"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. It's crazy, really, how many ways mass media — fashion and advertising and "indie" film in particular — have both copped and watered down or misinterpreted Clark's aesthetics (a bit similar to what's happened with John Waters, though perhaps even more subtly pervasive). The producers of MTV's Laguna Beach and The Hills, original offender Calvin Klein, and now American Apparel owe him a mint's worth of royalties for their third-rate rip-offs. At least the latter recently threw a huge party for the cast members of Wassup Rockers and their families, complete with live performances by the band featured in the movie.
If Clark is still thriving in art and life today, some credit should be given to his girlfriend, Tiffany Limos, whose candid criticism of Clark's past movies doubtless informed his approach to Wassup Rockers. Limos is too young to be responsible for the genius choice of soundtracking Clark's recent mammoth Manhattan gallery show, "Punk Picasso," with Nancy Wilson's But Beautiful, but she did tell him to place a hilarious video installation of her beyond-hyper bichon frise near the show's end, an element that is echoed in a funny dog-attack scene within Wassup Rockers.
"That video is like the real Larry Clark," Clark says with a laugh. "Tiff was coming home, and when she would leave I would always tell her that I could not say her name while she was gone because the dog would go crazy. I thought, 'I'm going to show Tiffany what happens when I say her name.' But when I made the video, never in my wildest imagination did I think I would use it. It's funny because I'm talking to this dog like it's a human being. Sammy runs into the street and I scold him — 'You're going to get killed!' — just like I was talking to a kid."
Limos also got her friend the fashion designer Jeremy Scott cast in Wassup Rockers as a lascivious gay photographer who looks like Perry Farrell and has a mansion full of horrendous steroidy physique shots (actual work by Tom Bianchi). "Tiffany would bring these photos of Jeremy home," says Clark. "We had this private joke about him that if you pointed a camera at him he would always do something incredible. Then we would see photos of him at parties in magazines, and true to form, he would always be making some flamboyant pose."
As the interview winds down, the man who began with a photography tip says he now prefers making films. Then Clark makes a final distinction. "I was never really a photographer," he says. "I was an artist and a storyteller [when I started out with Tulsa], and I was using photography because that's what I had." (Johnny Ray Huston)
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