A strange boy is weaving a course of grace and havoc
On a yellow skateboard through midday sidewalk traffic.
Just when I think he's foolish and childish and I want him to be manly,
I catch my fool and my child needing love and understanding….
I doubt very much that Joni Mitchell was envisioning a longhaired Latino punk rocker when she penned those lyrics, though grace and havoc is precisely what is woven into Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers opening up this week in L.A. and next week in the Bay Area. Bravely appropriating what allegedly belongs to White kids—punk rock, skateboards, and the steep steps of Beverly Hills High School—the boys of Larry Clark's latest face off to White kids who don't want them taking what's "their's", Black kids who don't want these "Mexicans" (they're actually "Salvies" and "Guats") on their hiphop gangsta turf, and Latinos committed to being skinhead cholos. In other words, just about everybody. Brave indeed.
I sat down with Larry Clark over a cup of Mexican coffee in his room at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel for a brief chat about Wassup Rockers.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Wassup Rockers has been written up a lot so I don't feel a great need to go into how the film was generated, because I think you've already talked a lot about that. I felt I had the opportunity to dive into some of the things that were of particular interest to me.
Larry Clark: Okay.
MG: The first film I saw of yours was Ken Park….
LC: Oh really? That was the first film?
MG: I was in Paris and it was premiering at the multiplex there. I went because my traveling companion was a great fan of your films and you were supposed to be there. He said, "We've got to go because Larry Clark's going to be there!" So we went and there was a boy in line in front of me, he was 14 years old, who had come with a script he was going to give to you. For one reason or another you weren't there, but….
LC: I wasn't even supposed to be there.
MG: Oh? Well for some reason it got out in the buzz that you were going to be there. The point being that I was so impressed that this 14-year-old boy wanted to meet you, wanted to collaborate with you, had brought a script, and trusted you.
LC: I wish I'd have been there.
MG: Last night at the Q&A after the press screening you were talking about that trust that you develop with young people. It's this association with young people that has garnered you much—in my estimation, misperceived—criticism. I look at you as an anthropologist of the authentic and that you see in young people, in youth, a unique authenticity. Can you talk a little bit about that?
LC: Well yeah, I think [youth's] a real important time of our life when things that happen to us dictate who we're going to be like as adults. It is this time where I find that kids can be so open and honest, y'know? I'm trying to show the reality of being that age and I'm making a social comment. It's as simple as that. I find it amazing that so many people who make films or do work about kids discount what's really going on, the way the kids really are and think it's got to be a certain way and think I can't do this, I can't do that, I have to do this and this is the way to do it. And that's not what's happening, y'know? I let the kids bring themselves to the work. I try to show that.
MG: You skillfully show that young kids wrestle with feelings, have sexual experiences, fight against things they don't believe in. Here in America young kids are demonized, youth is demonized. In some ways the most important thing about youth in America is that they are a niche market for commodified agendas…
MG: … so I appreciate that your films express that tension. In Paris a 14-year-old boy can go see Ken Park at the multiplex; but, here in the U.S., that wouldn't happen.
LC: No, no.
MG: So I'm curious about that aspect of your films that are about young people, but are they for young people?
LC: Well, yeah, they are for young people and young people see them. Everything's on dvd now and everything's accessible from the Internet. Kids see everything. There's no way you can keep them from seeing everything so if you try to keep them from seeing my films, they're going to see my films. Kids was unrated and every kid has seen Kids. Every generation sees Kids, it just goes on and on and on. I was in a skate park with the kids from Wassup Rockers a few weeks ago and a kid asked me if I was sponsoring these kids. I said, "No, I'm a filmmaker. I just made a film about them." And he said, "What other films have you made?" And I said, "Well, I made a film called Kids, have you ever heard of it?" He looked at me as if I were crazy and he said, "Everybody's heard of that." Right? It goes on. People see the work. Kids see the work.
MG: Another thing I like too in your films is how you have your finger on the pulse of music. The soundtracks to each of your films are great.
LC: The music is so important in my movies.
MG: I was sorry to hear that it's actually music rights that has caused the delay with Ken Park being distributed in the United States.
LC: Yeah. We had a crazy producer who didn't clear some music and there's some clearance issues and hopefully, at some point, we'll get those resolved. The music in Wassup Rockers is Latino punk rock from the ghetto. These are all local bands, unpublished bands, garage bands from the neighborhood. They're terrific. What an amazing phenomenon it is that punk rock has this big resurgence in the Latino community, which I understand is happening around the world. It's great music. Music is such an important part of my films. Like Another Day in Paradise was the soundtrack of my youth, all that great music, all that soul music was wonderful.
