Here's a brief description of the quintessential Larry Clark scene, from the quintessential Larry Clark movie, KenPark, his 2002 study of sex, drugs, and teenage anomie in the suburbs, still unreleased in the United States: A young man named Tate (James Ransone), lanky and handsome in a heroin-chic sort of way, lies naked on the floor of his bedroom, watching Anna Kournikova grunt her way through a televised tennis match. Tate's grandparents are in the room next door, but that doesn't stop him from locating a belt, tightening it around his neck, and slowly choking himself as he masturbates. Clark's camera watches all of this with a just-another-day-at-the-office detachment, even as Tate starts gasping for air and his face begins to turn blue. And then—as we're wondering if this kid is going to strangle himself to death—he delivers a decidedly voluminous money shot. Ron Jeremy would be very proud.
When it first began screening on the film-festival circuit, Ken Park—which was co-directed with cinematographer Ed Lachman, and which also features a hard-core scene in which a scrawny teenager (James Bullard) performs cunnilingus on his girlfriend's mother (Maeve Quinlan)—was greeted like just about every Larry Clark movie before it, including Kids (1995), Another Day in Paradise (1997), Bully (2001), and the made-for-cable Teenage Caveman (2002). Which is to say: It was greeted like a crime against humanity. "This turd is just a self-indulgent nihilistic nightmare of masturbation fantasies by an old man for old men who can rationalize the abuse of the work itself away," wrote the Internet columnist David Poland, in a review that seemed to encapsulate the party line on Clark. Among many other things, Clark is regarded as a cynical, two-faced moralist who pretends to be wringing his hands about contemporary teenagers' hyper-sexualized lives, even as he exploits those teenagers' bodies at every turn; and as a wildly undisciplined storyteller who throws his plot to the wayside when the opportunity arises for his attractive young actors to remove their clothes and parade around in designer underwear.
Well, the party line isn't necessarily wrong. But it also entirely misses the point. This year heralds the return of Larry Clark to cinema: His sixth feature, Wassup Rockers, just opened in New York (it will slowly make its way across the country throughout July and August); and Impaled, his brilliant contribution to the short-film omnibus Destricted, will reach theaters in the fall. Taken together, these may be the movies that finally make it impossible for critics to go on denying the director's extraordinary ambition and influence. Because while Clark might very well be a pornographer, a hypocrite, and whatever else you want to call him, he's also the only American director working today whose work reckons with the complexities of our current generation of MySpace exhibitionists, and especially the way so many young people today seem to relish their own exploitation. These kids know no boundaries, and Clark—who often dives right into bed alongside them—doesn't, either. But spend a little amount of time on YouTube or Veoh, where college students upload videos of themselves exposing assorted body parts, or peruse a few MySpace blogs, where teenagers chronicle every last mundane detail of their private lives, and you realize that propriety has long since left the building. Clark's approach to things is reckless, voyeuristic, often contradictory, and deeply indiscreet. It's an aesthetic that presaged everything from the Girls Gone Wild videos to the cheerleader epic Bring It On to "gay-for-pay" Web sites like StraightCollegeMen.com. And it's rapidly turning out to be the defining aesthetic of our time.
Born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1943, Clark made his name in photography. (His most famous works are 1971's Tulsa and 1982's Teenage Lust.) His debut feature, Kids, about a group of randy, rudderless New York City teenagers aimlessly passing HIV to one another, famously inspired Bob and Harvey Weinstein to form their own distribution company, because Disney-owned Miramax couldn't release NC-17-rated films. But what got lost in the controversy is how Clark understood the way teenagers so cannily play at being adults, and the half-lustful, half-shameful way adults so often look upon teenagers. Parts of Kids are funny and arrestingly frank, such as the early sequence where a group of girls giggle their way through a discussion of their past sexual experiences. But other sections of the movie—the scene where the characters break into a public swimming pool and go skinny dipping, for instance—are so gorgeously and tenderly photographed that you feel you're watching an Abercrombie & Fitch ad come to life. Clark's subsequent films have never resolved this tension, between the real and the posed, between a pimples-and-all portrait of his young characters and an intoxicatingly eroticized vision of them; in Bully—his harrowing drama about a true-life murder in Hollywood, Fla.—he exploits that tension to ultimately devastating effect, inviting us to relish an amateur teen strip show in one scene, curdling our stomachs with images of startling rape and violence the next.
