Monday, December 8, 2008

Ken Park (2002)

This movie hasn't been officially screened or released in the US, except for its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. There are a few PAL DVD's floating around out there, but North Americans are pretty much shit out of luck. And we aren't the only ones who have trouble getting a copy of the film, as it's been banned in countries like Australia and Singapore (anything banned in Singapore is almost always worth doing).

Ken Park presents a group of scrappy but mostly likable California skater punks, who, like any good teenagers, find themselves struggling with their abusive/crazy/absent/disconnected parents. Each of the four main characters has his or her own story, and the narrative progresses through a series of parallel episodes as directors/cinematographers Larry Clark and Ed Lachman jump back and forth among the lives of their various protagonists, much as Clark does in his other films like Bully and the seminal Kids.

And just like with Kids, Clark turned to Harmony Korine to pen the script for Ken Park. This is probably the film's greatest strength, as Korine imbues his characters with an instantly palpable sense of sincerity and mundane beauty. These characters feel most authentic in their moments of embarrassing normalcy, like when one boy trims his pregnant mother's toenails, or when a sullen teenager plays jumprope with a group of neighborhood girls. Particularly poignant are the scenes at the beginning of the film in which the teens introduce introduce each other through a series of personal anecdotes and still photographs.

So why exactly did people make such a big fuss about this film? It's chock full of murder, suicide, drug use, and curse words, but there's plenty of that in R-rated movies already, so I'm gonna figure it's the many scenes hot adolescent sex that prevented this film from being released in so many countries (though it couldn't have helped that Clark punched one of his distributors in the face at a party). Of course, there's plenty of lovemaking in other movies, too, but the sex in Ken Park seems to have freaked people out because it 1.) involves characters who are underage (the actors are not), and 2.) is obviously real. That's real, as in real penises going into real vaginas (good heavens!). Of course, this kind of thing immediately prompts cries of pornography, and this reaction alone is a big part of what makes the film's "unsimulated" sex so interesting.

Movie sex scenes have become almost painfully cliché, as filmmakers rely on the same tame and overused shots whenever portraying any kind of erotic content. In order to avoid the kiss of death that is an NC-17 rating (such films cannot show in major theater chains and will not be carried by big box retailers), many otherwise brilliant directors find themselves relying on visual techniques that the MPAA star chamber has traditionally awarded R ratings. While any imaginable form of violence qualifies a film for an R, a single flash of pubic hair is often all it takes to merit a financially disastrous NC-17. Clark and Lachman's sex scenes are therefore extremely powerful not only because they're hot (which they often are), but also because they so boldly and shamelessly dare to buck the societal hysteria over sex, pornography, and the seldom discussed difference between the two.

Despite these forays into the realm of cultural and cinematic taboo, Ken Park nonetheless utilizes a fairly conservative aesthetic. With few exceptions, the narrative remains clean and straightforward, and most of the characters never achieve the depth or nuance hinted at in the film's opening sequences. The adults feel particularly stilted, and few of them come across as more than caricatures of various types of bad parents. The film's narrative likewise fails to live up to its potential, as Ken Park's disparate episodes never come together in any satisfactory manner. Furthermore, the end of the film features perhaps one atrocity too many. I don't consider myself squeamish, but I found the film's authenticity began to wane as it lined up successive scenes of autoerotic asphyxiation, incestuous sexual assault, parricide, and a parent-child wedding ceremony. The earliest of these events pack quite a wallop, but Clark and Lachman allow for such little breathing room in between their sensationalist outbursts that the routine quickly becomes stale. I'm left to wonder if Clark made the right move in rewriting the end of Korine's script.

I would like to be able to further discuss Ken Park's strengths and weaknesses with my friends (and readers), but the film's "pornographic" nature and resultant lack of distribution have made this extremely problematic, if not impossible. Tracking down a copy of the film has actually become more difficult than buying a copy of just about any flesh flick. As it is, I can't even effectively debate Ken Park's merits or its status in relation to "pornography", as the film remains unavailable in most countries, including the one in which it was produced. That's some pretty fucked up shit right there.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Things I Only Now Realize About Television Shows I Enjoyed as a Child

While I was home for Thanksgiving, my father presented me with the amazing discovery he had recently unearthed in our garage: a (mostly) functional Panasonic AG-170 VHS video camera. He had actually been planning on throwing it away, and I'm so happy that he didn't. We unpacked it from its carrying case (a thick plastic valise), plugged it in, and managed to coax it back to life. And it turned out to be pretty damn awesome.

