In the summer of 1995, I was finishing my junior year of high school. I was writing poetry, getting heavily into economic theory, and making movies with my mother’s high 8 video camera. I lived in Queens but my boyfriend lived in Stuyvesant Town. This was when Stuy Town was solely low-income housing, before Bloomberg let corporate douche bags and millennials on economic assistance from their parents move in. This was the city before Giuliani ruined it, before 9/11 made us more calculating, before we started trading physical spaces for digital ones. It was cheap, it was grimy, and it was beautiful.
New York at the time was chuck-full of nobodies, people with a disregard for conventional ideals of success, and art was more something you secreted and less something you crafted. The city was like a playground on a minefield. You had to be savvy enough to tell the difference between the guy who’s going to jump you and the one who’s got a dime bag you can buy. We were playing at grown-up but doing the things we thought the grown ups should be doing not the other way around. The limitations of adulthood seemed arbitrary, stupid, beneath us. We were kids.
For anyone who lived it, Larry Clark’s film, Kids, is a faithful portrayal of nineties inner city adolescence.
For anyone who lived it, Larry Clark’s film, Kids, is a faithful portrayal of nineties inner city adolescence. Highly controversial and containing some of the most discomforting sexual sequences between minors, the film has been called everything from brilliant to gratuitous to kiddie porn. Regardless or perhaps because of it, it went on to become one of the most financially successful independent films of the nineties and to launch the careers of both Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny.
Shot in a faux-documentary style, the film follows a day in the life of several teenagers throughout the course of one hot summer day. Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is on the prowl for virgins. His friends call him the “Virgin Surgeon” because his ultimate erotic high is deflowering girls younger than himself (he’s fifteen) and to do so without protection. Meanwhile, Ruby (Rosario Dawson) has recently had unprotected sex and asks her friend Jenny (Chloë Sevigny) to go to the clinic with her to get tested. Though Ruby has had approximately seven sexual partners and Jenny just one, it’s Jenny who tests positive for HIV.
She spends the rest of the day trying to find Telly, whom she contracted the virus from, in order to keep him from spreading it to young unsuspecting girls. The film’s focus on drugs, alcohol, violence and sexual perversions at times takes on the tone of a teenage horror movie. The circumstances are so hyperbolic that they reach the caliber of an urban legend. Yet, the world and the characters that populate it are faithful to that time, and the implications of these young people’s licentious behavior sends shivers down anyone’s spine and makes the film, for better or worse, difficult to watch.
Bronx-based actress Zulaika Velazquez was just fifteen when she was tapped to audition for the film, and recalls how her mother checked and double-checked to see if her daughter would be comfortable playing a part that would require her to deliver pages of dialogue depicting explicit sexual acts. “I went to an all girls high school,” she says, “And this is actually the stuff you listened to on a daily basis. It wasn’t anything I had never heard before.”
Zulaika Velazquez was just fifteen when she was tapped to audition… a part that would require her to deliver pages of dialogue depicting explicit sexual acts.
Though most kids of the time were not like those kids in the movie, there isn’t a single character in the film that isn’t believable. In high schools then, as in high schools today, there are slimy dudes who can’t control their libido and would do anything to get laid, even if it meant blurring the lines of consent.
The nineties were also a time when AIDS had left the gay ghetto and entered the suburbs, and there wasn’t a single sex ed class that didn’t include copious amounts of information regarding the virus. Fear imbued any and all physical interactions precisely during a stage in development when teenagers are discovering their bodies and deciphering their desires. The conceit of the film, the usage of the illness as a type of weapon, perfectly coincides with the frantic preoccupations of a young person who is trying to both engage and control their libido. Looking back on it now, sex was less about pleasure and more about taking ownership of one’s body and assuming all the risks involved; each encounter becoming a wager with mortality.
