he tabloids scream: ‘Child Porn'. ‘Filth’ shouts an ex-Tory MP. The usual suspectsjoin the queue. eager to be seen giving their knee-jerk reactions as the latest controversy
rears up from the stinking waters of
the film industry. Only this time the moralists aren‘t in a sweat over excessive violence or the threat to democracy posed by on-sereen genitalia. but a grim and grainy depiction of one day in the life of a group of New York adolescents.
Kids. the debut movie by 53-year-old photographer Larry Clark. has left behind it a trail of sharply opposed audiences and commentators since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January I995. lts detractors label the film ‘pornography’; its supporters champion the debate it encourages between parents and children. In truth. Kids is a far more ambiguous. contradictory film than either camp will admit.
What‘s all the fuss about? A fusion of uncomfortable subject matter with a lly-on-the- wall style. Teenage skateboarder Telly cruises across town with buddy (.‘asper in search of the qttick buzz and empty pleasures of orgasm. drugs or alcohol. Meanwhile. Jennie. one of Telly's earlier conquests. discovers she‘s HIV positive despite having only one sexttal partner and spends the day trying to track Telly down. The against-the—clock aspect of the narrative builds to a tragically inevitable clitnax that stuns the audience like a slap in the face.
It‘s not the limited nudity that‘s shocked some viewers. but the fact that these kid actors look their age (some are indeed under sixteen. but those involved in the sexual scenes were aged seventeen to nineteen). The film is verbally — not visually — explicit. and that‘s what has proved problematic for the censors. When it was threatened with an NC‘17 (above eighteen only) certificate in America. distributors Miramax decided to form a separate company to handle Kids. as its parent company. Disney. refuses to touch an .\'(‘l7 movie. It was then released unrated. allowing cinema owners the discretion of whether or not to allow in teenagers with parents.
After much deliberation. the film has received an ‘18‘ certificate in Britain. This wasn’t enough. however. for Warner (‘inentas managing director Peter Dobson (the chain doesn‘t have any screens in Scotland). who decided. as a ‘family man’. to ban the film from his cinemas on the grounds that it was ‘tlespicable’. Ironically. that‘s also the catchphrase used by one of Warner Brothers' classic cartoon characters. Daffy Duck. usually before the feathered clown makes an utter fool of himself. That this is the exhibition arm of the company who faced up to the censor in the name of free speech over proposed cuts to Natural Born Ki/lers and recently released the shamelessly offensive (Vi/treat is hypocrisy at its finest.
But where children's sexuality is concerned.
we shouldn't be surprised that some sections of
society are showing extreme discomfort. The British can‘t seriously discuss sex without blushing. Parents hope teachers will explain the facts of life to their offspring. and refuse to believe their little angels could ever slip off the moral path.
Those would ban Kids are confrontation; maybe they‘re also embarrassed to admit there is a blunt eroticism in the film‘s images. That said. Kids refuses to offer easy titillation. In the opening scene. the kiss between the two fresh-faced youngsters is devoid of Game
With The TWIN! romance. This is real snogging. tongues and all; wet. clumsy. intense. Telly. the ‘virgin surgeon‘. is determined to add to his catalogue of dellowerings. The girl asks if he loves her. lle‘ll say anything to get what he wants — ain‘t that the truth. Finally. she gives in. The scene goes on and on for longer than feels necessary. but that's the point. This isn't seduction: it‘s systematically wearing down the defences of a semi-willing victim.
Clark. whose photographic collections Tulsa and Teenage Lust covered similarly unsettling ground. first had the idea for Kids when hanging out with skateboarders in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. l-le’d fallen into their company after buying a board for his nine-year- old son. and was impressed by the freedom the youngsters showed in their adult-free world.
‘That was 1992. condoms".‘ Clark remembers. ‘The Planned Parenthood Association gave condoms away to kids in the park and on street corners. so the kids were wearing them round their necks. liverybody was talking about safe sex and I thought it was great that they had all this information. all this education. And then after
‘Films like Clueless deal with a lot of the same subjects, but they make it just silly. I make a movie and make it serious, and everybody freaks out.’
hanging with the kids for six months. when l was totally accepted by them. I found out that none of them were using condoms. It was all bullshit.
They'd say. “Well. we‘re not gay. we don‘t
know any kids with Aids".‘
Here was the seed for the movie but.
recognising that he lacked much in the way of
writing abilities. (‘lark approached nineteen- year-oltl skateboarder and wannabe filmmaker Harmony Korine for a screenplay. The draft that Korine delivered a mere three weeks later is pretty much intact — regardless of the film‘s improvised feel — in the final version.
'l‘m showing a world that's just not seen.‘ the director states. ‘liilms like ('lae/ess deal with a lot of the satne subjects. but they make it just silly. i make a movie and make it serious. and everybody freaks out.‘
When the film opened in America. (‘lark took his son. now twelve. to see it. and spent the rest
what I call “the summer of
Chloe Sevigny: as Jennie, an HIV posltlve in Kids
of the day talking about the issues involved. ‘In the States.‘ he continues. ‘I would see mothers with their thirteen-year-old daughters and fathers with their fourteen-year-old sons. and it would start a dialogue between them about sex and drugs. If you really want to be a parent. you‘ve got to keep that dialogue open and be ready. willing and able to talk to your kids about anything.’
The UK’s ‘18’ certificate effectively blocks similarly positive outcomes this side of the Atlantic. With the inverse stupidity that our paternal brand of censorship often glories in. the audience who could benefit most from seeing such a contemporary and relevant movie are those who aren‘t allowed through the door. Nevertheless. Edinburgh’s Filmhouse is planning workshops and debates around the movie that will encourage parents. teachers. guardians. community workers and — hopefully — some teenagers to get to the heart of the issues raised.
‘Young people have got to have their own lives and their own secrets.‘ says Shiona Wood. the Filmhouse‘s education officer. ‘That’s part of being a teenager — you don’t want parental interference in everything — but these are fundamental issues. Young people are doing these things all the time. so there has to be a dialogue between older people and the kids. And a lot of kids who are print illiterate. shy kids who aren‘t good at reading and writing. they can talk quite eloquently about films and issues in films. Kids is a great chance to engender debate.'
(‘lark is more optimistic about the British situation. believing the sure way to get kids into a cinema is to tell them they‘re not allowed to go. Ultimately the issues in this film belong to today‘s teenagers. and they‘ll have to provide the solutions.
‘livery generation has to figure it out for themselves.‘ (‘lark agrees. ‘Sure. there are going to be casualties — there are casualties in every generation — but a lot of these kids will grow tip and get jobs and have families and forget what it was like to be a kid. I have kids and I really worry. But I think it‘ll be okay. I think they'll figure it out. even though it's much more dangerous now — as a parent you worry every day about they way the world is. I guess the world is always going to get crazier and crazier.‘ Kids opens on Friday /7 May at the MGM. .S'ata'hieha/l Street. Glasgow and the lz'dt'nburgh Fihnhause and l.’('/.
The List l7-30 May I996 9