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Look at a David LaChapelle photograph, and you see a bigger-than-life celebrity all splashed in surreal settings, bold colors and a winking, campy nod. Britney Spears as a hot-dog vendor. A bronzed and nude Lil' Kim bent and tattooed with Louis Vitton icons. Full-breasted and seemingly plasticized transvestite Amanda Lepore enjoying a wedge of watermelon in one hand, with the rest of the watermelon smiling invitingly from her seated crotch.

In a medium where the power of the image is sacrosanct and the temptation to titillate a given, LaChapelle is one of his generation's most fearless mavericks. Basically, the guy could make an American Idol look daring. In his world, every color is a primary one, which is much of what makes his feature-length debut as a director, Rize, jump off the screen with so much electricity. It's not just the two eye-popping, post-breakdance forms he profiles -- "clowning" and "krumping" in the ghettos of Los Angeles -- though he clearly chose ripe material for his new camera lens. While avant-garde photographer Larry Clark translated his fixation on the youthful form in such films as Kids and Bully to an almost pornographic effect, LaChapelle translates his fixation on persona as a physical expression in Rize.

The film is a visualist's dream of a documentary in a world where the phrase "cinema verite" might spring up more than it should. If LaChapelle can learn some of the more sophisticated filmmaking techniques (narrative arc, editing, breadth of story), he is one to watch. His film certainly is.

Frankly, there's not a lot on the surface to Rize, much in the same way Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary on vogue-ing Harlem drag queens, didn't seem like much at first. After further viewing, both films reveal the blossoming of a subculture from sheer desperation -- catharsis as a survival technique. With Rize, what we see at first is a fairly straightforward chronicling of the two key scenes in areas like South Central Los Angeles: the clowns, who use an implosive and expressive form of dance, and the krumps, who try to take the clowning form to another, more aggressive level. As LaChapelle shows with archival footage, both have very obvious roots in traditional African tribal dance ceremonies, with painted faces, physical contact that amounts to near-moshing, taunting, and an almost ecstatic effect. (At one point, a girl passes out from the passion.)

LaChapelle sets up the narrative first with Tommy, the leader of the most popular clown group in the city, who bops from birthday party to street corner to playground, supervising his acolytes, entertaining his fans. He wears a traditional clown's outfit: baggy, pajama-style outfit, his brown face covered by white paint and then little red balloon icons. A rainbow-colored wig towers above his linebacker's frame of broad shoulders and paunchy middle, yet he's as fluid as a Fosse dancer as he snakes through his routine.

The movements look as if a breakdancer had been forced to stay upright most of the time, listen to punk rock and hip-hop, and then basically set himself on fire. In reality, the form traces its more modern roots to the hip-hop version of the "stripper dance," with open, bending legs and flailing arms and a spastic pelvis crunching and thrusting.

The speed at which these dancers move defies not just the laws of gravity but inertia. As the movements grow in their anger and ferocity, they take the notion that a clown laughs so he won't cry into another, more relevant notion: If you don't implode from all this movement, you'll explode. And that's because, as LaChapelle chronicles, the children and young adults of L.A.'s inner city live in constant fear of violence, even death, at the hands of gang members and other criminals. To stay out of trouble, Tommy, a witness to the Rodney King riots of 1992 and himself a former convicted drug dealer, turned to clowning as an alternative. As the mother of Tommy's lieutenant, Larry, asks, "What else is there to do?"

Tommy's doppelganger is Lil' C, a former protŽgŽ who tired of what he felt were the limitations of clowning and moved on to krumping, which takes the fierce moves to more of an extreme. Though there are roughly 50 such groups in the L.A. area, it is the crews led by Tommy and Lil' C that face off in the fifth annual Battle Zone, which Tommy created and is held at the Great Western Forum in nearby Inglewood.

Before and after the battle, LaChapelle supplies liberal doses of dancing imagery, both in at its natural, revved-up speed and in more digestible slow motion, and both on the street and against gold- or blue-saturated skies -- even near the Santa Monica pier. The bronzed bodies glisten with sparkling sweat, muscles ripple and bounce, faces stretch with their grimaces.

You could say LaChapelle takes these scenes to an extreme, and doesn't know when to stop. Rize checks in at 85 minutes, and feels like it could have fit snugly into an hour. But then you remember from whence he came, and you figure, what's the alternative? So you sit back, and keep staring.

click to enlarge Krumpers Lil'; C and Tight Eyez show off their moves in - David LaChapelle's documentary-film debut, Rize. - DAVID LACHAPELLE
  • David LaChapelle
  • Krumpers Lil'; C and Tight Eyez show off their moves in David LaChapelle's documentary-film debut, Rize.
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