Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2002) Part 2

5. Ken Park

Though Larry Clark and Harmony Korine collaborated on “Kids” together, their subsequent careers went off in very different directions. Clark continued to make his indie-drama-exploitation movies, while the majority of Korine’s films revolve around white-trash grotesques in sometimes surreal environments. Despite this, the two collaborated again for Clark’s fifth film, “Ken Park.” The result was one of Clark’s most controversial films in a career that has courted controversy continuously. It’s also one of the director’s most uneven works. I never thought I’d be complaining about the lack of subtly in a Larry Clark film and yet....

The film follows the life of five teens, some in the skateboarding culture, over the course of more or less a day. Though the teens are all friends, there’s very little interaction among them for the majority of the run time. Shawn is having sex with his girlfriend’s mom, his girlfriend and her family completely unaware of it. Claude is close to his pregnant mother but his father is belligerent towards him, attacking his sensitive son because he’s not “manly” enough. Peaches, at first, appears to be doing all right, even if her father is very religious and stuck on her dead mother. Not so much, it turns out. Meanwhile Tate is a complete psychopath, verbally abusing his sweet grandparents, physically threatening his three-legged dog and scrap-booking pictures of starving Ethiopian orphans. The titular Ken Park kills himself in the opening scene and doesn’t come up again until the very end. His death provides a context for the dysfunctional stories to follow.

More then any of Clark’s previous films, “Ken Park” is focused on the relationship between children and parents. Claude’s story is probably the most captivating. While he is at odds with his father from the beginning, the films drawls numerous parallels between them. Dad complains about his son while watching an episode of “Jerry Springer” and swilling a beer. Son complains about his dad while getting high with his friends. While Father drives around town, looking for action with hookers, Son tries to get a female friend to come over for some fun. Claude doesn’t understand his father’s interest in weight-lifting, while Dad is antagonistic towards his son’s skateboarding habit. As is often the case with rocky child/parent relationships, the two have more in common then either party would like to admit. One of Claude’s friends delivering a moving monologue about the value of a father easily ranks among the film’s best moments.

We don’t spend a lot of time with Shawn’s parents but his girlfriend’s family provides a perverse surrogate of sorts. We aren’t given a good reason why Rhonda, his girlfriend’s mother, is having a sexual relationship with the boy. Even while intimate, there is an oddly maternal tone to her actions. His first proposition of her is delayed until she finishes folding clothes. She undresses him like a mother undressing a young child. She instructs him on performing cunnilingus on her like a parent teaches a kid to ride a bike. Shawn is clearly in love with Rhonda but she’s cautious about the boy’s affections, talking around his probing questions. Later on, she invites the boy to family dinner. Rhonda casually repels her husband’s own sexual advances. Whether or not he’s aware of his wife’s affair is left ambiguous, though his suspicion is implied, providing some minor suspense during a later scene.

Unfortunately, many of the film’s intriguing, subtle themes are overshadowed by its focus on shock value. This is when Korine’s influence becomes most apparent. From the moment it’s revealed that Peaches’ father is hyper-religious, it’s obvious he’s going to freak out over his daughter’s inevitable sexual escapades. I had hoped the movie wouldn’t go down that obvious, ham-fisted route. Early scenes of Peaches introducing her dad to her boyfriend are, while a little odd, still somewhat sweet. The man misses his dead wife dearly and puts a lot of faith in his intelligent, observant daughter. However, because this is a Larry Clark film, as soon as the teens are left alone, kinky sex ensues. We know the parent is going to walk in on it. The results are sadly predictable, with expected bible bashing and religious reeducation. Even the bizarre, pseudo-incestuous mock-marriage that closes Peaches’ storyline is heavily foreshadowed.

This doesn’t compare to the entire Tate subplot, which is just obnoxious from beginning to end. The character is cartoonish and grotesque. His grandparents are painted as unrealistic simply because they put up with the kid’s behavior at all. Tate’s psychosis is immediately apparent. The story ending in murder, mutilation, and inappropriate boners isn’t surprising. Not that you care about the hateful little shit at all. Clark’s shock tendencies go into overdrive during these sequences. There is a graphic, extended, seemingly unsimulated scene of auto-erotic asphyxiation. You see absolutely everything. It’s completely unnecessary. Moreover, since Tate has no interaction with the rest of the cast, the entire subplot is unnecessary. It’s shrill, annoying, and, frankly, gross.

Other potentially insightful scenes are ruined by the desire to shock. After a night of binge drinking, Claude’s Dad reflects on his own life and his son’s. He lies down in bed with the boy, sleeping next to him. It’s a sad, poignant moment but one that suggests a possible, emotional resolution. Instead, Clark takes the scene to a weird, creepy place. Even then, Wade Williams’ delivery of the line “Nobody loves me” is great, even if it doesn’t make up for the blind attempt to shock. This is all clearly Harmony Korine’s work and I wish Clark had scripted the film by himself. (The long scenes devoted to toenail clipping and scab picking are probably Korine’s work too.)

The movie wraps up with a long, very graphic threesome scene. Like all the sex in the movie, it is unsimulated. Up to this point, I was able to see some sort of artistry behind Clark’s love of young flesh. For the first time, his pervy obsession with teenagers fucking has made me uncomfortable. The scene attempts to provide emotional catharsis to the troubled young characters but the sheer graphic quality overshadows this.

Despite the explicit content, Clark has rounded up a few recognizable actors. Amanda Plummer is very good as Claude’s kind, forgiving mother. Richard Riehle, one of those great “know the face, not the name” character actors, has a memorable if small supporting role. The young actors are unknowns and give naturalistic but believable performances. Stephen Jasso, concealing a lot of sensitivity and insight under a misleading appearance, probably does the best of the lot. Tiffany Limos, so terrible in "Teenage Caveman," is a close second and seems very comfortable with the uncomfortable material.

The last scene returns us to Ken Park, revealing the motivation for his suicide and confirming this as a movie about parents and children. There is potentially rich material here but Clark’s desire to "not cut away” instead makes “Ken Park” a shock movie. Maybe the filmmaker was just looking to see how far he could push it. Considering the film was widely banned and has yet to receive an official state-side release, maybe he pushed it too far. Valuable content can be gleamed among all the shock, semen, dicks and pussies but it might be too far a bridge to travel. [Grade: C]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

This one I haven't seen. It sounds... exactly like I pictured it.