20 years ago Larry Clark changed cinema with the groundbreaking film, Kids. He sat down with NERVE in 2006.
Larry Clark creates a semiannual stir with the release of each new film: Kids introduced the world to Chloe Sevigny, the term “virgin surgeon” and the idea that kids were killing kids with sex; Bully was a thoroughly excellent crime drama that seethed with violence, class hopelessness and homoeroticism. But with Ken Park it had seemed Clark had pushed the envelope off the table: the story of adult exploitation of children that featured erections, teen threesomes, seemingly unsimulated oral sex and autoerotic asphyxiation didn’t make it into American theaters. Yet earlier this year, Clark rebounded with his most commercial film, Wassup Rockers, which emphasized issues of class and race in the story of two young Hispanic boys who are taken for a ride by two Beverly Hills Paris Hilton wannabes. Most recently, Clark contributed to Destricted, a series of short films about sex commissioned with the stipulation that the filmmakers would not be censored. In a crowd of funny and weird experiments by Mariana Abramovic, Gaspar Noe and Sam Taylor-Wood, Clark’s documentary, “Impaled,” is the most resonant. The setup is a casting call for a young, non-porn actor to star in a hardcore film; Clark induces several all-American rejects to strip for the camera and talk about how porn has influenced their sexual attitudes. The “winner” then selects a co-star from a lineup of porn actresses and performs the hardcore scene, which Clark follows unflinchingly. But that, of course, isn’t where the most is revealed. Destricted opens in the UK this week; it will be released in the U.S. by IFC later this year. In a wide-ranging conversation with Nerve, Clark revealed why “Impaled” shocked him, answered critics who charge that he veers too close to voyeurism, and talked about how his personal history affects the films he makes today. — Michael Martin
The curator of Destricted said that the idea for each film evolved out of conversations he had with each artist. How did that conversation start between you two?
Well, mine did not start with any kind of conversation with Neville. My deal was, they gave me the money, I made the film, they know what I was doing until I sent them a rough cut of the film.
How did you get the idea?
I was never really into porn. But anybody born after 1990 grew up with pornography, whether they want to or not. And I have children, so I could see this happening, the shit popping up on the internet. And I just had this idea, so I set the premise and thought, let’s see what happens. I’m still shocked by what happened in the film. But ultimately, it makes sense: if you start watching pornography before you have sex, a lot of kids are going to think that’s the way to do it, you know. I was amazed that the correct way to have sex is to pull out and ejaculate on the girl’s face — to them, you know, this is the way it’s done. But if you think about it, it makes sense. If you grew up with pornography, of course you might think that.
You’ve also mentioned you’re shocked by the male pube-shaving epidemic.
That’s just beyond the pale for me! When you’re that age, you can’t wait to get pubic hair! It’s such an important thing about being a kid. To be that young and to shave it off, because that’s what they do — it’s just bizarre to me.
How did you find the guys?
There was a casting call set up by the assistant of the line producer who went to college. The casting call is what you see filmed. The winner — “the winner” — it’s funny. The winner, the kid I chose, gets to pick the girl, so they’re interviewing the girls and it’s pretty interesting to hear the girls talking about how they got into pornography, and they’re pretty open too. What’s great is these kids are so open and honest. And the girls somewhat too, even though they’re you know porno actresses, they’re still very young and that’s interesting. I was never so interested in porno actresses. But having met these girls, man, they’re just the greatest girls. They’re really interesting and good people and, god, they’re fucking gorgeous, incredibly beautiful, two or three of those girls were just, you know, you would die right there, just amazing.
The guys knew the deal going in. They were totally cool with getting naked on camera and knew they were essentially competing to have hardcore sex on film. It’s an amazing piece of work. But that film proves I’m a good guy, right? Because I didn’t pick the kid who was a virgin. I figured that would have been beyond the pale.
What was the most shocking thing that you learned?
The pulling out and the shaving, those are the shocking things for me. Once I had a girlfriend who took the pill. One night we were doing it and she said, “Oh, I forgot my pill, don’t come in me.” And we were really having a great fuck and I pulled out and I jerked off and I came on her. And while I was doing this I said, “I hate this, I hate this,” it spoils the whole deal for me, I hate that, you know, I don’t enjoy it at all. And she told me that her last boyfriend always pulled out. I said, “Why?” and she said he just liked it better. I said, “Were you taking the pill?” and she said yeah. I figure probably he was raised on pornography and that’s why he did it.
