Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.
“Being an artist, censoring myself never came up, because it wasn’t something I thought about doing. And if anyone else wanted to censor me, I said no.” – Larry Clark
With all of the hype around Euphoria lately, several pop culture writers have pointed out that Larry Clark did it first and better with his 1995 breakthrough directorial debut, Kids. What Clark did, exactly, was present a raw, unflinching look at teens experimenting with drugs, sex, and other illicit activities. Set over a roughly 24-hour period in New York City, Kids unfolds in ways that resemble in-depth reportage, as opposed to plot-driven entertainment.
Kids still holds up a master class in neorealism and social realism. It’s shot almost like a Frederick Wiseman film at times, with long handheld takes that wind through clusters of teens, recording fascinating details and scraps of dialogue. Yet, every scene was scripted (Clark pegged aspiring teenage writer, Harmony Korine for the gig) and carefully rehearsed. Over a quarter-century later, it still retains its power to shock, in large part because it rings so uncannily true-to-life. It also retains a strong social conscience.
In 2002, Korine and Clark reteamed for Ken Park, a movie so controversial it never managed to find a distributor. That film and others that Clark made around the same time constitute what loftier critics than I have referred to as “cinematic provocations.” These later works also contain social commentary, but they too often cross the line into exploitation. There’s not enough heart to balance out the shocking and graphic moments onscreen.
I would argue that Clark’s true maturation as a filmmaker occurs in his criminally underseen second feature. Clark’s follow-up to Kids, the nifty, gritty crime drama Another Day In Paradise, may be more conventional and even restrained at times, but it’s also very well made and a lot of fun to watch. Based on a semiautobiographical novel by Eddie Little, but also rooted in Clark’s own experiences with drugs and crime, it portrays the highs and lows of life on the margins of society from an insider’s perspective.
When the film opens, underage speed freak Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser, a few years before getting cast as Pete Campbell on Mad Men) and his slightly older girlfriend Rosie (Natasha Gregson-Wagner) are lying in bed together. Bobbie smokes a cigarette, get dressed, and then heads out to loot vending machines at a community college. His clumsy smash-and-grab attempt draws the attention of a security guard. In the ensuing altercation, Bobbie brutally stabs the guard with a long screwdriver and winds up badly wounded himself. A trip to the emergency room is out of the question, so they get in contact with “Uncle Mel” (James Woods). A former army medic, he helps treat Bobbie’s wounds—and administers heroin as a painkiller.
Mel and his girlfriend Sid (Melanie Griffith, in a subtly heartbreaking performance) take the young couple under their wing. Mel and Sid are, by their own admittance, small-time junkies and criminals only slightly higher up the socioeconomic ladder than Bobbie and Rosie. But they have the experience and competence the younger couple lacks. Moreover, they harbor no illusions about the life they’ve chosen.
Soon, the foursome are working on a potentially large score, ripping off a local pharmacy’s adderall supply and selling the goods. Yet it’s the in-between moments that stand out: an overly indulgent shopping spree, a first taste of champagne at a nightclub. Mel and Sid transition from strangers to mentors to surrogate parents in a relatively short timespan, thanks to the compressed storytelling of cinema, and we see the familial bonds grow stronger.
Clark portrays the hazy glamour of this lifestyle as well as its self-destructive nature. Like a vintage coat from Goodwill, there’s a well-worn coziness to it, and it’s a little rough around the edges in ways that only makes it seem that much more cool, fashionable and desirable. Nevertheless, practically every instance of substance abuse has repercussions—especially alcohol. The more Mel drinks, the more he becomes erratic and mercurial, and his pragmatic self-interest shifts to open cruelty.
Mel is the kind of character that Woods was born to play, a fast-talking grifter who can be charming one moment and threatening the next. Woods owns this role to the point where it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing it.
By the same token, many of the minor characters make indelible impressions as well. Most notably, a self-appointed reverend (James Otis) who delivers sermons to his customers after selling them guns. Later, when an unnerved Bobbie asks Mel what the reverend’s deal is, Mel tersely describes the reverend as “somebody you never want to mess with” and leaves it at that.
Towards the end, Paradise backslides into something more conventional and predictable. (Anytime someone in a movie asks, “have I ever led you wrong before?” you know they’re about to do just that.) But the film hits its stride when it simply allows the viewer to get to know these fascinating and ultimately endearing schemers.
At its best, Paradise is a slice-of-life hangout movie about junkies, thieves, and drug dealers. The most obvious cinematic comparison would be Drugstore Cowboy. Gus Van Sant, an executive producer on Kids, is an avowed Larry Clark fan and looked at Clark’s classic photobook Tulsa to gain inspiration for some of the shots and scenes in his film. The influence is clearly mutual. There are also strong parallels to Arthur Penn’s 1967 road picture Bonnie and Clyde, which is referenced ironically by Sid at one point.
The action takes place in 1971, just a few years after Penn’s New Hollywood classic was released, but aside from some exceptionally well-curated music cues (including a standout Clarence Carter performance), there are very few cultural markers to anchor it in that era. One gets the sense that this world has largely operated unchanged and independent of the larger culture for quite some time. It’s its own microcosm.
The film’s visual style is as photographic as it is cinematographic—not surprising, since it was made by a photographer. (Although Clark briefly studied photography, he is a completely self-taught filmmaker.) Clark knows how to let a scene or even a passing moment drive the visual aesthetic, and the result is as effective as it is unconventional. Whenever possible, Clark avoids relying on the cinematographer’s grab-bag assortment of static, rote shots. Instead, kinetic handheld camerawork bolsters and underscores the characters’ drug-fueled states while showcasing the spontaneity of the actors’ performances. Whatever critiques one has about Larry Clark (and let’s face it, if he ever somehow broke into the mainstream, he’d likely be instantly cancelled), he has a great eye and a powerful vision.
Ultimately, what differentiates Another Day in Paradise from Kids as well as Clark’s later films is the way that it allows the viewer to ride shotgun alongside the main characters. Kids, for instance, adopts a more sociological perspective, whereas Paradise is a genuinely warm and humane portrayal of people who sometimes act inhumanely. It’s a story that only someone who truly lived the life could tell.