Kids at Twenty
July 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
Kids was the first movie I ever trekked to see. Unrated and saddled with a reputation (“racy”; “controversial”; “provocative”) out of the gate, there was no way it would fly at the mall theaters. I eventually found the listing in the Boston Phoenix. I had to leave the suburbs to see it, and so I dragged a friend to Cambridge with me.
At that time, I was a few years older than the kids in Kids, and I had never been to New York. The actors were younger than me, amateurs pulled off the street. It was an authentic move: the characters talked like they lived there on the Upper East Side. Leo Fitzpatrick, who plays Telly, was picked for his role when Larry Clark saw him skateboarding in Washington Square. It wasn’t long before Chloë Sevigny was showing up in streetwear ads in Spin magazine and Rosario Dawson was appearing in mainstream films like Josie and the Pussycats.
Why was I so interested in seeing Kids? I was a sophomore in college at the time, trying to cram a part-time job into a full-time schedule. I was frustrated and bitter. Merrimack was a lonely place, its square campus pinned between highways, and sickly proud of its apartness from alt-culture. It was Irish Catholics drinking Bud Ice and listening to Neil Young and Pearl Jam and smoking weed and losing money at cards and Sega.
There was also a lot of hooking up, or at least attempts to hook up, which wasn’t a new thing but was still difficult for me to reconcile. Hooking up meant posturing, lying about yourself, scoring points and throwing people away. I was guilty of posturing too, but I took the insolent defeatist loner route, the route that allows you to avoid having to engage. If Kids was going to take a probing look at the moral vacuity of young people and their shame-free vices, I wanted to see how closely it reflected the attitudes I saw.
Kids was released in 1995, near the beginning of the Giuliani administration, and it is interesting to estimate how much of the New York that Telly and Casper and Jenny walk through has since been cleaned up or gentrified away. The movie buries itself in the underground: amongst the ravers, the skaters, and the freakers—but we also see the households, the collectibles, and the childhood bedrooms as bases from which the kids operate.
The opening scene has antihero Telly open-mouth kissing a 12-year-old girl in her room: the audio gets right in on the teeth and wet suck. “You know what I wanna do?” Telly barely enunciates. “You want to fuck me,” she says, practically resigned to the fact. They are in their underwear. In the space between them, we can see the girl’s collection of stuffed animals and awards displayed against the far wall.
Telly collects his quarry, then races downstairs, where his friend Casper waits on the stoop. They shoplift malt liquor forties from a convenience store; they watch skater videos and do nitrous oxide in a friend’s apartment; they steal money from Telly’s mother, who is preoccupied with her newborn. They skate in Washington Square Park and join a crowd in pummeling a black man who bumps into Casper, not stopping until the man is left unconscious on the pavement.
In taking the virginities of girls, Telly is the only character in Kids with a professed interest. Sexual conquest is his means of keeping score, of knowing he is alive. There is a whole method behind it, which he lays out to Casper:
I want to knock her guard down. I mean there’s a whole
philosophy behind it. Having a virgin suck your dick, that’s
basic because there’s nothing lost.
It’s no big deal, right?
Right. But when you deflower a girl, that’s it. You did it.
You were the one. No one else can ever do it.
The nameless 12-year-old from the first scene is never seen again. (Not only in the movie: the actress’s name is Sarah Henderson, and Kids was her only film; she never appeared in another.)
Harmony Korine was 19, barely a kid himself, when he wrote the script for Kids. A transplant from Nashville to New York, he had befriended Larry Clark while Clark was photographing the skaters in Washington Square. As he explains in Eric Hynes’ excellent and comprehensive “’Kids’: The Oral History of the Most Controversial Film of the Nineties”:
I was trying to entertain myself, to crack myself up, to invent new ways to get in trouble, new ways to mess with people, new ways to make people angry. You can’t discount how excited I was, and we were, with the idea of making people — and grown-ups specifically — angry.
