The Trouble with Kids
by Michael G. DeVoll
"Kids today!" This phrase, often uttered in exasperation by the "older generation" referring to the "younger generation," has been repeated for many years. You may also be uttering this phrase after seeing Larry Clark's film Kids.
The press kit for the film describes this fictional drama as a cautionary tale; “twenty-four frenetic hours in the lives of a group of contemporary teenagers who, like all teenagers, believe they are invincible." Clark has set out, it continues, "to capture the beauty and tragedy of youth" while he "confronts the reality of adolescent sexuality in American society." The story revolves around a group of teens from the skateboarding culture of New York City's Washington Square Park— "teenagers living in the urban melee of modern-day America," The press release-adds, "but while these kids dwell in the tug city; their story could, quite possibly, happen anywhere.”
The main story involves three teenagers—Telly, Casper and Jenny. The film opens with Telly talking an unnamed girl (possibly thirteen or fourteen-years-old) into having sex with him. It is her first time, but he "cares about" her and thinks she will really enjoy it. Afterwards, he meets Casper who has been waiting for him out front for two hours. They spend the rest of the day roaming around town—from Telly's house, to a flop house where they can get food, to the park to buy drugs, to a party at Steve's ("his parents are out of town"). Along the way, they steal beer from a convenience store, peaches from a fruit stand, and money from Telly's mother. They jump the subway turnstiles, urinate on the street, harass a gay couple, beat up a guy in the park, break into the public swimming pool after hours, sniff inhalants, smoke pot, drink beer (lots of beer), and talk almost constantly about sex. Telly's personal mission for the day is to find Darcy, the fourteen-year-old sister of a friend, and have sex with her. His raison d'etre is having sex with virgins. Casper's personal mission for the day seemingly is to follow Telly around and get as wasted as possible.
We first meet Jenny in a bedroom with four other girls talking about sex. We learn she was "de-virginized" by Telly a year ago, and even though he said he "cared for her," he has not talked to her since. The previous week, she had accompanied her friend Ruby to a clinic to get tested for HIV. Ruby wanted to be tested after recently having unprotected sex. In the clinic interview we learn that Ruby has had vaginal intercourse with "eight or nine guys" ("maybe four times unprotected”) and anal intercourse "three, no four times" (only once protected.) She is approximately sixteen or seventeen-years-old. Although, Jenny has only had intercourse once, she goes with Ruby to keep her company and is tested for HIV herself. Ruby tests negative and Jenny tests positive. Her personal mission for the day then becomes tracking down Telly and confronting him. She checks the flop house, a nightclub and finally the party at Steve's house.
There are two important factors to keep in mind. This film was directed by Larry Clark who is known for his gritty, brutally frank, documentary photographs of a young drug subculture. From an insider's point of view. Secondly, the screenplay was written by Harmony Korine, a nineteen-year-old male skateboarder Clark met in Manhattan's Washington Square Park.
Because Clark was “interested in the culture” of these skateboarders, he began photographing them. He came up with the idea of making a film about them but knew it had to he written by an insider. He had met a high school kid (Harmony) who said he was a writer, read one of his scripts, and asked him to write the screenplay. Three weeks later it was done.
The film has caused no little brouhaha. Although it won acclaim on the film festival circuit, when released nationally the MPAA slapped it with the dreaded NC-17 rating. The rating was based onthe graphic sexual language and the rampant drug use by seemingly underage kids. The sex scenes are not overly graphic and the language is no worse than many other recent films. Kids runs neck-in-neck with Goodfellas in the profanity race. The young age of the characters combined with these features may have prompted the ratings board to exceed the R-rating. The message implied by the rating seems to be that these actions are tolerable in adults, but border on obscene in minors. The film was unable to be released by Miramax (now owned by Disney) with this rating so Excalibur Films, a new distribution company, was set up for this purpose. Kids was released unrated.
So what is the point of this film? Clark calls it a cautionary tale—one that is instructive or a story with a didactic purpose. Clark is trying to teach us something. What do we learn from the film? We learn that teenagers are drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having unprotected sex. If you read the newspaper or turn on any daytime talk show, you already knew this. We also learn that having unprotected sex,even once, puts you at risk for HIV. With all the HIV/AIDS education done today, probably anyone over eighteen already knew the risks of unprotected. At one theater in Houston nobody under eighteen was admitted, while another theater posted an NC-17 rating. Assuming similar situations at theaters around the country, minors had little access to this film and its lessons.
