Photographer-filmmaker Larry Clark has been keepin’ kids real for forty-plus years.
People are scared of Larry Clark. But the New York-based auteur is fearless. Clark is just real. And to be down with his art is to be down with a certain way of seeing the world. Once you’ve been exposed to his often disturbing ‘yoot-gone-wild’ aesthetic, you’ll begin to see his enduring influence in all kinds of culture – from contemporary art, film and photography to skateboarding, fashion, TV and advertising. Larry Clark is everywhere.
Born in Tulsa in 1943, Clark grew up in a hazy, post-war America that was all white-picket fences and Ford Thunderbirds. Not really buying the dream, the amateur photographer (roped into baby portraiture through the family business) fell in with freaky suburban folk who shot speed, shot guns and ghosted outside society. During the 1950s and 1960s Clark exercised his trigger finger and captured his friends and fellow down ’n’ outs in an intimate collection of photos that formed his first book Tulsa (1971). It was a game-changer, not just subverting a rosy version of America perpetuated by the mad men, but establishing an autobiographical quasi-documentary photography style that would be endlessly referenced and interpreted thereafter.
In 1991, Clark moved into film with his dark debut Kids, following the lives of drug-taking, casual-fucking, underage skate rats in New York – based on the Washington Square Park crew he hung with for three years and then cast, launching the careers of Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Leo Fitzpatrick and Harmony Korine (who wrote the screenplay). The film shocked, appalled and wowed viewers. It also set the tone for his next five features, all focused on different youth communities, which upset censors, divided fans and raised questions of ‘perversion’ and ‘voyeurism’.
Now the bad boy of indie cinema is back with his first feature in six years. Marfa Girl explores real and invented stories with a mix of street-cast kids and legit actors in Marfa – a desert town which minimalist Donald Judd bought up in small pieces in the 1970s and 1980s and transformed into an artist Mecca. As a big fuck you to Hollywood, Clark released the film independently on the internet. He plans to make another two Marfa Girl films and release them on the seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays of the protagonists Adam and Mercedes. Clark just turned seventy. He’s now a vegan, he’s taken up boxing and he says he’s making some of the best work of his life.
Your new film is set in Marfa, a tiny West Texas border town comprised of three clashing communities – Mexican-Americans, border patrol police and artists in residence. What happens when Larry Clark is thrown into that toxic mix?
Well, there’s a lot of me in this film because I wrote it and the characters are composites of probably everybody I’ve known in my life. I just kept drawing from memory and adding more. [...] I was just fascinated with this town, which is in the middle of nowhere, and kids like Adam and Mercedes who actually live there and have the internet and see what’s going on in the world, but are so isolated. It’s like a throwback to the 1950s, you know? So anyway, I’d get up every morning at 5am and write, and I filmed as I went along. I’ve never had more fun making a film.
Are there any parallels between Tulsa and Marfa Girl and what made you go back to the South?
It was really serendipity. I was in Marfa visiting a painter friend of mine, Christopher Wool, who was advising this tiny little film festival. They were gonna show No Wave films from the 1970s in New York and he asked me to come and show a silent, hour-long film I’d done in Tulsa in 1968. So I just happened to be there and I was interested in this town – you know they made Giant there in the 1950s? That was James Dean’s last film, and it was kind of the same then as it is now. But it’s a melting pot – it’s one of those towns where you know everything’s happening that is happening everywhere else but the town doesn’t talk about it. And my first thought was, ‘I’m gonna do Peyton Place in this town.’ Peyton Place was the first dirty book in America. It’s about this small town in America where everything is going on but it’s all underground. No one talked about it because that’s the way it was in the 1950s.
People find your portrayals of youth problematic. But kids are dealing with some real shit. Do you keep up with contemporary youth culture and what do you think of it?
I’ve always been interested in what’s really going on and I’ve done what, in the past, contrasted with Hollywood’s image of youth and the portrayal that’s put out there. And I do find what’s going on now really interesting because of the internet – kids have access to all this information, but they’re still innocent. They’re always going to be innocent until they experience life. When I was a kid, no one told you nothing and if you asked a question you just got told to ‘shut up’ you know? Kids were supposed to be seen and not heard and that was what was going on. It’s much better now that kids have information. I have kids and I’ve watched them grow up – my daughter’s twenty-six and my son’s twenty-nine – and they’re much more aware of what’s going on. So I put Marfa Girl out on the internet because that’s where all the kids see their media and I thought, why not go straight to the kids? [...] I guess there are always gonna be the more sugar-coated visions of life, but maybe it’s getting better now.
And you wanted to ‘cut out those Hollywood distributors and crooks’?
