ARTICLE: Larry Clark's 'Kids'

Since 1971, when his first book of photographs, "Tulsa," was published, Larry Clark has been one of the most controversial and influential photographers of his generation. His autobiographical photo-essay documented reckless youths obsessed with guns, violence, drugs, and sex. From Clark's vantage point, life in the American heartland during the 1960's was nasty, short and brutish -"once the needle goes in it never comes out," he wrote. As the critic Vince Aletti wrote in 1992, "Delving deep into the dark side of America's fetish for youth, he finds no teenage idyll, no happy days, only confusion, rage and occasional hot sex. Can't get no satisfaction."

Clark followed up his now classic Tulsa series with "Teenage Lust." Published twelve years after his first body of work, these photographs recreated Clark's vision of his lost adolescence while simultaneously chronicling his own wild history of drug use and an arrest and conviction for "assault and battery with a deadly weapon with intent to kill." Together, the two books presented work that was unlike anything seen before - raw, gritty, energized at a feverish pitch, and profoundly disturbing. Clark's photographs achieved near-legendary status. His life story, in turn, reportedly inspired or influenced films like Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy," Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish," and Martin Scorcese's "Taxi Driver." Clark, the "former big time fuck-up - a drug addict, ex-con, and famous burnt out case - turned big-time artist," had become "the anti-hero of his own life."

Clark's latest project is "Kids," a feature-length film that Janet Maslin of THE NEW YORK TIMES has called "so bleak and legitimately shocking that it makes almost any other portrait of American adolescence look like the picture of Dorian Gray." The film plays out Clark's continuing obsession with teenage culture, this time focusing on skateboarders; "I always wanted to make the teenage movie that I felt America never made, the great American teenage movie. I always wanted to make a film the way it really is, the same as I did in 'Tulsa' cut through the bullshit and tell the truth," he says. "Kids" describes a day in the life of seventeen-year old Telly, the "virgin surgeon," and his circle of friends. The action opens with Telly seducing a young girl. When she protests that she doesn't want to have a baby, he replies "You think I want a baby, when you're with me, you don't even have to worry about that kinda shit...because I like you." Unlike Clark's previous work, though, the theme is sex in the age of AIDS. Leaving the girl's house, Telly exults to his friend, Casper, "Virgins. I love 'em. No diseases...just pure pleasure." The narrative takes on the inexorable quality of the Bataan Death March when another young girl, Jennie, learns that she is HIV positive. One of Telly's deflowered virgins, she has never had intercourse with anyone else, and sets out to find him and tell him. The film closes with a drunken Casper having sex with a drunken, semi-comatose Jennie, unaware of the consequences of his actions. Telly, likewise, is oblivious of the disease he is carrying. His closing words are "When you're young, not much matters. Fucking is what I love. Take that away from me, and I really got nothin." The final scene is of Casper, spent and alone, asking "Jesus Christ. What happened."

The reaction to "Kids" has been overwhelming. THE NEW YORK TIMES has run at least six articles on the film; Maslin termed it "a wake-up call to the world." Publications as diverse as INTERVIEW, ARTFORUM, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, FILM COMMENT, and THE VILLAGE VOICE have covered the film, as have ABC-TV and MTV. The buzz started when "Kids" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and picked up momentum at Cannes. Controversy has attended the release of the film in the U.S. without any rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax, which owns the international rights to "Kids," had to establish a new company, Excalibur, to distribute the film since Miramax is owned by Disney and could not release a movie this shockingly raw. Nonetheless, the film is a hit. It earned $85,000 its first weekend playing at just two theatres in New York City. As of 5 August it was averaging a phenomenal $15,000 per screen, playing in seventeen cities. With six weeks to cast and rehearse, and four weeks to shoot, the film was reportedly made for under $1 million. Miramax acquired "Kids" for $3.5 million and the pseudo-documentary style, critical response, controversy and word-of-mouth seem destined to insure that it will be a successful venture.

Clark, 52, is the latest in a long line of artists who have made the transition to film. Photographers, in particular, have often worked with film; Robert Frank, William Wegman, William Klein, and Bruce Weber, among others, have made notable experimental and documentary movies. More recently, audiences have had to endure big budget efforts by the painters David Salle and Robert Longo, while Julian Schnabel is preparing his look at the life of fellow painter, Jean Michel Basquiat. According to Clark, "When I did the early "Tulsa" photographs I saw them as a film, but I wasn't a filmmaker." Clark has always identified closely with his subjects. As a photographer, he said, "anything I do is just an excuse for me to photograph teenagers. I photograph teenagers because I want to, because I like to, because I like teenagers, and here are the teenagers." His most recent photographic series, published as "The Perfect Childhood," were unedited sequences of pictures of young boys. "I don't feel I have to find this idolized picture of the kid in ten rolls of film," he says. "Every shot is important, because it's not about me taking a photograph anymore, it's about me photographing the kid." He concludes, "I was just telling a story in a different form. I was getting ready to make a film." However, as a filmmaker, Clark allows his story to follow a classic narrative structure. "Kids" is tightly sequenced. In an interview with Clark, the director Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo," "Light Sleeper") commented that "you don't enter into the characters' thought world or fantasy world. In some ways it's less complex than your recent work." There is also a degree of omniscience present in "Kids" that was absent from his photography. While the kids in the film are essentially aimless, the film is not directionless; from the outset, the audience knows the destiny of Clark's characters in a way that was never possible in his still imagery. Clark acknowledges responding equally to films that he doesn't like ("City Across the River," and "Amboy Dukes") as much as to those he admires ("Over the Edge,"). Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy" inspired Clark to "really show 'em how it's done."

Throughout his career, Clark has been a magnet for controversy. Not the neo-liberal "tweak the neo-conservatives" kind, but a real, raw "I don't understand what he's up to" kind. Clark is so far out of his time and into his own mind, that he makes spectators of us all. For most of us, there is no "us" and "them" in Clark's vision. It's all "them." In a sense, with "Kids" Clark has finally found the perfect vehicle for communicating with the object of his obsession all these years, for quite possibly, only kids will truly be able to comprehend the world he has captured. And for adults, the fact that he "just trying to show things the way they are," may make "Kids" the most disturbing contemporary film of all.

The Art Newspaper