MG: I had to hunt that down. I went looking for that because I came late to your movies so I wasn't there when the soundtrack for Another Day In Paradise was initially released. I eventually found the soundtrack on EBay or somewhere like that….
LC: Well, good.
MG: It's one of my favorite collections of music.
MG: Your film is being compared every now and then—probably unwisely—to Crash though it is undoubtedly a more authentic portrayal of race relations than Crash.
LC: This is the real Crash. Wassup Rockers is the real Crash.
MG: One of the film's most authentic scenes was of the black girls quarreling with the "Mexicans" who had come into their neighborhood, telling them to take their seven burritos and eat them somewhere else. Are things still set up the same? I had a friend from L.A. telling me that it was precisely because the Latinos came into South Central that the Black population shifted to Palmdale, or something like that, and that now South Central is actually more of a Latino neighborhood.
LC: No, it's both, it's mixed. It's interesting there are no white people in South Central, it's all Black and Latino, and the racial politics of the ghetto is interesting, which I didn't know about until I was there….
MG: I didn't know about it either!
LC: …but there is a lot of conflict between the young Latinos and the young Blacks.
MG: At last night's Q&A you were saying you were not a documentarian and yet, like I said, I consider you an anthropologist of the authentic.
LC: A visual anthropologist….
MG: Yeah, a visual anthropologist. So you get that documentary feel to your movies but you also layer on a narrative launch to go further with it. I had one conflict with Wassup Rockers, which probably is because I'm not understanding it so I wanted to ask you about it directly. I totally accepted the almost ridiculous deaths of the White people in the latter half of the film, and I almost cheered it. [Clark smiles broadly.] I understood all that. The part that concerned me: I didn't understand why they left their homies behind? They had the one scene where they were expressing concern and regret about it, but, they seemed emotionally relatively unaffected by it and I was curious about that.
LC: Well, Carlos [Ramirez] gets busted by the police and what are you going to do about that? Kids get arrested all the time and they always have to run from cops and one of them got caught, y'know? When Louie [Luis Rojas Salgado] gets shot, what can they do? They can't get shot too, y'know? And Kico [Francisco Pedrasa] talks about that.
MG: I was wondering if you were trying to say that the young people have become inured to violence, that they are accustomed to it?
LC: It is part of it. I also had too many characters! [Laughs.] I had to get rid of a couple of them! My God, the coverage for seven people is really difficult. One kid gets busted and we don't really know how badly he's hurt.
MG: The hierarchy of the characters is intriguing. You have these seven young men and yet obviously Jonathan [Velasquez] and Kico rise to the top or come out in front as the main stories. Was that naturally the way the gang was?
LC: Yeah. Plus, it's a movie and I was interested … I thought that they were … they're both terrific actors, natural actors, and then Porky [Usvaldo Panameno] was great too in the beginning of the film. Porky had some great scenes.
MG: And Milton [Velasquez]! The final shots of Milton with that sweet smile despite everything that had happened to them was such a positive note in Wassup Rockers. At least they weren't going to call him "Spermball" anymore!
LC: They were all great.
MG: The scene I absolutely loved and where I think you are a master at catching the natural was the talk between Kico and the young woman…
LC: …Nikki on the bed, yeah, that's a great scene.
MG: Who was the young actress?
LC: Jessica Steinbaum, a 14-year-old actress, a schoolgirl who was taking acting….
MG: She's amazing!
LC: She's amazing. She was the only one with any real experience. She had actually done one t.v. show. She had done an episode of Law and Order or something, but, she was great. And I think that she has a career ahead of her, especially when Wassup Rockers comes out; she's going to be hot!
MG: I agree. Last night at the Q&A, a young woman expressed her concern about what she felt were overly-sexualized portraits of your female characters. Yet Jessica, as Nikki, came across not only beautiful but complex. Maybe her blonde-haired friend was broadly—if not brassily—drawn, but Jessica as Nikki came across complex and real. Can you talk a little bit about that scene and how you achieved it?
