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Urs Peter Halter
Ken Park focuses on several teenagers and their tormented home lives. Shawn seems to be the most conventional. Tate is brimming with psychotic rage; Claude is habitually harassed by his brutish father and coddled, rather uncomfortably, by his enormously pregnant mother. Peaches looks after her devoutly religious father, but yearns for freedom. They're all rather tight, or so they claim. But they spend precious little time together and none of them seems to know much about one another's family lives. This bizarre dichotomy underscores their alienation # the result of suburban ennui, a teenager's inherent sense of melodrama, and the disturbing nature of their home environments. Written by
Much has been made of this film's depiction of sex. Depending on who you ask, the scenes in question are "brutally honest" or simply "disgustingly pornographic". Both descriptions boil down to the same thing either way: you get to see erections. And ejaculate. A shiver goes through the audience, people shift in their seats - we are not used to seeing this in a non-pornographic movie, and it kind of throws us off-balance for a moment. But then, as it must, the film goes on and we are left to wonder what it was actually about. The reason I dislike this film, as I did both Kids and Bully (two movies that appear tame by comparison), is simply because once you take away the shocking aspects of it - the violence, the no-holds-barred sex scenes - it really isn't about anything much.
What Larry Clark is apparently trying to say here, is the same thing he tried to say with his earlier films: being a teenager stinks. Life sucks. It's the kind of wisdom that depressed adolescents spray-paint on walls. In the universe of Larry Clark, there are only two kinds of people: those who abuse, and those who are abused, and those two categories may (and probably will) shift in time. This film's defenders invariably use the same argument sooner or later: "This really happens". And it probably does, but it always happens for a reason. In Kids and Bully, there were no motivations given at all for the character's deplorable behaviour. Rather, they were walking, talking symptoms of an ill-defined social illness, and the movies were none too enlightening for it. Here, Clark (and his co-director Ed Lachmann), make a self-conscious effort at motivating the characters, by including their parents. They're the ones to blame, apparently, all of them negligent of their kids at best and downright (sexually) abusive at worst. Aah, but you see, they too are only looking for love and can't find it. They were neglected or abused by their parents as well, and are now continuing the cycle. Deep, isn't it? In stead of spray painting "Life Sucks", one could argue, that Ken Park as a movie might add the phrase: "And it does for my parents as well".
But there's no larger context given to any of this. We get to see the seediness of it (plenty of it), but there is no real insight offered into these characters. Why do these kids (and their parents) do what they do? The only answer the movie seems to be able to provide is: "because they don't get enough true love". Put this exact same message into any made-for-TV melodrama, and people will rightfully spit it out as unbelievably simplistic. We never really get to know any of these characters, much less care about them, because all of them are solely defined by the various ways in which their lives are messed up. We don't remember individuals, we just refer to: "That kid who ate out his girlfriend's mother. That guy who masturbated while choking himself. That girl who was into bondage." In a sense, it becomes a freak show. What they think (indeed, whether or not they think), what they feel, hope, want... It all remains rather vague, hinted at sometimes, but never fully explored, because the movie has ever more bizarre (and exploitative) sexual behaviour to get on with.
Two kinds of people will go see this movie: those who live in the same kind of circumstances, and those who don't. Those who don't, can go home with a more or less secure feeling, because everything they saw had been marginalized, put squarely within this box labelled: "The Lives And Times Of Freaky People We Don't Want Anything To Do With". And those who do... What will they take out of this? Nothing resembling even the slightest bit of hope, since no possibility of salvation seems to exist - the kids of Ken Park appear destined to become just as abusive as their parents, and the very last scene has two of them not-quite-saying they'd prefer to have been aborted. I read one reviewer who was apparently trying to earn a spot on the video cover with the quote: "This is a voice that just wants to be heard. Is that too much to ask?" No, of course not, but the voice doesn't have a lot to say, I'm afraid.
Movies like this, which contain what might be described as extreme amounts of either sex or violence, seem to have a built-in defence mechanism, whereby if you didn't like it, or object to it, you are automatically labelled a prude, who was enormously shocked by it and therefore stopped thinking. Or even worse: a censurer, who would take all "art" he doesn't like, throw it on a big pile and burn it. I assure you I'm neither. In fact, given the amount of discussion about this movie's sexual content, I'd expected it to be even more explicit than it was. And I would never want to ban anything just because I didn't like it. But I also don't believe in that knee-jerk reaction some people have of automatically praising everything that seems to shock others. This is the kind of film that tries to bully you into thinking it's actually about something. Five years from now, after all the fuss has died down, Ken Park will be remembered - if at all - as a storm in a teacup, one of those movies that come along every so often, that everyone has something to say about, but when looked on soberly, in retrospect, really wasn't worth the hassle. Pretty much the same has happened for Kids, after all.
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