Clark’s emphasis on decadence and budding sexuality are a carry-overs from his work as a photographer. His 1971 book Tulsa documents the lives of young people in the fringes: heroin addicts, prostitutes, runaways, the byproducts of civilization. Tulsa was a huge inspiration for the likes of Nan Goldin, and for Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader in their conception of Taxi Driver. Clark was born in Oklahoma to a mom who did baby portrait photography. He dropped out of high school, did a stint in Vietnam and was a heroin addict for ten years before moving to New York in the early 1990s, where he met the writer of his first feature film, Harmony Korine.
A privileged white kid from Tennessee whose grandmother lived in Queens, Korine met Clark on the street. He was a skater and player in the scene that populated the Astor Place Cube and Washington Square Park. Upon setting up shop in NYC, Clark had begun to photograph the skaters and found in Korine a collaborator. Korine wrote the script at eighteen. It somehow made its way into the hands of Gus Van Sant, who was slated to produce the film. However after a litany of rejections and the old financial runaround, Christine Vachon at Killer Films picked it up.
The hapless approach to the conception of the film continued on through casting. Clark and Korine discovered Dawson when she was sitting on the stoop of her East Village tenement. In interviews, Dawson has said that she found the interaction arresting, “It was this lascivious guy saying, ‘I’m a photographer but I’m making a movie right now.” Still, it was Clark’s spontaneity and carefree attitude that brought a type of authenticity to the screen. His poise with non-actors left an impression on Velazquez, who said this about being on set with him: “You could tell that he knew exactly what he wanted but he also kinda wanted things to occur naturally. He really wanted the actors to be themselves. And he wanted to capture life, to capture what kids do on a daily basis without them actually acting.”
“There was a friend of mine who went to see it and she called my mom and said, ‘Ines, no vayas.’”
Production was, according to the rumor mill, fraught with disagreements between Korine and Clark. Having dozens of teenagers on the set of a indie movie also proved to be challenging at times. “When you work with that many youngsters things can get a little out of hand,” Velazquez recalls. During the club scene, for example, some of them were in fact drinking. Still, as per Velazquez’s recollection, the crew maintained an air of professionalism throughout. The film went on to create careers but it also left others destroyed in its wake. Justin Pierce who played Casper, Telly’s best friend, committed suicide in 2005 in Las Vegas and Harold Hunter, a skater and beloved downtown personality, died of a drug overdose in 2008. Hamilton Harris, another performer, has been working on a documentary about the actors in a film titled The Kids. It’s meant to take a more in depth look at the realities of those who participated in the original Kids film and what adulthood would eventually bring them.
Upon its completion, the film was snuck into an unannounced midnight screening at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose company Miramax had been purchased by Disney, bought the film. It was slapped an NC-17 rating so in order to release it without compromising the Disney brand, they created a side company called Shining Excalibur. At a budget of $1.5 million, Kids went on to gross $7 million nationally and $20 million globally.
I didn’t see the film when it was released. Neither did Velazquez. “There was a friend of mine who went to see it” she says, “and she called my mom and said, ‘Ines, no vayas.’”
Velazquez eventually let go of her trepidations and watched it, particularly because she wanted to see what everybody was talking about. She says she’s proud of the film. “I love it because it takes cojones for somebody to make a film like that. And to me if you’re going to make art, you need to make a statement.” Like it or not Kids has become part of the cultural consciousness, the vita activa of the Clinton nineties. Indeed, it is impossible to bring up the film and not have an hour-long conversation about it.
At the very least it is a testament to a time, a portrait of the seen unseen: a group of people easily disregarded by adults because they didn’t pay taxes, didn’t work, didn’t know shit from Shinola. You watch it for the same reasons you stare at a car crash: because you can’t turn away. We engage with the image by telling ourselves it is not us and we keep on watching because it is such a true reflection of us. The film represents a version of the fully jaded, those who have reached the zenith of cynicism at only fifteen.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting a 20th anniversary screening of Kids on June 25, 2015 including a Q&A with director Larry Clark, co-writer Harmony Korine, and actors Chloë Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Rosario Dawson.