My father pulled out a few old video tapes to see if we could get them to play back, and they ended up being full of footage of me and my brother growing up (which is kind of funny, seeing as I don't remember my parents ever using the video camera). We started going through all of our VHS tapes, and one of the first ones we put in was of me as a newborn with my grandmother shortly before she died. I don't have any memories of her, so it was really a wonderful discovery.

I borrowed my dad's VCR and went through the rest of our unmarked tapes. I found a bunch of these old home movies, and I've been working on digitizing them so I can create DVD's for my parents. I figure they'll make good Christmas gifts.

However, most of the tapes were of TV shows that my brother and I had recorded at some point. It was strange for me to scan through all these old shows and remember a time in my life when I regularly watched television (I haven't had cable since I graduated high school). Scanning through excerpts from these shows, I found myself remembering the reasons why I had found them so enchanting when I was younger, but I also discovered tons of stuff that I never noticed when I was a kid. For example:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
This 1964 TV special is more or less entirely based on the Christmas jingle of the same name. I know, eww, right? It's also a musical. However, coming in on the awesome side is that it's done with stop-motion animation, and it features an waistcoat-wearing snowman storyteller, a murdrous yeti, and a place called The Island of Misfit Toys ruled by a lion king. For some reason, most of my punk rock high school friends had never heard of this show before. Did we grow up in parallel universes? Or was it because they were almost all Jewish?

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently from the 1960's. When I was young I had absolutely no concept of time or way of telling the difference between shows that were brand new and those that were decades old, especially when they were cartoons. This is probably why Looney Tunes and Scooby Doo can play on TV forever and still seem fresh to the latest crop of American children. Nowadays it's just the opposite: I freak out if I watch an old movie and am off by more than one when I guess the year (something my boss teased me about this week when we were going through archival materials for our documentary). This goes to show that advances in special effects mean nothing if the story isn't any good.

Still Enjoyable Today? Mostly. It's cheesy in just the right ways, and even though the song numbers are a little grating, the stop motion animation is totally fucking charming. Plus it's full of unironic sexism (the young bucks all train to fly for Santa while the does watch and daintily flutter their eyelashes) and incidental violence (an elf revenges himself on a yeti by yanking its teeth out) that would never fly on today's children's programming. The Island of Misfit Toys is pretty damn wonderful, too (like, I kinda want to move there).

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Definite no. Maybe I'm just turning into a queer media studies douchebag, but I couldn't help but find gay subtext in most of these shows from my childhood. Seeing as this one is all about outsiders who get rejected from society for being different, but whose differences actually serve to make that society stronger, I'm going to give it a big gay thumbs up. Plus most of the main characters are clear stand-ins for homos: the overly sensitive blond elf and the rugged but friendly mountain man look like regulars from any queer watering hole.

Nick Arcade
Between the ages of 6 and 16, I was more or less completely obsessed with video games. They had a certain pop-culture cachet of cool in the late 80's and early 90's, resulting in TV shows based on Mario, Zelda, and Sonic the Hedgehog, and movies like The Wizard (which I used to watch religiously). Another offshoot was the game show Nick Arcade, which rewarded teenagers for being good at video games and knowing trivia. It also allowed its contestants a chance to go inside a video game (via some surprisingly convincing green screen).

What I Only Now Realize: This show was apparently made by lunatic crack addicts. The host looks like he's anxious to get the hell off the set and can barely read the cue cards. Based on his in-your-face dance moves and barely hidden contempt for the contestants, he really, really wishes he were a VJ instead of some guy who gets paid to watch teenagers lose at video games. The challenges involve backwards-playing videos and acid-trippy "robot vision" puzzles that seem to reinforce the notion that drugs and video games were meant to be consumed together.

Still Enjoyable Today? Not really . Except maybe the parts where the contestants lose at video games (I'm such an asshole).

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Yes. Marriage should only be awarded to homosexuals if they can touch all three power crystals before time runs out (read: never).

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
OK, so this is probably the only uber-fad I ever really got into. I can even remember playing Power Rangers outside of an Oscars (before it was Pat & Oscars) with friends and having to be the pink ranger because all the boy rangers had been taken already (I sign of things to come?). I also remember calling 911 from the pay phone in front of the restaurant for no apparent reason. In conclusion, I did a lot of crazy shit I didn't really understand when I was 8.