If we accept Clark's film as a "cautionary tale," then his intention is to teach us something or change attitudes in some way. You have to demonstrate the cultural concept you are trying to modify, but it has to be done with a critical eye to discourage perpetuation. In this instance, a nineteen-year-old insider albeit screenwriter did not have the necessary tools to accomplish this end. The characters are too shallow for us to learn anything from them. In order for the audience to glean any knowledge from a story, change or growth in the characters during the course of the story is necessary. Since all the action takes place in the twenty-four hours, they don't have enough time to learn anything. These kids end up where they started. When Telly and Casper go to the park to buy drugs, they meet a group of kids. The extras in this scene seem to be very self-conscious in front of the camera. This points to a basic problem with this him. Watch a four-year-old in a group of adults—if the child does something cute or funny that gets the adults attention, the child will repeat that action endlessly to hold that attention. The writing of this film seemsto be all about repetition of action and language to the point of numbness on the part of the viewer. Are we seeing the reality of these kids' lives or are we seeing kids performing for shock value to get our attention? The problem is, once they get our attention, they don't tell us anything.
We do not learn the underlying causes of the kids' actions. Why is Telly a sexual compulsive with a fetish for virgins? Why does Casper spend all day completely wasted on alcohol and drugs? What has led either of them to this end so early in their lives? Why does Jenny, like so many other girls, let Telly talk her into having sex? Why does Jenny let a boy at a club force a pill into her mouth so that she spends the last half of the film strung out?
In addition to not learning the cause, we never learn the solution. There is one point at which some words of wisdom could be offered, but the writer misses the opportunity. Instead, he gives advice that any kid wishes adults would give. In a cab, Jenny talks to the driver, an older man, who tells Jenny she looks sad. When asked what’s wrong, she says "Everything’s wrong." So what words of advice does the haggard old sage offer: "Forget about it. Life is too short, so try and be happy." Just forget about it and don't worry about the fact you have a terminal illness. The treatment of the adult characters in the film is typical of a teenager's attitude. Telly's mom bugs him to get a job and lies to him about not having money. The two other adults in the film are the counselors at the clinic. I felt more compassion for them than for anyone else in the film. They seem to be drowning in a depressing, hopeless task of getting the teenagers to think about their lives beyond the present.
Many of the characterizations are also clichéd and sexist. The boys are the bragging, sexual aggressors who conquer and then go on their way. The girls are the blushing, sexual pacifists who are left alone to deal with the consequences of their actions. This is most vividly playedd out when Jenny finally finds Telly at the party while he is having sex with Darcy. Instead of actually confronting Telly, she looks on momentarily and then turns and leaves the room. After she passes out on the couch from the effects of the drugs, Casper comes around and quietly assaults Jenny while the other kids sleep in their drugged and drunken stupors all around the room.
However, my greatest concern with the film is Clark's perceived universality of the story. Clark says he has captured the "reality of adolescent sexuality in American society" that could "quite possibly, happen anywhere." There is no story that can capture the reality of a diverse American society. What he has captured is the reality, or hyper-reality, of a society of skateboarders in a small section of New York City. This is not to deny that the issues addressed are problems throughout the United States. But there are many other adolescents who, for avariety of reasons, have experienced or are experiencing a completely different day-to-day reality.
Clark has attempted to portray a "universal" teenage experience but has instead given us a bleak, hopelessview of small segment of teenage society. And he does it with clichés, sexist attitudes and shallow characters. At the end of the first scene of the film, as Telly is leaving the obviously upper-middle class home of his latest conquest, he leans over a stairway railing and spits on the dining room table below. This action may sum up the filmmaker's intention. It is good to question societal norms and, from time to time, issue a wake-up call to help people address society's problems. However, if you spit at the people you're attempting to reach, they may not listen to you.
Michael G. DeVoll is another artist who has given up still photography to pursue moving image. He works as HCP Associate Director.