LC: Kico was very young when I met him and he was shy and in the year and a half that I knew him he grew up a lot. He got self-confidence and he became a much better skater. He was always the kid who was most aware. If all the kids were standing on the street corner, fucking around and playing and just being kids on the street corner, Kico was the one who was there doing that but he was always aware of everything that was going on. He knew who was there and who was there and who was driving down the street. This kid was totally aware but a smart, smart kid. It took a while for him to really open up to me. One day he'd hurt himself, he'd twisted his ankle or something, and he wasn't skating that day and his mother was out and his brothers were out and the kids were out in the streets skating or something and I'm in the house with Kico, and I'm talking to him and we have this intimate, personal conversation where he's telling me about his life and his feelings and about the gangs and how it's all happening. It was a very special afternoon I spent with him and I wanted that to be in the film, those stories to be in the film, and I didn't quite know how to do it. In the screenplay I wrote, "Kico and Nikki sit on the bed and talk" and I knew what I wanted them to talk about. And so on the day that we shot I told Kico what I wanted and he didn't know the actress, the girl, and I took her aside and I had her ask him certain questions and I made them lock eyes so they couldn't look away and they really got into it and he's really from the heart telling her about his life in South Central with this honesty that's astounding and she's really amazed because she's from a different environment entirely and she's saying, "What? He got shot?!" She's really into it but she's acting at the same time and she's asking the questions and it's just a magical scene and it really was happening that way.
MG: It did come across magically and what I was struck by—it saddened me, again because I don't think I fully understand it, and why I think it's important to be shown this—was his saying that … his trying to describe their fraternity, the egalitarian quality of their fraternity, that no one was a better friend than anybody else. Is that actually how they operate?
LC: They're great friends. They're a tight-knit group. If you're one of the group you wouldn't want to single one out and say, "Well, that's my best friend." They're all friends. It wasn't about that. It wasn't about best friends or a pecking order of—I like you better than you—they're really close. That was an honest answer that he gave. The girl last night who asked the question, she's basically saying that if you do anything there can be ramifications. I don't think she was saying, "Well, don't do anything" but it's kind of like that. You're always taking chances, taking risks, and these kids are opening up and being honest. At some point as they get older they may look at that and say, "My God, I was so open and honest, it's a little embarrassing and stuff," but, they're not doing that, they're inviting you into their life, into what happens. It was interesting. Do you know what I mean?
MG: Oh yes. It intrigued me because I often say I was never more honest than when I was 17. Somehow along the way culture gets to you, commodification gets to you, peer pressure and family pressure start to hit and you start to lose your initial authenticity. That's why I've never understood why you were being criticized for capturing that because it's such a fleeting grace really and you have—in a way—almost devoted yourself to making sure that voice gets out, where so many other filmmakers don't bother.
LC: It's true. It's startling the honesty and that's what I'm trying to do.
MG: In one of your interviews I read you said that in a teenager's take on the world they ask, "Why can't things be the way I want them to be? I can do anything I want to because it's the truth." That really struck me because I remember the boldness I had as a young person.
LC: That's how I started. I started making images that I couldn't see anywhere else when I did my first book Tulsa. All this stuff is happening around me, it's everyday stuff for me, but you never see it, it's forbidden to even show this or talk about it. That was my original motivation for making those photographs and there's still that aspect to my work: Why can't you show everything? Why can't you show this? Why can't you show that?
MG: And it's a good question: why can't you?
LC: And I can! [Chuckles.]
MG: And that's wonderful that you do, that you show the sex among teenagers, you show their drug use. In another interview you're quoted as saying you have to celebrate the darkness along with the light. You have to celebrate the first time you have sex as well as the first time you use a syringe. You can't block things out because they happen.
MG: In Wassup Rockers what I've noticed is that reviewers keep talking about its sweetness. Here is a film where there isn't any drug use, where there's little sex. You aren't so much showing the darkness as you are showing the light in these kids and somehow that ends up being radical. Did that happen consciously?
LC: It's just the way kids were. It's as simple as that. These kids had this amazing energy and zest for life, and for the moment, living in this dangerous environment, and they weren't negative. I mean I was so much more negative than these kids were; they'd say, "Snap out of it, Larry!" Y'know? These kids were seeing the up side of everything. Ways to get around the negativity. Ways to survive and ways to be a kid and ways to have fun. These kids are just happy, good kids.
MG: Great. Well, I just got the two-minute signal. I could probably talk to you for hours about all this.
LC: Yeah, we could talk, yeah!
MG: Thank you very much for Wassup Rockers, enjoy the premiere tonight at The Egyptian.
LC: Yes, exactly, the premiere.
MG: The boys are going to come skateboarding up the red carpet?
LC: That's what I understand. Thanks a lot. Good to talk to you.
07/03/06 ADDENDUM: Per Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily, Peter Sobczynski at Hollywood Bitchslap and Glen Helfand at SF360 likewise interview Clark.
07/13/06 ADDENDUM: A shout out to colleague Sara Schieron at Filmshi whose "shicast" with Larry Clark culls some truly intriguing biographical details.