Kids, a film about a bunch of hard-living New York City kids, premiered 15 years ago today. The film still seems to define an era of New York City-the pre-Giuliani 90s; a golden era for hip hop, skateboarding and indie rock. New York City was the coolest city in the world, and by extension, its kids were the coolest in the world.
Director Larry Clark, 52 at the time, set out to capture on film the variety of depravity of youth on which he’d fixated throughout his long career in photography. He enlisted the help of 18-year-old writer Harmony Korine, as well as a bunch of East Village skater kids and a certain up-and-coming Sassy magazine intern to create a race-against-the-clock story, set before a background of teenage decadence and HIV.
The plot seems inconsequential compared to some of the set pieces: the opening shots of the â€˜Virgin Surgeon’ Telly deflowering an impossibly young looking girl; Caspar beating a man twice his age with his skateboard; Harold Hunter slapping his penis between his thighs in a public pool. It was crude, yet compelling-Kids felt authentic and thus gained importance because of its perceived authenticity. The lives these 13-to-17-year-olds lived seemed real. Janet Maslin of the then particularly dreary New York Times called it a “wake up call to the world”-this was then touted in the trailer.
When I saw the film, I was around the same age as the kids in it. There was a stark contrast between my life and “theirs.” (That this film was actually a work of fiction was easy to forget.) 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.
It seems that in many ways the city seems to have forgotten the film, just as many of those involved in the film also seem happy to forget it. Some might expect some sort of celebration of the 15th anniversary of the film, but few seem to be talking. (Larry Clark’s agent did not respond to inquiries.) Harmony Korine has moved away from the realism of that film’s concept and execution, settling most recently on a bizarre faux-realism in his faux-documentary Trash Humpers. “It was not a movie I was dying to tell,” he has said of Kids. And our Sassy intern, Chloe Sevigny, has since said that she can’t bear to watch the film, and that she doesn’t like the movie much.
Perhaps the movie holds unhappy memories for some. While two members of the cast, Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, found significant success after, another two died young-Justin Pierce killed himself in a Las Vegas hotel room and Harold Hunter died of a drug overdose in the same East Village project housing that he grew up in (friends and family later donated money to pay for a funeral). It’s evident that despite being in an important film, few members of the cast were able to convert their bad beginnings into a good career.
One man who hasn’t moved on as much appears to be Clark. “With “Kids” I thought I got it right,” he told Salon in 2001, “I worked hard on the film. I hung out with Kids all the time. I got the idea and the story for the film from hanging out with Kids.” His later, progressively less successful films, such as Bully and Wassup Rockers, deal with extremely similar themes. His current project, Savage Innocent, sits in classic Clark territory-a teen running away from an abusive home (his remake of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, apparently to star Mickey Rourke, appears to be on hiatus). Clark’s intentions are, as ever, difficult to dicipher. Is he some kind of permanent teenager, celebrating the life he lives, or is he ultimately cynical, selling teenage self-abuse to voyeurs around the world?
Fifteen years on, the cast, city and audience of Kids might have moved on, but the film itself remains troubling. It walks a tightrope between exploitation and art. Clark still seems completely comfortable with that, both in film and in photography. Kids portrayed a city that I never knew-and what’s most worrisome is to think that maybe, just maybe, it never existed, except to be sold to me.
Adam Taylor is a journalist-type living in Brooklyn. He is English and sorry about that.