Well yeah – y’know, art filmmakers and most independent filmmakers are going directly through the internet now. And I think that’s the future. The indie cinemas are disappearing and we know everyone watches their media on the internet. Cinema now is all the blockbusters and big films that make millions. It’s very difficult to get smaller films out in the theatres, because there aren’t any.
In the past you’ve had reservations about putting your work out because it deals with some pretty ugly things. Did you have any reservations with Marfa Girl?
I always do. Because I never hold anything back. I always push it as far as I can push it, and I don’t think about what I can’t do, I just do it and it comes out like it comes out. When I was doing the sixteen-year-olds’ lovemaking scene [in Marfa Girl] – it’s so tender and beautiful, and so different from the other sexual scenes in the film, because it’s so real. It’s so innocent. But they were very young. They’d just turned sixteen. And I said to the crew, ‘Am I going too far? I’m getting nervous!’ But I’m trying to make it real and I think I’m doing some of my best work ever. It’s like a new lease of life for me. I always think of my work as a comeback – like I’m an old boxer training for a fight, ‘Just one more fight!’
“My adolescence wasn’t a happy one so it’s interesting for me to see how people navigate it. I don’t know. I’ve just always thought that’s why I’m here. The reason for my existence. It’s that simple.”
Your films kinda blur the line between fiction and reality. Are there ‘truths’ you wanted to explore in Marfa Girl that would never transpire in a documentary?
Well, it’s all reality but it’s just all composites and blends. I think it’s all about feeling you know? I think the best art is all about some kind of feeling. And I’m not so interested in documentary, I’m much more interested in trying to make work about life. Because there’s so much freedom when you do that. My first film Kids was all based on reality, except Jennie, she was the only completely made-up character. That’s why it was so hard to cast her and I cast Chloe Sevigny right at the last minute. All the other characters were based on people, on composites of people. Harold [Hunter] was basically Harold, Casper was basically Justin. We had a lot of life. Everything in Kids was based on something that I’d seen, heard or knew for sure had happened over a three-year period. What I did was compress all those things into twenty-four hours to create a roller-coaster. And it’s the same in Marfa Girl – it’s like a microcosm of what’s going on in America with racism. It’s interesting when something goes wrong with the country, with the economy or whatever, people tend to pick on the poorest people, like, ‘Well it’s all these illegal immigrants coming in!’ But it’s total bullshit. People just feel better if they have someone else to blame. So all these things are in the film.
It’s never been easier for young people to represent themselves authentically. But no one’s making anything as challenging as Marfa Girl. What’s up with that?
I think that I can do it because I have this distance and I can have a little perspective. I’ve always been fearless, well, I haven’t been fearless, I’ve just fought the fear – but now I’m pretty fearless. When you’re a kid there has to be limits; this I can do, this I can’t do. Because you’re still learning and forming. My adolescence wasn’t a happy one so it’s interesting for me to see how people navigate it. I don’t know. I’ve just always thought that’s why I’m here. The reason for my existence. It’s that simple.
Who inspires you?
John Cassavetes was a great inspiration for me. I think I saw Shadows in ‘62. I’d been raised on John Wayne movies and John Ford movies and the Hollywood movies, and the Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, and I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, ‘This guy sees how I see.’ So it kind of validated me at that age because it looked like Tulsa, it looked like the way I saw things, it was so realistic. And that was kind of the beginning of Cinema Verité. So that was very important for me.
How does Mark Gonzales fit into your world?
Mark Gonzales is a legend! Mark Gonzales is one of the greatest skaters of all time! And Mark, for the last fifteen years or more even, the tricks that you see skateboarders do, he invented. He’s such a legendary, great skater. And he’s a really good artist. I’ve known him since he was a teenager, and I remember him drawing all the time. Actually when my son was little Mark did a drawing on his bedroom wall. My son left the house many years ago, but the drawing’s still there. He’s a wonderful artist, he’s a great guy, and I love Mark. There’s a simplicity and an intelligence and a humour [in his art]. He’s able to put everything down into forms that I think are really compelling and interesting. He’s very sophisticated in his simplicity.
Can you tell us a bit about your new film project in Paris?
Yeah, I’m going to Paris in a few weeks to do The Smell Of Us, which is a contemporary film about Parisian youth and segments of Parisian life. I’ve cast a lot of young kids – seventeen, eighteen, nineteen Parisian adolescents, who are first-time actors, and I’ve mixed them with really great, older French actors, who you will know. So it’s very exciting for me to meet these people and to cast them. There are more and more grown-ups in my films now, since I’m finally growing up a little bit. We start filming at the end of February and I’m very happy about that. I have a lot of energy right now and I feel good, which is unusual for me. I was the unhappiest guy in the world and now I’m probably the happiest guy in the world.
Marfa Girl is available for download now direct from Larry Clark’s website.