The provocateur has spent decades disgusting Middle America with his films and photography – he breaks down his no holds barred, no filter vision
To celebrate our anniversary, we’ve created a series of articles around the idea of freedom featuring some of the cultural iconoclasts who have defined the last 25 years of Dazed. Head here to read them all.
Nobody can say they’re as transgressive and uncompromising at 73 like Larry Clark can say it. His French film, The Smell of Us, was within an inch of its life due to what Clark calls “crazy bullshit Hollywood stuff”. His young actors went on strike because they were taking drugs and drinking and refused to show up to set. “These kids’ agent – he was a real asshole,” explains Clark. “He emailed saying, ‘Your film is finished!’ I said, ‘Yeah? Well, watch me go!’” This has always been Larry Clark’s attitude to backbiters. Instead of rolling over and admitting defeat, Clark rewrote the latter half of the film and stuck to his schedule. The Smell of Us, he asserts, will be out soon.
That’s just another notch on his belt of having to deal with the unintelligentsia who didn’t see things his way. The photographer poked the eyes of the art community in 1971 with his book Tulsa, exploring the intensely personal lives of wayward youth. He followed that streak with Kids (1995), one of the most controversial and powerful films ever made about the “secret life of kids that adults are not allowed into.” Its subject made national news and was denounced by a Britsh MP as a “trend almost verging on the paedophilic”. Again and again – with his photography and films like Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002), and Marfa Girl (2012) – Clark has shit all over stereotypes and inhabited a world he’s created all his own, one he now shares with all the outliers who identify with his take no prisoners approach to creating.
He’s not setting out to be controversial, he avows. Clark is just telling stories about people, people that we often don’t have access to. Despite countless haters over four decades of his career trying to curb his disruptive momentum, this man simply cannot – will not – be stopped. He breaks down his don’t give a fuck manifesto.
“My French film The Smell of Us that I shot a couple of years ago in Paris – halfway through the film we had all kinds of problems. Some of the actors went on strike because they were very young and taking drugs, drinking; having to get up in the morning, and they just got so tired and I was like 72 years old, and I’m making it (to set) everyday. So I just rewrote the last half of the film and finished it. The producers were so nervous, they were shaking in their boots. They thought the film was over. So I told producers, ‘Watch me go,’ and so I just re-wrote as I went through the rest of the film. It’s a very good film; a much better film than if I had shot the original script as planned.”
“I am best in the heat of battle, when everything goes wrong and you wouldn’t be in this place where you are, if everything hadn’t gone wrong. I can do anything I want to do, so that’s what I did. You know my philosophy is ‘Keep punching’.”
DON’T CENSOR YOURSELF
“From my first book Tulsa all the way through to my last film, which hasn’t come out yet – Marfa Girl 2 – I’m just trying to be honest and show life how it is. I’ve never censored myself and it’s never occurred to me to do that because I’ve started out as an artist and so there are no rules. There’s never been those rules for me, so I don’t think in those terms at all.”
EMBED YOURSELF IN THE STORY
“When I made Kids I was just trying to make a film that was real and true. I got to know those kids so well. I would hang out with skateboarders for three or four years before I made the film. I even learnt how to skateboard when I was like 47, 48 years old and skated for a number of years, and really hurt myself. I broke my shoulder and I got injured a lot. When you’re 50 years old, it takes a long time to heal.
If I was photographing skaters, you have to skate. You can’t just run and chase them, you have to skate with them to keep up with them; so I hung out with all these kids and took photographs all the time, and slowly got the story for Kids. Adults aren’t allowed in that world and I was privileged to get to know these kids long enough, so they let me into their world and told me exactly what was going on and then I saw exactly what was going on; then made the film.”
DO IT FOR YOURSELF
“I make films and I make photographs basically for myself. It’s not that I have to, it’s not about a job, it’s not about money, it’s not about nothing like that. It’s just I have to and I’m able to do it. I’m aways looking for new things. I get inspired all the time. That’s the whole thing about being an artist, I get inspiration, and if I’m not inspired and if I’m not working then I get very fucking depressed. People that have known me know when I’m down, then when I get an idea and when I’m working, then I’m really happy.”
“I’m just trying to be honest and show life how it is. I’ve never censored myself and it’s never occurred to me to do that” – Larry Clark
“My first book Tulsa, I could have had a book of 200 photographs, because I had 200 really great photographs and I cut it done to 50 to work as a story and it made it very, very powerful by doing that. I had to throw out of the book a few of my very favourite pictures, because they didn’t work so well in the book. To be a good editor you have to be ruthless. Even if you love something, if it doesn’t work, you have to cut it out.”
