Ken Park Review
Ken Park, unsurprisingly for a Larry Clark subject, is a teenage skater with some serious problems. The film follows the lives of a group of his friends on the day Ken decides he’s going to kill himself, and oddly his day might not turn out to be the most eventful of the group.
Peaches (Tiffany Limos) has been brought up in a puritanical household by her unhinged father, made so by the death of her mother, but the strict religious routines haven’t stopped her from becoming remarkably promiscuous, they’ve just forced her to hide her boyfriends much better. Tate (Mike Apaletegui) has been raised by his grandparents, and despite their constant doting he despises them, swearing at them, throwing things, even making overtures for extreme physical violence - Tate is not a well balanced teenager. Claude’s (Stephen Jasso) alcoholic father is making his life a misery, even though he has a great relationship with his currently pregnant mother, his father feels the need to attack everything Claude enjoys and seems like he’ll won’t be satisfied until he’s rid of Claude for good. Shawn (James Bullard) has the most intimate relationship of any of the kids with an adult, because he’s having an affair with his girlfriend’s married mother. He’s a willing sex slave, taking the opportunity to use experience he’s gaining with the mother to satisfy his girlfriend, he loves to compare the two, and dreams of getting them both into the same bed.
Larry Clark’s latest film has managed the incredibly feat of courting more controversy than the rest of his career combined, he’s never been a director that shied away from depicting the most extreme of taboos and whilst Ken Park tackles many of the same subjects as his previous work its depiction of events is far more explicit. Whilst all the film’s stars were over 18 when the film was shot all their characters are certainly younger, and the displays of un-simulated sex they perform have raised more than a few eyebrows, with the Australian government going as far as to ban the film’s exhibition in any form. It’s certainly true that the images are extreme, with an unflinching scene of masturbation aided by auto-erotic asphyxiation, oral sex performed by a teenager on his girlfriend’s mother along with a three way sex scene of underage characters, this is well beyond what we’re used to seeing within the realms of conventional cinema.
Many will question the need for the film to show actual sex acts, it is a work of fiction after all, why can’t Clark simply simulate the acts? Films regularly show other extreme images, such as beatings, rapes and murders without ever feeling the need to resort to actually carrying them out for the sake of realism, why the need here? It’s a difficult question to answer, and maybe Clark himself is the only person that can ever really justify it, but just from watching the film you get the feeling that Clark does not consider these acts dirty or obscene, rather that they are everyday acts, as natural as eating or going to the toilet, so the question isn’t why show these things, but why not? The only argument that can be levied against that question is one of good taste, but good taste itself is a concept that is constantly changing. Doubtless 50 years ago the exhibition of this film would have been unthinkable, not only for its sex but also its language and violence. Times change, along with tastes and tolerances, and while Ken Park may be a frontrunner in bringing un-simulated sex to the screen, it will surely not be the last film to do so. Let’s not forget Clark is not the first filmmaker to show un-simulated sex outside the realms of pornographic cinema, recent films such as Intimacy and Baise Moi, although equally controversial, have shown such graphic images, but once the controversy died down they were quickly forgotten. The real new ground Clark is breaking with this film is including those images in a film of quality, that will likely be remembered long after the controversy has died down and even if such depictions become commonplace. With or without them Ken Park is a powerful film, the acting is excellent across the board, with many of the cast putting in brave performances – in and out of the bedroom – with displays of raw emotion that will put any Ocsar winner to shame.
Whether or not you find the content of these scenes shocking the argument for their inclusion should not centre on their content, but their relevance – as with any scene, controversial or not. Clark has had a lot of mud slung his way, with harsher critics dismissing him as little more than a dirty old man, but I see no reason why Clark shouldn’t challenge boundaries of cinema within the correct context. Unfortunately for Clark – at least as far as easily defending his film goes – the structure of Ken Park makes that difficult. As with Kids, Ken Park has a very loose narrative structure, being more of a series of intertwining vignettes than a conventionally plotted production, with an easily defined three act structure. What we see is the events of the day leading up to a crucial moment in each of these teenagers lives, much of it may seem irrelevant, to not be pushing the story forward, but the simple everyday nature of much of these acts is very much the point of the film. These are normal kids, and these are their lives. Anybody who has seen Kids won’t need this structure explained to them, but the point is to get to know them, to understand that they are normal, and to come to care about them, or their ‘final acts’ would be meaningless. As such scenes like Tate’s afternoon delight become relevant, even though it seems not to relate to the rest of his storyline, he’s an isolated teenager, and that’s what teenagers do, isolated or not. It’s a part of life, therefore it is a part of the film.
What I find more worrying is the lack of attention the violence of the film has garnered, as it contains three bloody killings and a shockingly savage beating. While these acts are as much a part of these kid’s days as the sex they are infinitely more troubling, it says more about the film's outspoken opponents than Clark himself when such horrors are ignored in the rush to condemn everyday sexual activities. While Clark’s attempts to break down the taboos that constrain artistic expression should be applauded, his methods mean he is sometimes his own worst enemy. Had he chosen older protagonists for his story it would doubtlessly been less harshly received, that doesn’t mean he should have, although it would have been simple to make the main characters a few years older and keep them within the same world – whilst keeping the same cast - you still get the feeling Clark wants the attention gained from dealing with the kids, it is, after all, what made his name in cinema in the first place.
Ken Park is a brave film, and for that alone it should be lavished with accolades, but it also manages to be a great film. I’m sure in years to come this film will be regarded as rather less than shocking, and will be remembered as one that paved the way, but it is certain to become a cult classic, just as Kids has. Hopefully it will soon receive a full release in both the US and UK and can start to gain a reputation on its merits rather than gossip surrounding its content.
As with all of Clark’s films Ken Park has an overall grainy feel to it, this is a product of the cinematography rather than the transfer so it can’t be faulted on that front, and taking that into account this in an excellent transfer. There is a small amount of occasional print damage or dirt but that is to be expected from a film that had so few prints made, and to be honest I was expecting far worse considering the treatment many of Clark’s films have received on DVD.
Although presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 the soundtrack isn’t that involving, the rear channels are almost exclusively used for music, and the film isn’t exactly action packed but the dialogue is always clear so the track does a fine job of presenting basic material. Being a Russian disc there is also a Dolby Digital 5.1 track available in Russian, oddly rather than a regular dubbed version the Russian dialogue is spoken over the slightly muted English track, much like watching a feature commentary. I can only assume this is a regular practice in Russia, which must make everyday movie watching somewhat irritating.
Far from a special edition, for non Russian speakers this is in effect a bare bones release, though there are extensive listings for other releases by the same company, with all the titles in Russian, filmographies - again in Russian - and a handful of obscure trailers.
As Ken Park is still awaiting even a theatrical release in either the US or UK obtaining a copy of the film is no easy task. There is a Chinese release, which is both more widely available and cheaper, but sadly has had some of the more explicit shots jarringly digitally obscured which will rule out a purchase for many consumers. European release dates are starting to surface, and many of them will surely be easier to obtain for English speakers, though whether or not they will arrive uncut remains to be seen, As it stands there is no reason not to choose this version of the film, it is totally uncut, anamorphic and contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in the original language. Though it is extras-free this trend is rarely bucked with Larry Clark’s films so I see little point holding out for a Special Edition release when it finally (if ever) is released in a major territory, so I recommend picking up this startling film as soon as possible.
You can read Matt Day's exclusive interview with director Larry Clark here