Friday, December 23, 2005

Larry Clark at the ICA, London, 17/12

LarryClarkLarry Clark, the photographer who made his film debut with the infamous Kids (1995), has an unfair 'bad boy' reputation. His publicised run-in with Tartan films supremo, Hamish MacCalpine, only reinforced this image of Clark as well as resulted in Ken Park (2002) never being released in the UK. True, at 62, Clark still exudes a black-clad rock 'n roll demeanour that makes him look younger and urban, perhaps even 'bad boy-ish'. But as soon as he started talking on the ICA stage, it was a softer persona that the audience had in front of them. In fact, tonight he came across as much more friendly than the reputation that preceeds him made me expect, although he did concede to a former aggressive streak smoothed out by age.

Clark ingressed the art world with a book of photographs named after his hometown, Tulsa (1971), in which his drug-addled, crime-prone friends with a gritty realism that influenced Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. The book was recently re-released after the publishers persuaded him to do so - considering the number of people asking him to sign copies at the ICA, that must have been a financially sound decision. He also has a new film coming out in March (US release) called Wussa Rockers ("it's like Kids ten years later"), set in the gang world of LA's south central area, which is also the area where David LaChapelle's documentary Rize (see reviews) is set.

Clark likes his own film Bully (2001). "I think it's a visually exciting film. I hadn't seen it in years until tonight and I remember the first time I saw it on the big screen. I saw a Hollywood movie on the same day and it looked so dead!' he said at the beginning of the conversation.

Bully is set in Hollywood, Florida amidst a group of teenagers who spend most of the time smoking dope and having sex. Shot in a documentary-style way which is very similar to Kids, it passes no judgement on them. The climax of the film is the murder of the local bully. The murder is shown as banal and reckless and at no point does Clark resort to Manichaeism. They pay the price for the crime and that's it. The acting is absolutely wondrous (the leading cast, Brand Renfro, Tania Milner, Nick Stahl and the superb Bijou Philips, are uniformly compelling to watch), which combined with the jittery camerawork and superb soundtrack, makes for involving viewing.

When questioned about the lifestyle of the kids, Clark said: "I guess it's a very American film. Living in an affluent country, those kids can afford the luxury of boredom. It is depressing, but at the same time most of them will figure it out and grow out of that. I just wanted to show them as human beings because kids are always shown as some kind of slapstick joke. When I made Kids, I wanted it to ring true to the kids who came to see it. And a lot of them said to me: this is like real life, not a film."

Part of the electricity and immediacy of the film comes from the fact that Clark had to shoot it in 23 days. "We had so little money to make this film. We were running around like crazy, shooting transition shots over the weekends. There was also a lot of improvisation. That's the great thing about working with professional actors: it's amazing what they can do."

One refreshing thing about Clark is that he doesn't over-intellectualize about his work. Although his oeuvre fits in an art cinema lineage that goes back to Italian neo-realism, and the way he allows the camera to linger on ugly-beautiful faces of teenagers can remind you of Pier Paolo Pasolini's close-ups on Italian peasants, his art seems to be more based on a very fine-tuned instinct to seek out the holy grail of cinema: the truth.

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