Larry Clark's New Kids on the Block

Glen Helfand July 3, 2006

Larry Clark’s work as a photographer and filmmaker have consistently pushed hot buttons regarding youth culture. His two early 1970s and 1980s photo series, “Tulsa” and “Teenage Lust,” captured a shockingly intimate view of pubescent sex and drugs. His first feature film, the 1995 “Kids,” did the same — and generated controversy and heated conversation. While his subsequent film projects have varied in artistic and box office success, his two most recent works — “Wassup Rockers” and “Impaled” (which is part of the porn-themed omnibus “Destricted”) — find him in top form, nudging his exploration of adolescent mores into discomfiting, yet fascinating new directions. SF360 spoke with Clark on his recent visit to San Francisco. The film opens at Bay Area theaters this weekend.

SF360: I have to start off by saying I saw ‘Impaled,’ your piece in ‘Destricted,’ and I thought it was amazing.

Larry Clark: I was one of seven artists asked to do a film on pornography. I set this premise, that it’s a documentary. [When] it happened, I was as shocked and amazed as anybody. My question was: anybody born after 1980 has had complete access to pornography; they see it from a young age, before they’re able to have sex. How does that affect them? I had no idea. It turned out to be an education film!

SF360: Were you surprised by what you got?

Clark: Totally surprised. Having said that, the rest of my work deals with kids who are so open and honest. There’s something about that age and the culture now — everything is photographed; everything is documented. Everybody is always making evidence. If something happens and someone hasn’t taken pictures of it, did it really happen? That’s kind of the age that we live in.

SF360: The idea of seeing everything is interesting with ‘Wassup Rockers.’

Clark: I make social comments and I try to make films that are honest and based in reality. In the first half of the film, we’re recreating their lives. It starts out with a four-minute interview with Jonathan, which is documentary, when he’s 14, a few months after I first met him. He’s telling stories about his life and his friends, which becomes a lot of the first half of the film. Then the [more fictional and produced] movie starts and we recreate the stories that he told plus some other stories. Then we take them on this adventure.

SF360: Their actions are very focused on their Latino identity.

Clark: First of all, there are no white people in South Central, so these kids are isolated by race — it’s all black and Latino. We would go to where there were a lot of white people, and these kids weren’t used to being around white people. They would comment on the way white people act, which was different than you act in the ghetto. In the ghetto you have to walk a certain way, talk a certain way, react a certain way to survive. I wanted them to interact with white people, which is how I got the idea that I’d take them to Beverly Hills.

Usually in films, the Latinos are pretty stereotyped and you don’t really know who they are. In this film, you really see the community itself and what it’s like to live there. They’re real kids, and the film is making social commentary, talking about racism, talking about the racial politics of the ghetto. When we go to Beverly Hills, the portrayals are broader, but again, based on reality. I thought, who would be in the back yards? Would there be an aging, over-the-hill actress who gets up every morning, gets dressed to the nines — full hair and make-up— and never leaves the house. She’s agoraphobic and she’s an alcoholic. And probably [another famous actor] has been sitting in his backyard for 30 years with a rifle, waiting for a person of color to wander through so he could shoot him. I know people like that! That would be the highlight of their life.

I figured that if these kids crashed a fashion party after being in a fight, with their tight clothes and long hair and drawing all over their jeans, bloody noses and black eyes, the fashion world would say — ‘my next campaign!’

SF360: But didn’t you also do a fashion spread on these kids in ‘Paper’ magazine? Isn’t that problematic?

Clark: No, because I photographed that. A few magazines said they’d give me a lot of pages if I photographed the kids, so I did a number of photo shoots. ‘Paper’ had to tie it into some kind of fashion thing. I said ‘Okay, but they’ve gotta wear clothes like they wear.’ So they wore the same kind of skate clothes they would wear anyway, and got some clothes out of it. For press for the film, I’ve been shooting fashion shoots of the kids. I just did one for ‘Teen Vogue’ because we’ll get a much broader audience — that magazine has 1.8 million circulation. So now I’m a fashion photographer. (Laughs)

SF360: What’s going on with photography? Do you see your work as primarily being in film?

Clark: I’m a filmmaker now, that’s what I’m doing. But I’ve been photographing these kids for three years. I have thousands of photographs of them. I’ve been asked to do a book, so I’m probably going to do one where you’ll see them grow up. There will also be an exhibition at Luhring Augustine gallery in New York.

SF360: Your work is known for being shocking. But what will probably shock and surprise people about ‘Wassup Rockers’ is how sweet it is. The characters are adorable, and very genuine.

Clark: These kids are good kids, very compelling people. They seem to have more fun than anybody. They’re very poor kids, they don’t have nothing, but instead of sitting around being depressed, they make do and have more fun than anybody, they don’t bitch and moan about their lot in life. They know exactly who they are, and they have fun. And I wanted to show that.

The vast majority of kids in South Central don’t want to be in gangs, they just want to be kids and have fun. They live in an environment where the peer pressure is as such that they are encouraged to act all gangsta. These kids didn’t want to do that. They have to fight to be who they are. It’s a testament to human resilience.