Daddy Cool

Film still for Daddy Cool

Larry Clark's images of teenage sexuality made him the badboy father figure of the Eminem generation, but does Bully, his new film about casual teen murder, tell us anything about today's US youth asks James Mottram.

Larry Clark contributes a brief, if telling, cameo to Bully, the true story of the cold-blooded murder of a young Florida tough by a group of his friends. In his third film as director, Clark appears as the stepfather of Derek Kaufman, the 20-year-old self-styled leader of a gang of juvenile thieves called the Crazy Motherfuckers. Swinging a baseball bat in his backyard, Clark looks on wordlessly as pot-fuelled pubescents pile out of their convertibles to enlist Derek's help as a hitman to help dispose of their friend. Given that Derek (played by Leo Fitzpatrick, star of Clark's controversial 1995 debut feature kids) is later seen to bludgeon victim Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl) with a bat like the one wielded by his father, it could be said that Clark's appearance foreshadows the violence to come.

The image could also be read as symbolic of the 58-year-old Clark's defiant stance as the inspiration for a much younger generation. Ever since his lurid landmark photographic depictions of drug abuse and burgeoning teen sexuality in his home state of Oklahoma in the books Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983), Clark has fashioned himself as a celluloid father figure for boys and girls raised on MTV and Mortal Kombat. His patriarchal attitude was fully apparent in kids, his bare-bones depiction of a group of New York skaters who drink, smoke and screw in the shadow of Aids; the film was, after all, responsible for kick-starting the careers of both debut screenwriter Harmony Korine (then 20) and star Fitzpatrick (the latter, who grew up without a father, admits in the Bully press notes that Clark stepped in to cast him from the streets 'when I probably needed it the most'). As for his approach to his material, Clark feels he's one of the few directors who's willing to tell it like it is. Like current parental hate figure Eminem (whose poster is prominently displayed in one scene in Bully, while a promo plays in another), Clark sees himself as delivering some uncomfortable home truths.

'At least my films are showing you what's going on, making people think a bit, and stirring up some controversy,' he says when we meet after Bully's British unveiling at the London Film Festival. 'I've talked to the kids in the suburbs who've seen the film, and they said, 'Gee, Larry, you really got it right. I know kids just like that. We drive around in cars, party, play games, listen to music, drink, smoke pot, have sex and are bored. That's our lives. We've got a lot of time on our hands, but we don't kill people.' In all those other teen movies everything is a joke, and stupid. And there's a thousand of those films to one of mine. When kids came out, kids stopped me on the street and said it was like real life. Bully may be extreme, but it did happen.'

Extreme enough for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to deny Clark the commercially acceptable R-rating he attempted to steer the picture towards. This, despite the director declining to show any male frontal nudity. After the problems with kids in the UK, Clark solicited advice from the MPAA to help the film receive the desired rating. 'They sent back this fax which says, 'Our advice to America is: Hide your children.' Can you believe that?' Speculating that he's a marked man because of kids, Clark complains that star-driven studio pictures are given preferential treatment. 'It's a studio-system rating, not the government's. You can buy any rating you want.'

Released in the US un-rated, Bully opened to some harsh criticism. Variety's Dennis Harvey called it 'turgid, embarrassing and plain off-putting', accusing Clark of 'teensploitation'. After his 1998 outlaw road movie Another Day in Paradise - which led one interviewer to speculate that the director had 'stopped hanging around the gates of the schoolyard and become more accessible' - critics seemed disconcerted that Clark had returned to the teen territory he'd moulded his career around. A twice-divorced parent with a daughter from his first marriage and a teenage boy and girl from his second - and therefore presumed old enough to know better - Clark is an obvious candidate for accusations of being a perennial voyeur. His third photographic compilation Larry Clark 1992 documented fantasy teen-suicide scenarios - the flip side to the US obsession with hedonistic youth culture. And kids emerged after Clark spent quality time with East and West Coast skateboarders. (He no longer skates or wears baggy jeans, he tells me. 'I'm past all that! I haven't skated in a couple of years. I'm getting old now. It takes wounds months to heal.')

In Dallas journalist Jim Schutze's speculative and lurid book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge, Clark seemingly found the perfect material to complement his obsession with the loss of childhood innocence. Skipping over the book's final third, which details the tortuous courtroom trials the seven teens were put through, Clark's film concentrates primarily on the events leading up to Bobby's death, in particular the plotting of his murder, chiefly by his best-but-bullied friend Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro) and Marty's girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner). Bringing together a number of hangers-on who barely know what time of day it is - teen slut Ali, her doped-up Palm Bay chums Donny and Heather and her overweight acid-freak cousin Derek Dzvirko - Lisa emerges as the crime's true instigator, desperate to rid her life of competition for Marty's affections. During the gruesome and protracted murder sequence, Clark sets out to admonish us: 'I want the audience to pay for all those fucking stupid movies they watch, where hundreds of people get killed. People have seen the film and said, 'It's so violent.' But there's only one killing. You go to other movies and there are a hundred killings, but they mean nothing.'

That Bully lacks the raw impact of kids is perhaps inevitable given Clark's choice of collaborators. While kids saw him recruit Korine, one of the Washington Square skate crew he hung out with, to write the street-savvy script, Bully has him unite with a group of Hollywood professi-onals known for delivering slickly calculated, amoral work. Clark was sent Schutze's book by producer Don Murphy (Natural Born Killers) and Bully's script is credited to American History X screenwriter David McKenna under the pseudonym Zach-ary Long and Roger Pullis. Unlike kids, which sprang from Clark's initiation into the underground scenes depicted on screen, Bully works unhappily from the outside-in.

