Larry Clark's solution to America's social ills? It has something to do with cunnilingus . . .

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Adam Mediano (right) in Marfa Girl
  • Adam Mediano (right) in Marfa Girl
Another week at Facets Cinematheque, another marginalized auteur brought out of the shadows. Tomorrow the venue begins a weeklong run of Marfa Girl, Larry Clark's first narrative feature since 2005, just after concluding a run of Ned Rifle, Hal Hartley's first narrative feature since 2006. Like Rifle, Marfa Girl's concerns are nothing less than America Today. Clark acknowledged as much in a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine, saying he set the film in the title Texas border town because he regards it as a microcosm of the national culture. His characteristically brusque description of the town is worth quoting at length:

[Marfa is] a small town of 1800 people, where half the population is Hispanic, with a massive presence of border patrol police as well as an art community. There's an art foundation there so artists go to Marfa, but they kinda keep to themselves, and there is clearly is a strong culture clash going on there. Furthermore, the place is also the headquarters of the border police, so you have loads of police with nothing to do but fuck with the locals . . . It's such a Christian town with loads of teenage pregnancies. But they don't talk about that, though it happens every day. And then you have rich artists coming to town, buying up things while the locals are pretty hopeless.

The hero of Marfa Girl, Adam, is a half-Mexican 16-year-old from a working-poor community who comes to impregnate two girls; the other major subjects include a racist Border Patrol officer who spends his time harassing the locals and a middle-class artist who's oblivious to Marfa's dire economic situation. The film, like Clark's earlier Ken Park, moves casually between the primary characters; it displays a greater interest in capturing a way of life than in developing dramatic momentum. (Two decades into his filmmaking career Clark remains a still photographer at heart.)

The operative word here is casually—the film's depictions of juvenile delinquency have got to be the most laid-back since. . . well, Clark's own Wassup Rockers. The young characters are decidedly nonaggressive, happy just to loiter on skateboards, smoke dope, form punk bands, and have sex. As opposed to Clark's earlier Bully, there's no social hierarchy among these dead-end kids. Adam and his brother are even on good terms with their mom, who's perhaps the sweetest parental figure in any Clark movie to date. For the most part, the working-poor subjects seem to have accepted their hopelessness and have decided to push on together. The movie ends with a theatrical composition that finds most of the primary characters standing in a row, facing the horizon as one—an image that pseudonymous online critic Uncas Blythe has provocatively described as Fordian.

Typical of Clark's films, the cast is a mix of professional actors and genuine delinquents. And as usual, Clark presents quite a few of his teen performers having sex. Self-conscious, vulnerable, and desperate-looking, they suggest the sort of wayward young people who turn up in Internet porn. With the sex scenes of Marfa Girl, Clark would seem to be playing into the hands of his detractors, who have long dismissed him as a pervert. Yet the growing omnipresence of pornography in the 20 years since Kids has had the effect of familiarizing Clark's images (particularly for kids themselves, as Clark acknowledged in his 2006 short Impaled). He doesn't seem like such a shock artist anymore, and it's easier to recognize the sympathy he has for his subjects. Yes, Clark shows teens enjoying sex, but he also shows what happens when they don't consider its consequences. The shot below—depicting Adam, his friend Donna, and the child she left high school to raise—speaks for itself.

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As reflected in that quote above, Clark considers teen sex to be less of a problem than our society's inability to speak honestly about sex (which is hardly the same thing as permitting sexual references to pervade the popular culture). The centerpiece of Marfa Girl is an extended hangout session between Adam and the visiting artist, a young woman who's determined to sleep with every cute Latino guy she meets. She engages Adam in a frank (if not entirely serious) conversation about his sexual proclivities, then gives him pointers about how to be a more attentive lover. "My dad came out of the generation that believed in free love," she says. "Sex is just another form of communication; if people fucked more, there'd be less war."

Taken literally this sounds terribly naive, but Marfa Girl establishes a context in which her sentiments make sense on a metaphorical level. If sex represents a form of communication, Clark's saying, then maybe it can be used to engender empathy. A good deal of the conversation between Adam and the artist (the film never divulges her name) has to do with cunnilingus, which in the film's poetic scheme comes to represent the triumph of feminine sensitivity over masculine aggression. Later in the film, Donna teaches Adam how to go down on her, and afterwards he acknowledges his fears for the future for the first time. Clark follows this scene with an encounter between the artist and a Mexican-American Border Patrol officer, who goes down on her after opening up about his traumatic experiences in Iraq, a monologue that Clark based on the actor's life experience. (Spoilers follow.)

The climactic sequence of Marfa Girl has these two characters take psilocybin mushrooms with two other Border Patrol officers—one of them being an unhinged racist—and have an orgy in a garage. Unfortunately the artist fails in her mission to unite the divided people of Marfa through free love. Tom the racist, reacting badly to the mushrooms, freaks out and starts breaking up his own living room. One of the other cops, Oscar, beats him until he relents, only to discover that this gives Tom an erection. "He likes it," Oscar says disgustedly before beating Tom with a wooden board. From there, he tries to shake himself of the experience and get dressed. "Gotta go to work," says Oscar to himself. "Got a night shift . . ."

The repugnant, sexualized violence of this scene—which explicitly links the men's actions to their work and class status—reminded me of Sarah Kane's groundbreaking play Blasted. For Clark as for Kane, sexual violence is a symptom of larger injustices—the abuses of power by small-minded Border Patrol officers and, more generally, a domineering patriarchal authority that proclaims itself absolute. When Tom comes to, he tells the artist that his father beat him as a child and that this made him associate pain with love. He's incapable of accepting the idea of sex as a source of mutual pleasure. (Tellingly Tom is the sole character who speaks coarsely when describing cunnilingus.)

Clark suggests that the next generation can still learn to think differently. The kids of Marfa Girl may be hopeless, but they aren't cynical. As always, Clark finds moments of extraordinary tenderness among the squalor, and this is what makes his art valuable. At one point, he interrupts the first instance of lovemaking between Adam and his girlfriend Inez with a shot of baby birds that have just come out of their shells. The metaphor may be lovely, but the image decidedly isn't. Baby birds look a bit like alien creatures, gasping desperately for air with their feathers matted down by gross fluid. And yet the sequence still exudes a sense of innocence, like many others in this hard-won poem of a film.

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