On July 3, 2003, a film critic stood before a crowd of around 500 crammed into a community building in Sydney, Australia, with the police waiting near the stage.
“It’s a shame it has come to this point,” she said. She pressed play.
As the opening credits of Larry Clark’s 2002 film Ken Park began, six police officers rushed the stage and the audience booed. The cops seized the DVD.
Australia’s Office of Classification had banned the film in a 6–1 decision for depicting “matters of sex in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.”
This is probably true. The film includes non-simulated scenes of autoerotic asphyxiation that culminate in ejaculation, homoerotic incest, and group sex, all involving actors intended to appear to be minors. The morals of any given Australian adult are likely to be offended at least once somewhere among the film’s copious sex scenes. However, had the police let the film proceed, within about three minutes the audience would have seen the most objectively disturbing bit in the whole movie, and it includes no sex at all. With the upbeat punk of Bouncing Souls playing in the background, a teenager skates into the middle of a crowded skate park, turns a video camera on himself, grins, and shoots a bullet into the one side of his skull and out the other. The camera pulls back, peering down on dozens of presumably traumatized kids gathering around the bloody mess.
The tension of this scene elicits a question that Larry Clark’s body of work demands we answer. And, in spite of the Australian office of good taste, the question isn’t, “Is Larry Clark’s work obscene?”
For all its depictions of children engaging in drug use and kink, Ken Park is really about adults acting badly. The grownups smash a skateboard, emotionally abuse and molest their children, use a daughter’s boyfriend as a sex toy, and cheat at Scrabble. So a teenager suffocates himself while he masturbates—on the balance, who cares? The kid goes on to stab his grandparents to death in their sleep, yet it is the sex that offends?
And it most assuredly is. Take it from your humble correspondent that watching a boy murder his loving kin in their sleep is somehow easier to bear than watching him jerk off and ejaculate on screen. The censoring of Ken Park for its depictions of lurid sex forces us to confront the fact that what we feel is obscene— images that make us cringe and call upon our inner sense of moral indignation—is often not that which is truly, objectively awful. One gets the feeling that, in cases of degenerate adults exploiting children, if Clark hinted at the exploitation rather than graphically depicting it, he wouldn’t be labeled obscene. Which leaves us asking, “What is obscene?”
Larry Clark has earned an outlaw image for his controversial body of work, not to mention his reputation for aggression. There are reports that he punched one of his producers at a press conference and spent hours in jail after pummeling the U.K. distributor for Ken Park when, Clark says, the man said the United States deserved the 9/11 attacks. (The distributor disputes Clark’s version of events.) “When someone gets up in my face with bullshit like this, I’m not gonna roll over and lick my nuts,” Clark told LA Weekly.
But when discussing his work, Clark can seem grandfatherly, even sweet. His voice is deep, gravelly, gently inflected with a slight lisp, and he uses it to effect when defending his films against accusations of amorality and gratuitous sex and violence. In discussing his short film Impaled, about a young amateur male actor who wins an audition to pick a porn star to have sex with on screen (which is apparently also how the film was made), Clark told an interviewer for Nerve that he was interested in the way porn has influenced sexual norms. “If you start watching pornography before you have sex, a lot of kids are going to think that’s the way to do it,” Clark said, amazed that some young people think coitus interruptus followed by ejaculating on a woman’s face is perfectly traditional, indeed expected, sexual behavior.
Clark’s body of work is reminiscent of the writer Ana María Matute, who came of age in civil war Spain. In Matute’s stories children are neither unambiguously pure nor wholly naïve. Their innocence is stripped from them by society and the adults who control it, but they have more social awareness and sophistication than is typically attributed to kids in the art and literature of grownups. Her children are empowered and sometimes cruel, but retain a more resilient innocence than that which depends on notions of purity and naiveté.
“I had a very traumatic, difficult adolescence in Oklahoma,” Clark has said. “I always felt that I missed a lot and I had a lot of issues, being fucked-up and taking drugs. So I’m sure it’s psychological, it all comes from my youth.” He insists that everyone knew a girl in his high school who was having sex with her five brothers. “Parents were drug addicts, alcoholics. Kids would come to school with blinded eyes because the parents beat them up. This wasn’t unusual in the ‘50s and was kind of out in the open.”
And yet in the art of the era, this reality went all but ignored.
The great irony of the controversy surrounding Larry Clark is that, despite his bad-boy reputation, he’s really an uncompromising, perhaps even naïve, moralist.
“Look at the work—everyone always comments on the photo in Tulsa of a pregnant girl shooting up, like it’s exploitative,” Clark told a writer for New York. “Look at the next photo! It’s a funeral. Of a dead baby. I’m always trying to get at the consequences of actions. And if it’s titillating? Well, sometimes I’m dealing with good-looking people having sex, sure, but that’s not the point. The point is the consequences.”
“My idea was that it’s about kids who get none of the emotional needs fulfilled by the adults around them,” Clark said of Ken Park, “and the adults are using them to fill their own needs, whatever they may be, so they get nothing. These kids were so beat up and abused that normally in a film, these kids would have very little hope in life, if any, and so I had this artistic idea that they would come together and have sex, maybe in the best possible way. As some kind of salvation, or redemption, or temporary redemption.”
The closing sequence of Ken Park that Clark references—an extended scene of three teenagers having obviously real intercourse—is, in context, comforting. By this point in the film, you’ve seen these characters emotionally abused by a parent, sexually exploited by a girlfriend’s mother, and forced to marry a dad. To watch them in calm, naked embrace, pleasuring one another, holding one another, and tickling one another while discussing their hopes and dreams, is reassuring. In Clark’s stark moral universe, the evil adults are removed from the picture and the innocent youths are left to revel in the organic, wholesome bliss of earnest sex.
If Larry Clark’s work is obscene—and it is—then the obvious and more interesting question is, “Why?” The answer our instinctive prudishness offers isn’t the same as that offered by our sense of morality. And therein lies the problem. Life itself is obscene in innumerable ways. We’re faced every day with a desperate need to find salvation, or redemption, or temporary redemption, and left to find it on our own.