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Thread: Larry Clark: Wassup Rockers (2005)

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    Larry Clark: Wassup Rockers (2005)

    LARRY CLARK--WASSUP ROCKERS

    If teenagers’ lives seem boring to you, imagine how boring your lives are to teenagers.

    It’s safe to call teenagers Larry Clark’s “fixation,” but how he approaches them and how they emerge from his scrutiny varies – though it’s usually compelling, sometimes shocking, and likely to polarize, gaining reactions from rapturous support to warnings that he’s a pervert and you ought to lock up your children. He has a voyeur’s eye even as a participant and since his fascination with teenage flesh lingers longer on the males you’d have to say the only difference between him and a gay man is that he’s not gay. Is this what makes his kind of photographer – lack of boundaries, lack of moral restraint? In Clark’s landmark Tulsa (1971), the photo book that made him a major influence and a museum collectible, he shot speed himself as he shot kids shooting speed in the town where he was born; guys just knew he had his camera in hand and couldn’t help them tie up. That was a rougher world he joined than the one he was born into – his mother was a traveling commercial baby photographer but “once the needle goes in it never comes out” and Clark continued to live a life of alcohol and drugs and sex with some cleaner periods through the Seventies and Eighties, always close to the younger generation and always with his camera in hand. His 1983 photo book Teenage Lust described sex and drugs among younger Tulsa teens and young male hustlers in the pre-Niketown Times Square. He shifted to Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan and photographed and befriended the skateboarders there and used them in his 1995 shocker Kids, his film debut, written by Harmony Korine. In Kids the violence was sexual: an HIV-positive kid deflowering girls without a condom. In Another Day in Paradise, Clark took a ride into Hollywood filming Melanie Griffith and James Woods as a sleazy couple involved in drugs and petty crime who adopt a homoerotic young sidekick. It’s too Hollywood: Kids was his landmark, his motion picture Tulsa. He went back to vérité with his 2001 Bully, a south Florida true story about kids who ganged up and murdered one of their own. It’s gruesome. I’m skipping the made-for-TV comic-based Teenage Caveman: it’s reportedly a clinker and I didn’t see it. Ken Park was made a year later and dwells more on teenage sex (some with adults) and on family dysfunctionality than Clark’s other movies and it’s arguably as good as Kids and less dispiriting and it deserves to be seen, but due to music rights issues and shocked bourgeois sensibilities it has yet to be shown in American theaters. The new Clark movie Wassup Rockers happens in LA with Salvadoran and Guatemalan teenagers born into South Central, “the ghetto,” as one of the leaders of the seven, Kiko (Francisco Pedrasa) likes to tell outsiders. Again Clark has been hanging out with skateboarders, and this group of pals is based on guys he knew, who wear long hair and tight jeans and play loud punk rock and could be an Hispanic Ramones.

    What’s different about Wassup Rockers is the characters aren’t “white.” They go to 90210 as unwelcome tourists. Clark says this is like The Warriors meets The Swimmer, because Jonathan (Jonathan Valasquez), Kiko, Sperm Ball (Milton Valesquez), et al. defend themselves in enemy territory and then escape pitching their skateboards over fences and then jumping over them. The situation is hardly benign. The crew loses two of their homies in the venture. There’s a nasty cop, a gay rapist, an older woman who “plays” with Kiko in a Jacuzzi, an Eastwood-like vigilante armed with a pistol. Latina maids save the remaining boys. Earlier, some Beverly Hills High girls who just love cute Jonathan invite the boys to their house, and the chat between one of them and Kiko is the movie’s most interesting moment. She asks him about his life and his relationship to his friends and in this Q&A they compare their lifestyles. Wassup Rockers has real mayhem, and moments that are farcical. But what’s unquestionably benign compared to the worlds of Bully and Kids or Paradise is the principals. They don’t seek fights and don’t fight among themselves. They drink some beer once but they don’t smoke and don’t do any drugs on camera and when confronted by the nasty Beverly Hills cop’s attempts to provoke and humiliate them they’re so good natured they just giggle. The title Wassup Rockers is a hostile phrase addressed to them by blacks, who resent them for now being hip hop and think they’re gay or something because of their tight pants. These are not violent people. Sex is as much a part of their lives and in one scene Jonathan describes his first sex. This like most of the scenes is improvised and based on his real experience. There’s a sluttish girl – possibly based on a girl in Larry Clark’s neighborhood described in Teenage Lust – who has sex with all the boys but her predatory sexuality scares them. Clark isn’t as sleazy as people think- -- not sleazy enough to reshape his material into a false image. Kids remains his landmark, and Ken Park his deepest exploration, but Wassup Rockers is a happier trip. Some writers (who say these boys are “El Salvadoran”) have described the skateboarding sequences as “interminable.” I guess they don’t like skateboarding. Actually, no film has ever shown so well what skateboarding is really like if you’re not a Lord of Dogtown. If teenagers’ lives seem boring to you, imagine how boring your lives are to teenagers.

