One of the things that concerns me about movie audiences is the extent to which so many of them don’t realize that films are not documentaries, no matter how “realistic” they may seem. Case in point: Midnight Express. Nothing about the film resembled Turkey, yet 1970s audiences were so convinced of its accuracy that it destroyed the country’s tourism industry for decades.
This leads me to the movie, Kids (1995), by Larry Clark. Back in the day, Kids was celebrated as a “realistic” social drama about AIDs and where America’s youth was headed in the 1990s, particularly in NYC. But there was just one small, teensy weensy problem: though it may have felt and played out like a realistic docudrama, the film had absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the AIDs crisis, 1990s adolescence or what it was like being a New York teenager at the time. I know this because I was a New York “kid” just a few short years before Kids came out (I’m only a year older than Chloe Sevigny) and had hung out at the same areas as the characters in the movie, particularly Washington Square Park. So, while film critics and audience members were gasping in awe at the “realism” of Kids, all I could do was shake my head at what was a completely inauthentic, albeit admittedly stylized image of 1990s New York adolescence.
What was so inauthentic about the movie? Everything. For one, the actors didn’t reflect the city’s urban demographic. Not only were the teenagers who hung out around NYC predominantly black and brown, it was very clear based on the street dialogue that the characters were supposed to be minorities. Yet in typical Hollywood fashion, the movie decided to cast mostly white actors. What resulted was a whitewashed fantasy of NYC’s urban youth consisting mostly of white teenagers instead of what they mostly were in real life–black, hispanic and a little bit of everything else.
For example, here is a real life photo of Harold Hunter (who played Harold in the movie), hanging out with his friends in one of Ari Marcospoulos’s photos of NYC’s skater scene.
Here is a more revealing photo comes from the book, T.F. at 1: Ten Years of Quartersnacks. See the difference?
Another area where Kids lacked authenticity was its premise that teenagers of the 1990s were so out of control and oblivious to the dangers of both AIDs and drug use that they were on the verge of mass self-extinction. This, of course, was nonsense. We were the generation that had “Just Say No”, “This is your brain on drugs” and “safe sex” pounded into our heads daily via PSAs, sex ed, hygiene class and “very special episodes” on TV. In NYC, we were inundated with public campaigns from various grassroots organizations such as Act Up! spreading awareness about AIDs. I can’t speak for teenagers across the United States but NYC was literally the last place in the country where teenagers were stumbling around acting like idiots in the face of AIDs and drug use and being completely oblivious about the dangers.
To make matters worse, the movie’s cautionary tale and sense of urgency was a day late and a dollar short. Not only had the AIDs crisis peaked in the late 1980s, America’s major drug epidemic had finally dissipated to pre-1980s levels. The scenario of American teenagers teetering on the edge of destruction at the hands of these explosive social problems may have been relevant a decade before, but definitely not in 1995. In fact, the movie’s message was so belated, I have a sneaking suspicion that the screenplay might have been written in the late 80s or early ’90s when things were just coming to a head.
This all leads me to the last problem with Kids in terms of authenticity. It presented an image of NYC teenagers just aimlessly wandering around town like a bunch of lost souls and wiling the hours away doing nothing except drinking, smoking and screwing with nihilistic abandon. This was not even remotely close to what NYC teenagers were doing in the 1990s. They were going to the movies every weekend. Hanging out and playing B-ball or skateboarding, either at the park or each other’s houses. Clubbing every weekend. Going to concerts. Spending hours on the phone gossiping about all the stuff that happened in school that week or bitching and moaning about teachers. But were they all mindlessly burning themselves out on sex and drugs, like Kids depicted? No. Not even the hood rats who used to hang out outside the local bodegas drinking 40 ounces like clockwork every day were this nihilistic.
Some people are bound to argue with me that my subjective experiences growing up in NYC is not really evidence that the movie was inauthentic, that maybe some teens were like that. Fair enough. However, more damning than anything I could say about the film’s lack of authenticity in regards to NYC life are Larry Clark’s and Harmony Korine’s other movies, especially Ken Park (2002). Not only are both movies interchangeable in spite of being shot years apart, having different characters and taking place in two different cities, Ken Park–in going so much further than Kids ever did in terms of graphic content–gives them away as exploitation filmmakers.
