Larry Clark’s name is synonymous with outrage. From his early work as a photographer, behind acclaimed art collections like ‘Teenage Lust’ and ‘Tulsa’, to his envelope-pushing feature films such as the 1995 cult classic Kids, ‘dirty old man’ descriptives have followed him throughout his career. An interest in young people on the fringes of society, in particular their sexuality, is present in the majority of his works. It’s that very predilection that has both defined his artistry as much as it has created a Helen Lovejoy-style dismissal of much of his output-controversy that lingers to this day.
Even though we exist in an era where sex in popular culture is overwhelmingly commonplace, there are still areas and angles to sexuality that remain off-limits. It’s not uncommon to see depictions of teenage sex in film and television, but varying perspectives on it are limited. They are often comedic, with sex and virginity presented as goofy escapades or hurdles clueless young men have to overcome. When presented in mainstream drama, sex is artistic and abstract. Think Skins or typical E4 sex – full of attractive young actors floating around in sexy slow-motion. When it comes to sexuality in Larry Clark’s work, he’s not interested in pretty. He’s interested in fucking. Not moody camerawork and Hollister floor models, but pasty, pimply actors fucking in bright light on dirty sheets. Some of his youthful protagonists view sex as a kind of haven, the oddly beautiful (and unflinchingly graphic) threesome that closes his 2002 film Ken Park an expression of freedom from the broken homes the characters seek shelter from. Kids features a lengthy, fantastic sequence of young women talking about their sexual likes and dislikes, poking fun at male ignorance while, across town, a group of similarly-aged young men discuss what women supposedly want with hilarious, misogynistic naivety.
At the same time, however, Clark doesn’t glorify adolescent sex. He depicts sex as fun, but he’s also willing to depict young, sexually- active people as monstrous, just as capable of sexual violence as the adults we generally associate it with. The skate-kid protagonist of Kids deliberately seeks out young girls in order to take their virginities, his specified immorality depicted as shockingly casual and everyday rather than overtly sadistic. The sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of Nick Stahl’s titular sociopath in 2001’s Bully is uncomfortably banal, part of a world where intimidating male bravado and female degradation are merely part of life.
There is an almost documentarian authenticity to much of Clark’s work, from his films’ mostly loose approach to narrative and the naturalistic dialogue his protagonists speak in, to his use of actors with notable personal troubles. Larry Clark is many things: a voyeur, a provocateur, an explorer of filth. But most of all he is an artist of truth. We seem to move through the world with blinkers on when it comes to taboo matters – an “if we don’t see it, then it doesn’t happen” approach. Clark unearths subjects that we know are out there but are reluctant to confront, subjects we’ve been conditioned to feel outrage over. Some being entirely justified, others not so much.
Art exists to be questioned and pondered over. Not only the ideas at hand, but our own reactions as viewers. His 2006 feature Wassup Rockers, about Latino skate-culture in Los Angeles, opens with a monologue, addressed to camera, from a topless 14 year-old boy sitting on his bed. He talks about his friends and his interests. And it feels uncomfortable to watch. This is a young topless boy in a room being filmed by a much older man. Is it wrong? Something vaguely sexual? But, more importantly, what’s happened to us that we automatically associate such a scene with something perverse? All of that, those questions and areas of personal subjectivity, make up Larry Clark’s genius. Like him or not, he gets his reaction.