"My basic photography lesson is this: You frame the perfect composition, exactly like you want it, and then you step forward," says Larry Clark. "What that does is screw things up a little bit, so they'll become more real, more like the way you see."
We're at a restaurant South of Market, and the man behind the monographs Tulsa and Teenage Lust and the films Kids, Bully, and the new Wassup Rockers is talking when he should be eating. I'm glad, because he has a lot to say. On the car ride to Zuppa, he reminisced about a brief late-1960s spell in San Francisco after an Army stint in Vietnam — once here, Clark's time included a few Janis Joplin encounters. Once we've sat down at the table, when I mention the ties between Wassup Rockers and the underrated 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer, Clark agrees that Lancaster's performance is "extremely brave" and then serves up a real whopper: A film publicist once told him that Lancaster had a love affair with Luchino Visconti during the filming of 1963's The Leopard, and that Lancaster was left an emotional wreck when Visconti dumped him.
Well, when in Rome ...
It's an interesting, clichéd truism to apply to Clark's work, which doesn't fit the tired modern sense of gay by any stretch of the imagination but is certainly appreciative of male as well as female allure. In the silly and energetic Wassup Rockers, his distinctive eye rolls with a band of Guatemalan and Salvadoran skateboarders as they travel through Beverly Hills, a gated community that starts to seem more and more like a prison. Wassup is often like a 21st-century version of a Bowery Boys comedy, with Clark (in his words) "riffing off of white people" and "riffing off of pop culture." Before one of the title characters shares a bubble bath with Janice Dickinson, he and a friend — whose jeans and bulge would make Peter Berlin envious — have a tender tête-à-tête with some Hilton types. "Paris and Nicky were too old for me [when the film started shooting]," Clark jokes.
Born in Oklahoma but sporting a huggable Brooklynese accent and looking surprisingly healthy and sweet (if worn) at 63, Clark is still very much a child at heart, the nonsnarky and better-dressed real-life answer to Strangers With Candy's former smack user and permanent high schooler Jerri Blank. Wassup Rockers is his third collaboration with cinematographer Steve Gainer, who picked up tricks of the trade working under Roger Corman in the 1990s. The link is an apt one because Clark is still working with genre in the Corman teensploitation or celebration-of-youth-culture sense.
Does Clark think his one-step-forward approach to camerawork dates back to the early 1970s and the speed-shooting and baby-death days of Tulsa? "It was a little more formal then," he says, adding that he was more influenced by Robert Frank imitators — and by "the best," Walker Evans — than by Frank, whom he knew little about when he made the book. "Tulsa is really about rooms. We're in very small rooms, and we're very close."
Going back to those rooms means going down with Janis again; as the fellow Clark enthusiast with me observantly notes, a Joplin poster appears on the wall of one of those dark spaces. "The first time I met her it was early in the morning and we were walking across that big park in Haight Ashbury," Clark recalls. "She was with someone from Big Brother [and the Holding Company] and I was with someone who knew him. I remember she was smoking a cigarette and she was holding it like this" — he imitates a loose gesture — "and her fingers were all yellow, and she said, 'I really like these Pall Malls because you smoke them right down to the end like a junkie.'”
Clark hasn't gone right down to the end like a junkie, though Tulsa certainly pictures exactly that type of fate with a void-gazing ferocity that no television episode of Intervention will match.