Fear of teen spirit

Hollywood was feeding the moral panic of parents as early as the Forties with teensploitation movies. Liese Spencer asks if Larry Clark's 'Kids', with its graphic scenes of underage, unsafe sex, is a radical departure or just a mutation of the genre
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The Independent Culture
"See for yourself - the ravaged lives in the adolescent jungles of today" shouts the poster, gleefully offering to spread before audiences a feast of teenage depravity. You could be forgiven for thinking this an advert for Larry Clark's controversial new film Kids, scheduled for release next week, which promises the spectacle of young New Yorkers indulging in drugs, casual violence and underage sex. In fact, this juicy piece of hype was used to publicise Robert Altman's first film; a 1956 teen shocker called The Delinquents. For all its censor-baiting sex scenes and grainy art-house style, Kids is just the latest in a long line of Hollywood teen movies. The question is, does Clark's film mark a radical break from such schlocky cinematic ancestors? Is Kids tailored for a prurient adult gaze or does it represent a new mutation of the genre that offers a true teen's eye view of the world?

Altman's film was one of hundreds of Fifties exploitation movies that fed off the moral panic of an earlier generation. Throughout the decade, wild news stories of teenage pregnancies, car theft and dope-peddling high school students, gave American society its first smell of teen spirit. To the studio heads such scandals had the aroma of a profitable formula. They wasted no time in turning headlines into "bread and butter" drive- in double bills that purported to probe the strange new subculture of The Teenager.

As early as 1943, Hollywood was asking, "Are these our children?" Good Time Girl, The Young and the Damned and countless other lurid B-movies followed, capitalising on teenagers' desire to see themselves on the big screen and parents' need to have their worst fears confirmed. Some films (such as the Thirties forerunner Reefer Madness, aka Tell Your Children, Burning Question, Doped Youth and Love Madness) were put out again and again, with only their titles changed to reflect the particular form of teenage rebellion that had made news that week.

In the year that Altman shot The Delinquents, two seminal examples of this cheerfully opportunistic cinema went on release. Blackboard Jungle showed Sidney Poitier battling with mutinous school children, and as its credits rolled to the sound of Bill Hayley's "Rock Around the Clock", teen audiences ripped up their seats and danced in the aisles, inducing another wave of fear in their moral guardians. Meanwhile, James Dean sulked his way through East of Eden, a turgid family melodrama guaranteed box- office gold only by the pre-release decease of its handsome star.

The young Larry Clark was unimpressed. "I would see these movies and I would say, 'Those kids don't look like kids, they're all older people, they're all like grown-ups.' So right away they didn't ring true." Certainly, the films look rather tame today. One can almost see the exclamation marks rising from the mouths of Brylcreemed boys and sweater girls playing out their quaint rebellions. And seeing Blackboard Jungle from a distance of more than 40 years does make you wonder what all those grown men are doing squeezed behind school desks when their faces tell you that they should have graduated five years ago.

According to Clark, his movie is different. "I wanted to make a film where kids would say, 'this feels right'. I wanted to let the kids talk for themselves." In 1992, fascinated with the subculture of New York's skateboarders, Clark determined to make a study of "contemporary youth". With the predatory curiosity of an anthropologist, the 52-year-old photographer found a skater to "walk him into their world". Once there, he bought a skateboard, mingled with his subjects and won their trust. Clark commissioned 19-year-old Harmony Korine to write a screenplay about the lives he saw around him. His only stipulation being that Korine work something about HIV into his story. That summer the director had read the teen statistics on the disease, watched children grab handfuls of free condoms and continue to practise unsafe sex. The film-maker had a hook on which to hang his storyline. Like the teensploitation flicks of the Fifties, it was taken from news headlines, and like them, it tapped into a rich vein of contemporary hysteria. Using a hand-held camera and his skills as a documentary photographer, Clark set about blurring fact and fiction.