Did you talk to your kids, or any of your actors, about how porn has affected them?
I knew kids watched porn, because I’ve been hanging out with teenagers since the late ’80s. I mean, skaters skate all day and they go home and watch porn. Skating and porn, skating and porn. Now anybody with the energy can watch porn all fucking day. It’s part of our culture. It’s part of what kids see at a very early age.
All of your films explore young male sexuality. What still interests you about that?
It’s just kind of my territory. It started back when I was a kid in Tulsa and started making photographs of my friends. I photographed them over a period of ten years, and it became like visual anthropology. There is really no easy, single answer for it. I think in Wassup Rockers I’m focusing on both. Kids I always thought was kind of a woman’s look. Bully, certainly, is about just boys, but that’s part of being that age, you know. Have you seen Ken Loach’s film Sweet Sixteen? You should see that. It’s really a good film. And I was inspired by that film, because it’s really good and there’s no sex at all in it, so it can be done. I said you can’t do without it, but he did and it’s inspirational.
Why do you focus on the guys? In Bully, there’s a lot of homoerotic tension. Ken Park showed erections and a come shot. So does Destricted.
Well, Bully is based on a true crime novel and those guys had a real complicated relationship. And believe it or not, the movie’s a little toned down from the book. Ken Park was an interesting one, because those were all my stories from my diary. My idea was that it’s about kids who get none of the emotional needs fulfilled by the adults around them, and the adults are using them to fill their own needs, whatever they may be, so they get nothing. These kids were so beat up and abused that normally in a film, these kids would have very little hope in life, if any, and so I had this artistic idea that they would come together and have sex, maybe in the best possible way. As some kind of salvation, or redemption, or temporary redemption. I think I did pull it off and people come out of that film, feeling good, feeling positive and they say, you know, that’s not a dirty scene. The dirty scene is when the guy marries his daughter, or when the father abuses his kid.
Why was Ken Park never released in America?
I had a crazy producer who said he’d cleared all the songs, and he didn’t. I worked for a year to clear them. I got them cleared, and they didn’t pay for them. So we either have to re-clear them or change some music or something. It never got to the point where there was a censorship issue — the movie’s out all over the world. You can go on eBay and get a good DVD from Russia, France or the Netherlands. Don’t get the Hong Kong ones; they’re pixilated.
So it wasn’t censorship issues? It could play in theaters as-is?
No, no, no. We’re still trying to get it out. Obviously it would be unrated and obviously it wouldn’t be appropriate for young children. I’m not stupid, you know. I wouldn’t want my son, when he was thirteen, fourteen years old, to have seen an autoerotic asphyxiation scene.
It was truly shocking. Autoerotic asphxiation isn’t talked about, and here you had a long shot of a twentysomething non-porn actor actually doing it and climaxing.
People say, “Well why didn’t you just show, you know, the close-up of the head, of the face?” It never occurred to me for a moment that I would do that scene and not show it the way I showed it. I come from the art world and you can put whatever you want to on the wall and people go “Ho-hum.” But when you make film, there are all these rules, you don’t have rules in art. But I’m an artist. In every movie I’ve ever made, people have said you can’t do this and can’t do that. I said, “Yes I can.” I don’t think like a director. I’m going to do whatever I want to do.
But why did you want to film a young guy jerking off?
You’re asking questions about why I focus on teenage male sexuality and why did I do this, and why did I do that. I’m just making work. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s my territory. If someone did it better, I wouldn’t have to do it. I’m not going to copy other people. I had a very traumatic, difficult adolescence in Oklahoma. I always felt that I missed a lot and I had a lot of issues, being fucked-up and taking drugs. So I’m sure it’s psychological, it all comes from my youth. But there is really no easy answer to your question. This stuff is what I do, and people like it. I hope I’m showing stuff and you know, maybe people will learn some stuff they didn’t know.
You’re doing things that nobody else is doing and no one else will touch.
I don’t usually get into this, but your question got me thinking about it. I started making photographs by accident. When I was twelve years old, my father and my mother started this little mom-and-pop business, and they went door-to-door and did home portraits of babies. When I was fourteen, fifteen, I was forced into the family business. I had to help my mother in this. When I was fifteen, sixteen, I was taking the pictures, photographing the babies and driving around Oklahoma in all these small towns. I was doing this thing called kidnapping, where you knock on the doors, find out who has babies, talk your way in and you do a home portrait of the babies in the home. Six by seven inches for $10.95, and that’s what I had to do when I was a kid. And I was this fucked-up kid. I was skinny, and I stuttered and I had to go make babies laugh and put stuffed animals on my head, and they’d fall off, and I’d go “uh-oh” and the baby would laugh. Click. And it was miserable, but it put a camera in my hands. I was taking drugs, in the ’50s when it was so secret, there wasn’t supposed to be any drugs, and one day I just started photographing my friends.
