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Peter Bowen on Larry Clark’s Kids

For all the controversy that Larry Clark’s first feature, Kids, has kicked up, it’s easy to forget that it’s just a movie. Being often less about the film and more about our culture’s insistence on alternately protecting and fetishizing images of childhood and adolescence, the media frenzy over Kids also demonstrates how thoroughly the language of childhood informs our business and aesthetic practices. Speculations that Miramax is trying to breakaway from its parent company, Disney, and characterizations of Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein as the "bad boys" of film distribution strike a decidedly paternalistic tone towards independent film. And the anticipation that the MPAA, especially in light of Senator. Bob Dole’s recent rants about Hollywood sex and violence, will slap Kids’ wrist with a NC-17 rating sounds no less infantalizing. And if the rating is handed down, Miramax will unsheath its newly formed subdistributor Excalibur to circumvent Disney’s grounding of the film. As for the filmmakers, stories about 20-year-old screenwriter Harmony Korine as Hollywood’s latest enfant terrible, terrorizing producers and agents alike, and gossip about 52-year-old director Larry Clark’s antics on and off the set paint portraits of these artists as young kids themselves. When the dust clears, what remains is a remarkable film about adolescence – as remarkable for what it shows up as for what it shows.

It seems impossible to watch Kids without reflecting on how pale and unremarkable most takes on kids have traditionally been. This was, in fact, the starting point for Clark, the fact that most teenage films "never used kids the right age, always actors playing younger. They always make it a happy ending. There’s always something that doesn’t ring true." But Clark’s work, exemplified in his now-classic books of photography, Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983), has always been about striking a haunting, unsettling tone that often leaves the viewer moved by, but uncertain about, what one is seeing. Ostensibly documentary, his photographs have always had a strong narrative drive that could easily unfold into cinema. For Clark, "I think all my work has been cinematic-like, and my whole life was preparation for making this film."

This film began when screenwriter Korine skateboarded into Clark’s life one afternoon in New York’s Washington Square Park. "He told me about this screenplay he wrote in high school, which I thought was amazing for somebody his age," relates Clark. A year later, "I called him over to my studio and asked him to write Kids. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting all my life to write this story.’" But a teenage screenwriter, a first-time director, and screenplay about underage kids having sex is not necessarily an easy sell. Christine Vachon, who had been in touch with Clark since the beginning, explains, "I put together different budgets, packages, deals, but still couldn’t get the money. When I left to [produce] Safe, I had to tell Larry, ‘Sorry, but I’ll keep trying.’" Ironically, Korine, whose precocious talent attracted much attention but little interest in Hollywood, found his way to Cary Woods, who, having recently produced another youth-marketed film, Rudy, was able to hook initial investors. Vachon, along with Lauren Zalaznick (Swoon, Poison), were signed on as co-producers, a job that Vachon describes as both rewarding and frustrating: "The buck stopped with me on a lot of things, but it did not with everything, as it normally does."

While the plot is fairly straightforward, the film’s look and feel is as gritty and unnerving as its characters. Opening on Telly, the "virgin surgeon," (Leo Fitzpatrick) seducing a 14-year-old girl, the film follows him and his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) skateboarding, getting stoned, and seducing another girl on the hottest day of the summer. The narrative hook comes in the figure of Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) who, when she discovers that she is HIV+, attempts to track down her one sexual partner, Telly. While much of the talent had been culled from Korine’s skateboarding posse, the intervening year of fundraising had either aged actors beyond repair or had lost them to other lives. The casting director, Alyssa Wishingrad, worked with others in combing the streets of New York for the right replacements. Vachon remembers how "posters were handed out in city parks and pasted up on the street. If you saw someone who looked right, then ‘Great, let’s get this kid too.’" While many actors, like Pierce, had already been cast, others, like Fitzpatrick, were recruited from the street. Only Jennie, as Vachon explains, created a problem: "Mia Kirshner (Exotica) was originally cast as the one professional actor but there was something that separated her from the rest of the kids." In the end, Clark went with a completely non-professional cast. And only a few days before production begin, Chloe Sevigny, another one of the "kids" from New York’s downtown scene, was cast as Jennie .

While the film’s performances feel too good to be drama – Clark jokes that "people ask me if Kids is a documentary" – Vachon expounds the virtues of film basics: "We ran through several rehearsals; we made a safe place for the kids to perform; and we re-shot when they messed up their lines." For Vachon, the film’s real power comes from the collaborative efforts between Korine, Clark, and their cinematographer, Eric Edwards, who previously shot many of Gus Van Sant’s pictures (My Own Private Idaho, To Die For). (Van Sant, who is quick to cite Clark’s life as his inspiration for Drugstore Cowboy, was one of Kids’ executive producers.) It seems oddly poignant that in a film as controversial as Kids we should be reminded of this conservative creative formula. But then Kids is, after all, just a movie, and Clark, who wanted "to make the Great American Teenage Movie, like the Great American Novel," may have done just that.


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