Review: Bully (dir. Larry Clark, 2002)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2002]

“It’s hard to really absorb anything like you could in the past” – Chloe Sevigny, 1997

In a recent article on psychogeography and skateboarding [UPDATE: from this book], Iain Borden describes how, for skateboarders, the city’s wider flows and spaces – cultural, economic, social – are subordinate to the planes and surfaces on and off which they skate. It is tempting to think that Larry Clark, in his avid and unblinking documenting of youth – NYC skateboarders in Kids, jaded suburban mallrats in Bully (based on real events, and taken largely from the cash-in book of the same name by Jim Schutze) – sees his characters in much the same way. Planes, colours, textures, curves, taut, lean, worked bodies (one brief up-the-skirt crotch shot of Ali in the beauty parlour betrays her bikini line stubble), rather than wider social beings.

In fact, what Clark teases out is how the youth he bares is doing just that itself; living in the present, for the present, lead by feeling, instinct, outside consequence, living in extended social and spatial repetition, where the distances (bridgeable by car) mean that people “don’t need the artificial distance of irony” (as Chris Petit noted in his film on Manny Farber, Negative Space), and consequently, self-awareness, rather than self-absorption. Pleasure, not pressure. At times, Clark reels himself back only just from the brink of parody, the witlessness, self-obsession, denial, guilt and guileless confession of his young mob, reaching its dim peak in the disgusted line “Nature sucks!”

The story of a bully, and a group of friends who decide to murder him to end his grip over them, Bully went through no rehearsals, and features generally excellent and (both emotionally and physically) naked performances from its leads. Brad Renfro is the put-upon Marty, Rachel Milner his Lady Macbeth-like, bruised girlfriend, Bijou Phillips is the “adventurous” Ali, who is raped by Bobby, the bully of the title, played by the slight and sinister Nick Stahl. It was shot in 23 days in the Floridian suburb where the original murder took place in 1993, using many of the same locations. Bully, which has predictably caused a to-do in the US, but received a standing ovation at Venice, ultimately lacks what Herzog (and Korine) might call “poetic truth” – it just doesn’t quite fit – not because it’s genre-defying, not because it is partly a docudrama, but rather because it can feel a little like tainting-by-numbers. The matter-of-factness of Clark’s bathetically apocalyptic vision of strip mall vacuities, and collective will as a sum of individually vacillating and ill-informed wills, belies a quasi-decadent feel: the film seems too neatly dialectical, but seeks simultaneously to undermine that neatness (but does not, unfortunately, succeed).

At the confluence of middle-class suburban morality, (M)TV, Eminem (and the perceived violence and misogyny of gangsta rap), and media-channelled constitutions of growing sexuality (elective affinities with remote control), their expressions of physicality, living through the body (surfing, sex, clothing, drugs, violence), leave Clark’s youths in vast horizontal, indistinguishable, disconnected places, without aim, technically discerning, but only vaguely aware of the difference between warm and cold flesh, action and consequence. Parents seem uncomprehending, powerless and unaware, Clark’s cold light bathing them in non-confrontational by-standing and ignorance. Clark’s own take on childhood is that kids can get their hands on pretty much any information they want now, in contrast with his own childhood, when he wasn’t told anything about anything. The isolation and tedium of suburban life, with sound and image information privately pervasive, imitation rather than discovery (even Ali’s apparently “experimental” sexual behaviour mimics bad, Body of Evidence-style film sex), lead only to a paralysis of choice.

While this is an intriguing and rather beautiful addition to Clark’s body of work, as ever a must-see, it seems nowhere near as committed or filmic as Kids. One hopes that his next film, Ken Park, scripted, like Kids, by Harmony Korine, recaptures the poetic wit and fire with which the earlier film shone.

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