Perhaps symptomatically, the most interesting aspect of American independent cinema’s foremost enfant terrible Larry Clark’s latest film, Marfa Girl, has to do with its method of distribution. Clark, a consistently provocative chronicler of outlaw teenagers steeped in sex, drugs, violence and a restless rebellion in films such as Kids (1995), Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2003) has had trouble getting distribution deals for his features, and so this time he decided to take a less traditional route. Having screened the film and picked up an award from the Rome Film Festival last year, he has now made the movie available for streaming from his website for a small fee. For a filmmaker like Clark, firmly placed where cult potential meets serious artistic ambition and a small but dedicated fan base, the decision probably makes a lot of sense. It allows him to tell the stories he wants – indeed, hopefully, needs – to tell, without having to make too many artistic compromises.
Granted, judging from Marfa Girl, the first film to result from this new model, it’s at times times hard to see exactly why Clark felt he had to make this film, and I can’t shake a feeling that he could indeed have made a better film if he’d had to make with it an eye toward an actual audience. Set in a border town in Texas, the story, to the extent that there is one, concerns aimless 16 year-old skater Adam (played by Adam Mediano), who divides his time between being jailbait for a pregnant school teacher, smoking weed and having sex with his girlfriend (Mercedes Maxwell) and a local art student (Blake Burnette as the Marfa Girl), and trying not to get in the crosshairs of an abusive policeman from the Border Patrol. That’s pretty much it.
It should be said that the story has never really been that important to the look and feel of Larry Clark’s films, with the exception of the the revenge story Bully, perhaps for that reason by far his best film. Rather, Clark’s features are precisely that, “look” and “feel” films, albeit with the camera eye of a conflicted voyeur and a decidedly cynical mood. Fans of his eager lens practically drooling over the skinny bodies of his unfazed beautiful actors will find plenty to enjoy in Marfa Girl, and to the extent that the film is cinematically and intellectually stimulating, this is the level at which it works best. No matter that Clark has shown all these tricks before, his confrontational depictions of sex and skin at least force me as a viewer to reflect upon what it is I’m watching. What does it say about me that I find his fetishistic lens alternately troubling and compelling?
As in previous Clark films, sex is seen as a source for both good and ill. Employing a paradoxically lush amateur aesthetic somewhere between the studied “realism” of porn and regular cinema, some of the scenes with Adam and his various partners have a certain tenderness to them, even though, knowing Clark, I kept expecting a dark turn at any moment. Other scenes, true to form, lingered uncomfortably between the exploitative and the violent, without adding much to Clark’s previous discussions of the conflict between sex-positivism and destructiveness. Generally speaking, Adam’s sex scenes in this film may be reminiscent of the penultimate scene in Ken Park, in which an explicit but tender threesome could be said to have been the single scene that did not involve the threat of physical or psychological abuse of some kind; but the problem in Marfa Girl ultimately lies not in what is shown but in what is said.
For a film that features this much sex and violence, it is at the same time stunningly verbose, almost to the point of seeming unedited. If some of the sex scenes point back to the carefree sex-positivism of that one (and it was the only one) Ken Park scene, then just you wait for the titular Marfa Girl to drone on about it, endlessly, later. Nearly all the characters at one point or another go off on only tangentially relevant monologues about whatever topic may be on their mind, from sexual liberation and the art of cunnilingus, to abusive fathers, cosmic energy. body art or immigration policy. In moments, this presumably improvised approach captures a remarkably authentic-sounding line delivery or something resembling the way these people could actually talk, but more often it slows the film down, to the point of grinding it almost completely to a halt. What creates the film’s few moments of unguarded beauty – see for example a conversation between Adam’s mom and a women talking about a recently deceased boy – may also be behind its worst acting: the pivotal character moment of the underwritten border patrol officer is downright painful to watch, as Jeremy St. James heroically tries, but fails, to deliver the repressed anger the scene requires.
I didn’t think I was going to say this, ever, but in Marfa Girl, Larry Clark is at his best when he lets his lingering lens, almost caressing its subjects, do the work for him. It breaks no new ground, but at least I’m left to find out for myself how his transparent manipulations make me feel, instead of a meandering stream-of-consciousness monologue telling me. That quality is nowhere to be found in much of the script, taking any hint of subtext and making it explicit. What ultimately dooms the film, is Clark’s commitment to both “showing” and “telling”. But for a film that makes its every point so maddeningly explicit, it puzzlingly somehow lacks even the most basic narrative drive, character motivation, or actorly finesse. Thus, through to the end it remains at the same time both too vague and too clear. The ambivalence this creates is not the film’s benefit.