So I just realized, “Hey you don’t have to photograph babies, there’s this stuff going on that no one’s ever seen, and it’s never seen or talked about.” When I was in junior high school, I knew this girl who had five brothers, and they were all fucking her, so probably her father was too. It was never talked about, but everybody knew about it. Parents were drug addicts, alcoholics. Kids would come to school with blinded eyes because the parents beat them up. This wasn’t unusual in the ’50s and was kind of out in the open. I remember one father used to beat up his kid in the front yard in public. The kid actually later became a cop, so look out for this kid, he’s got some issues. So I was photographing things that you couldn’t see anyplace else. And I felt back then, I said, “If I could see these images, I wouldn’t have to make them.” Back then in the ’50s, to get laid, there would be a few girls that would fuck everybody and there would be gangbangs, and so on and so forth.
So it’s still kind of like that, if you look at my films. It’s still about things that you can’t see other places. When I made my first film, Kids, I’d done so much autobiography, and I was married, and I had kids. My son was twelve when Kids came out and my daughter was nine. They were approaching their teen years, I was interested in what was going on with teenagers, and I knew nothing about it. And I said, well, visually, who are the most interesting teenagers? Skateboarders. Back then, they were all outlaws and the cops were afraid of them and the parents were afraid of them, everybody hated them. Skateboarding comes out of punk rock. Punk rock was all about dysfunctional fucked-up families, if you listen to the lyrics. And skateboarding was similarly dysfunctional fucked-up kids from really fucked-up families. Punk rock saved lives — without punk rock a lot of kids would have killed themselves, and without skateboarding a lot of kids would have killed themselves. It gave kids an outlet. And it was kind of the same process as Wassup Rockers I spent years with those kids and got to know them. They let me into their secret world where no adults were allowed and they gave me access, and then I made a film about that. So it’s still kind of about, “if you can see it in other places, I wouldn’t do it.”
There is a scene in Destricted where the guys have stripped down and the camera pans up and down both of their bodies. It reminded me of what my friend said after a screening of Ken Park. He said, “Larry Clark’s eye is so predatory. Ken Park supposedly criticizes adults for leering at children, but it seems to me that he’s doing the same thing.” How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
Fuck you! Fuck ’em, man. I’m a visual artist. I’m going to make my work visually exciting. That’s what I do. Look at Bully visually. When I started filming those scenes, I said, “You just don’t see movies like this.” Watch a Hollywood movie and then watch Bully — you’re not going to find any movie even close to being as visually exciting as Bully, and that’s the truth of that. If you’re going to show naked kids fucking, well let’s see ’em! I’m a visual fucking artist. I’m always looking for the unexpected action, unexpected comment, the unexpected image. There are unexpected images in those scenes in Ken Park, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Call it what you want to call it.
But nothing is gratuitous. There is a reason for every shot and a reason for every scene. The only gratuitous scene in any of my films is that one with Bijou in Bully, where she’s getting a pedicure, she has no panties on and you can see a little bit of her cunt and pubic hair. But Bijou showed up for work like that — she was right in that character, who’s flinging her pussy around. That shot is a bit gratuitous, and I took it out. I put a different shot in there for a long time, and then I said, it’s just not as good, put it back in. It is visually startling. It startled everybody. The reviewers all picked up on it. and they said, why do I keep doing this? I’m doing this because it worked better than the other shots, that’s why. But if I have people naked in my movies, there’s a reason for them to be naked. Same with Rockers. Critics talked about “shirtless Jonathan, shirtless, shirtless, shirtless kid.” This is L.A.! These kids walk around with no shirts on all the time; they walk around in their boxer shorts when they’re home. This is what the fuck they look like. If I made these movies and everybody had on a long-sleeved shirt that was buttoned up to the neck, would everybody be happy then? People are stupid. I’m just making work, take it or leave it.
So what’s your conclusion, after seeing all of this and learning all of this about porn’s effect on kids?
