For a generation of young filmmakers and artists coming into their own in the ’90s and ’00s, Larry Clark has served as a patron saint of provocation-a reverence well deserved after his unforgettable feature-film debut, 1995’s valentine to downtown teenage brutality, Kids. Working with a script written by a then-21-year-old skater named Harmony Korine and using untested actors like Chloë Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Rosario Dawson-and non-actors like Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter-Kids shook all senses of a moral line in cinema by portraying urban youth so honestly and openly that it came off as criminally obscene. Fifteen years later, the film reads far more as a compassionate portrait of a sometimes uncompassionate group of skateboarders and their friends, but Kids set Clark off on a now notorious cinematic odyssey through a maelstrom of drugs, sex, murder, domestic abuse, suicide, loitering, masturbation, AIDS, incest, and pretty much every other horror running through the teenage psyche in films such as Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002), and Wassup Rockers (2005).
This transformation from rogue artist to rebel icon was nothing new for Clark-it was only new for him in the genre of film. Clark first came into dissenter collective consciousness in 1971 with the publication of his bleak, direct, and utterly mythic black-and-white monograph Tulsa. Shot over a period of years in the ’60s and early ’70s of his friends and speed-taking co-conspirators in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the photographic series captured a rogue, nightmarish side of American youth with a documentary-style realism that would become Clark’s signature. When the book first appeared, it caused a sensation; this was an intimate, irrefutable portrait of something going wrong in the middle of the country. As Clark himself explains, by 1971, the drug culture in America had already been around for several years, only the optimism of it was souring. Tulsa thus presented something of a flip side to the California hippie movement of the ’60s. But Tulsa-much like Clark’s equally stunning and startling series that came later, Teenage Lust, The Perfect Childhood, and punk Picasso-is not offering a warning or a sermon. Rather, Clark captures his Oklahoma acquaintances in lyrical, deeply private, and often heroic ways. No wonder, as Clark remembers, one more amusing critique of Tulsa at the time came by way of a cartoon that ran in The New Yorker of hell with devils and fire, and on one side a man taking pictures. The message here is clear: Something as terrifying as Tulsa can only be taken by someone on the inside.
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