The Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea is, like all of the galleries around it, minimalist, white and constructed entirely out of severe right angles. Tulsan-turned-New Yorker Bernie Garland entered through the small foyer and stopped for a moment in the first chamber, where massive paintings hung on bleach-white walls, colorful abstractions of texture and pattern. The second chamber was much like the first, and from there Bernie approached the last chamber. Here, Larry Clark’s lost movie, Tulsa: 1968, was being projected on the back wall. Outside the doorway, a sign read, “MATURE CONTENT: May not be suitable for all audiences.”
The warning label was a touch ironic. Larry Clark, the notorious artist of Tulsan extraction, is known for his gritty depictions of sex and violence, but he isn’t controversial because his art is mature, exactly–rather, because it is immature. The unifying theme in Clark’s work, from his breakout book Tulsa to the controversial movie Kids, which he wrote and co-directed, is adolescent degeneracy, picturing subjects intended to appear underage doing things underage teenagers do but that people shouldn’t be taking pictures of. As recently as October 2010, the city of Paris, bastion of free-expression (especially, it often seems, when that being expressed is sexual and obscene) banned minors under 18 from the very exhibition of his work at which Tulsa: 1968 was shown for the first time. (It is worth noting that Clark did not disagree entirely with the decision to censor his show, but suggested that old people rather than young ones be prohibited from attending.)
Clark had just recently found the old movie, which he shot alongside the book Tulsa, which depicts a harrowing series of black and white documentary photographs of Green Country teenagers taken mostly in the late sixties. In the book, the kids inject an endless stream of methamphetamine into their supple, wiry bodies, and go through their daily rituals in nondescript rooms, a parade of guns, cigarettes, needles and sex.
Bernie peaked behind the black curtain into the gallery’s last room. Four people in puffy coats, scarves, hats and snow boots sat on a bench, entranced, staring up in the silence at the film projected onto the wall. Others stood along the back wall, and milled in and out of the room. Still outside the curtain, Bernie could be heard talking loudly to a friend on his cell phone. “Yeah, just get me a coffee. Coupl’a milks, coupl’a sugars. Yeah. Thank you.” He walked into the theater.
The movie, shot in 16mm black and white on a rented Bolex camera, is a silent hour-long plotless montage of moments in lives of Clark’s subjects. In an early scene, a young couple lounges in bed, kissing and teasing each other. The boy sprawls on top of the girl, resting his head face down beside her neck for minutes at time. Slowly, they undress each other, rolling and resting and giggling throughout. The ritual is tedious and gentle, and innocent largely because there is a camera hovering above the young lovers and you know they know it. At one point the girl glances up at the camera from beneath her boy, and grins, bashful. They have sex.
“Thrusting, tender thrusting,” Bernie joked in a hushed voice at the back of the theater. He chuckled and looked away.
A later scene featured the group sitting in a living room when one man, seemingly unprovoked, lunges violently forward with a pointed gun, apparently screaming and threatening another man. The commotion subsides without indication of whatever caused it being resolved. The most common image in the movie is probably, for this group of kids, the most mundane; cooking meth in a spoon and shooting it into their bodies wherever it works.
Bernie left the theater. “I think this is kind of giving Tulsa a bad connotation,” he said. “There are other things to do than have sex and shoot up heroin.”
Because the photography book Tulsa came first, the film Tulsa: 1968 feels like a motion picture in the most literal sense. Characters who have spent decades in a frozen embrace, or right on the verge of pumping a shot of fuck yeah into their veins, or toying precariously with a revolver, are suddenly animated. It is John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, in which a scene of two lovers is captured for eternity the moment before they kiss, come to life.
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
In Clark’s film, thou can kiss. The characters finish what they started. They have sex, shoot up and wave that fucking gun around. And within the fruition is the coming to an end. On screen Clark’s subjects live out their self-destruction. As Bernie left the theater he said, “I think it’s a pretty safe bet that those guys are dead right now. That was 40 years ago.” He walked out of gallery and turned east toward the subway.