I was so excited to write my review of Wassup Rockers because I was going to be the guy who went on and on about how similar this movie is to The Warriors, which seems to be a film that haunts me in an almost Freudian way. Imagine my disappointment when I read an interview with director Larry Clark where he described the movie as The Warriors meets The Swimmer.
But just because the references to The Warriors are on purpose doesn’t make them a good idea. Clark, best known for his movies and photos which shamelessly sexualize pubescents – and is there anything else that unites America in a fury like that? I think that if it had been revealed that Osama bin Laden had taken those controversial Calvin Klein “kiddie porn” ad pictures a few years back, the Right and Left would stand united on the War on Terror. Just mentioning Larry Clark’s name to certain people sets off an almost allergic reaction – is up to his usual tricks here, but in a softer and more cartoonish way. Unfortunately he doesn’t begin the movie in a cartoony way, and so by the end you’re left scratching your head as Janice Dickinson appears in a cameo so grotesque that you don’t know how to take her subsequent “hilarious” death by electrocution.
That actually happens in the film. You would never guess the movie was going there – it begins with a shirtless young Latino boy talking about his group of friends. They live in South Central, but they’re not into the prevalent hip-hop culture; they listen to hardcore punk and ride around on skateboards. The locals make fun of their tight pants and long hair. And in the opening credits one of their friends is gunned down in a drive-by. But don’t worry, that never goes anywhere, and by the end of the movie you realize it was just Clark setting up the “toughness” of these kids’ lives in about as lazy and stereotypical a way as possible.
I was intrigued by the first few reels of the movie. We see this group of kids – non-actors all – hanging out, bullshitting, practicing in their band. The film has no obvious story, and I settled into the flow of their lives. Their relationships seemed authentic, and the local slut, who was 14 but had fucked every guy in the group, and dozens more besides, seemed like the kind of tragic character Clark would deal with well, with just the right mix of exploitation and understanding. But then they take a bus to out of the hood to skate at Beverly Hills High School, and just like the Warriors heading up to the Bronx they’ll soon regret leaving their home turf. At the school they meet some cute white girls who are intrigued by their exotic aspects, then they get harassed by a tight assed cop. Escaping from him – and Warriors-style losing a buddy along the way – they make it to the girls’ house, but things are only starting to get bad for them. The rest of the film has them stumbling from situation to situation, each more patently ridiculous than the last (and at least one seemingly slanderous against old Clint Eastwood), as they try to make their way home. The slut drops out of the film, and South Central only exists as a place for the kids to brag about.
Clark has found some interesting kids – the lead, Jonathan, is absolutely gorgeous and charismatic, and you can believe he finds his way into the myriad sexual situations Clark’s voyeuristic camera slavers over. The rest of the kids don’t always work as well, and Clark is smart to use them in dimishing amounts in relation to their abilities. I liked these kids, and I found their subculture fascinating – they’ll never be accepted by the people in their neighborhood or by the white kids who rule the scene they’re into. They’re the ultimate cultural pariahs, but bringing them to Beverly Hills does nothing to illuminate that. The movie comes dangerously close to getting it right when the gang end up at a party for a gay hipster photographer – everyone at the party loves them, and the photographer is smitten with Jonathan. There’s something about the fluid identity politics of vacuous hipsters here that’s interesting, something about the savage co-opting of real scenes and passions, but then Clark has the kids accidentally kill the photographer. It’s like a slapstick routine breaking out in the middle of a performance of Swan Lake.
I wanted to like Wassup Rockers much more, and I didn’t really hate it. I think that the people who get mad about Larry Clark are fools – their real problem is their pathological fear of teen sexuality, although it’s hard to deny that in many ways Clark just seems like a dirty old man. There are a couple of shots where Clark’s camera lingers on the half-naked bodies of the boys where you can almost see the pure beauty he’s supposedly attempting to capture before you start to be skeeved out at the idea that maybe he’s popping a boner behind the camera. It’s that dichotomy that I think makes Clark films worth watching – the guy is a capital A Artist, following his own obsessions and perversions no matter what. He’s making movies about what he wants, and even if that makes you uncomfortable, it’s a good thing. I just wish he had made a better movie this time, or at least had not completely squandered this scenario and these kids.