    (Wassup Rockers opened in New York City on June 23, 2006 with Clark on hand at the Angelika Film Center.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-13-2006 at 10:32 PM.

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    WASSUP ROCKERS (USA)

    Sitting on his bed bare-chested, Jonathan, a 14 year-old Casanova introduces his friends. He's the sole Guatemalan among "salvis"_kids from El Salvador living in East Los Angeles. The b&w film stock, hand-held camera, and seemingly improvised speech presage a documentary. This impression is confirmed as Wassup Rockers goes on to depict the daily routine of Latino kids who eschew violence and drugs in favor of skateboarding. They defy hip-hop dominance by embracing punk rock, hardcore variety. Jonathan and gang are ostracized by peers, particularly African-Americans who threaten them and ridicule their tight-fitting duds.

    Wassup Rockers was written and directed by Larry Clark so a semblance of plot is expected. It becomes manifest when the boys decide to drive to a skate site in Beverly Hills. Still on familiar streets, a cop impounds their borrowed jalope because no one has a driver's license. As soon as they disembark in 90210, Wassup Rockers becomes Clark's first comedy. The style is broad farce, with the requisite caricatured villains. The boys are assaulted by debutantes with a taste for brown, jealous preppy boyfriends, racist cops, a trigger-happy vigilante, a predacious homosexual, and a plastered, middle aged floozie. Most manage to escape "el infierno", thanks to the ingenuity and class solidarity of a network of mansion maids. The succession of mishaps is interrupted once, for a rather tender and insightful bedside conversation between the chubby Kico and a girl predictably named Nikki. The film ends on a similarly subdued note as the returning boys doze off inside a train to Mogwai's "Take Me Somewhere Nice".

    Larry Clark's affection for his young subjects has never been so palpable. It pervades every frame. The film could have stayed in the barrio and delved deeper into milieu and character psychology. Instead, by venturing outside, Wassup Rockers registers a strong (and funny) protest against the objectification and devaluation of Latinos. Its release, as Congress debates whether to make instant criminals out of 12 million undocumented, foreign-born residents, could not be more timely. Viva La Raza!

    (Posted originally as part of the Miami International Film Festival coverage)

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    Thanks for reminding us of your response at Miami. I'm glad you like the movie as I pretty much do but I don't entirely agree with the way you talk about it, maybe you were just in more of a hurry at festival time whereas I had half a day to think about it and write about it. I think by "predacious" you mean predatory. I don't think Jonathan is the only Guatemalan since another guy is his brother and says he's Guatemalan. Remember and the 90210 prick says "Oh, a Guat!"? It's a bit of a misnomer to call Jonathan a "Casanova" -- though I'm sure you're knowingly using the word very loosely. He hasn't really seduced that many women but he's confident that women fall for his looks and charms easily. He's basically rather shy as his two monolgues show. I guess I'd agree that after they invade 90210 it becomes a comedy, but with some dire events. "Debutantes with a taste for brown" is also pretty loose phrasing and a bit offensive. It's highly unlikely that they're society girls and there's no cause to think they're really Latino-fetishers; they just think the boys are cute and decide to dabble briefly in the exotic. Likewise "middle-aged floozie." Plastered she is, but not a floozie by any means. The movie is appealing, to me anyway (and to you) as a portrait of these good-natured boys, but not the strongest among Clark's films, which I wish more viewers and reviwers were capable of setting within his whole oeuvre since he is still arguably more important as a photographer and certailnly was important in that area long before Kids. Since Wassup is kind of lightweight and has a big shift in tone midway, many are completely dismissing it and its lightness makes me wonder if it will leave much of an impression. Nonetheless Clark is an original and what he does is always interesting but if it does any more for the understanding of Hispanic imigrants than, say, Paul Morrissey's 1985 Mixed Blood I'd be pleasantly surprised.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    I don't entirely agree with the way you talk about it, maybe you were just in more of a hurry at festival time whereas I had half a day to think about it and write about it.

    No, I wasn't in a hurry when I wrote my review. We'll have to mark anything you didn't like about it as a difference of opinion or style because I would post it again as is.

    I think by "predacious" you mean predatory.

