KIDS: A FILM BY LARRY CLARK

November 15, 2012 Essays on Film

In recent decades virginity has emerged as a staple of contemporary cinema, most notably that lucrative genre known as the teen flick. Some directors have approached the topic from a satirical angle (the American Pie franchise, The Virginity Hit, In Virgin Territory), while others have opted for ostensibly darker, terrifying and murderous interpretations (like the horror caper Teeth). In American photographer Larry Clark’s directorial debut Kids (1995), virginity is more closely situated within the excesses and anxieties of adolescence.

An opening sequence can set the theme and tone of an entire film and few are as confronting as the sultry, sweaty and sexually charged opener to Kids. It’s summer in New York City. In the bedroom of an upper middle-class brownstone, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is pursuing his latest conquest. Half naked, skin glistening with beads of perspiration, Telly and his young lover are engaged in a slow, sluiced and intense kiss. Judging by the collection of plush toys in the background, the girl is barely in her teens. Deploying the charm of an experienced seducer, Telly persuades his young target into submission with a series of clunky, asinine sentiments (“I like you”, “I think if we fucked, you’d love it”, “I just wanna make you happy, that’s all”). The ensuing brutality of their intercourse is reinforced by Telly’s subsequent scathing voice-over: “Virgins. I love ’em. No diseases, no loose-as-a-goose pussy, no skank, no nothing. Just pure pleasure.”

What unfolds is twenty-four hours in the life of Telly, Casper and a motley cohort of restless, disaffected adolescents. We follow the pubescent predator and his sidekick Casper as they hit the streets of New York, the former boasting of his recent conquest, his penchant for fucking little baby girls and the irreversible power and privilege of taking a girl’s virginity. During the course of their Manhattan adventure, Telly and Caspar engage in shoplifting, source and abuse substances, rendezvous with other boys of their age, explode in violent fits of rage and scour the streets and hotspots for action.

Screenwriter Harmony Korine was just nineteen years of age when he penned the script for Kids. And his screenplay pulsates with verbose and animated tirades on sex. Through a series of cutaways, the film’s driving narrative ⎯ Telly’s mission to deflower two virgins on the same day ⎯ is interspersed with verbal machismo and girl talk. Through the jerky, hand-held cinematography of Eric Edwards, two gender-specific camps of teenagers share and compare their carnal experiences and voice their perceptions of one another ⎯ their views at once clashing and converging.

On the search for drugs and food, Telly and Casper arrive at the graffiti-scrawled abode of their drug dealer friend Paul and his crew of strung out, stoned and bare-chested teenagers. Pumped up on nicotine, nitrous oxide and raging hormones, the lads congregate in the trash-strewn lounge and discuss the opposite sex’s covert enjoyment of oral sex and penchant for slow, smooth, gentle, romantic and meaningful intercourse. According to host Paul, “They want you to be so kind, so gentle, like you give a fuck or something”. Telly is quick with a confirmation: “But that’s it, you know? You gotta like take it slow, you gotta be smooth; girls like it slow and romantic. I mean I’ve been with a lot of girls so I know.”

Meanwhile, across town, Telly’s former lover Jenny (Chloë Sevigny), her confidant Ruby (Rosaria Dawson) and their circle of friends, Susan, Linda and Diane, provide an exuberant and buoyant counterpoint to this peppery, testosterone-fuelled rhetoric. In the confines of Ruby’s poster-strewn, flower-themed bedroom, the girls giggle, gasp, scream and gesticulate as they recall losing their virginity, convey their unanimous repulsion towards oral sex and ruminate on the subtleties of sexual intercourse.

For Ruby “there’s a difference between making love, having sex and then fucking.” Linda and Susan elaborate on the nuances; lovemaking is sweet and slow, while sex is cold, mechanical, obligatory routine. Both pale in comparison, however, to what Ruby describes “hard-core pound fucking”: frenzied, heart-pumping, hair-pulling, lust-incensed intercourse. According to Linda’s colloquial parlance, “that is the only way to do it, man. It’s that boom, boom, boom, boom.”

