Are the Kids All Right?
Larry Clark's Proto-Hipster Teen Grotesque Turns 20
I almost killed my mother almost immediately. On the night I was born, in New York Hospital, in the fall of 1984, I tore something inside her that the resident on call did not see. When she complained the next day that the pain was still terrible, the nurses shushed her, saying first time mothers simply had to learn what pain was. When she finally managed to stand up, a wall of blood burst out of her, soaking through her flimsy hospital slippers. They gave her a transfusion right away. Anyone who was in New York at the time knows that to be saved by seven bags of strangers’ blood in the fall of 1984 was to start a whole new cycle of worries. The hospitals did not start screening their supply for HIV until January. All around the city, people were dying of the disease it caused. My mother refused to get tested. “What would have been the point?” she asks, when I ask her about it now. In the mid-eighties a positive result was a death sentence. She was fine after all, but I think it may have been the last time she ever failed to worry about something. I almost killed her with worry all through my childhood and adolescence.
The CDC called the communities hit hardest by AIDS the “four Hs”: homosexuals, heroin users, Haitians and hemophiliacs. My parents were white, middle to upper-middle class, observant Catholics and straight as far as I know. We lived in a South Brooklyn neighborhood that was just starting to gentrify. But there, too, people were dying. The gay couple my parents bought our house from. The brother of one of our closest family friends. My mother’s uncle in Flatbush, leaving behind a wife and seven children. The priest at the church we went to every Sunday. Though in his case, we had to pretend we did not recognize the symptoms.
As time passed, the panic ebbed. There were antiretroviral drugs that kept you alive if you could afford them. Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the crack and needles by aggressively arresting the poor; rising real-estate prices took care of the rest. But when someone writes the definitive history of my generation of New Yorkers, they will have to account for what it did to us to grow up hearing constantly that sex meant death. The “health” classes that were introduced into public schools, in the wake of the AIDS crisis, institutionalized this view. The curriculum in mine was unusually progressive: our teachers even alluded occasionally to pleasure. But they still taught us to feel terrified of the desires that we were coming into. Desire would kill us, they told us again and again.
At home my mother seemed to be afflicted by the same vague terror, subjecting me to much stricter rules than those followed by my friends. She was a Catholic and a worrier, sure. But I always sensed that AIDS raised the stakes of what might otherwise seem like petty transgressions. For instance, my mother made me promise that I would not watch Kids.
When Larry Clark’s film came out in the summer of 1995, I was too young to sneak into a theater. It later became a touchstone among my friends, who all watched a VHS copy together on one of the half-day afternoons when my mother made me come right home. At the time, the press hailed Kids as “raw,” “frank,” “honest” and “gritty”—all adjectives that boasted of its fidelity to the realities of kids just a little older than me. I couldn’t judge for myself since I never got around to seeing it. Watching it now, at thirty, those words still seem apt for describing something important about the film. But that something is not its realism.
How Kids came to be is a bit of a legend. The director, Larry Clark, had made his reputation in the early 1970s, when he published a book of black-and-white photographs of him and his friends from the suburbs of his hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma, shooting up amphetamines and lounging around, often half-dressed or undressed. It earned him a notoriety that he rode to New York. In 1993, a younger new arrival, the aspiring screenwriter Harmony Korine, noticed Clark in Washington Square Park, where he was trying to learn how to skateboard and taking photographs of the skaters and punks who spent their days getting high and practicing tricks around the basin. Clark had recently directed his first music video and he had an idea for a screenplay about teens like these getting AIDS. He asked Korine, who was 19 at the time, if he thought he could write it. Korine said yes.
Korine has sometimes claimed that he wrote the Kids script in a single week. Other times he has said three. He and Clark recruited amateur actors they met downtown: Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny, among others like the skating prodigy Harold Hunter. There were some glitches during production. Gus van Sant signed up to produce and then dropped out, though the credits still name him. The lead actress was fired; Sevigny, who had originally been given a bit part, stepped into her larger role after shooting had already started. Miramax bought distribution rights, but parent company Walt Disney balked when the MPAA gave Kids an NC-17 rating; Miramax eventually had to create an independent company to get it shown in theaters.