QUIT LOOKING FOR INSTA FAME
“Kids are growing up now thinking that they have to be famous and thinking that they’ll be millionaires when they’re 19, 21 years old. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Everybody is not going to make it that fast. I think that’s just the way it is today. Everything they see is about rich people, and pretty people and instant fame. When I grew up back in the 50s, no one told you anything. You learnt everything from the streets and from your friends and from experience and now any question anybody has – you can Google immediately and find out. This is the way people are communicating now.”
WELCOME OUTSIDE INFLUENCE
“People are influenced by other people. I’ve been told that I influence other people. For myself? I’ve probably been more influenced by painters, by art, by going to museums. My earliest influences were (people like) Lenny Bruce, who was trying to tell the truth; early Bob Dylan, when he was 60 (saying) you can be anything you wanna be. They tell the truth and they banned him, took away his cabaret card. He couldn’t work and they arrested him just for saying dirty words on stage. Richard Pryor and everybody, Chris Rock, everybody comes from Lenny Bruce.”
TRUST YOUR OWN VISIONS
“There was this theatre showing Bergman’s early films, Godard, Louis Malle and Shadows by John Cassavetes, his first film which at that time – ’61,’62 – no one had ever made a film like that. I was just overwhelmed. I said, ‘This guy sees like I see.’ Just seeing the film and knowing that there was someone else out there that saw things the way I saw really started me off. From that point on I really trusted my own visions and have always been true to myself.”
“To be a good editor you have to be ruthless. Even if you love something, if it doesn’t work, you have to cut it out” – Larry Clark
IF A MOVIE SUCKS, LEAVE
“I used to be the king of walking out of movies! I used to go to the movies all the time and just walk out, it just gets so boring. What movies did I walk out of? Oh God. Hundreds of them! Literally I don’t know you know – many, many, many. Mostly Hollywood films.”
MAKE IT UP AS YOU GO ALONG
“For Marfa Girl I have a notebook of notes (full of) these ideas in marker. I jotted them down and jotted them down. And so I just had a little notebook of ideas and Marfa Girl – I made that film with basically no script. I had to have a short script just so that all the crew would know where we had to be, and what we had to do and stuff. So I took my notebook and made maybe a 20 page script, and then we started shooting and I was waking up at like four o’clock every morning and then writing. We would shoot that, that day. And then in the spur of the moment, I would have three or four characters and I would combine them all into one character because of the time and the money. We wouldn’t have time to shoot four or five people and cover them all, so I would combine them into one character. And so Marfa Girl was made pretty much on the fly. I went back to Marfa and made Marfa Girl 2, which was totally made up. I had no ideas of what I was going to do. I had a great producer on both Marfa Girls, and he just let me do what I wanted to do. So for Marfa Girl 2, which will probably come out early next year, was totally made up day by day, hour by hour, second by second and that was really fun!”
SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO GO TO HELL
“You remember all the writers who had to be drunk to write all these great books, and they thought they had to be drunk to write all these great books? I used to think I had to take drugs and without drugs I wouldn’t have been able to make it work. There’s some truth in that because of the lifestyle I was living – I was living the lifestyle of the people I was photographing so that put me into that place. If I hadn’t been one of those Tulsa kids and not grown up in that world, I could have never (created) that work. An outsider could never have been there. You don’t know what hell is like until you have been to hell. You can’t photograph hell unless you’re inside hell so, there’s something there. But at some point I cleaned up and I quit taking drugs and I quit drinking and quit smoking cigarettes and quit smoking pot and I quit speed and amphetamines, and quit heroin – I quit everything! Saying that you need to take drugs to make work can be an excuse. Maybe there is work that you can do that can put you in that place but if you’re not in that place, you can still make good work. A lot of people, they get clean and then they find out they can make just as good work or maybe even better!”
“I just try to keep busy. Robert Frank made a film once called Keep Busy. That’s a great title and a great thing to do in you life: just keep busy! Try and stay in some kind of shape, that’s what I’m doing – I’m just keeping busy, super busy.”
TAKE AS LONG AS IT TAKES
“How long should a person spend trying to accomplish something? Forever, man! I’m gonna work until I drop dead. Try and make art – I can’t imagine an artist retiring. I mean, what are you gonna do? For me, it just doesn’t seem feasible at all.”
Lead image Eric Edwards, for the full series head here to read the Secret History of Kids.