Wassup Rockers

"I wanted to have fun and fuck with the white people in Beverly Hills." — Larry Clark
Wassup Rockers, Larry Clark's new film, breaks from his obsessive chronicling of desperate and sexually unhinged teenage lives just when the issue was growing stale, and delivers attractive and socially redeeming fare about race, class and being a Latino immigrant in the U.S.

The Rockers in question are El Salvadorian and Guatemalan skate punks in South Central, 13- to 16-year-olds who wear their hair long and their pants tight, and whose daily lives are a struggle to be themselves without getting beat up in their hip hop neighborhood. Perhaps Clark understands that poor immigrants tend to be linguistically and culturally isolated from the mainstream and that they are seen by a certain part of the American mainstream as lettuce pickers, landscapers, job-stealers, the 20 men living in a four bedroom house, and, sometimes, the corpses found huddled in puddles of shade in the desert near the border.

Wassup Rockers de-alienates these kids in a two-pronged attack. The first half is a documentary of uniquely adolescent and recognizably American stories about fighting, playing in a punk band and awkward sexual experiences, told while the camera lingers over their shirtless bodies and full lips (hey, it's still Larry Clark).

The film is also a stereotype-challenging exploration of identity politics, as the kids' hair and clothes make them outsiders even within South Central, an area Clark claims to understand. "There is a big section of LA that is isolated. You ask white people about South Central and they say 'you'll get killed don't go there.' You wouldn't know about the racial politics of the ghetto unless you were out there," Clark tells me during an interview in New York City.

Then Clark decided to get them to Beverly Hills to have fun and "fuck with the white people" in a variety of stock settings -- Beverly Hills High girls' bedrooms, a trendsetter party, a tragic turn in the backyard of an armed Dirty Harry / Charlton Heston doppelganger, and the bathtub of a supermodel. The film is a glimpse of the class war and race war as they tease out in daily real life. The boys leave their ghetto for a neighborhood where brown people are unwelcome except as servants, are fetishized in the white girls' mansion, kicked out by the girls' boyfriends, and hassled, baited and arrested by a white cop while skating.

Clark found Kiko, 15, and Porky, 18, two of the Rockers, while on a photo shoot on Venice Beach for the French release of his previous skate film, the more disturbing and narratively obtuse Ken Park, which is still unreleased in the states, allegedly due to clearance issues.

"Kiko and Porky looked totally different, with their long hair and tight pants and shoes falling apart and taped up and painted. They just had this style. They said they were from the ghetto, from South Central." Clark photographed them for four days and met the rest of their friends, including his star, the photogenic Jonathan, 15, who is portrayed in the film as the requisite boy who gets tons of play. "I took them a copy of the magazine with the photo spread when it came out, and they called me the next Saturday morning, saying 'come get us, it's time to go skating!' Every Saturday for the next year we'd go skating together. It became our day. I always showed up, I was reliable, and they got to know me and I got to know them. I got all the stories of their lives in South Central. Then, as the idea for the film came together, I assured them the film would happen."

The kids are not actors -- they've never even worked -- so Clark relies on his undisputed skill as a photographer and relentless visual seduction until we acquiesce to their giggling and looking off camera through the whole film. And the skating isn't shot with a typical skate video fisheye lens that exaggerates distance and danger. The immediacy and intimacy of the footage of them attempting the nine steps, doing choreographed skates through their neighborhood, horsing around in a playground, most of it shot in golden late afternoon light, is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Clark bristles when asked how an old gringo who doesn't speak Spanish gets so much access to teenagers' daily lives and embarrassing (i.e., hilarious) memories about first sexual experiences and nuanced racial tension. "I'm a good guy, that's why! I'm interested in their lives and I got to know them well. We trust each other and that's why the film works. It's the only way this film could have been made." And, he claims, they had all seen Kids (or knew of its notoriety).

Getting the kids comfortable, coaxing them into digging up all the details, and getting it on film was the trick. "I'm always trying to get real moments, where it's really happening in front of you." The shoot was like herding cats, Clark said. "These are real kids, they are not actors, and their process was to be themselves all the time. And I understand process. You can't walk seven adolescent boys in off the street, tell them to sit down and shut up, and then tell them to be themselves when the director is ready." They were wild, playing pranks on everyone and nicknaming everybody. "I almost lost my crew. It was a crazy, crazy difficult shoot" Clark says, then adds almost in awe "but when the kids were ready, it was magic … they produced wonderful moments."

