Review: Wassup Rockers
Larry Clark is a love 'em or hate 'em sort of artist, and I've spent the last ten years in the latter camp. I've never had a taste for Clark's artless photographs of teen sexuality and drug abuse, and I certainly don't care for the sort of influence he's had on subsequent generations as one of the prime architects of what would be best understood today as the Vice aesthetic. As Clark ages (he's currently 63), his relentless fascination with nubile teenage flesh only becomes creepier, and his films become ever flimsier excuses to indulge in his chickenhawk tendencies.
Surprisingly, after the relentless sweaty crotch-shots of Bully (if you've ever been extremely curious about the anatomy of Macauley Culkin's ex-wife, that's the movie for you) and the over the top parade of perversity in 2002's Ken Park (a film that I and most everyone else have not seen largely due to the fact that it contains explicit scenes of teen sex, incest, and autoerotic asphyxiation and never found a distributor), Wassup Rockers is a far milder version of Clark's regular shtick. Though the film is packed with lingering, leering shots of half-naked teenagers, there's virtually no nudity in the picture, and there's actually not very much in the way of glamorized debauchery. It's hard to tell whether this is the result of commercial pressures or some show of mature restraint, but I suppose that I'm grateful not to be totally skeeved out by anything in the movie.
Clark's subjects in Wassup Rockers are a group of Latino skate punks from the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. In the first hour or so, the film trudges through a series of rhythmless, poorly shot vignettes depicting their daily life, including several interminable sequences of the teen skaters wiping out gracelessly, over and over again. The picture finds some kind of form in its second half, as the boys stumble into a series of misadventures in Beverly Hills. Obviously, the boys are fish out of water in this enclave of extreme affluence, and their encounters hammer the film's one and only discernible point: rich white people in Los Angeles are grotesque, and these poor Latino rebels are genuine and pure. The boys' presence is met with one of two basic responses – they are run down or attacked by the whitest dudes imaginable, or are treated as novelty sex objects or tokens of outsider coolness by bored white girls and jaded hipsters.
The film is at its most honest and direct in the moments when the objectification of these young men is foregrounded. When a duo of cute rich girls lure two of the guys back to their rooms, they are clearly acting as mouthpieces for Clark as the brunette gently interrogates one lad (bringing the film full circle with its incongruous opening scene of one of the boys answering questions in his bedroom with his shirt off as though the movie was a documentary), and the blonde exclaims that she thinks her dude's uncut cock is “dangerous!!!” In these moments, there's a refreshing guilelessness about the fact that Clark is treating these boys not so much as characters but as specimen to be observed, and that the fascination is largely rooted in the idealized sexualization of otherness. When the movie tries to be about the boys' struggle and the integrity of their lifestyle, it is clear that Clark means well, but it rings very hollow.
Though Wassup Rockers is a vast improvement for Larry Clark, it is at best a mediocre film. The production values aspire for documentary-style naturalism, but with the exception of the moments when the camera is ogling young skin, the photography is amateurish and shoddy, and the cast of untrained actors is often glaringly untalented, seeming stilted even when they are ostensibly playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves.