Among the few things Americans seem to agree on these days is that our children are in trouble; the causes and cures may be debated, but the diagnosis has reached a point of consensus. To judge, however, by the praise showered by legions of adults on a recent film, Kids, our children are hardly the only ones in trouble.
Larry Clark, the director of Kids, is a fifty-two-year-old ex-convict and drug user who has devoted his professional career to the depiction of children at the nexus of sex, violence, and death. What has shaped his own life, he has said on more than one occasion, is the fact that he underwent puberty late and missed out on what adolescence is all about. “I’m a case of arrested development,” he told New York magazine. “It’s always been a fantasy of mine to go back to high school and do it again.” Accordingly, Clark spends much of his time with teenagers, and can frequently be found skateboarding with them in New York’s Washington Square Park. His own board is custom-made, emblazoned with the picture of a young girl, winking, bent over with her genitals on display from the rear.
Before directing Kids, Clark produced several collections of still photography. His first work, Tulsa, a look back at the drugged-out wasteland of his earlier years, earned him a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, Teenage Lust, features photographs of nude teenagers. In one, a girl in a drug-induced stupor lies with a boy on top of her. The caption reads: “They met a girl on acid at Bryant Park at 6 A.M. and took her home. . . .” Other pages in Teenage Lust depict a boy with an erection pointing a gun at a tied-up, naked young girl. Yet another collection, Larry Clark 1992, contains photographs of a boy dressed only in boxer shorts, a T-shirt, and socks who—gun in mouth and penis faintly visible through his underwear—is, we are informed by Clark, about to commit suicide. Among other ambitions, Clark has admitted a desire to photograph a sexually stimulated young boy in the process of murdering his parents. “God! What a f—ing image!” he says.
Kids is Clark’s first foray into film, but it is very much in the tradition of his photographic work. It follows a group of predominantly white teenagers around New York City over a 24-hour period during their summer vacation. The film opens by introducing us to its main character, Telly—a vividly acted “virgin surgeon” whose only aim is to deflower “young baby girls”—in bed with a thriteen-year-old. Telly, it turns out, has AIDS. We learn this when one of his young sexual partners, Jennie, providing moral support, accompanies her sexually promiscuous friend Ruby to a clinic, only to discover that she herself tests positive for the disease. This is a shock because, unlike Ruby, who is found to be HIV-negative, Jennie is something of a novice and a prude: “I only had sex one time, with one boy,” she protests.
In the remainder of the film the camera follows Telly, his sidekick Casper, and Jennie on their separate paths. Jennie spends her day searching for Telly, hoping some-how to stop him before he victimizes another girl. Meanwhile, Telly and Casper engage in various adventures around Manhattan.
Before heading out for the night, the two boys visit Telly’s mother, the only parent visible in the film. She is smoking a cigarette while nursing her newborn baby. Casper ogles her breasts, and later dips a tampon in a glass of red Kool-Aid and proceeds to suck it dry. Telly kicks the family cat, lies to his mother, steals money from his father’s hidden stash, and the pair set off for Washington Square Park. On the way downtown, they urinate in public, jump subway turnstiles, all the while conversing in imitation “gangsta rap.” At the park they join friends with whom they skateboard, heckle homosexuals, smoke dope, nearly beat a black youth to death in front of numerous bystanders (in one of many wildly implausible scenes), and then plan their engagements for the night.
Telly and Casper have a busy schedule. Telly cajoles a thirteen-year-old girl to go skinny-dipping at a closed public swimming pool. Once there he woos her with the very same lines he had used with success in the film’s opening frames. The rest of the group is busy with various distractions: a black teenager proudly exhibits his sexual organ; two girls demonstrate lesbian French-kissing; the boys make unwanted sexual advances to the girls. After the swim, they all adjourn to a party in a home where the parents are away.
And Jennie? Missing Telly at Washington Square Park, she looks for him in a club where a gaggle of teens huddle in a corner groping each other in a drug-induced frenzy. Before she leaves, a friend compels her to take an unidentified pill that reduces her to a dumb stupor. Eventually, Jennie tracks Telly down at the party. But just as she arrives, he is claiming his latest prize in the absent parents’ bedroom, his victim shouting in pain. Jennie is too late. Whatever she wanted to say or do, we never learn. She simply turns around, steps out of the room, hobbles over the unconscious teenagers strewn across the floor, and passes out on the couch. The next morning, Casper wakes up in the bathtub, staggers out to the living room, and rapes her as she sleeps. In the last words spoken in the film, he asks, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”
One thing that happened is that Kids became an instant classic, hyped not only as a great work of art but as a deep cautionary statement for our times. Film Comment proclaimed it a “profoundly important and utterly compelling masterpiece.” To Gene Siskel, it was “a brilliant depiction of kids adrift without parental involvement.” Janet Maslin of the New York Times declared it to be a “wake-up call to the world.”
Many agreed with this judgment. In fact, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), citing the film’s “explicit sex, language, drug use, and violence, involving children,” had the effrontery to give Kids a rating of NC-17, which theoretically would have made it off-limits to viewers under seventeen, a vigorous protest was mounted. Alan Dershowitz and others lodged an appeal with the MPAA to reduce the rating to an R. “I honestly believe,” explained Dershowitz, “there will be an outcry from adults wanting to take their kids to see this film.” On the other side of the political spectrum, L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the conservative Media Research Center, went even further. “Hopeless members of this lost generation,” he wrote, “should be allowed—forced—to see Kids.” As the movie’s run was extended and its distribution increased, similar endorsements came flocking in.
What is it about Kids that has caused so many people, sensible and otherwise, to believe that Larry Clark has written a prescription for America’s youth, one that, in Dershowitz’s words, will “save lives”?
For one thing, the film, to use the language of its reviewers, is indeed “compelling” and even “spellbinding.” The cinematography and acting are technically excellent, and the film—shot with the visual hallmarks of a documentary, but actually scripted down to every expletive and sexual assault—exudes a feeling of realism that, willy-nilly, turns the viewer into a voyeur. As the camera luxuriates over the bodies of young girls screaming with pain in the act of losing their virginity, one cannot help squirming in a combination of anxiety, shame, and—to use the old-fashioned term—prurient interest.
For another thing, Kids goes to great lengths to create the impression that these could be anyone’s children. Telly evidently comes from a two-parent, working-class family with a stay-at-home mother. His first virgin lives in a posh townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When Casper, easily the most unsavory kid in Kids, meets Telly’s mother, he is for the most part rather polite, giving little hint of his darker side. Jennie is almost certainly well-to-do; she spends hours in taxis, cruising from one end of Manhattan to the other. With such familiar and plausible characters at its center, Kids, like many teen films before it, succeeds in part by playing on a deeply rooted and widespread social anxiety: what bad things do good children do when they are out of their parents’ sight?
Finally, the film does the one thing that in the 1990’s is almost certain to garner critical acclaim for a work of art: it takes up the subject of AIDS. “It’s a great film,” declared no less an expert than Madonna. “It should be seen by anyone practicing unsafe sex.” In USA Today, the head of LIFEbeat, the principal AIDS-awareness group of the music industry, called Kids “a horrifying case study of how the HIV virus spreads” and added: “It’s unforgivable that the [NC-17] rating could shut out the very people this film would impact the most.”
Yet even aside from the question of whether offering a lecture on “unsafe sex” makes a movie into a masterpiece, there is something peculiar about the way AIDS is portrayed in this film. In Kids, the good girls get the dread disease, while the wild girls are HlV-free. This is not moralism, it is rank cynicism. Nor is there the slightest evidence for concluding that Larry Clark, who has patiently explained that his movie is about “sex, sex, sex,” is trying to save the world from the scourge of AIDS. Adults who choose to believe otherwise have already begun to answer the question of why American children are in trouble.
The notion that some teenager somewhere will be taught to practice safe sex by seeing Kids is absurd, and defending the movie on those grounds (as Lynne V. Cheney noted in the Weekly Standard) is like defending Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs on the grounds that they warn us about the dangers of sadomasochism. Teenage viewers might just as easily, and much more honestly, take away the opposite moral from this evil movie, the moral which HIV-negative Ruby and her giddy schoolgirl friends loudly embrace in a rap session lovingly captured on film by Larry Clark: “Nothing beats f—ing!”