BULLY

Directed by Larry Clark

Written by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis, based on the book by Jim Schutze

With Nick Stahl, Brad Renfro, Bijou Phillips and Rachel Miner

Distributed by Lions Gate Films



CHAIN CAMERA

Directed by Kirby Dick

***



Attention, teenagers: Larry Clark hates you! Just in time to counteract a wave of films offering relatively respectful views of teenage life (John Fawcett's GINGER SNAPS, Jim McKay's OUR SONG, Allan Moyle's NEW WATERFORD GIRL, Terry Zwigoff's forthcoming GHOST WORLD), he's re-made his 1995 debut KIDS as a black comedy. The end product is a spectacular disaster: imagine if BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD made a Very Special Episode about Columbine. (Although adapted from a 1993 true-crime book about a group of Florida teens who killed their friend's bully, the Littleton massacre's specter inevitably  hangs over BULLY.) Rarely does one film succeed in rolling so many of the worst traits of American cinema and culture into  one slick package: contempt for its characters and an implicit invitation for the audience to get our kicks off their stupidity, rolled up with a Puritanical combo of softcore porn, schadenfreude and "wake-up call to the world" (as Janet Maslin idiotically characterized KIDS) moralizing. Just say no.

Although both KIDS and BULLY focus fetishistically on teen sex, substance abuse and violence, their settings and structure are quite a bit different. While KIDS took place over the course of a day in Manhattan, BULLY was shot in the South Florida suburbs where these crimes really took place. Bobby (Stahl) is an obnoxious 20-year-old convenience store clerk who gets his kicks mentally and physically abusing his friend Martin (Renfro), a high school drop-out, and any woman who goes near him. When Martin takes up with Lisa (Miner) and complains about Bobby, she gets the bright idea to kill him. For some reason, Bobby decides to go along with it, although planning the murder involves a large group of their friends: most of them perpetually stoned and barely capable of putting 2 sentences together. Bobby's Lady Macbeth, Lisa takes tentative charge of organizing the crimes.

In essence, BULLY has already been made once before: in the form of Tim Hunter's 1987  RIVER'S EDGE. The two films have some points of contact, blaming marijuana and absentee parents for producing a generation of affectless kids. But RIVER'S EDGE is far more  complex, willing to consider that its subjects may have a moral code of their own, even if it's an unconventional one. Loyalty to friends seems more moral to them than turning in a killer, and the film shows why their difficult relationships with their families might make such a code appealing. In its place, BULLY is a bit too quick to blame the victim and his friends: after all, their anger is justified, if not their violent solutions. Additionally, it comes up with little more than the most simplistic answers to its characters' level of desperation and irresponsibility: if being a pothead with a fondness for violent video games and Eminem (whose first album came out 3 years after the murder depicted here) is all it takes to become a sociopath, America's shopping malls would run with blood on a daily basis. Hell, Mr. Mathers himself might even have  addressed these questions with more empathy than Clark.

For a film so concerned with morality, BULLY has a profound compassion deficit of its own, as well as a tendency to objectify its characters and actors.
 Clark doesn't miss a chance to include as much nudity and sex as possible, including plenty of gratuitous T&A and Bijou Phillips crotch shots. These softcore tendencies wouldn't bother me if they didn't go hand in hand with its clucking over the evil that kids do. Could such an explicit American film about teens get made if it didn't demonize their sexuality? (Of course, S/M and an oblique gay subtext become part of the depravity.) There's one other troubling dimension: just as KIDS dwelled on its anti-hero's desire to fuck extremely young girls (unbeknownst to him, giving them HIV), the nude torsos that BULLY films so lovingly often belong to underage boys.

 The screenplay of BULLY seems to be at odds with Clark's direction: Long and Pullis aim for misanthropic comedy (think of WILD THINGS with a Joe Eszterhas re-write and a touch of DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR?), while the latter has as much in common with his proto-heroin chic photography as with the pseudo-documentary look of KIDS. Clark seems utterly mesmerized with the world - populated by gorgeous white teens with time and money to waste - he films,  yet devoid of any desire to dig too deeply into it. BULLY has been released at a time when the media and school systems finally seem to be realizing that bullying just might have more to do with school violence than DOOM and Marilyn Manson, yet it's about as shallow as the average TV program on Columbine. In the end, its incessant attempts at shock value - which begin with the very first line of dialogue and reach a low point with a story about a 2-day necrophilia spree - are more laughable than terrifying. (Genuine laughs are few and far between.) Trotting out one token girl with a degree of moral intelligence is too little, too late.

If you feel like I do about BULLY, CHAIN CAMERA may be the antidote. Although it's received a handful of theatrical engagements (I missed the one-week New York run and had to catch it via a friend's video dub), the cable channel Cinemax will be showing it later this year. Kirby Dick is credited as both the director and executive producer, but his role was more conceptual than hands-on: he gave 10 video cameras to students at Los Angeles' John Marshall High School, letting them film themselves for one week and then pass the cameras onto another 10 students (thus the "chain" in the title) until the end of the school year.

CHAIN CAMERA doesn't have the neat structure of fiction: dividing a feature length film between 16 people inevitably produces fragments and a tendency towards dramatic soundbites. (Given the ADD pacing, I wonder if the project may originally have been intended for commercial TV.) However, it ultimately becomes a panoramic portrait of American life, shown through the eyes of teens themselves and avoiding the reductiveness of BULLY. Complexity and contradictions abound: an Armenian girl complains about her mother's expectation that she'll marry an Armenian man are unrealistic, given the multi-racial nature of L.A., then follows it with an ignorant anti-Latino  rant . A segment that begins with a man  repeatedly complaining "what a fucking bitch" to the TV turns into a tender portrait of a father/daughter relationship.  Dick's subjects seem more than a little self-conscious about condensing their life into a monologue before the camera, but there's something revealing in every segment, even if it doesn't last too long. A few, like a brief conversation with a toy penis, seem to have been included for sheer variety.

Although an introductory intertitle brings up the diversity of John Marshall, CHAIN CAMERA never feels like a sociology lecture. It raises a host of Important Issues, treating them as part of everyday life, rather than fodder for head-shaking and editorializing. I realize that most of the virtues are negative ones, but CHAIN CAMERA deserves praise as much for what it's not as for what it is. A rare example of "reality TV" that merits the name, I hope it finds an enthusiastic audience once Cinemax airs it. In the meantime, BULLY brings back memories of the days when "exploitation" was an insult, not a section in hip video stores.