Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2014)

8. The Smell of Us

If Larry Clark's most recent films can be said to have a connecting fiber - besides, you know, the stuff that is in all of his movies – it is an interest in new locations. “Marfa Girls” was set in an obscure small town in Texas. “The Smell of Us,” his newest feature, is set in Paris. “The Smell of Us” was released in French theaters in 2015. As far as I can tell, it has yet to receive an American release. Which is what imported DVDs are for, friends. Maybe changing the setting is especially important, since Clark's intense interest in his favorite subjects – young people having sex and behaving badly – remains ever present.

“The Smell of Us” follows a collection of Parisian teenagers. The kids' parents are hardly present. Instead, the teens spend their time skateboarding, doing drugs, having sex, and living among themselves. Soon, the focus centers in on Maths. He works as an internet escort, primarily catering to older men. He lives with JP, a male friend that is romantically interested in him. Despite his work, Maths claims to be only “gay for pay.” Aside from these two, other characters float in and out of the plot.

If some directors like to seek out new topics and ideas, Larry Clark is perfectly happy exploring the same issues he always has. “The Smell of Us” is a collaboration with a French poet named Scribe. There was an accompanying photo project and I'm not sure if the film arose out of that or the other way around. Either way, the director is once again seeking to capture the lives of disaffected young people as they happen. And it goes without saying that the teens are having lots of sex, doing lots of drugs, and getting into trouble. At times, the film reminds me of “Kids” and “Ken Park,” showing the director repeating himself.

Arising out of the repetition of teenage sex and drugs is an occasionally interesting visual. Clark expounds on the “on-the-street” direction he utilized in “Marfa Girl.” The hand held work often focuses on the teen's faces and bodies. Clark zooms in on body parts until it almost becomes an abstract shape. When the far shots emerge, the teenage characters become figures in open spaces. Sometimes, the areas around the characters seem almost as important to the filmmaker as the particulars of their young bodies. Say what you will about Clark but his instincts as a photographer are as strong as ever.

If you're wondering what the title of the film means, it's not metaphor or anything. “The Smell of Us” is intently focused on the physicality of its character in a very visceral way. The teenagers do smell each other several times. One of Maths' male clients has a foot fetish, which leads to an extended scene of the man sucking the boy's toes. Another, fairly unimportant scene has a teenage girl squatting and urinating on the street. There are close-ups on butts and crotches. For lack of a better word, this is an intensely “smelly” movie. It's a grungy, splanchnic motion picture, intent on sharing the sights and smells of its story on the viewer. Clark is indulging his fetishes in a way that borders creepy even more then usual.

Something that is a little interesting is the role the internet plays in the film. Cell phones and social media weren't around when Clark started making his exploitation epics. In “The Smell of Us,” the kids are always on-line. One character is constantly recording everything with his cell phone. Two of the side characters decide to get into escorting after seeing an ad on a porn site. Another scene has Maths and JP passing their laptops back and forth like a good book. At one point, Clark even adopts the view of a pixelated, glitching YouTube video. If you consider all of the director's movies as one long variation on a theme, “The Smell of Us” shows how technology has changed the way young people interact.

Bisexuality is a topic that has cropped up in Clark's movies, most prominently in “Bully.” Maths and JP's relationship is slightly less dysfunctional then Bobby Kent and Marty's. But only slightly. Maths seems deeply confused by his sexuality. When he has sex with male clients, he zones out, his mind far away from his body. Yet the confines of his relationship with JP are undefined. Sometimes, he rejects his friend's sexual advances, pushing him back and calling him queer. Other times, he's more accepting, kissing or touching him. It's clear Maths doesn't always agree with what his body does. After waking up with some morning wood, he immediately takes a cold shower. Clark, sadly, doesn't expand on these ideas. He doesn't make a point about how teen sexuality can be fluid or undefined. It's just another element in his tapestry of entwined body parts.

“The Smell of Us” is the director's most explicit film since “Ken Park.” The film features unsimulated gay and straight sex acts, though body doubles are obviously utilized for the main actors. One male-on-male scene stretches on to gratuitous lengths. Aside from the aforementioned urination and toe sucking, there's other gross stuff in the film. One of Maths' escort friends services an elderly woman, the camera lingering on her aged, saggy body. The climax of the film features Maths' mother – the first time she's appeared in the movie, by the way – attempting to seduce her own son. Clark got seemingly the most unphotogenic old woman possible to play this part. There's not much point beyond these provocations. This is Clark at his worst, attempting to shock the audience for shock's sake.

A film devoted solely to Maths' profession and his relationship with JP probably wouldn't be able to fill out even a fairly short 83 minute run time. In order to pad the movie out to feature length, a subplot devoted to two of their friends, Pacman and Guillaume. Attempting to tie into the main story, Guillaume also begins to work as a male escort. He only sees female clients, which I imagine would limit his business. While the main story line wanders, at least there's some sort of motivation behind it. These additional scenes are aimless, not contributing to the main story in anyway.

Aside from barely legal nudity, skateboarding seems to be another fascination for Larry Clark. As in “Kids,” “Ken Park,” and probably a few others I'm forgetting, most of the characters are fans of this past time. Naturally, long scenes in the movie feature the kids skateboarding. In one moment, Clark even attaches his camera to a speeding board. Despite the director's stated desire to capture teens being themselves, these are the only moments where he really succeeds in that goal. These scenes are natural and unrehearsed, such as when a teen falls and scratches his arm or smashes a board.

The skateboarding sequences are often accompanied by loud rock music. “The Smell of Us” frequently abandons plot totally in favor of musical montages. There are long scenes of the characters dancing at a party, watching a couple while they have sex, or just waste time on the streets. It doesn't advance the plot any but the soundtrack does lend a certain energy. If the director was attempting to create an audio-visual experience, more then a narrative plot, he's almost successful during these montages.

Yet the pull towards having an actual story frequently interrupts whatever tonal flow Larry Clark was going for. The unnerving scene between Maths and his mother seems like an odd attempt by Clark to justify the characters' messed up lives. That's the kind of realization the filmmaker usually avoids. Maths and JP's relationship then ends in a sudden, shocking way. After that, “The Smell of Us” continues on for a few minutes, featuring a scene where the youths get together and set a car on fire. There's no real resolution. The movie just ends. It's frustrating.

“The Smell of Us” has one or two interesting moments. But Clark's attempt to compromise between a totally plotless mood piece and a typical “reckless teens” story creates an awkward experience that isn't very satisfying. The director's unwillingness to move past fucking and fighting young adults is one thing. He cast himself in the film as a dirty old man, leering at the teens, which shows he's at least self-aware about his obsession. That Clark is still trying to shock his viewer is another, disappointing matter. All together, even fans will probably have trouble defending this one. [Grade: C]

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