    Yes, "predatory", "predacious" and "predaceous" are all correct and mean the same thing.

    I don't think Jonathan is the only Guatemalan since another guy is his brother and says he's Guatemalan. Remember and the 90210 prick says "Oh, a Guat!"?

    Maybe you're right. I'd have to watch it again. I don't know that the word "brother" was used to mean biological brother though.

    It's a bit of a misnomer to call Jonathan a "Casanova" -- though I'm sure you're knowingly using the word very loosely. He hasn't really seduced that many women but he's confident that women fall for his looks and charms easily.

    Jonathan is only 14 and, naturally, well below Casanova's alleged 122 sexual partners. He exhibits great potential though. Early on he introduces Iris as his "girlfriend" but Iris seems absent from his thoughts whenever there's a cute girl around. Wikipidea on Casanova: "Though he is often thought of as a great seducer, he much preferred to consider himself the object of female desire".

    "Debutantes with a taste for brown" is also pretty loose phrasing and a bit offensive. It's highly unlikely that they're society girls and there's no cause to think they're really Latino-fetishers; they just think the boys are cute and decide to dabble briefly in the exotic.

    What the two girls find exotic about these boys has to do with race to a large extent. Saying the girls exhibit "a taste for brown" is more specific to the moment than the more permanent label "Latino-fetishers". I used the term "debutantes" loosely to refer to rich girls of a certain age.

    Likewise "middle-aged floozie." Plastered she is, but not a floozie by any means.

    "Floozie" is slang for "a woman regarded as tawdry or sexually promiscuous". I absolutely stand by my use of the word to refer to a grown woman who grabs a teenage stranger at the gate of her mansion, ushers him to her bathroom, and invites him to get naked and climb into the jacuzzi with her.


    The movie is appealing, to me anyway (and to you) as a portrait of these good-natured boys, but not the strongest among Clark's films, which I wish more viewers and reviwers were capable of setting within his whole oeuvre since he is still arguably more important as a photographer and certailnly was important in that area long before Kids.

    As a matter of fact, Mr. Clark met Kico and Porky while doing a photo shoot in Venice, CA for the French mag REBEL. This happened 18 months before production began for Wassup Rockers. Kico and Porky introduced Clark to Jonathan and the other boys. A photo series of these muchachos appeared on a 2005 REBEL issue (including Jonathan on the cover).

    I haven't read a review that properly sets the film within Clark's ouvre as you wish. Nothing beyond stating the new film is less explicit or controversial than the previous ones, and that this one is funny or comedic. More reviews will be forthcoming when Wassup Rockers opens in Chicago and other cities. I'm curious about what Rosenbaum will say. He's stated before that he is "not a fan of Clark" and has labeled his films "pornographic" yet, paradoxically, called Ken Park "probably his best".

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    I didn't mean to make you feel challenged. You don't have to defend your usages. Especially not if you didn't write hastily. But it is a matter of style and taste, not strict correctness. I still think your uses of "debutantes," "a taste for brown," "Casanova," and "floozie" not to mention the rarely used "predacious" are all distracting, and not in a good way; and references to dictionary or online encyclopedia don't make them more palatable or justifiable. I didn't go by the boys using the word "brothers" but by their closeness, their living in the same house in the story, their physical similarity and their having the same last name. When I said Clark's "oeuvre" I meant as I think was clear, his work as a still photographer and publisher of his books, above all, not just his other movies.
    I haven't read a review that properly sets the film within Clark's ouvre as you wish.
    You have now. I just wrote one. But actually I think others have done that too, to some extent anyway. It just isn't done enough, and the awareness of Clarrk as a still photographer, which in the whole scheme of things is likely to be his main claim to fame, still seems to be largely lacking on the part of film writers.

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    I appreciate the time and effort you dedicated to read my review and question my usages. I cherish the opportunity to explain them. I often wish my local friend with the Lit Masters would say something besides "you write well".

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    Hmm, yes... "You write well" is encouraging, but otherwise not very helpful. What one wants to know is how one could write better. One needs a real critic. I have had one in London. Since I've tried to take his advice he's actually said I do write better. It's a constant struggle, though, and writing doesn't get easier but harder as one learns more about it.

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    I don't know if I should be glad Wassup Rockers got distributed at all, or upset it got distributed by an outfit (First Look Pictures) unwilling or unable to spend on marketing. Clark's film made a quarter million for a distributor whose highest grossing film over several years of activity is this year's The Proposition at a paltry $1.7 million. Both films are worth seeking out and likely to achieve cult status via home video.

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