The kids do manage to paint some fine strokes of the racial tension and chronic disappointments in their lives -- getting jumped for the way they look, friends shot and killed for no apparent reason -- without veering into a sticky after-school-special land. I ask Clark if the on screen romances were real or acted. "There might have been some romance behind the scenes, it's possible there was, but they are kids, you know?"

There is no explicit sex in the Rockers, which wasn't a deliberate choice of Clark's, he says. "It just turned out that way. Plus, I didn't need to remake Kids or Ken Park." And he's not mining for nostalgic repeats of his own rocky and sordid youth, as documented in remarkably intimate and beautiful pictures of his methamphetamine-shooting coterie in his landmark photography book, Tulsa [1971]. "Most of [the Tulsa era friends] are dead. I still talk to the living ones -- they are old, doing different things, lucky to be alive. I'm always talking with friends from that time, but I'm trying to live in the present. Move forward, that's my motto."

I met the Wassup Rockers kids at a press screening in Santa Monica. They were delivered via an SUV car service that also collects them from their high school for film-related events. All standing under five feet tall, feline, mumbling short answers in accented English to the crowds around them, but hyperactive around each other, the teens don't appear to care about fame.

Yet they all keep a cagey eye on the hive of publicists, B to D list celebrities and industry people surrounding them. And they eschew the free booze at the open bar and have a great time hooting and hollering with their friends in back of the theater at choice on -- screen moments. Their conduct in real life is like that around the freaky socialites, crazy models and designers who feed on them at the trendsetter's party in the movie: hungry yet watchful and cautious, and maybe a little embarrassed for their hosts and the conceits of their industries. Passively and quietly, they seem in control to the best of their ability.

Clark seems protective of his stars, whose real lives don't differ much from the South Central portion of the movie. Their lives have been full of poverty and disappointment, and they aren't setting themselves up for more. "The film shows what it's like to live in South Central in the ghetto," Clark says. "It's pretty dangerous and it doesn't change. It doesn't stop. The ghetto is the ghetto and that's the reality."

Reflecting on how far he's come with them, he says, "I had problems getting some of the kids to be in the film because they felt so worthless. So it's wonderful to see them open up and blossom and have a sense of self worth, a chance to fulfill their potential. Rosario Dawson [Kids] was a 14-year-old girl sitting on a fire escape on 13th St, living in a squat with her parents when I met her. It's great to see what's happened with her. We'll see what happens from now on."

The kids get zero justice at the end of the movie but real life will be different. They are being paid for the film and they are now skating on a team. Plus, one had the moment every boy lives for: being bathed by a voracious Janice Dickinson in a skimpy gown. Small steps thus far, but they are being taken care of. Watching Kiko, the shortest and most assertive one, strut and make demands for more press from the publicists at the screening, I have doubts they'll remain happy with their lives in South Central and get nothing from this but to say "I made a movie once."

Rockers, if it does well, should slough off some of our mainstream misconceptions about Latinos, and it's right on time. Clark's work tends to come out well ahead of the media curve, in spite of bogging in desperately boring verite vs. exploitation debates. Kids came out in 1995, when ketamine, ecstasy, acid, nitrous, raves, having sex and getting alcohol poisoning were all the rage among teens at my artsy magnet high school, and kids at the poorer urban high schools were shooting each other on campus and off. However it took wealthy suburbanites shooting each other at Columbine in 1999 to launch the debate on kids, guns and drugs, and sex into the national conscience.

Now established in a career of covering deviant behavior, Clark says he "just seems to be able" to evoke realism from his subjects. "I do everything on instinct. I know how to poke and prod, and I get to know my actors and subjects and I recognize when it's real. I knew the Kids actors well and I definitely know the Wassup Rockers kids well."

Because he shoots from the inside of his own world, Clark deftly address challenging issues with candor and timeliness, something few other mainstream artists pull off without bungling. Tulsa, published in 1971, anticipated Time and Newsweek's cover stories on the Midwestern scourge of methamphetamine abuse by 35 years. It's worth mentioning that Clark was shooting up with the addicts depicted in Tulsa, and he did two stints in prison, for stabbing and shooting offenses. With the help of his authentic subjects in Wassup Rockers, he's produced a realistic pure documentary film that nails the class and race war better than Crash ever could. And Clark has finally gotten "kids" right.

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