Shot in 2002, and yet to be released in America, Ken Park plays out like a degenerate anthropological study of our own backyard. Its images of teenagers engaging in kinky sex games and drug abuse have made it unsuitable for American consumption, which is a shame; I'm not sure other cultures can really understand this film or the places in America that it shows. Laura Clifford, who saw the film at Cannes and hated it, reported overhearing an English journalist telling an Italian colleague: "I love watching films about fucked up Americans!" There certainly are a good number of them, including the majority of Larry Clark's own films, and they're getting to be as tedious as a Norman Rockwell collection, but minus the craftsmanship. This film is set apart from Clark's other films by having a point and, unexpectedly, a heart.
Clark began working as photographer in the early 70s with portraits of drugged out horny teenagers in small-town America and he has stuck with this subject ever since, moving closer and closer to child pornography with each work. Many critics have accused him of being a provocateur, which misses the point. What he's capturing in his work is there for effect, but it's not dishonest. Others have accused him of being a pervert, which is a tougher nut to crack. Certainly, most of the great artists have been perverts, and Clark shares the artist's obsessive need to winnow out every image from his fevered brain for the world at large. But, there is something a bit kinky about a man in his sixties filming his twenty-something girlfriend performing oral sex on a young male. But, for once in Clark's ouevre, there seems to be something more to the film than just kink.
Kids (1995) was Clark's breakthrough film and portrayed a subculture of amoral and bored skateboarders. As such, it was about as dull as the thousands of other films that have been made about amoral and bored teenagers. I can say that it is dead-on in its accuracy. But, it also ambles on without any particular direction or message other than "jeez, these kids are screwed-up, huh?" With Bully (2001), Clark seemed to have a point, even though it was a rather fatalistic one, about how peer pressure can come to replace parental involvement for aimless kids whose parents are accomodating, pushy or worse. Critics were distressed by the amount of teenage sex in the film, and Clark indeed seems intent on obeying his own demons. Again, so are all artists. Teenage Caveman (2001) was a surprisingly satisfying attempt to remake a 50s B-movie in Clark's own style. The made-for-HBO film played as Clark's sci-fi porno version of the Pied Piper and established Clark as an auteur, albeit a perverse one.
Ken Park finally deals with Clark's dislike for suburban parents; a dislike that isn't exactly unique. However, the film succeeds because his hatred is so deadly accurate. There are plenty of parents exactly like these ones, powerless in an economic and social sense but wielding a near-dictatorial control over their own children. Gradually, they become the real focus of the film and we begin to realize that their varied attempts at creating what Frank Zappa called "replica children" have damaged these kids, perhaps beyond repair.
Ken Park is a skateboarder who shoots himself in the head three minutes into the film; we don't find out why until the end of the film. Certain aspects of the character (such as his nickname "Krap Nek") point to the Harmony Korine screenplay, but his epiphany at the end, while not exactly Joycean, is remarkably poignant, especially for a character who has about ten minutes of screen time. The other characters are Ken Park's rough social circle. Shawn (James Bullard) is dating his neighbor's daughter while secretly having an affair with her mother. His obediance to a bored bourgeois suburbanite who clearly sees him as a zipless fuck is also strangely moving. Tate (James Ransone) is perhaps the least necessary character; a teenaged psycho who kills his grandparents for cheating at board games. Claude (Stephen Jasso) is the most sympathetic character in the film, a kid who is constantly bullied by his drunken redneck father (Wade Andrew Williams) for being a "sissy". The scenes in which he "spots" the goon while he does bench-presses are heartbreaking- the father is clearly a worthless creep, but he has control over this one human being and so he exerts it. The same goes for the fundamentalist father of Peaches, played by Clark's girlfriend Tiffany Limos. We begin to understand that these children are second-class citizens. They have no say in their own lives, and so create their own perverse oases outside of society.
Clark clearly oversteps at points. A scene in which the aforementioned bored housewife leaves her daughter alone watching soft-core porn on television is more laughable than shocking. Also, Clark and cinematographer/ co-director Ed Lachman linger on close-ups of ejaculating penises and Limos's vagina for blatant shock-value. The shocks are a bit too obvious and mechanical and more ambiguous touches, such as a scene in which the redneck father urinates while downing a beer, or grimly watches the Jerry Springer show as if it was just another painful reminder of his station in life, are more devastating.
But, the teenager's threesomes, drug use and the like seem less dreary and pointless than in other Clark films, and more as if the kids are doing the best they can in a terrible situation. There is perhaps a reason that our culture uses the phrase "being treated like a child" as a euphymism for being treated without respect or honesty.