Director dug deep into reality and came up with teen grit

September 09, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Larry Clark is depressed. The director of the colossal kick in the guts known as "Kids" has just seen a movie about teen-age life, and it's got him down.

"It was the most depressing film I've seen in some time," he says with a heartfelt sigh.

"Everybody was enjoying it but me," he confesses. "I wanted to kill myself."

The movie was not "Kids," with its teen sex, drug and alcohol binges, its HIV-positive Lothario stalking virgins on the sidewalks of New York, its casual violence and tribal bonding.

No, it was "Clueless," with its cheery optimism, its color-coordinated costumes, its ultra-cute Valleyspeak.

"It was such b---s---!" he says.

Whatever they may accuse Larry Clark of -- kiddie porn, sensationalism, voyeurism, a molester's fascination with the young -- they'll never accuse him of making a movie that's b---s---.

He says earnestly: I wanted to make a movie that kids could go to and feel it was real life. I wanted to make a film that says, 'This is what it feels like to be a kid. This is what it's like to live to have fun above everything else.' Even though it's dark, there's some fun going on. I thought it was funnier than 'Clueless.' "

"Kids" is in some way the end of, or the necessary result of, Clark's own obsession with the lives of teen-agers, and not merely because he is the father of three of them.

He made his reputation originally as a photographer, having published two seminal books that established his style and his subject matter. The first was "Tulsa," photos from his hometown, where he chronicled the dirty, bleak lives of teen-age losers, dope dealers, violent, white, working-class youth with a passion and anti-cliched clarity that amazed back in 1973. So powerful was his book that Francis Ford Coppola actually came to Tulsa and shot two films about teen-agers there ("The Outsiders" and "Rumblefish") that used Clark's book as a stylistic touchstone.

The second book was called "Teenaged Lust," and was built out of photographs and icons (like speeding tickets and report cards) from his own self-declared "wild" teen-age years.

The one thing he prides himself on in his exploration of this culture is his willingness to see it as kids see it, not as grown-ups see it.

"The first thing," he says, "you have to really want to. I didn't want to to make a film about me, but them. I wanted to show what it's like when adults aren't around. Believe me, it changes fast."

He began hanging out at Washington Square in New York's Greenwich Village, a hub of footloose teen skateboarding culture, his "authenticity" vouched for by a kid whom he'd met at a photography seminar. He took roll after roll of photos of his subjects, gradually easing his way into the culture.

Clark, 53, even learned to skateboard. "I was just awful at first. But eventually, I became just one of the guys. I really began to see the world from their perspective. But my idea was always to do a real film about teen-agers with real teens as actors. When Hollywood does teens, they're always played by adults in their mid-'20s. It never looks or feels real."

He hung out in Washington Square for more than three years, observing and taking pictures and gathering mental images of the movie he desperately wanted to make.

"I knew exactly how I wanted them to act. I remembered everything; how they laughed, how they moved. I had a real clear vision. I wanted them to talk the way they talked. In fact, I gave Leo Fitzpatrick the [main] role of Telly because I like his voice. That was fantastic, I thought, even though I didn't understand a thing he said!"

Clark knew the film would be a fictional piece, even if it had a documentary feel, but he had a problem thinking up a story. After learning how universally the kids despised and ignored the condoms that adults urged on them, though, he came up with the idea of structuring the film around a promiscuous teen-ager (Telly) who won't use a condom and is HIV-positive.

"It was a 24-hour movie," Clark says. "That way we get to see what the kids do over 24 hours and get a better sense of their lives."

He explained his concept to a 19-year-old friend, himself just out VTC of skateboard culture, who wanted to be a screenwriter. Three weeks later the kid, Harmony Korine, returned with a screenplay. "It's his fault, really," jokes Clark about the contro

versy that has surrounded the movie. "I just shot the script."

Clark tries to avoid value judgments in his dramatization. But, pressed, he'll sum up teen culture, 1995.

"What's happening now is that everybody knows everything. They have so much information. Everybody has access to drugs. Kids are having sex at such an early age. It's everywhere. It's just different than when we were growing up."

And what's next for this truth teller? Baby boomers, watch out. The next one is about -- gasp, shudder -- parents.

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