there was so much going on, and even when there wasn’t a lot going on. It was all, I guess, interesting to me.
Cuir: How did you shift from photography to movies, how did you decide that the next thing had to be a movie, especially a movie like Kids (1995), which was certainly not the easiest way to start as a filmmaker?
Clark: I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I was so involved in the lifestyle and got so crazy with the lifestyle of the outlaw and drugs and drinking, that I wouldn’t have been able to make a film, I was just too fucked up. So finally, I just said it’s now or never: I want to make a film. People called me up and said “you got to see Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, this guy’s doing you,” so I went to see the film and it was a good film.
But my reaction was, “This guy is on my turf, I should be doing this.” So I decided I was going to make a film and I went on a personal kind of rehabilitation, I cleaned myself up and got myself together. I knew that I had to clean up my image to get anybody to give me money to make a film and to be taken seriously. I’d done a lot of crazy things, this is a reputation I still have. But I came out and was able to do this and I’d done so much autobiography that I wanted to make a film that wasn’t about me at all. I had three kids then and my son was twelve. He was approaching adolescence and my daughter was younger and I have another daughter who’s older from the outlaw years.
And I said, well I want to make a film about contemporary teenagers that I really didn’t know anything about, that wasn’t about me and that’s kind of what started it. I explored that and looked around, and I thought that the skateboarders were the most interesting—certainly, visually exciting and interesting—and they were treated like outlaws and everybody was afraid of them and hated them. Adults and cops were freaked out by skateboarders, and I decided that it was because they had so much freedom that they could go anywhere and do anything and were totally self reliant, so I started exploring that world. I hung out with skaters from around the country for about three years before I got the idea for the film.
Cuir: But Kids doesn’t seem to be so much about skating?
Clark: I wanted to show what was going on with this group of downtown skaters in New York. There is very little skating in that film but it’s actually a skateboard film. Everything in that film was true and I’d seen a lot of it happen and I knew for a fact that there were also other things happening and I wanted to show this life, but I didn’t have anything to hook it on. I understood if I made a film that showed all of these scenes without some kind of hook that it wasn’t going to work very well.
I knew this kid, this 15 year-old kid, in Washington Square. Safe sex was being discussed constantly. They were going to give out condoms in the high schools in New York. The Catholic Church was against it and there was this controversy, it was front page headlines, and the planned parenthood organization was going around New York giving away free condoms, that summer, to everybody, and kids were walking around with strings of condoms around their necks. And this one kid I’m talking to he says, “I practice safe sex, I only fuck virgins.” And over the summer I watched him deflower a couple of virgins and he would take these young girls, he was very young himself, and he was very nice to them. And so I got this idea about a girl who gets AIDS from one sexual encounter, which is the only thing in Kids totally made up.
Cover of Tulsa (1963-1971) by Larry Clark
“Since the Tulsa book, I’ve been called many, many names, ‘pornographer,’ ‘child pornographer,’ ‘garbage,’ ‘trash,’ ‘he’s romanticizing drugs,’ and on and on and on… “
Cuir: Why do you call yourself a moral filmmaker?
Clark: Well there’s a moral center to all the films. I think: consequences, you know? Since the Tulsa book, I’ve been called many, many names, “pornographer,” “child pornographer,” “garbage,” “trash,” “he’s romanticizing drugs,” and on and on and on… But there is a moral center to all the work and the moral center is consequences. Consequences for everything that we do, and that’s just a fact.
Cuir: There is the question of the aesthetic of violence: if you wrap violence in aesthetics then you might give it some appeal. It’s like legitimizing it.
Clark: I think that regarding the violence that is shown in my films and in the photographs there is always a price to pay for looking at the work. I mean, I’m going to make the audience pay a price for this. I try to get the reality so they pay the price. You see so many films, there’s violence everywhere in film, but there is no price to pay. Hundreds of people get killed, thousands of people get killed and it means nothing.
Cuir: You have kind of a realistic style, showing things as happening here and now, sometimes almost like a documentary. Does it allow you to remove yourself to a certain distance from the way things happen in front of the movie camera?
Clark: A real documentary like Tulsa has a fiction quality to it, and the fiction films have a documentary quality, so I thought kind of turn it around. You know, I don’t really want to have a style, if you have a style your kind of locked in and you lose that freedom. If you don’t, then I think you’re free. I’m always fighting against that.
Cuir: It is well known that sex is one of the most difficult subjects in any area of creation, if you want to avoid platitudes. Would you say that sex scenes are among the most difficult to shoot?
Clark: Sex scenes are the toughest, to make it look real and to make it work. There are so many reasons for this, a million reasons. Thinking about it can be very erotic but sometimes, watching it happen, it’s not. So I think you have to be a really good visual artist to pull it off, especially if you’re setting it up. It all comes down to having a clear vision. I just happen to know what I want.