In the style of a documentary, the film loosely follows a group of friends through one day hanging around Manhattan in the sweltering heat of early summer. The focus is on Telly (Fitzpatrick) and Casper (Pierce), two friends who roam around the city looking for girls and booze and weed and prescription drugs. Each is a sociopath in his own way. Telly is a self-professed “virgin surgeon,” obsessed with deflowering and then immediately abandoning as many 12- and 13-year-olds as he can. “It’s like getting fame… if you die, 50 years from now those virgins will remember you,” his friend Casper goads him on. Casper is less successful, sexually, and (perhaps therefore) more prone to violence. At one point, in response to a trivial insult, he takes his skateboard and beats a stranger in Washington Square Park almost to death.
The secondary main characters are two girlfriends: Ruby, played by Dawson, and Jennie, played by Sevigny. When Ruby, who is far more sexually experienced, goes to get tested for STDs, Jennie agrees to accompany her, even though she has only ever slept with Telly. Ruby comes away with a clean bill of health; Jennie tests positive for HIV. After failing to reach Telly by payphone, she spends the rest of the day trying to track him down. Meanwhile, he has decided that he wants to deflower his friend’s younger sister, Darcy.
Ruby quickly drops out and for the rest of the film the camera cuts between Telly and Casper on their path and Jennie on hers, chasing them all over the Lower East Side streets where they dissipate their days—from a flophouse run by a teenager, to Telly’s mother’s cramped apartment, to a public pool that the boys and a few other friends climb a fence to break into, to a rave called NASA, where colored lights flash over Jennie’s face. There, Korine himself makes a cameo as a friend who gives her a pill reputed to “make Special K look weak.” It is a plot that would have seemed less plausible even a few years later, as pagers spread; today, in an era of ubiquitous cell phones it could never happen. But in 1995 it was still possible to spend 24 hours off the grid.
At a final house party, we see kids hooking up and puking and passing out. Jennie does not get to Telly before he takes Darcy’s virginity; she walks in on him hammering at her while she whimpers, “Telly, stop, that hurts.” Jennie passes out and is raped, horribly, by Casper—pants and panties tugged off; legs hoisted up, askew, like a rag doll’s; ankle socks left on—while other unconscious friends continue sleeping beside them.
The final shot, famously, shows the morning after. Casper wakes up and looks groggily over the wreckage of the party. Then he looks straight into the camera, and asks, in an emblem for the entire film:
“Jesus Christ, what happened?”
What I feel most, watching Kids in 2015, is that it is shallow. I mean this partly as praise. The shallowness is the key to the film’s ability to transport us into the world of its characters, as if participating in their refusal to think of consequences, to look beyond the here and now.
On a visual level, the action takes place almost entirely in close-up and medium shots. More often than not, the bodies of the amateur child actors fill the frame. Even in the traveling shots, where the camera follows them swaggering down city streets, it usually remains closely trained on them, so that we see little of what they are walking past. I spent countless afternoons hanging around St. Mark’s Place in the late 1990s, yet I don’t recognize it until afterwards, when I read a list of shooting locations. There are no “postcard” establishing shots to show that the skateboarding scenes take place in Washington Square Park, for instance. The style presumes that whoever is watching is already in the know. The effect is a sense of intimacy; we see the mole on one of Telly’s scrawny shoulders, and enter Ruby and Jennie’s points of view as they scan the brightly colored posters lining the walls of the STD clinic. At the same time, the cinematography captures the characters’ sense of dislocation. They know the map of their world all too well; they are dead bored, yet have no idea where they are going. With them, we get lost.
Kids nails many of the ethnographic details of teen life in New York in the Nineties. I was not prepared for how nostalgic it would make me feel. The busker singing “Danny Boy” in the 77th Street subway station. The baggy pants and baby tees. The soundtrack flip-flopping between screaming rock and calmer hip-hop.
The way the characters talk often veers off into self-parody. The boys greet each other with “yo, yo, yo”; they are “just chillin’ and shit”; the skate video they watch after a friend “smokes them out” is “the bomb.” They append an “or some shit” or “and shit” to every statement. The white boys call one another “nigga” endlessly. The girls boast of their sexual expertise and enthusiasm to one another in terms as unconvincingly generic as they are crass. “There’s a difference between ‘having sex,’ ‘making love’ and ‘fucking,’” one announces confidently. Is there, now? my grown-up self wants to tease them. But I talked that way, too, once.
The endearments that Telly uses to seduce girls (Girl: “Do you care about me?” Telly: “Of course I do”) and the slurs he uses to disparage them to Casper later (“I fucked that bitch”) are equally clichéd. We see even the littlest kids dropping vulgarities to prove their macho callousness (“How do you like your pussy?” one kid who looks nine or ten asks another). Authentic in their inauthenticity, these exchanges duplicate the sense of immediacy that the cinematography conveys at the level of character. It’s a kind of anti-psychology. The kids don’t know why they do what they do any more than they know where it will take them.
