There are two filmmakers named Larry Clark, and this is NOT about the Larry Clark whose ephebophiliac imagination has given us films like Kids, Bully, and Wassup Rockers! Just so we’re clear, this Larry Clark is Black, a Cleveland native who went to UCLA along with Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry and was a key member of the L.A. Rebellion movement.
This Larry Clark has existed as a name alone for me until now. I went to UCLA Film School in the mid-1990’s. The shadow of the L.A. Rebellion loomed large. Most of us African-American students in the graduate directors program knew we had a proud tradition to uphold. Was it daunting? No, we were young and bold, so we looked at their legacy as empowering and a challenge to live up to.
And somehow I missed Larry Clark. Happily that’s been rectified with the UCLA Film & Television Archives’ estimable retrospective of the L.A. Rebellion films currently in its final leg. Having seen Clark’s 50 minute As Above, So Below in this series, I was intrigued to see his feature-length thesis project Passing Through, reputed by many to be one of the greatest jazz films of all time.
With its striking opening sequence it’s clear to see why. We move from a close up of a hand playing the piano to superimpositions of other hands playing their instruments as they join the piano. It does not take a jazz expert (which I am not) to get that Clark has crafted a visual representation of what makes jazz a unique and vital artform.
Nathaniel Taylor, who played the lead role in the earlier short, plays the lead role here. Of the many revelations in this series, seeing Taylor (known to me and by most as Lamont Sanford’s cool daddy comrade Rollo on Sanford and Son) carry the film as Warmack, a sax player, makes you see this familiar actor in a new way. In becoming the DeNiro to Clark’s Scorsese, Taylor shows that he has/had so much more to offer than what he was asked to play in the sitcom.
And for the umpteenth time now, the point has been driven home by this retrospective that the neglect given to the actors may be more lamentable than the shabby treatment the directors have received. Even if it’s inadequate, the directors get a modicum of their due, whereas the actors disappear into terrible roles or leave the craft altogether. [Clark spent much of the Q&A afterward discussing working with forgotten legend Clarence Muse who saw the film as his swan song after a long career in Hollywood]
The film comes from a story by Ted Lange (Isaac from The Love Boat, google it youngsters) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Clark though he does not appear in it. Clark had taken pains to insinuate himself into the performing arts scene in 70’s Black Los Angeles; organizations like PASLA (Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles) and the Mafundi Institute, took on the mission of training a new generation of black actors and directors. They flourished in the early 70’s just as the Watts Writers Workshop had been established to nurture writing talent.
Clark met Lange there (in addition to others in the cast including a young pre-Florence Marla Gibbs who appears briefly). The script that resulted was a hybrid of ideas the two men shared, and therein lies the problem. While the film is an important work, it never quite gels as a cohesive one. The film feels like two ideas cobbled together with other bits included that don’t relate well to the whole (the romance between Warmack and Maya, played by Pamela Jones, felt like one plotline too many).
It is unfortunate and ironic that a film that begins with a jazz ensemble playing as one somewhat falls short in getting all of its strands to similarly play as one.
Partly it is the story of the protagonist Warmack’s return to the L.A. jazz scene after imprisonment and his search for the grandfather mentor we see in flashbacks (played beautifully by Muse) but then the film becomes a revolution narrative. The musicians tire of exploitation at the hands of white gangsters who run the recording industry and decide to violently throw off their yoke. It isn’t as compelling as it sounds. This is in the end, a student film. I don’t mean that to be patronizing. I mean that like a student film, it tries things and not all of them are fully realized. Some things work and some don’t. And if the young Clark’s grasp exceeded his reach one has to appreciate the effort and not just denigrate the result.
One element that I found intriguing is the notion that in playing, Warmack takes on a certain clairvoyance, as if his art temporarily grants him a power of second sight in the act of creation that he lacks at other times.
Just as Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry have a similar approach and humanistic touch, Clark’s filmmaking bears a strong resemblance to Haile Gerima. Both are preoccupied with liberation, literal as well as figurative. Clark’s work isn’t quite as daunting formally as Gerima’s, and it should be clear that the former filmmaker has his own unique take on what revolution looks like.
For Clark, the struggle of the artist and the activist are, if not one, parallel. Despite its flaws, this thesis (along with the moment in history that it captures) makes Passing Through more than just a curio, but a manifesto by young fearless filmmaker who makes up in passion what he may lack in experience.