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A new film called Wassup Rockers takes its title from taunts that black kids throw at Latino skateboarders in south central Los Angeles. It's the latest from photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark, who shocked audiences with his sexually explicit 1995 feature film debut, Kids. Clark maintains that he is only showing what teen life is really like, at least for some young people. Wassup Rockers mixes an almost documentary approach with fantasy, still a story of inner city youth.
Andrea Shea reports.
ANDREA SHEA reporting:
The kids in Wassup Rockers sometimes take two buses and two trains to spend a few hours skating at parks around L.A. Today they'll get a ride back to south central in Larry Clark's beat up Toyota. Sixteen year old Francisco Pedrasa, or Kiko, says skating is what he does. It's his life and that's what you see on screen.
Mr. FRANCISCO PEDRASA (Skateboarder): You don't really see these kinda movies about Latino-American. Always see about other stuff, like love, horror, action. You don't really see these Latino movies about just real life.
SHEA: Kiko and his friend Porky first met Larry Clark at another skate park when Clark was prepping for a photo shoot to promote his last film. The way the boys looked immediately caught the photographer's eye.
Mr. LARRY CLARK (Filmmaker): The ghetto style, the baggy clothes and listening to hip-hop and being all gangster and smoking dope and all that stuff. These kids were different. They had long hair and they wore their clothes tight and they listened to punk rock and they had a little punk rock band. They skateboarded and they didn't smoke pot. They just had fun. I'd never seen this kind of exuberance for life.
SHEA: Clark became friends with the teenagers and took them wherever they wanted to skate.
Mr. CLARK: And then I would feed them and bring them home and it was like our day. So this went on for over a year and I got a lot of ideas for the film and I was writing the film and they got to know me and I got to know them. They trusted me and I trusted them and we became tight.
SHEA: Whassup Rockers opens with video footage Clark shot as he was getting to know the young men. Kiko's best friend, Jonathan Velasquez, sits on his bed, lanky and shirtless, talking to Clark.
(Soundbite of Wassup Rockers)
Mr. JONATHAN VELASQUEZ (Skateboarder): And then Robert's brother is Porky. He's 16 too. He's like a porn addict. And supposedly Porky liked a girl, but she liked some other guy, Porky got mad. And then he was trying to commit suicide by drowning himself in the sink.
SHEA: Clark took Jonathan's stories and dramatized them in a script that the teens acted themselves. They skate, go to school, rehearse their punk band.
(Soundbite of music)
SHEA: Just before Wassup Rockers began filming, a young man in the neighborhood was killed in a drive by shooting. That's dramatized in the film too. But about halfway through, the verite style takes a wild turn. As in real life, Kiko and his friends take two buses to skate a famous set of stairs at Beverly Hills High and find themselves stranded.
Mr. CLARK: I just wanted to say something about these kids being isolated in south central and when they come into the rest of town and when they get to where all these white people, you know what can happen. You know, the culture clash and all of that.
SHEA: It's not all sociological treatise. The skateboarders tease a racist cop and a washed up actress and flirt with rich, white girls.
(Soundbite of Wassup Rockers)
Unidentified Female: You're a good skater.
Unidentified Male: I had a bad day.
Unidentified Female: I live in Beverly Hills. My house is right up there. You're welcome anytime.
Mr. ANTHONY KAUFFMAN (Writer, Variety and Indywire.com): The whole last half of the film is an adolescent fantasy.
SHEA: Anthony Kauffman writes for Variety and Indywire.com.
Mr. KAUFFMAN: It really feels like he's channeled these kids' dreams and made a film faithful to, you know, a 13 year old, 14 year old, 15 year old experience of what they would like to do in an afternoon in L.A.
SHEA: And this presents a problem for some because Clark isn't 15 years old. He's sixty-three. So while Kauffman sees something pure in Clark's attempts to present the world through the eyes of youth, others find the director's lens voyeuristic.
Clark used older actors in his notorious feature film Kids but the language, sex and partying were so realistic, some people thought it was a documentary. 2002's Bully was based on a true story about suburban Florida kids who murdered the title character brutally and casually. Clark's last film, Can Park, has not been released in the U.S. but reviewers abroad have commented on its graphic sex scenes.
David Ettlestein reviews film for New York magazine and WHYY's Fresh Air and he says Clark's focus on the sordid side of American youth is relentless.
Mr. DAVID ETTLESTEIN (New York Magazine): He doesn't just show it. He zooms in for the kill and his camera is like a dirty old man's, leering at the white flesh of these kids. I think it de-humanizes them. I mean, in the end I just don't buy his vision of kids any more than I buy Leave It To Beaver's.
SHEA: Ettlestein hasn't seen Wassup Rockers, but says he will. For his part, Clark calls himself a moralist.
Mr. CLARK: I say that in front of my friends, they all fall down laughing, you know, but there is a moral center to all the work and it's very true. I mean Tulsa is about drugs and that lifestyle and (unintelligible). You know people die. My friends die through the book, a dead baby. The moral center is whatever we do we, pay for it.
SHEA: Clark paid for his own bad behavior but also captured it in the book of photographers entitled Tulsa. It made Clark's name in the art world when it came out in 1971 and helped get his work shown in major museums across the country. He shot the black and white images of himself and his friends years earlier as a teenager in Oklahoma.
Mr. CLARK: I was in a situation where I was taking drugs in the 50's at a very early age. Taking amphetamines. And so when I started making work it was kind of to show things that couldn't be seen. It's kind of been a motivation for me making work through out all these years.
SHEA: Clark continued to chart lost innocence in the photography books Teenage Lust and The Perfect Childhood before turning to film. Critics charge Clark with arrested development. Clark says he takes responsibility for his actions and he literally took responsibility for the subjects of Wassup Rockers when the financing fell through at the last minute.
Mr. CLARK: Two days before we started shooting, the money left. And I'd been telling these kids we're going to make this movie and everybody is ready to go and then there is no money. And I just said, you know, I'm not going to disappoint these kids. I'm not going to be this old white guy who comes out there and says I'm going to do something and gets them ready for a year and then it doesn't happen. So I told my agent and my manager, I'm not going to do anything else ever until I make this movie.
SHEA: A single backer financed the entire film with a few conditions. Because the stars were so young, there would be no explicit sex and no nudity. And the film had to earn an R rating. Suggesting teen sex without showing it was a challenge, according to Clark. One the artist says he enjoyed.
For NPR News I'm Andrea Shea.