Larry Clark: Great American Rebel gives us a brief but vital look at the controversial American filmmaker Larry Clark in a way that I deem necessary in understanding the beauty, artistic qualities, and the long-term significance of his work. Clark is a director who has been criticized and praised, ostracized and commended, renowned and lambasted since his directorial debut Kids in 1995, with each one of his films being more challenging and eye-opening than the next. Clark has long had what appears to be a romantic and intimate fascination with destructive teenagers, drug and alcohol dependency amongst minors, and sexually active teenagers since he began filmmaking, but Great American Rebel tells us his fascination began long before that.
Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943, growing up with a mother and father who earned money by staging a baby-photography business, which Clark found himself getting involved in when he was about fourteen years old. Through this little gig, Clark earned quite a bit of money, and enjoyed the act of photographing as much as his parents did. By the time he was around seventeen and eighteen-years-old, Clark had ventured into hanging with "the wrong crowd" as many would say, shooting amphetamine they'd retrieve from inhalers given to World War II veterans with groups of friends. Clark states how he was stunned that him and his friends were doing this because, after all, this was America, and drugs are substances that were only supposed to affect third world countries, right? Not the great land of the red, white, and blue. Clark goes on to say how he knew a kid who came to school with black eyes because his parents beat the hell out of him, how he knew a girl with several brothers who he knew took turns having sex with her, even her father, and whose parents were alcoholics. He says, "I think even teachers knew, but none of us said anything because, hey, this is America and that doesn't happen here."
When Clark would do drugs, hang out, and wreak havoc with his pals, he would often take along a camera, taking pictures of their adolescent debauchery. Such images are of teens actually using drugs, cuddling, in the middle of sex, or just trying to find some intimacy and warmth amid their cold acts of nihilism. Clark finally released these photos in 1971 in a limited edition book called Tulsa and then published another book called Teenage Lust in 1983, both books housing many of the photographs he had taken when he was in Tulsa. From there on out, Clark knew he wanted to take on the challenge of making a film. Clark went on to direct Kids, one of the most provocative dramas I have yet to see, which centered around destructive kids who wandered the streets unsupervised, with one making it his personal mission to deflower young girls even though he was HIV positive. The nihilism and recklessness stuck with me when I first saw it and saw that Clark had truly inconceivable craft as a filmmaker. In order to prepare for the film, Clark talked with acclaimed director Gus Van Sant and learned to skateboard by hanging around kids of the surf-punk lifestyle - a true way to embrace ideas of cultural relativism.
Clark went on to make a number of films, all emphasizing similar themes about teenagers and their reckless behavior. His sophomore directorial effort was Another Day in Paradise, which we learn caught Clark at an unsure time in his life when he was just coming off an addiction to heroin among other hard drugs. His followup effort was Teenage Caveman (the less said about that the better) and Bully and Ken Park, films which have had tragically little said about it.
Clark has long battled rumors that he is a pervert, a child-molester, and whatnot, simply because he is an older male making films about being young and engaging in debauchery. Yet, I believe if Clark was in his twenties or so, this same work he would be creating would be hailed, with very faint criticisms here and there. Even with this criticism, Clark remains unpretentious and surprisingly calm and collective; it's almost incredible how straight-forward and direct he is, with no artistic ambiguity to his persona at all. He carries his own weight, very self-assured but also bearing a willingness to learn about his subjects and analyze them in a unique way. Clark, despite distribution problems that have lost him friendships, connections, and crucial financing, refuses to compromise his work and soften his material. "Let everybody else have all the money (from selling out) and the bulls***," he says.
In 2014, eleven years after Larry Clark: Great American Rebel was made, Clark's outlook looks on the up-and-up. After a lengthy hiatus from film, he has returned with the quips and motivation of self-distribution under his belt, using the internet as his tool to release great films with no executive saying "you can't do that" or "you need to edit this." Clark has had enough and has found his way around contemptible edits. He was one of the first people to bring complex issues involving the teenage culture and life; why should he be silenced by a country that has progressed in the areas they lacked in decades ago? Seems like we're running into an unhealthy and frightening paradox.
The documentary ends with his close friends, people he has influenced, and acquaintances summarizing him using fragmented adjectives. Here are mine just for the record: alluring, charismatic, misunderstood, daring, inimitable, and inspiration.
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