It is on the issues of safe sex and AIDS, that the two camps most notably differ. Telly and his cohort of sexually precocious studs approach sex as something to be savoured without fear of repercussion, be it AIDS or death. For the gangly and jittery Zack, the former is a ludicrous fabrication, a bogus rap concocted to frighten kids: “I don’t know no kid with AIDS, know what I’m sayin’? Ain’t no one I know died from that shit. AIDS is a make-believe story.” Paul takes the point further: “Even if that shit is true, we’re all gonna die anyway. Fuck it! Imma go out fuckin’”. Telly is more pragmatic; practicing safe sex is irritating, impractical and downright debilitating: “All I know is that condoms suck. They either fuckin’ slip off or they break or they make your drink shrink.”

In contrast to this defiant insouciance, Ruby and Jenny are more attuned to the grim realities of unprotected sex. Through a series of flashbacks, we see them attending a clinic and getting tested. It is when Jenny revisits the clinic with Ruby and is informed that she is HIV positive, that her central motivation ⎯ and the film’s dramatic subplot ⎯ kicks in: she must locate Telly (her previous lover) and inform him of the terrible news.

The oblivious Telly, however, is already on the prowl for his next, unsuspecting and even younger target ⎯ the cherub-faced Darcy (Yakira Peguero) ⎯ to realise his perverted virgin fantasy. Strolling the streets of New York with his trusty partner-in-crime, Telly gloats about his hormonal hang up: “I’m telling you, Casper, I think I’m getting addicted to this shit. It’s like all I think about now, man. You know, like having complex fantasies and shit.”

It is not only the youthful purity of intact, virginal flesh that fuels Telly’s neurotic fixation but the singular power and irreversible transformation that derives from its penetration. As he boasts to Casper:

Having a virgin suck your dick, that’s so basic, man. It’s simple. It’s easy. But, like, if you deflower a girl, man? Oh man! You’re the man! No one can ever do that again. You’re the only one. No one has the power to do that again.

Cultural theorists have relished unpacking the injurious and irreparable violence of sexual intercourse. In fact, the target of this violence, the hymen, has emerged as a powerful figure in gender studies and philosophy. As the revered symbol and preserver of virginity, the hymen appears in the writings of the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida as a metaphor for liminality, indeterminacy, uncertainty:

The hymen as protective screen, the jewel-box of virginity, the vaginal partition, the fine invisible veil which, in front of the hystera, stands between the inside and outside of a woman and consequently between desire and fulfillment. It is neither desire nor pleasure but between the two. Neither future nor present, but between the two. It is the hymen that desire dreams of piercing, of busting, in an act of violence that is (at the same time or somewhere in between) love and murder.

In Kids, it is this same desire that Telly pursues and momentarily gratifies with sly, reptilian cunning. With each sexual encounter, he imposes nothing less than an accelerated death sentence on his partners, which they, in turn and unknowingly, transfer onto others. Herein lines the tragedy of Kids and the casualty of intercourse: through Telly, the rupturing of the hymen instigates the fatal proliferation of the virus.

“I always wanted to make the teenage movie that I felt America never made ⎯ the great American teenage movie, like the great American novel”, Clark explains in an interview. A film faithful to its own subject matter. Where kids are depicted by a cast of pre-pubescent and adolescent youngsters (rather than fashionably hip, twenty-something yuppies). Where parents play a marginal role in the lives of their children (adults rarely feature in Kids, with the exception of Telly’s post-natal, breastfeeding mother). Where immediate sensory gratification (through binge-drinking, substance-abuse and promiscuity) is a means of overcoming boredom, apathy and ennui. For all his self-assured and pumped-up bravado, Telly, the self-labeled ‘Virgin Surgeon’, discloses the gaping, crushing paucity of his priapic masculinity. His poignant, closing voice-over hammers home the extent of his inadequacy:

When you’re young nothing much matters. When you find something that you care about, then that’s all you got. When you go to sleep at night you dream of pussy. When you wake up it’s the same thing, it’s there in your face, you can’t escape it. Sometimes when you’re young, the only place to go is inside. That’s just it. Fucking is what I love. Take that away from me and I really got nothing.

Visiting Kids almost two decades on, I’m still struck by Clark’s construction of a teenage universe famished of moral boundaries, sexual parameters and existential purpose. A day in this world is one where the past and proclivities of a single individual implicates the lives and futures of others.

– Dr. Varga Hosseini