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The problem is that Kids reproduces the superficiality that makes it so stylistically compelling in its approach to its subject matter. Watching it today, I was hoping for an account of the ways that the fear of AIDS shaped how young people in that time and place learned about desire. Instead the film recasts the virus into the threat lurking in the background of a kind of nightmare fairy tale. The role that HIV plays is to give a sense of momentum to what is basically an observational essay.
If the signature of the film’s cinematography is its tight composition, the trope that guides its editing is crosscutting. It is by cutting back and forth between the aimless wanderings of Telly and Casper, and the urgent searching of Jennie, that Kids generates suspense. The ticking time bomb scenario provides the simplest kind of narrative engine: How does she stop him before he gives the disease to someone else?
Despite the film’s implicit promise to depict the “real story” of kids in the Nineties, the scenario it depicts was highly improbable. By the mid-nineties, the largest number of new HIV infections in New York occurred in African Americans, followed by gay men. Even if Telly, the straight white middle-class kid played by Fitzpatrick, had HIV, the chance that Jennie would contract it by having unprotected sex with him once is about 2 percent. The likelihood that Darcy would get it from their encounter is similarly tiny.
In a 1997 interview, the feminist writer and activist bell hooks criticized Kids for its regressive gender and racial politics, pointing out that two white, misogynistic males drive the action, while the filmmakers evince little interest in the experiences of the Latinos and African Americans who orbit them throughout the day. I agree with bell hooks’s criticisms. And I would add that the film reduces HIV, too, to a gesture. Rather than exploring how it shaped, and unmade, lives, it reduces the disease to one more slick bit of style, something to add suspense where the film might otherwise risk aimlessness and to heighten the aura of transgression. While it manages to capture the sense, instilled in us by our health teachers, that disease and death would be the price of desire, it does little more than that. Instead of examining the myths that loomed over the teen minds of that era, it enlarges them.
The sense of exaggeration, of making myths from one’s own daily life, may be the element of Kids that now feels most prescient. I remember the fracas that Kids caused when it came out. In the 1990s, the hysterical atmosphere of the “culture wars” made it easy to take sides, and at the time my knee-jerk reaction was to side with Kids. I was inclined to trust that Clark and Korine, whatever their sins, were fighting on the right side of what Pat Buchanan had called “the war for the soul of America.” I still would defend the filmmakers against Buchanan. But the way those debates were framed strikes me today as almost quaint.
The fight over Kids broke down along familiar lines. The liberal champions of the film assumed, and sometimes directly stated, that there was a value to truth-telling, both in itself and as a catalyst for change. Conservatives, on the other hand, insisted that to show the kinds of degeneracy depicted in Kids would hasten a process of degeneration that had begun (so they said) with feminist, sexual and gay liberation. Liberals heralded transgressive representation as a way of undoing repressive taboos that had kept society from honestly confronting its problems; conservatives cited the same representational practices as evidence of decline. Both camps operated on the presupposition that there was such a thing as the public sphere, constituted by the movie theater where real kids would go to see the film and by the journalistic discourse that surrounded it. Moreover, they seemed to believe that a debate about what kinds of discussions were appropriate to have in that sphere could shape its character.
In retrospect it is possible to see that the debate overlooked the real transformation that was taking place, both in youth culture and in the culture of images. The public sphere that older and younger Americans, and Americans of different ethnicities, socioeconomic classes and political commitments, had once been presumed to share was fragmenting. In 1990 only 200,000 households in the United States had internet connections; by 1993, that number was five million. So the debate over how Kids would affect “mainstream” American culture took place at precisely the moment when the mainstream was disappearing, leaving no one “soul of America” to defend.
Watched twenty years later, Kids looks like a harbinger of something—but not cultural progress or decline per se. Rather, what it anticipates is the rise of a youth culture based on provocative self-documentation. The material transformation of media that was fragmenting “mainstream” movies and journalism would soon make it possible for real kids to capture the look of their own lives, or the lives they want to look like they have, in the same glamorized “gritty” style that runs through Kids. It is easy to imagine the sleek and depthless images that Clark and Korine used to dramatize teenage life turning up on high-school students’ cell phones today—from the smoky party shots to the unbearable rape sequence. The film’s real legacy may be as an example of how to immortalize immaturity.