If you know anything about exploitation, filmmakers have no real interest in authenticity; they’re interested in shooting films based around taboo subjects that fascinate and titillate them. Whereas other filmmakers might be obsessed with the occult, cannibalism, rape, lesbian sex and murder, Clark and Korine are titillated by the idea of self destructive teens caught up in extremely shocking and lurid situations involving sex, drugs and violence. If their movies happen to take place within a certain city, it’s not because that city’s teenage scene was a reference point; it’s because they needed any location to set their stories in, and these cities just happened to be the ones that were picked. With Kids, the setting was NYC; with Ken Park, Visalia, California. If they had picked Houston, Minneapolis, Atlanta or hell–even Ontario, Canada– their movies wouldn’t have played out any differently.
All of this isn’t to bash the film or discredit it in any way. It all goes back to what I said about Midnight Express. If you admire Kids for any reason, admire it for its edginess, dialogue or stylish direction. But don’t admire it based on this idea that it perfectly captured the AIDs crisis or what life was like for New York teens in the 1990s. Nothing about the movie was authentic to the period or the demographic it was about. It might have looked authentic and felt authentic. But no matter how effective it might’ve been in making everything feel authentic, it wasn’t.
As someone that grew up in and around skate culture, and as someone that watched KIDS with my skateboarding buddies, there’s no question that the goal was to provoke and disturb, either through sensationalization, titillation, or exploitation.
Nice break down, nice site.
Have you ever seen Ken Park? That movie pretty much exposed Larry Clark and Harmony Korine as voyeurs who get off on seeing teenagers in pornographic and violent scenarios.
Yeah, spot on. When my friends and I watched it the mostly white cast was definitely one of the running jokes. I think someone said how it’s like a dark and edgy Surge / Mountain Dew commercial or something. The pretension to social awareness, etc. is just too much to bear.
On a broader level, it’s fine to have one-dimensional psychopaths in movies. Psychopaths in cinema are a kind of crystallization of what we believe or think to be out there, the bumps in the night that we flesh out into fascinating monsters. But they are a chance to introspect, and to think intimately about the fears and hopes that drive society.
But, on the other hand, to present actual people as nihilistic psychopaths is a huge disservice. It’s a failure to empathize or understand people. Kids *LIE*. They lie, and pretend to be tougher or stronger than they are for various reasons. They lie about sex, how much they had it, how little they care about it, how much whatever boy or girl that left them cares about them, how little they care about life. They pretend to be the ghosts or the psychopaths that they see in movies, but what makes them human is this very act of pretending. This is why psychopathy is, really, the subject par excellence of movies — why we learn so much more about humans through movies about psychopaths, and, conversely, why movies that carry pretensions to social awareness — and which causes us to forget the essential link between movies and psychopathy — are such a disservice to humans.
I really am interested in seeing your opinion on the new movie, the Mid90s. What were your impressions of that film, and having watched Kids, which one would you say is much more accurate to the culture and lifestyle at the time?
Sorry, but I didn’t see that movie and have no intentions to. The mid-1990s were boring and non-distinctive as hell, so I can’t imagine what on earth anyone could be nostalgic about to want to put on film other than, I dunno, the Pokemon craze or FOX Kids?
Anyway, in the interest of answering your question, I looked at some reviews of the film, and the biggest complaint about it was that it was a ripoff of Kids. If it ripped Kids off, then I can’t imagine it being true to the period, either.
90’s were boring and non-distinctive? Perhaps for you but I couldn’t disagree more. It was the last decade of independent thought and creativity. It challenged social norms in ways that hadn’t been seen since the 60’s.
I said the mid-90s were boring, not the entire decade.
Were you a child in NY in the 1990s? I was, and this film was super real and caught everyone’s eye. It still is or is even just as bad. Even as a person of color, everyone looked at this as when to do.