“Ken Park,” September 2003

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

ken-parkHarmony Korine was 19 when he wrote the screenplay for the controversial 1995 movie Kids, which was about a group of New York City teenagers who were a few years younger than he was. Since his experience with unsupervised urban skater boys was still fresh, the movie felt authentic in terms of dialogue and attitude, but many found it reprehensible, because the amoral behavior on display was presented without a filter of disapproval. People who were appalled by Kids were as bothered by Korine’s evident affection for these miscreants as they were by director Larry Clark’s enthusiasm for presenting their activities so graphically.

Apparently, Korine wrote the script for Ken Park even before he wrote Kids. Clark couldn’t get funding for Ken, so he made Kids instead, and shortly thereafter he and Korine had a falling out. Seven years later, Clark got a European producer to finally finance the film, and while Korine wasn’t actively involved in the production, it’s more his movie than it is Clark’s; or, it would be if Clark and his co-director Ed Lachman hadn’t overpowered the script with sex scenes.

Whatever his drawbacks as a scenarist (two-dimensional characters, for one), Korine has the ability to express believably the fluctuations of adolescent desire. The titular character of Ken Park kills himself five minutes into the movie and then isn’t even mentioned until the last five minutes, when his name is invoked in a game of 20 Questions. Ken Park, whom we never get to know, represents teenage disappointment in its most extreme form, and his ghost hovers over the entire film.

Set among the suburban ranch houses of Visalia, California, the movie is actually about Park’s four surviving friends. Until the end, these friends never interact, and the episodic structure presents their stories as variations on the conventional theme of adult-teen friction.

Tate, a smart, sensitive high school boy, is sleeping with his girlfriend’s mother, Rhonda (Maeve Quinlan), who uses Tate for her own sexual satisfaction. While Tate understands instinctively that he has a sexual advantage over Rhonda’s husband, he somehow feels inferior. Following sex, he plies her with questions that reveal his insecurities. Her answers don’t satisfy him, because she sounds like a parent, not a lover.

Peaches (Tiffany Ramos) has been raised solely by her ultra-religious father since her mother died. Dad thinks his daughter is as pure as his wife was, but while he’s at the cemetery communing with her spirit, Peaches is in her bedroom with her boyfriend, experimenting with S&M.

Claude (Stephen Jasso) and Shawn (James Bullard) have more traditional adolescent axes to grind. Claude’s father (Wade Andrew Williams), an alcoholic, unemployed bully, berates him for not being “a real man,” and Shawn, a brainy depressive, cruelly abuses his grandparents, whose demonstrations of affection he deems passive-aggressive intrusions into his space.

It’s difficult to tell how much of the coupling we see on the screen was in the original script, but clearly these bored kids use sex as an emotional balm rather than an expression of power, which is how it was treated in Kids.

Even when Shawn partakes of some disturbing auto-asphyxiation-style masturbation, it’s presented as a temporary respite from his self-created hell. Shawn eventually perpetrates a horrible act of violence, but at one point he also emerges from his gloomy room into the clear summer sun and skips rope with a group of neighborhood girls.

It is this juxtaposition of discomfiting absurdity (a three-legged dog, incestuous clinches, a pre-schooler watching cable porn) with an appreciation for youthful play that gives Korine’s ideas their emotional resonance. An extended three-way sex session is presented as an idyll, not a debauch.

The ringer is Larry Clark, who films all the sex scenes with a clinical fascination that has made it difficult for Ken Park to find distribution (a festival screening in Australia was raided by the police). If the movie isn’t the complete cinematic experience it could have been, it’s because the audience is too distracted by the notion that these actors really are having sex. Clark claims it isn’t porn, it’s just the way things are; which may be true but it’s also beside the point.

If Japanese audiences seem to be getting a jump on the rest of the world, it’s only because Japanese censors mask the naughty bits and thus save local viewers the trouble of having to decide whether or not Korine’s themes are properly served by Clark’s methods. As a result, the movie loses half its power, though some people might find that a good thing.

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