The Kids Are Alright

Andrew Hultkrans on Ed Lachman at BAM

New York

Left: Still from Ken Park, 2003, directed by Larry Clark and Ed Lachman. From left: Peaches's father (Julio Oscar Mechosa) and Peaches (Tiffany Limos). Right: Still from Ken Park. Peaches (Tiffany Limos).

It seemed a tad contradictory to walk through Brooklyn in a howling nor’easter to see a movie about nihilistic Southern California skate kids, but so it goes. I was at BAM Rose Cinemas last Friday night to catch Ken Park (2002), the as-yet-undistributed-in-the-US feature by chameleonlike cinematographer Ed Lachman, and to hear Lachman and codirector Larry Clark talk about the film. Kicking off a festival of Lachman’s lenswork, which includes I’m Not There (2007), Far From Heaven (2002), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Less than Zero (1987), True Stories (1986), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and many other award-winning films, Ken Park turned out to be very much a Clark project—Kids II, say, even though, as the audience learned, it was supposed to be Kids I.

I found a seat in the packed theater as Lachman was introduced, and we were informed that Clark would be late. Lachman, a slim, compact man with a black fedora and wooden cane, said he was pleased to be back in Brooklyn, as one of his earliest features was The Lords of Flatbush (1974), and that he’d let Ken Park speak for itself. With that, the lights went down. The Kids parallels were immediately signaled in the credits, which noted that in addition to being codirected by Clark, the screenplay was written by Harmony Korine (who cowrote Kids). The boy-on-skateboard-with-punk-rock-sound-track intro sealed the connection—even if this was sunny, suburban Visalia, not the gray, gritty environs of New York City. Watching as the freckly, redheaded skater arrives at a crowded skate park, sits on one of its plateaus, removes a digital video camera and pistol from his backpack, and unceremoniously blows his brains out, I braced myself for the partly empathetic, partly exploitative vérité treatment of teenage wasteland that is Clark’s stock-in-trade. Indeed, Korine wrote the screenplay from real-life stories Clark had collected from young people he had known, met, or heard about.

Our suicidal lad is the titular Ken Park, or “Crap Neck” as his friends called him in a literal reversal of his name. The ensemble narrative unfolds as we meet several of Park’s teen friends, neighbors, and their families, whose bleak-to-bittersweet lives are introduced in segments focusing on each. There is an unassuming kid enjoying a Graduate set-up, having sex with a daughter and her mother in parallel. Another sensitive skater is verbally and physically abused—and then drunkenly molested—by his macho butthead father. A beautiful young Filipina with a devout Catholic father successfully plays the dutiful virgin when Dad is around—until he catches her in flagrante delicto with her Bible-study boyfriend. A tightly wound kid who lives with his treacly, solicitous grandparents ends up stabbing them to death in their bed, though not before indulging in autoerotic asphyxiation while watching a women’s tennis star on TV.

Ed Lachman. (Photo: Jonathan Barth)

As with Kids, it’s hard to know what to make of this stuff. The characters and situations are compelling, and Lachman’s cinematography is masterful throughout, with sickly green lighting for interiors and crisp, bright sunny exteriors heightening the contrast with the teens’ dark lives. He uses long shots when one would expect close-ups and lingers on unexpected visual details. Occasionally, he lingers too long—as on the tennis masturbator’s rope of sperm (quite authentic) and the bullying father’s penis as he urinates and chugs a beer simultaneously. But as tender as some scenes can be, a whiff of voyeuristic exploitation hangs over the film, which, given Clark's prior work, can probably be safely attributed to him. Ken Park culminates in a protracted, authentic threesome between the barely legal teens, and without my being moralistic, it’s hard not to imagine the filmmaker getting off on the proceedings.

Afterward, Clark and Lachman took the stage and fielded questions. According to Clark, the film was shunned by US distributors not, as one might assume, for the very long, very real sex scenes, but because one of its producers didn’t pay to clear the music rights. This seemed implausible, but the questioner didn’t press further. Asked about a falling-out with Korine over the project, Clark feinted, saying that yes, they did have a falling-out, but not over Ken Park. He didn’t elaborate. Responding to a question about multiple takes, Clark revealed that the autoerotic asphyxiation scene was (thankfully) only done once and that the young actor was devastated afterward.

For his part, Lachman said he was inspired by Eastern European films for this project, hence the many long shots and close-ups from low angles. He recounted how he and Clark met at an art fair in Austria some years ago, noting that it was Clark’s photography, along with Robert Frank’s, that made him want to become a cinematographer in the first place. When they met, Lachman asked Clark whether he’d ever wanted to make a film. The answer was yes, and Ken Park was supposed to be Clark’s directorial debut. The distribution problems led Clark to make Kids in the meantime. Clark said that, coming from the art world, he was unprepared for the censorship involved in making feature films.

Lachman mentioned that he thought of Clark’s photo books as diaries, and it was this concept, along with Stephen Frears’s film Bloody Kids (1979), that informed Ken Park. He also noted that kids like the ones portrayed are only able to survive by creating their own “families” among themselves. Clark said that the threesome scene “is like salvation” and called it “the cleanest scene in the film,” compared with the various horrors inflicted by the parent characters on their children. Clark concluded by admitting that Korine came up with the Ken Park/Crap Neck name and was very attached to it, forcing the filmmakers to seek approval from the real-life skateboarding star Ken Park, who apparently consented.

Lachman is a champion cinematographer of protean range and skill, but Clark’s singular vision can leave viewers feeling unclean, and I am no exception. Leaving the theater and facing the rain, I felt like I needed a shower.

“The Cinematography of Ed Lachman” runs through May 20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.