Kids is a deeply upsetting film. I do not intend this statement as moral condemnation, for it is often salutary to be upset, shaken up or confronted by a movie. But nor do I believe that Larry Clark's portrait of wayward teenagers should be automatically and straightforwardly celebrated as a noble wake-up call to society – or, for that matter, a respectable work of art.
What do we see in Kids? We follow the wanderings of a number of teenagers as they hang out, ride skateboards, talk dirty, take drugs, have sex and idly beat up a guy on the street. It is in many ways a typical Generation-X drama of aimless, alienated, apolitical, urban youth – except that these kids look alarmingly younger than any we have seen in previous movies of this ilk.
The equation of youth with a certain desperate, restless malaise is in itself nothing new. Popular culture has been presenting teens as heartless sociopaths – and feigning righteous concern over the matter – at least since the '50s. But what really makes Clark's depiction chilling is the AIDS factor, little discussed by the characters, but horribly omnipresent. Unsafe sex rules in this crazy, mixed-up milieu, with catastrophic results.
Is this really a message movie? Clark's artistic justification has been more along the lines that he simply wants to 'show it like it is', and leave viewers to draw their own conclusions. The director has to some extent deflected criticism of his film by stressing the veracity of the script (by nineteen-year-old Harmony Korine) and the neutrality of his mocked-up cinéma-vérité style.
But if Kids is truthful – as I'm willing to believe it broadly is – it is certainly not neutral. Clark's approach and style owe much to a tradition of subcultural, semi-underground cinema that includes the work of Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey and, more recently, Abel Ferrara and Gus Van Sant (who serves here as executive producer).
I would describe this tradition, unpejoratively, as amoral cinema. It gazes, coolly and unflinchingly, upon the worst, most pathetic dregs of human behaviour. But this gaze is neither documentary nor dispassionate. As viewers we are calmly invited to share the tawdry fantasies of those we behold. The mood of such amoral movies is discomforting and kinky, somewhere between decadent, bad-taste comedy and dark, despairing nihilism.
Kids is this kind of film. It is not a slice of life itself, but a movie with its own secret fantasies, impulses and agendas. Clark updates Warhol's cool nihilism in one highly significant respect: like Altman's Short Cuts (1993) and Mike Leigh's Naked (1993), this is a story about the furious abyss between men and women. The boys here are already heartless, rapacious beasts, and the girls – despite their feistiness – are masochistic, suffering victims.
This is a movie that produced intensely ambivalent feelings in me. On the one hand, I admire the prodigious skill with which Clark has fashioned his seemingly off-the-cuff portrait. The film's relentless, restless rhythm of cascading, everyday events recalls John Cassavetes's experiments with a jazz-inspired narrative structure in Shadows (1960). The darting, forever distracted camera is as deftly choreographed as in Olivier Assayas's similarly bleak teen film Cold Water (1994).
Yet even I found the amoral, tacitly misanthropic slant of Kids a bit hard to take. Near the end there is scene where, at a party, a randy guy rapes a comatose, drugged-out girl (whom we know has AIDS). It is a deliberately sickening, unedifying spectacle, like the rape scenes in I Spit on Your Grave (1979) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). But it goes on so long that you can't help but wonder why Clark is so utterly fascinated by it.
Despite my moments of outrage and disgust, I do not think the high moral ground is the position to take on Kids. Unexpectedly, the film focussed for me the least discussed aspect of the Australian literary scandal of the mid '90s known as the Demidenko Affair – in which Helen Darville, the young, promising author of a novel about sensitive World War II issues, invented for herself the sympathetic ethnic identity of Helen Demidenko.
I am referring to the tendency, in this cause célèbre, for many literary critics and cultural commentators to demand of certain novels clear evidence of an enlightened, progressive perspective on the shocking things they depict.
At first mistaken and lauded by some as serious, respectable art, Darville/Demidenko's The Hand that Signed the Paper came to scandalise the literary institution partly because of its casual, amoral, confused tone. Perhaps its critics should have considered it a mere piece of pulp fiction – for if pop culture teaches us anything, it is that many of its greatest works routinely lack a moral centre, offering instead a spectacle driven by obscure, unseemly and murky motivations.
Kids is not a great work, but it is definitely a troublingly murky one.
© Adrian Martin January 1996