The year 2018 is not what you would call a Larry Clark moment. The director of “Kids,” “Bully,” “Wassup Rockers,” and the new “Marfa Girl 2” — yes, he has made a sequel to a film that virtually no one saw — is now 75 years old, and he may be the cinema’s last shameless mystic of forbidden sexuality. These days, you know you’re watching a Larry Clark film when the sex scenes are real as opposed to simulated, when the close-ups of genitals (mostly male) are multiple and looming and adoring, and when the performers are non-professional actors whose job is to live up to an ideal of skinny hard-bodied youthful tumescence.
That’s been the Larry Clark fetish going back to his two fabled books of transgressive photographs, “Tulsa” (1971) and “Teenage Lust” (1983), and in 50 years of flesh-gazing it hasn’t changed much. Neither has the fundamental controversy that surrounds and defines his work: Is Larry Clark a taboo-smashing artist of erotic freedom and walk-on-the-wild-side American abandon? Or is he a sleaze in aesthete’s clothing?
I have no problem saying that he’s both at once, but to the extent that there’s a worm of exploitation at the heart of the Clark vision, we’re no longer in a culture that has much tolerance for it. Sure, the imagery he pioneered in “Tulsa” was co-opted by Calvin Klein ads. But Clark’s films are another story, since they now lead with their outlaw porniness.
When Clark made “Kids,” his first feature, in 1995, he’d figured out a way to take his sordid ramshackle voyeuristic aesthetic and fold it into a mainstream context. (His second feature, the criminals-on-the-run drama “Another Day in Paradise,” had real stars, like James Woods and Melanie Griffith, and it proved that Clark, if he’d chosen to make himself over into a more conventional director, could possibly have thrived at it.) But Clark’s career then shifted course in a telling way. In 2002, he made “Ken Park,” a drama that flaunted its erotic explicitness and got shown at festivals but was deemed too graphic for distribution. Ever since, Clark has gone back to being a semi-underground figure.
The times, to put it bluntly, have left him behind, but in “Marfa Girl,” his depravity-in-the-heartland 2012 feature (which was essentially distributed on his website), and now “Marfa Girl 2,” its new and unlikely sequel, Clark isn’t cutting back on the horndog seediness. If anything, he’s doubling down.
“Marfa Girl” was shot in Marfa, the small desert town (pop. 1,700) in West Texas that also served, in 1956, as the backdrop for the Rock Hudson-James Dean oil drama “Giant.” Clark portrays the town as a scuzzbucket dried-brush wasteland of scattered homes, spindly telephone poles, and almost no employment, and he centers “Marfa Girl” around the sort of sullen teenage wastrel the filmmaker has never stopped worshipping like a god: a skate rat named Adam (Adam Mediano), with long hair and a glazed pout that makes him look like a ’70s stoner, who becomes the most coveted lust object in town.
The movie chronicles his random sexual adventures, including his intersection with the title character, a “girl” who’s actually an art student in her late 20s, played by the model-turned-actress Drake Burnett as a free spirit with a thing for Hispanic-American young men. Seen now, her pursuit looks like a pathology, if not (in certain cases) a form of abuse. But Larry Clark envisions it as a dark romance of erotic obsession. The danger she’s courting comes to a head when she’s raped by a border patrolman (Jeremy St. James) who’s both toxic and crazy.
“Marfa Girl” skirted along on the surface of what it showed you, yet it had Clark’s poetry of desolation. So what’s left for “Marfa Girl 2”? Not much, it turns out. It’s set several years after the first film, and the main way to mark the difference is that the reckless characters who were falling into bed with each other now all have children. Who they hardly give a damn about. The movie should have been called “The Price of Free Love.”
You’d think if you were going to tell a story of isolated Texas nobodies who wind up with families they didn’t plan on, you might dig into how they’re changed by that reality. But no; there’s no change. Adam still looks and acts like the moodiest of slackers, and he treats the toddlers running around the home he shares with their mother, the doll-eyed Inez (Mercedes Maxwell), like stray dogs he’d like to take to the pound. (He also has another kid out of wedlock.) As for Burnett’s Marfa Girl, she’s got a little boy of her own, who it turns out was the result of that rape, and she has become a depressed alcoholic wreck who, when she looks her son in the eye, can only see the demon face of his father.
“Marfa Girl 2” does not have Larry Clark’s poetry of desolation. It’s only 76 minutes long, and it’s basically an improvised-on-the-spot, patched-together mess. Clark tries to squeeze a narrative out of strands he leaves hanging, and the ending is such a double downer (two appalling acts of violence for the price of one!) that you search yourself for what it’s signifying, and you don’t come up with much. Yet “Marfa Girl 2” still serves up a dollop of the naked sexuality that’s become Larry Clark’s raison d’être as a filmmaker. He has even suggested there’ll be a third chapter. He’s following his muse, and maybe his bliss, but he’s on his way to becoming a cult of one die-hard true believer: himself.