Essays

Educating Larry Clark (2007)

The ASX Team

September 27, 2014

6a00d8341c514053ef00e54f6827a58833-640wi

still image from Impaled @ Larry Clark

Educating Larry Clark

By Philippa Hawker, originally published in The Age, September 2007

The Destricted project was, in many ways, an invitation to go too far – to test boundaries and to step outside them. It’s a feature film made up of seven short works by seven artists who were invited to explore the place where art and pornography intersect.

The seven responded to the challenge in very different ways. It is a mixed bag, to say the least.

There is Matthew Barney’s slow-moving encounter between man and machine and Marina Abramovic’s irresistibly comic representation of Balkan fertility rituals.

Richard Prince appropriates a ’70s porn short and gives it a new soundscape. Sam Taylor-Wood’s lone masturbator in Death Valley is like a diminished trace memory of all those energetic couplings that took place in the same location in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

Marco Brambilla delivers a super-fast montage of porn and sex scenes; Gaspar Noe’s relentless strobe lighting has as much shock value as anything sexual that he puts on the screen.

But the film that lingers in the mind is Larry Clark’s contribution, a 38-minute work entitled Impaled. It’s a collection of interviews that ends with a sexual act: it’s a disconcerting piece of anthropology and storytelling, a tale of the disappointments of desire, and a melancholy account of what happens when a young man is granted a wish.

Clark, a photographer and filmmaker, was happy to be asked to be part of the Destricted project, he says, on the phone from the US. “It was like being invited to be part of a group art show. And I thought it was good company, with Matthew Barney and Richard Prince.”

But it took him a while to come up with the idea for his contribution. What got him started was a question that he did not have an answer for: what effect does pornography have on young people?

Since the 1980s and the advent of video technology, it has been much more widely circulated than it was when he was growing up, he says: the internet has made it even more readily available. Clark himself has no great interest in porn, he adds, “but I’m curious about the fact that kids nowadays see it. I have a daughter of 21, a son of 24 and I’ve been taken aback by what they’re exposed to, the innocence that I had as a kid just isn’t around any more.”

For more than 40 years, Clark has produced images of youth and youth culture, photographs and films that have a raw, documentary quality, a mixture of bleakness and exhilaration, a distressing candour and an embrace of sensation.

Clark, now 64, began taking pictures of himself and his contemporaries, kids from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the late 1960s and ’70s. His early photographs convey a dark, sometimes troubled vision of what it means to be young: an intimate knowledge that comes from observation and experience.

impaled

impaled-150x150

1288759422-impaled_002

5 (Custom)

still images from Impaled @ Larry Clark

He has continued to focus on kids on the edge, on beauty and danger and risk. In 1995, he directed his first film, Kids, a movie haunted by the spectre of AIDS. He directed Bully, based on a true story, about a group of young people who killed one of their number who had been picking on the others; and he made Ken Park, a tale of exploited and endangered Californian teens, a movie whose sexual explicitness led to a hotly debated ban in Australia.

Preparing Impaled, “I wondered about the availability of porn everywhere,” he says, “and how it affected what they thought about sex, what it was, what influence it had.”

There was already the germ of an idea that came from a sexual encounter he had a few years ago, when a girlfriend had missed taking her contraceptive pill, and asked him to come outside her. “And she said her last boyfriend – she had been with him for three years – always did that. It was what he liked. I thought it was the oddest thing I had ever heard in my life.”

To set his film in train, he contacted a porn producer, Robert Lombard, whom he had met socially a few years before, and told him what he wanted to do. The idea was to interview a group of young men who had grown up with porn, who had first seen it at an early age and watched it a lot. From this group, he would pick one. The chosen one would then have the chance to meet a group of porn actresses, select one, and have sex with her on camera.

What would happen if the positions were reversed? Could he have made a film in which a group of young women “auditioned” for the chance to have sex with a male porn star? Clark doesn’t think so.

“I can’t speak for women,” he says, but as far as he knows, there is no widespread female fantasy about having sex with a porn actor. And for another, he adds, he wouldn’t be interested in talking to male porn stars.

The female porn stars he met, he says, were “smart, amazing and articulate and I liked them”. He came across a couple of male porn actors when he was preparing Impaled: by contrast they were “dead from the neck up”, “blank and uninteresting”.

For Impaled, Clark asked Lombard to help him find actresses who were “natural, without implants, and who had pubic hair”. He called on Lombard’s assistant, a young man in college, to locate a selection of male interview subjects. The kids Clark talks to are in their late teens or early 20s. One is a virgin. One served in Iraq. One first saw porn at the age of seven.

Clark asks them some general questions about their first encounter with porn, about sexual experiences, about what they’d like to do if they got the chance to have sex with a porn star. They are, for the most part, matter-of-fact, soft-spoken. “I thought they were very open and honest,” Clark says. They are, if anything, a little diffident about themselves and what they have to offer.

Clark didn’t find it difficult to choose his winner – “he was so photogenic” – and the boy he selected seems to have little trouble choosing his sexual partner from among the women whom he meets, and whose varied, sometimes distressing experiences and stories he hears. The interviews are all conducted in Lombard’s office, which has a lurid apple-green couch, yellow walls and a brightly coloured painting of a submarine and fish. Although Clark had booked a studio to film his final sex scene, he decided at the last minute to cancel it and shoot it in the office.

He regards Impaled as an educational film: “educational to me”. For while he expected that porn imagery would influence young people, what he didn’t realise was just how much it would affect the sexual expectations and behaviour of the boys he talked to. He was struck by how so many of them shaved their pubic hair, because that’s what the porn actors do. How the ejaculating “money shot” was considered desirable. It confounds him, he says. He is also concerned about young people seeing porn at a very early age.

His next project is a screenplay that he has co-written “based on Neil Jordan’s great movie Mona Lisa, which we’re casting now”. There is a film called Wild Child, written for Jonathan Velasquez, who appeared in his most recent feature, Wassup Rockers, a tale of Latino skaters. He now has an exhibition in New York City, a book and photography show that will also travel to London.

And he hasn’t left the subject of porn behind. There’s a film he is sure he will make one day, based on a script written with a former girlfriend. “She was exposed to porn at a very early age, from five years old. Her father was addicted to porn: she would get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, and he’d be sitting in the living room, in a certain chair, watching porn.”

Somehow, he says, he’ll find the money to get it to the screen. “And even if I don’t get the money, I’ll find a way to make it.”

EXPLORE ALL LARRY CLARK ON ASX

(All rights reserved. Text @ Philippa Hawker. Images @ Larry Clark.)