Cuir: But how do you manage to get this sense of spontaneity, of authenticity that characterizes the sex scenes between, let’s say, Lisa (Rachel Miner) and Marty (Brad Renfro) in Bully (2001), or the cunnilingus scene in Ken Park (2003), which is really so true and so daring?
Clark: It was a lot of work and a lot of direction. I ate a lot of pussy and I ate a lot more pussy and I figured out how to make it look right and how to film it. And then to teach the actor how to do it. That’s just work, really thinking it out, you know?
Cuir: But to get this kind of intimacy between the two actors. Do you kind of keep it very quiet on the movie set?
Clark: First of all you have a closed set and you have the least, the very minimal amount of people. Everybody is in another room including the sound people, and then you create this environment and I really work with the actors. And since I know what I want, then I’ll know when I have it. It’s difficult. We worked it out. There is no one way. It changes every time, whoever you’re doing it with. It’s always hard. The most difficult sex scene was the one in Ken Park where the father goes in and gives his kid a blowjob at nighttime. That was the toughest one, emotionally, because none of us knew that. And we had to figure it out and I had to make it up and you really pay an emotional price for that. It’s my job to really make people understand what we are doing here and what it’s going to look like. It all comes down to trust and I have to trust them, and if there wasn’t that mutual trust then it wouldn’t work. The sex scene at the end of Ken Park was really difficult, but I felt it was important.
Cuir: Sometimes it seems that actors in your movies, are not so much acting as they are performing in front of the camera, like performance artists in the seventies such as Chris Burden or Vito Acconci. In Ken Park, when Tate jacks off while strangling himself and watching the tennis woman on TV, we see the ejaculation and a close-up on his dick dripping sperm. Obviously the actor might have had to do the thing for real in front of the camera… How do you work out scenes like that?
Clark: Obviously, that was one take, amazing. And it never crossed anybody’s mind that I was actually going to film it like that. I told Harmony Korine [the screenwriter] what I wanted and what the scene was. Harmony wrote the scene and it’s on his face, I said, “No man, I want to show this.” I knew that it needed to be shown exactly like it was. When we filmed it was just Ed Lachman, my DP, and myself. We both had cameras. That was it.
Cuir: It must be very hard to get an actor to do that, it’s so demanding.
Clark: Yeah, it is hard. James Ranson, the actor, was the first person that I cast in Ken Park, I cast him about a year earlier, and so he had time to rehearse [laughs]. It’s a devastating thing to do to yourself. I mean it was one of the bravest, strongest things. And he paid a price for that; he paid a tremendous emotional price.
When the scene was over he was shattered, he was a mess—he just, like, collapsed. Psychologically it was devastating but he trusted me enough to do that, so as I say, it’s all about trust between the actor and me. You could probably find other scenes in the film where it would never occur to people to shoot it the way I did, to actually show it. It’s so forbidden and there are so many rules, that you just wouldn’t do that.
Whereas for me, it never occurred to me not to do it. I come from the art world and you mentioned a couple of good ones, Chris and Vito. I doubt that it would occur to them to do it any other way also. But I couldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have done it, if I had to do it any other way. Which brings up another problem, a challenge for me now. I have a screenplay about a girl growing up in Texas from kindergarten to age 14. And as she grows up there is a lot of sexual stuff that happens, and stuff like that you couldn’t film you couldn’t show. There’s just no way that one could do that. So now, for that film, I have to figure out how to do this without showing stuff and make it just as powerful, so that’s a new challenge.
Cuir: Have you been fighting censorship? And how far does it go?
Clark: I’m always fighting censorship, or they are fighting me, you know? It’s always like that. Especially making films, you run into a lot, because there are these phony censor boards, the MPAA, which is run by the studios. It is the most corrupt stupid shit in the world. I mean, these people are just corrupt, corrupt, corrupt. It means nothing. But they control the theaters, and they say, well if you don’t like it, then just put your film out unrated, but then if you don’t get a rating, you can’t get theaters, because theaters won’t run films that are unrated or that are rated X. And its run by the studios, so you can have Sharon Stone stabbing Michael Douglas while she’s fucking him and it’s ok, because it is a big studio movie that makes a lot of money. They pick on the small indie movies, that they don’t care about, like my films and a lot of other filmmakers.
It’s a totally separate standard and it’s complete bullshit. Realistically when you make a film there is that kind of thing. But I just make the work, you know. Ken Park could never be cut one frame, the contracts all say it could never be altered or changed or cut or censored in any way, and if there are countries that have a problem with it, then fuck it, they can’t show it, I don’t care.
Cuir: What’s next?
Clark: I’m going to have an exhibition of photographs in the fall, in Luhring Augustine gallery (New York). I have a lot of work to do. I have four screenplays ready to go, maybe the next one will be a film called Wild Child, a small film, back in the ghetto again, we’ll shoot it in South Central, I like South Central, I like shooting there. I’m too busy. Trying to stay busy, okay?
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(All rights reserved. Text @ Raphaël Cuir, Images @ Larry Clark.)