Nothing can be restricted anymore. There’s no way to stop this. Everything is photographed, everything is documented. All the kids from the movie all have little cameras in their phones, and they can make photographs of everything immediately. They laugh at me with my film and my cameras: “Look at this, you’re taking pictures, you’ve got to go to a lab to get your pictures,” and they go “Tshk tshk tshk tshk.” The kids go out and skate after school — one kid skates and the other one films them, and then the other kid skates and one films him, and they skate for three hours and then they watch the videos of themselves skating for three hours. If you walk into a bar in New York City where somebody is having a party, and you ask kids what they do, seventy-five percent of them are going to say that they are photographers. They’re all taking pictures, they’re all making evidence, constantly. It’s like, if someone didn’t document it, did it even happen?
It’s not like when I did Tulsa. We didn’t know the ramifications of those photographs. Now everybody is aware of everything and you can photograph people doing anything. Do you know Ryan McGinley’s photographs? Do you know Dash Snow? Well Dash has all these Polaroids of Ryan in Ryan’s place and there’s this other guy, I forget his name, it’s in Ryan’s bathroom, the other guy is taking a piss and Ryan bends down, and with his mouth open and is taking the piss in his mouth. All these guys, Ryan and Dash, they photograph everything. I saw that picture and I said, “Here’s what happened, okay, they’re in the bathroom, one guy goes to piss, Dash grabs his camera to take a picture of the guy pissing, and then Ryan sees this, and then immediately, for the picture bends down and takes the piss in his mouth for that picture.” And everybody knows what they’re doing and what’s going on, right? I mean, isn’t that a little different? Isn’t that a little bizarre?
Did you want to go for the R rating this time?
The film has violence and so much racism. So I don’t think I toned it down, I’m just telling their stories. If you mean tone down by not having explicit sex, well I did that in my last movie. Plus these were young kids, so I needed to figure out how to suggest what was going on without being explicit. You certainly know what’s going on. You get the idea, and imagination kicks in. It’s probably better the way I figured it out.
I went over to Jonathan’s [the fourteen-year-old star of Wassup Rockers] one afternoon after school. He was in his bedroom with his girlfriend. They were dressed, but their hair was wet. And they had all this candy on the bed. Like two hundred different kinds of candy. And I thought to myself, “I bet they’ve come home after school, they’ve had sex, they’ve taken a shower, they’ve walked to the store and gotten all this candy. For a kid this age, what are their physical needs, or what do they think their physical needs are? Sex and sugar.” And I said, when I make this film I bet I can use candy to suggest that the kids have had sex. Like it used to be in the movies, when you’d see people lying in bed smoking a cigarette and you’d know they’d had sex, because in the movies they always smoked a cigarette after sex.
How do you ingratiate yourself with them?
I got to know them really well. I met Jonathan and Kiko [another star of Wassup Rockers] out of serendipity. I was with Tiffany Limos, some other actors from Ken Park and these two French women who’d flown in from Paris from this French magazine. I just said we’ll go find some kids. We met them, they told us they were from the ghetto, and they took us to South Central. So we took them all over the place for four days, all these skate spots they’d never been to. We fed them good and they had a great time. When the magazine came out, they gave us all these pages. They did two covers, one with Tiffany and one with fourteen-year-old Jonathan. When I took the magazines back, they were amazed, and they wanted to go skating again. I took them, and a week later Kiko called me on Saturday morning saying, “We’re ready to go skating, come get us.” So I did it every Saturday, we never missed a day. Obviously I was interested in telling their stories and making a film, and I would observe their behavior. But we got to know each other and trust each other. And, you know, I’m cool. If I wasn’t cool, I couldn’t even go a mile with these kids. That should be pretty obvious.
How do you define cool?
I’m cool, you know what that is. I’m okay, I’m a good guy. I was showing probably a lot of interest in these kids and maybe a lot of people . . . maybe they didn’t get that much interest in them, you know.
What’s next for you?
I’m working with a writer in New York named Evan Weiner. We’re writing a new screenplay called Wild Child. I have another film called Blood of Pan. The premise is that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys are still alive and in New York City as street kids. Captain Hook and Mr. Smee are still after them and Peter gets involved with a Wendy. It’s a very funny, hip screenplay; it’s going to be a fascinating film. I also wrote a screenplay with a writer named David Reeves that’s called Shame. It’s kind of a remake of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, but it’s contemporary and it’s in New York City. I’m actually trying to make a remake of a great film, by a great living director, which is a terrific challenge because those things hardly ever work.
So why do it?
Because I have four strikes against me. I want to pull that one off.