"I wanted a style where you felt you were eavesdropping," says Clark, "where you felt you were privileged to have access to a world that you wouldn't have access to otherwise." The result comes across like an ethnographic study of an urban tribe. Following "virgin surgeon" Telly and his stoner sidekick Caspar, Clark's camera travels the length of New York, taking in the gang rituals of city kids from their low slung jeans and coded banter to the beating meted out to an outsider who trespasses on their patch. So far, so familiar. Adults have a titillating peek at today's wild ones, strain their elderly ears to the new teen lingo, enjoy some vicarious thrills and go away pleasantly shocked by what they have seen.

But the film that Clark and Korine have created is leaner, meaner and more disturbing than that. Constantly moving, Clark's camera coolly tracks its convincingly callow-looking players out into the streets and parks of New York; beyond the home and the classroom where there are no adults and consequently no moral framework to react against. Drinking, fighting and fucking, pulling on joints and stealing beer, Clark's kids expend their verbal and sexual energy with savage prodigality. Beneath their overblown style, the teensploitation films of the Fifties delivered a comforting morality. Poitier won out against the punks, and James Dean's alienated anti-hero was essentially decent, fighting the hypocrisy of an older generation. Here youth is red in tooth and claw.

Most of all, what makes Kids different from its predecessors is its unblinking depiction of adolescent sexuality. From start to finish, the film is driven by the hormonal desires of libidinous teenagers. There are the teen movie staples of Tampax jokes, but Clark places among them unsettling, neck- cricking close-ups of dry, perfunctory sex. Although they fill the screen with sucking mouths and skinny bodies, there is nothing salacious about these images. Indeed, pressed up this close against adolescent sexuality, adult voyeurs are more likely to feel discomfited than turned on.

Hollywood has always been happy to provide sexy children for adult consumption (think of silent star Mary Pickford playing threatened innocents until the age of 30, or the "fast little piece" Graham Greene famously saw in Shirley Temple). But it has rarely been so ready to portray adolescent sex with a straight face.

"So many films about teenagers are bullshit," sighs Clark, "they're just fluff and comedy and silly. These films are all about sex and drugs but it's a joke and nobody cares. I did a serious film about the same subject and people get bent out of shape because they don't want to know. I think they can accept it better if it's stupid comedy."

Censorship meant films of the Fifties were unable to deal with the subject head on. Some hinted at girls gone to the bad, but the focus was on drugs and violence. Cars might have been potent symbols of a dangerous sexual freedom, but they were also vehicles of moral retribution, driving their defiant passengers to an early death. The Sixties saw yards of young flesh on the screen, but it was all good, clean, Beach Party fun.

More recently, when looser censorship and changing mores might have facilitated a more explicit investigation, movies targetted at teens still seemed unable to handle the subject without sophomoric sniggers. Sure, films like Fast Times at Ridgemount High and the execrable Porky's series demonstrated students' brutish enthusiasm for intercourse, but these were cartoonish romps around the high school gym; slick, bubblegum products closer to the glossy kitsch of Grease than the kinetic verite of Kids.

Although Clark's docu-drama treatment appears to react against teensploitation, Kids bears many of the fingerprints of that despised form. So in Clark's appropriation of HIV, cynics might see just the latest means to send teenage transgressors to an early grave.

Significantly, with an 18 certificate, Kids will be seen by an adult, rather than youth audience. So is Clark reproducing a teensploitation movie for this generation of panicking parents?

"I made this film for kids to see. I wanted it to play across the malls of America," argues Clark. "I wanted kids to watch it and say, Jeez, somebody's finally got it right." Pointing to Korine's script and his cast of non- actors, the director denies imposing a heavy-handed adult morality on his subjects. "That's what they do, that's what is going on. People know that teenagers drink, take drugs and have sex but they don't want to face up to it. I just wanted to show how young these kids are."

So, does Clark want these blind adults to open their eyes to "the ravaged lives in the adolescent jungles of today"? "People grow up and they totally forget what it's like to be a kid," laughs Clark. "Maybe this film will bring it back for them."

n 'Kids' is on general release from 17 May