Critics, even today, watch Kids and come away with the sense that Clark’s real objective was to made a documentary of New York youth culture. As Adam Taylor wrote in the Awl in 2010, that portrayal ended up selling the city as glamorous to outsiders:
These kids were the “real deal.” I clearly was not. New York City was a playground for them, full of drink, drugs and sex. My life, in suburban London, was the definition of leafy, and my social life revolved largely around the Nintendo 64. I wore glasses and I couldn’t skateboard. In fact, no one I knew could really skateboard. I was sold on the New York City exported by the film.
Ten years later I now live in New York, and I barely recognize it from the film. There are no skateboarders in Washington Square Park, just NYU students. The East Village is full of bars with beer pong tables in the back, Ivy educations and Japanese restaurants. I still don’t know anyone who skateboards.
A question to be asked is why Korine felt the need to imbue Kids with a moralistic tinge. The hype that the movie received—“a wake-up call to the world,” boasted the trailers—seemed to expect Kids to frighten children away from such behavior, and alert parents to what their kids were doing when they weren’t looking.
I remember not being shocked at all by the actions in Kids, but thinking, yes, this is exactly where kids want to go. I recognized the slick workarounds, the slurred rhetoric of manipulation; I recognized Telly’s bony, freckly shoulders; I recognized Casper’s squint and saunter, his bringing up of phlegm, and his habit of idly shoving his hand down his shorts. I recognized the looks in the faces of the girls, both frightened and impressed by the audacity of the boys.
Jennie learns she is HIV-positive, and Telly is the only boy she has slept with. Knowing his predilection for virgins ripe for the picking, she goes on a hunt to find him. It is the one act of responsibility in a movie that documents the perils of its avoidance, and it ends with passed-out Jennie bent in half and raped by Casper on the squishy Naugahyde sofa next to three shirtless, passed-out preteen Latino boys.
Meanwhile, Telly has decided that he wants to take the virginity of a girl named Darcy. There is the scene where Telly calls up to Darcy’s window, trying to lure her to join them at the public pool. A few friends have joined them from the park, including two girls, and while Telly works to convince Darcy, Casper spoons a girl who leans back into him, allowing him to caress her bare stomach; another rubs his hand up and down a girl’s bare thigh. These subtle maneuvers epitomize the ritual of the scheme that Korine and Clark want to bring to the fore.
Twenty years later, the fears and attitudes that drove the film no longer carry the same propulsion. AIDS does not have the same specter it did then, and the race-against-the-clock narrative (Jenny trying to find Telly before he can harm Darcy) doesn’t have any value in a generation with cell phones and Internet at hand. As a result, the film has become somewhat more of a documentary than it had been when it was released; when you re-watch Kids, you find new places where the lens lingers. It takes time to admire young torsos (a subject that comes up again in Larry Clark’s photography), watches as Telly and Casper manage the streets and subway lines, and admires the oddities of city culture; there is a transitional scene towards the end where we are taken on a ride through the streets, with stops to look at the odd homeless character or park curiosity, against the swirls of Folk Implosion’s “Raise the Bells,” an aural oddity that is reminiscent of a classroom filmstrip complete with off-key fuzzy cassette soundtrack. It is a sobering juxtaposition, as it comes just after the traumatic extended scene of Casper raping Jennie, and just before Casper wakes up again to utter the final line: “Jesus Christ, what happened?”
The drama in Kids is almost Shakespearean, in that the majority of the characters end up silently doomed. It ends with a visual body count: the passed-out young people piled up in the apartment, all over the floors and the furniture. And while Fitzpatrick, Sevigny, and Dawson have gone on to become stars, it’s almost tragically appropriate that both Justin Pierce, who played Casper, and Harold Hunter, who played one of the skater kids from the park, died young. The rough New York in which the kids were allowed to wreak havoc is also gone, scrubbed clean. Korine has said that it’s not possible to make a film like Kids anymore, and it’s not just due to the access of technology that would easily allow Jennie to get ahold of Telly. It’s that the romantic underground that Kids is all about no longer exists.