But it's precisely these sorts of contradictions that make the director's work so rich and suggestive. We know we shouldn't look, but Clark keeps pushing his camera ever closer to these kids (witness the infamous teen three-way sex scene in Ken Park)—and we can't quite bring ourselves to turn away. That his characters seem utterly indifferent to the adults who might be commoditizing them (witness Nick Stahl peddling Brad Renfro's phone-sex services to a middle-aged man in Bully) only complicates matters further; after all, is it necessarily such a terrible thing for adults to acknowledge their jailbait-y fantasies, especially when the jailbait so aggressively puts itself out there to be noticed? Clark's work gets right at the bizarre piety of a modern popular culture that's saturated with titillating images of Lindsay, Britney, and Mary-Kate and Ashley, but that also reacts with vituperation when any artist attempts to dig beneath those images. Yes, there's something a little nefarious about a sixtysomething filmmaker who doesn't feel even remotely protective of his barely legal actors. But the director's refusal to maintain any objective distance—indeed, his insistence that, when it comes to teenagers and sexuality, objectivity is plainly impossible—is also what makes his work so truthful. Clark shows us that the adult urge to consume that which is young and beautiful is ineradicable. And that you can either choose to represent that desire in its many icky permutations—or you can suffer the consequences of repression.
This is all very dangerous and dicey territory, and perhaps Clark—who lurches from satire to pathos, from libertinism to biting misanthropy—doesn't always have a firm grip on what he's trying to say. (In fact, all his films can be easily read as deeply reactionary ones, where sexual impropriety and experimentation lead directly to terminal illness, jail, death, or worse.) But that doesn't mitigate the power of his provocations. Or the fact that he keeps pushing himself (and the audience's buttons) in new directions. It should probably be noted that the director's latest film, Wassup Rockers, an antic comedy about of group of Chicano boys who spend a freewheeling day in Beverly Hills, is probably the least interesting thing he's ever done—ironically, I suspect, because there's so little voyeurism and sex on display. (At last year's Toronto Film Festival, Clark told me that because he cast actors under 18, scenes of nudity and explicit sexuality were out of the question.) But even if you can feel the director unsuccessfully straining to redirect his interests into other corners of these kids' lives, Wassup Rockers is still a pleasant surprise: the first Larry Clark movie with a core of sweetness. These boys bounce through the proceedings, happy, horny, and game for just about anything; they may be underprivileged, but they would never consider themselves defeated. (That, and Wassup Rockers also reminds us that Clark photographs the male body with attentiveness and grace, finding real beauty in these boys' last traces of baby fat and their first wisps of a mustache.)
Think of Wassup Rockers as a kind of warm-up for Impaled, which, simply put, is Clark's masterpiece. It's one of seven shorts that make up Destricted, all by well-known filmmakers and artists like Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé, who were asked to make a film on the subject of pornography. In Clark's documentary-style entry, the director interviews a series of young men, all in their late teens and early 20s, for a role in a porn scene. He asks them explicit questions, which they don't hesitate in answering, and then he asks them to get naked, which they don't hesitate to do. We learn that these young men are all obsessed with ejaculating on women's faces and bodies, because that's what they've seen done in porn. We also discover they've all shaved their public hair, because that's how porn actors make their equipment look larger. The director then picks a willowy, dreamy-eyed young man to be his star, inviting him, in turn, to interview a group of real porn actresses and choose one to be his partner. Predictably enough, the guy goes for the oldest woman of the group. As he explains to Clark, he's into the whole MILF thing.
Then… well, Clark films them having sex, with precisely the sort of detachment he displayed in the auto-erotic asphyxiation scene in Ken Park. At first the sex is kind of hot; later it's distinctly mechanical and chilly; by the end—after an "accident" too ghastly to describe—it's just gross. And in only 38 minutes, the director has powerfully illustrated all his grand themes: that modern teenagers' and twentysomethings' compulsion to expose themselves is boundless; that our culture has now wholly transformed sex into a purely consumerist commodity; that none of us can take our eyes off a train wreck, least of all when there are attractive naked bodies involved.
Welcome to Generation Porno. And all hail Larry Clark, its singular poet laureate.