I first watched Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers when I was 16. I was attracted to the film’s use of hardcore music, the skateboard culture, and the sense of rebellion the film had. I watched it (and many other Larry Clark films, Kids specifically) many times over the next few years.
Last night, I watched Wassup Rockers for the first time in seven years. The film revolves around a group of teenage skateboarders from an unbelievably impoverished area of South Central. These children are not actors and they are all really friends who skate and live in this area. Unfortunately, on this most recent viewing, my opinion of the film – and Clark – have almost completely changed.
Larry Clark takes advantage of underprivileged teenagers from the areas he visits- he is a visitor, he is not from the areas in which he chooses to make films. He is like a horrible friend who gets you to tell them all your secrets, and then goes and tells everyone else. Clark argues he is giving a voice to people who are voiceless- I don’t buy this for a moment: It seems to me he gets off on visiting dangerous and exciting worlds, worlds that I’m sure are much less exciting for the children who live them, and the parents whose children are dying everyday.
Saying this, the film still ignites in me a sense of nostalgia. I like SOME of the cinematography (I am more of a fan of Clark’s photography than his movies, especially his collection Tulsa). Perhaps most importantly, I really like the cast. The film manages to capture the magic of being a teenager, and suggests that the optimism of youth is invincible no matter what challenges are thrown at it.
Ultimately, the overly long and intrusively shot scenes that focus on children’s bodies makes me feel uncomfortable. Clark constantly sexualises the characters in this film- whether or not this is true to life, it doesn’t matter to me; I’m sure there is much more interesting things about these characters and the fact he chooses to focus on the sex lives of children doesn’t sit well with me. I feel sorry for the actors in this film and want to protect them from the gaze of the camera. The fact this film spoke to me when I was 16, and doesn’t now I’m 25, could suggest that Clark has a way of speaking to youth that grown ups don’t understand, and I am now blind to his messages like Drop Dead Fred or something. Either way this was my feeling of the film. Also when the film turned more into a traditional narrative I got a bit bored. It works best for me in the documentary-esque scenes of the children skating.
What did you make of it?
I’m relieved to hear that I’m not the only one that found the over sexualisation of these kids a tough watch! It’s not so much that being aware of their sexual activity is off-putting, it’s how Clark’s camera lingers over their young bodies that is disturbing. He fetishises these young boys, like the rich people in the film do.
You’re absolutely right when you say the cast saves the film: because they are real people, you are able to build a real connection to them. But I wonder why he chose to make it more of a fictional, almost sensationalised, story as opposed to just going with straight up documentary…. There really appears to be no reason other than to glamourise the boys’ unfortunate circumstances.
It’s going to sound weird now you’ve said that, but did you enjoy the film?
During watching it I wasn’t sure because I found it so bizarre. I’m still mixed but it has really stuck with me since watching it. The subjects of the film are so fascinating and unique and that in itself makes it worth a watch. So I guess I kind of enjoyed it…
The film has such a niche vibe about it, who do you think Clark is making this for?
I don’t know whether he is specifically making it for anyone or not. No one seems to have seen it, which is surprising due to the cult success of Kids.
I liked the fact the characters were listening to hardcore music and wearing skinny clothes when everyone else around them was wearing baggy clothes and listening to hip-hop. If I was being really generous, I would say the film is telling kids to ‘be themselves’.
What other messages if any do you think are in the film? Other than ‘look how cool it is to live in South Central’…
This is my problem with the film – I’m not sure what he’s trying to say here… It seems like he’s trying to comment on how dominant culture of the privilege fetishises this idea of the ‘other’, or the misfortunate and the ‘ghetto’. But I feel like that’s essentially what he’s doing himself. Maybe there’s an idea in there that labels are redundant and that finding your community is all that counts, but there’s ultimately a lack of focus on anything.
I really love this group of boys but maybe only remembered 2 or 3 that were actually fleshed out, and the ones who weren’t were swiftly killed off. What do you think?
It didn’t bother me that not all the characters were fleshed out. This was part of the documentary essence of the film; characters come and go as they please.
One of the other things Clark focuses on is the reality that death of friends and family is part of the daily routine for the characters – in one of the first scenes they skate past a memorial for a boy who has died, they stop for a second, say a prayer, and quickly skate off.
I listened to an interview with Clark where he talks about his childhood in very negative terms. Could his tendency to return to the subject of childhood be him trying to relive his own?
I know that on both this film and Kids he skated with them, and hung out with them before filming. I just wonder if they enjoyed his company as much as he enjoyed theirs…
You may be right there – he’s just an old guy trying to stay connected to this idea of a rough childhood. Perhaps he always wanted to be the ‘cool’ kid in school.
He’s certainly doing a service to unrepresented youth but I feel as though his approach here may not be ethical.
What I do enjoy is that, although it may not be something with a high re-watchability value, it is something that can serve as a time capsule piece; something that can be archived, and documents a moment in history as well as a specific culture. It’s quite anthropological in that sense. But, again, I feel Clark missed an opportunity in not going full documentary.
I never thought of that, but I agree with you that it could have been much better if he had gone full-documentary.
I was really surprised about how my opinion of the film had completely changed over the years. Has this ever happened to you with a film?
I think it maybe says a lot about how the film is, in many ways, like Lil Yachty: young people may love it but not everyone else will… You get me?
I’d say there’s a lot of films that I loved in my youth but not so much now, and they were always films that had a lot to do with my interests at the time such as, The Longest Yard (or pretty much the majority of Adam Sandler’s oeuvre) and, more importantly, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (I clearly was not as cool a kid as you).
I think maybe that’s the problem with niche films: once you get over the initial excitement of its particular cultural appeal what’s left?
We’re giving the film a hard time but there is still a lot of good in it. Do you think you would have recommended it still had you seen it again more recently? Is nostalgia kind of blinding in that sense?
When you say there’s a lot of “good in it,” I feel that though there may on the surface be some good things, the film is rotten from the inside.
Also the Power Rangers movie was a favourite of mine too… Ivan Ooze, what a bastard!
I’m glad I watched it again because it’s interesting how time and experience can change your opinion on something.
I’m with ya – there is something not quite right about this, but I mean, from a filmmaking point of view, there is something to be admired about its capturing of something ‘real’, and the characters depicted were fascinating. Plus it has an awesome soundtrack.
I’ll also give it credit for being a film that you can really dwell on. However, saying that, it seems the more time it takes to digest, the stronger the heart burn…
5/10 | Alex 6/10 | Luke