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently Japanese. Was this point completely lost on the rest of America? The show had been on in Japan for years, and all the action scenes were taken straight from the Japanese production. The Japanese rangers (who fly away to heaven at the end of the series) were replaced by a multicultural cast of American teenagers, and the whole thing was repackaged for an English-speaking audience. The really weird part is that the American version ended up being more popular in Japan than the Japanese version.

Still Enjoyable Today? Hardly.

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Yes. I only scanned through a few episodes, but sample plot points included how gross and silly it is when a boy accidentally kisses another boy, how the hunky boy wants to go on a date with the cute girl, and how awful it is when a man becomes trapped in a woman's body.

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr
This show was about bounty hunters, time-travel, cowboys, robots, and a magical orb. Basically, it was every 9 year old's dream come true (there were even ninjas in one episode). Plus, it stars Bruce Campbell as the titular badass. However, it only managed to last for one season before mysteriously disappearing.

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently much less enjoyable for me as an adult than it was for me as a boy (sad!!!). The jokes feel cornier, the twists much more predictable, and the action more hackneyed. All in all, the whole series comes across as a great idea that had been watered down to make it more family friendly. Ugh, do I officially not have a soul anymore?

Still Enjoyable Today? Sometimes. Despite the flaws listed above, it still has some nice moments, especially between Brisco and his con-artist pseudo-girlfriend, Dixie Cousins. There are some nice instances of future technology combined with wild west cowboy action, and the shows strongest thematic moments come in its extremely self-conscious reflections on what it means to live in an era of dynamic change.

How would it have voted on Prop 8? No. This show was way too forward thinking and ahead of its time to settle for the shitty status quo.

I regularly sat through several hours of Saturday morning cartoons that I actually kind of hated just because X-Men was part of the lineup. Words can't describe how badly I wanted to be an X-Man growing up. Probably because I got him in in my first pack of X-Men trading cards, my favorite was Cyclops. It was fitting, though, because he was such a straight arrow boy blue prepster type. It's who I wanted to be when I was a kid, but since then I think I've become more of a Gambit type.

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently actually a soap opera disguised as a superhero cartoon. So much of the action revolves around love triangles, hidden agendas, and complex webs of secrets and lies. Yeah there are super powers too, but those end up serving mostly as filler in between the diabolical plot twists.

Still Enjoyable Today? The soap opera parts definitely. The action not so much.

How would it have voted on Prop 8? A resounding no. As Bryan Singer showed so well in X2, the mutant struggle bears striking similarities to the LGBT rights movements: mutants, like gays, are special members of the population whose true nature manifests itself during adolescence and who are persecuted by civic and religious figures because of their innate identities. The core theme of the show- outsiders finding power in their special status- speaks to a much broader human experience, which is probably one of the reason why the X-Men have remained so popular over the past 40 years.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (& also Xena, duh)
This is one of the only TV shows I ever used to watch regularly with my dad. Like most of the other genre-busting shows I enjoyed, it managed to feature all kinds of crazy shit like vampires, deities, and wizards all packaged into one delectable program. I seem to remember that the Xena spinoff was actually better than Hercules, especially during Herc's later years, though I might have been swayed because Lucy Lawless was such a badass.

What I Only Now Realize: These shows were apparently made by porn stars. The women are all ridiculously hot, and Xena spends most of her time in a bondage outfit. Looking back, I can remember feeling extremely uncomfortable when my middle school gym teacher would tell us that he wanted us to keep doing situps until we looked as good as she did.

Still Enjoyable Today? Surprisingly, yes. I guess gods and monsters and warlords and moral dilemmas still manage to hold my attention (I'm kind of a sucker for mythology). The special effects are totally ridiculous and shitty looking, but both shows have a really nice, clean 35mm look and a spot-on blend of action, romance, comedy, and pulpy goodness. (Tesla, if you're reading this, I think we should invest in some VHS copies of these series if I ever move up to San Francisco.)

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Most likely yes. This is supposed to be ancient Greece- where are all the homos hiding? And Xena and Gabrielle remain trapped in the closet for six fucking seasons?? Still, the show wins points for having gay subtext long before it was in vogue to have a token transgender character on your weekly drama.