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.

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