Sunday, May 27, 2012

Adrian Martin: A Larry Clark Portrait

A Larry Clark Portrait

Life in Motion

One of the great clichés of contemporary cinema is the use of a sudden freeze frame on a character, with his or her name printed on the screen, as if to offer a thumbnail portrait of that person. The device is reminiscent of the vignetted close ups in the credits of 1930s movies, boiling a character down to a few, superficial associations: a name, a smile, a haircut. When Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, 1973), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 1995) or Guy Ritchie (Snatch, 2000) use such portraiture in its modern, jazzy variant, it is invariably at the start of a story, to orient us.

Larry Clark deliberately waits until the very end of Bully (2001) to freeze, one by one, on his gallery of wanton teenagers. When he at last does so, the effect is a powerful and chilling subversion of the cliché.

It is paradoxical that Clark should eschew such effects of split-second portraiture. After all, his fame came precisely from the photographic portraits he snapped since the early ‘60s and collected in a series of books, including Teenage Lust, Tulsa and The Perfect Childhood. And he is often pegged, by lazy critics, as a mere photographer-turned-filmmaker, lumped into that class of prestigious American artists who, since the ‘90s, have indeed produced some rather ungainly and inert movies (for example, Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer [1997] or David Salle’s Search and Destroy [1995]).

But the very essence of Clark’s films – six features already since his debut with Kids in 1995, with projects including Shame (a remake of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, 1986) and Interrupted (an authorised biopic of Nicholas Ray) in the pipeline – is movement. His films offer a continuously mobile, almost cubist form of portraiture, the kind that is only possible in cinema. His sensitively hand-held camera never ceases sculpting the flesh, tracing the gestures, gazing into the eyes of the strange, too-beautiful creatures that inhabit his amoral universe. It is impossible for these beings to be frozen, summed up, nailed down. Clark is not a fetishist of the image; what is rudely torn from our view, by the camera or the editing, is just as crucial as what we do manage to glimpse. And the music – few contemporary filmmakers select their collages of pre-existing tracks more cannily or dynamically than Clark – always restlessly drives the action into another mood, another state.

An Amoral Cinema

It is too easy to think of Clark as a realist, or even a hyperrealist, absorbed in a contemporary practice of reportage. These are labels he himself invites. To prepare Kids he “spent two years hanging” with his blushingly young non-professional performers. The research for his new film Wassup Rockers (2005) was partly derived from his own teenage son, who “keeps me up to date” on the latest musical mutations. He presented Another Day in Paradise (1998) as a “real” version of “Hollywood jive”, the “bullshit movies” that have been made about lifestyles based around drugs and crime. All of Clark’s films are close, at some level, to the still vivid memories of his own formative experiences:

Well, you know I was an outlaw. When I was fifteen I was a junkie and I spent many years being an outlaw. I was a burglar, and an armed robber, and a violent person, and I went to a penitentiary. I took every drug on the map for many years, so I was very familiar with that lifestyle.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that all of Clark’s films are broadly truthful in their social observation (although it is at this preliminary level that many discussions of his work stall). His particular kind of verisimilitude, however, does not pretend to be transparent, neutral or objective, in the manner of much realist art. Clark's approach and style owe a great deal to a tradition of subcultural, underground cinema that includes the work of Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey and, more recently, Gus Van Sant (his executive producer on Kids). Clark even has a ‘shadow’ in Catherine Hardwicke, whose Thirteen (2003) and Lords of Dogtown (2005) closely mirror his films.

I would describe this cinema tradition, unpejoratively, as amoral. It gazes, coolly and unflinchingly, upon the most extreme manifestations (and sometimes the most pathetic dregs) of human behaviour. But this gaze is not dispassionate. As viewers we are calmly invited to not merely understand but imaginatively share the tawdry fantasies of those we behold. The mood of such amoral movies is discomforting and kinky, somewhere between decadent, bad-taste comedy and dark, despairing nihilism.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

No comments:

Post a Comment