larry clark: bully of u.s. art and cinema

Yesterday I rented and watched Larry Clark‘s 2001 film Bully. Clark, of course, was [in-]famous long before making his film debut with Kids (1995); in 1971, Clark published Tulsa, a collection of photographs he took of his rough-and-ready group of friends over a nine-year period. In Tulsa, teens and adolescents are photographed shooting up, passing out, getting off and partying down. His exploration of the grittier sides of growing up a post-baby boomer in the United States have as readily found an audience as they have controversy. Clark’s most recent film, Ken Park, is currently battling censorship in Europe, the USA, and the UK, and faces obscenity charges in Australia, where a July 3 screening resulted in a police raid and confiscation of the film.

Bully is based on Jim Schutze’s 1998 true crime book of the same name, in which seven suburban teenagers in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida planned and executed the savage murder of their peer Bobby Kent. In Clark’s version of this true story, Bobby (played by Nich Stahl) routinely mocks and beats his “best friend” Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro); Bobby also insults and rapes Marty’s girlfriend Lisa Connelly (Rachel Miner), and Lisa’s friend Ali Slay (exceptionally played by Bijou Phillips) to their collective wits’ end. Marty, Lisa and Ali hatch a plan to rid themselves of Bobby, and enlist some help from Lisa’s extended friends and family. After luring Bobby out to a remote location in the Everglades with promises of sex and drugs, the group of seven stabbed and bludgeoned Bobby within inches of his life in gruesome, Manson Family-style glee before leaving him to die face down in the muck; sand crabs and alligators feasted upon him almost immediately.

Clark’s signature bare-chested boys and barely-clothed girls are in full force, as is his penchant for illustrating their consumer-fed confections of apathy and ignorance; killing an acquaintance–like drugs, sex, and watching MTV–is just another way of killing time. In the publishing world, true crime often results in bankable page-turners, but rarely does that same intensity translate to the screen. Unlike Kids, which is consciously shot through quasi-Joycean time and subject structures (think: Ulysses‘ 24 hour limit, its infinite thematic interplay looping in the forefront), Bully is, at times, painfully paced like a made-for-television mini-series starring Valerie Bertinelli. Opportunities to explore the deeper social issues in play here are sacrificed to make sure that, towards the end of the film, the viewer is (predictably) at the murder scene and (even more predictably) horrified by what (s)he finds there. Kent and Puccio’s true life fascination with gay dance clubs and porn is dramatized as humiliating punishment for Marty, and deviant entertainment for Bobby, ultimately to be lightly brushed aside in the mad rush to The End.

Comparing these two films, of course, is terribly unfair, as they are terribly different from one another; Kids rehashes territory Scorsese explored in the 1970s with Taxi Driver, and Van Sant explored in the 1980s with Drugstore Cowboy; despite brief flashes of Clark’s classically dystopic disposition (including a cameo by Clark himself as Marty’s father), Bully tends to rehash Dan Rather’s 48 Hours and Stone Phillips’ Dateline. The latter isn’t nearly as potent, jarring, and intelligent as the former, but, then again, nothing I’ve encountered is (albeit, Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg comes really really close…).

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