Image: BullyThe film was originally slated for production before the school shootings at Columbine in April 1999, but backers understandably balked in the aftermath. Raising the $2.25 million for the project became hard work. Clark claims the cash fell into place just two days before the shoot was due to begin. McKenna cites Columbine in the press notes, along with the subsequent high-school gun-related tragedies at Jonesboro and West Paduka, as justification for the script. 'It's time that we woke up to the way many of our kids are living.'

Clark's depiction of parents in Bully may be one step up from kids (where they were non-existent), but they are still peripheral characters in their children's lives. While his next film, the California-set Ken Park (written by Korine and now in post-production), promises to give parents equal billing, in Bully they are two-dimensional white-collar workers, oblivious to what their offspring are plotting. For instance, Bobby's stock-broker father, who perhaps epitomises the bully mentality himself, wants to set his son up selling stereos, while his son is only interested in pleasure. Clark is not naive enough simply to blame the parents, though. 'These kids know right from wrong. It's their fault. It's also society's fault, the parents' fault, the culture's fault - but ultimately it's down to the kids.'

Avoiding a sociological discourse on why rich, white, middle-class kids would murder, Clark prefers to suggest it's the malaise of the modern age. If Aids was the threat in kids, here it's too much information. Clark's teens suffer from sensory overload: 'Kids know so much more. Innocence is lost at a very early age. Our lives soon become so jaded. Kids have access to pornography, they see every possible sexual act and twist what there is. Then they have MTV, where there's a show now that shows you how to three-way kiss!'

This statement reveals a prudish side to the ageing Clark, and Bully does play at times like the work of a concerned parent. But this image becomes hard to reconcile when Clark builds the momentum leading up to the climactic murder with a series of lascivious teenage sex sequences which revel in the unquenchable appetites of his protagonists. 'I found the story to be very sexual and explicit. They have a lot of sex. It was what was interesting, because it connected to the violence.'

Clark has a point. Sex in Schutze's story is inextricably woven with the threat of violence. Ali (Bijou Phillips), who was once part of a teen prostitution racket, pours hot wax on one unsuspecting lover. Later she suffers rape at the hands of Bobby while he forces her to watch a gay porno tape he made for cash with Marty. When Bobby bursts in on Marty copulating with Lisa and inexplicably tears her away to beat his friend senseless, Clark blocks the scene (Bobby placed 'behind' a face-down Marty) to hint at the homosexual subtext that underlies the boys' sado-masochistic relationship.

In Schutze's account, the pair 'developed a shared taste for sadism', initially picking on disabled people, then moving on to gay men - courting them for leads in their proposed porno tapes before financially exploiting and physically abusing them. From the opening line of Clark's film, where Marty says 'I want you to suck my big dick', to his embarrassed striptease on stage in front of a wolf-whistling crowd (designed by Bobby as a money-making scheme), Bully explores the boys' 'disgust', as Schutze puts it, with gay men in a series of isolated establishing scenes. But Clark pays these sequences scant attention.

More intense is his delight in revealing female flesh and his camera's lingering gaze on certain of his young actresses. Two close-up 'crotch-shots' (one in a car, one on a toilet seat) of Phillips wearing just a threadbare pair of shorts, tufts of pubic hair on display, will undoubtedly cause consternation. Clark confesses the latter is 'gratuitous', blaming Phillips for turning up on set wearing no panties. 'I get so much heat over this one shot,' he says. 'I took it out at one point, but then I put it back.' Such indecision will surely refuel the arguments that Clark belongs to the dirty-mackintosh brigade.

'I get accused of everything! This is the way they dress, and I'm going to show that. Open any magazine - The Face or Dazed and Confused - and look: everybody's naked and they're selling clothes. All the guys are buffed up, and the girls have big breasts - most kids don't look like that, but they think this is what they have to be. In my film, you see real kids' bodies. The camera shows their bodies, and there is a realism to the work which is valid.'

Certainly Lisa in Bully is shown to worship body-image. Her bedroom wall is covered with pictures of hunks and a headline that says 'What Women Want'. But Clark's images are hardly a critique of this. His choice of his young actors seems in part to have been based on their looks. Having cast WASP beefcake Stahl to play the bully Bobby (when his real-life counterpart was of Persian descent) opposite the equally buff Brad Renfro as Marty, Clark and DP Steve Gainer lovingly photograph the boys as they emerge glistening from the ocean with their surfboards tucked under their arms. In reality, Marty Puccio was considerably weaker than Bobby Kent, but here the pair are made to look like Baywatch extras, the sun-kissed equivalent of Clark's New York skateboarding crew.

This is where Bully parts company with kids: the vérité visual style is missing. Though Clark cast several real-life participants (including presiding judge Charles Greene), he knew verisimilitude would work against the film's narrative structure. So the viewer is led to believe almost throughout that the events are fiction. Clark drops the bombshell at the end to bolster the impact of his prophecy. '[With] kids, people said I made it up. In the last six years, it's all turned out to be real.' Clark thinks the kids are going to be all right. I wonder if the same can be said for him.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012