Frank Broughton / i-D / November 1995
With a helping hand from outlaw photographer Larry Clark, Harmony Korine's screenwriting debut Kids has turned adolescent amorality into the year's most shocking and stunning film.
"I'm a fibber." Harmony Korine, a skinny 21-year-old Marx Brother with a Beatles shag haircut, lives in a sunny little New York apartment with an illuminated 3D technicolor photo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis throwing money in the air as its central feature. Harmony used to be a skater, now he's a screenwriter, and his first film, Kids - a story about fast-burn teenage New York skate rats directed by photographer Larry Clark - is busy making money, impressing critics, and unsetting all the right people.
On a table facing the front window is an open Powerbook, surrounded by piles of paper with lists and epigrammatic notions captured in Harmony's carefully curling handwriting. Next to the sofa is a yellow skateboard decorated with a photographic print of a naked girl, her jutting out at you. It's a Larry Clark limited edition. We can't have coffee because Harmony can't figure out the necessary kitchen machinery. The blinds are down.
"I get paranoid," he explains, acting out a character joke about a reclusive writer fearful of survellance. "I'm worried people will recognise me. When I'm writing I have to make sure no one can see in. When I wrote Kids I had to do it in my grandma's basement."
He goes on to explain that his grandma hitting him periodically with a stick ("she did it out of love") was how he learnt his work ethic, and so her basement was the obvious place to get a lot of writing done.
Harmony never lets you stay certain about the truth of anything he says. He'll tell you he thinks Kevin Costner is a great actor and his performance in A Perfect World holds untold secrets for future film historians. "it's one of the most subversive films in history," he insists, deadpan serious. "I'll explain the whole thing after this article comes out, but I can't now. I'd be scared for my life."
This leads us to other just possible scenarios. Like Harmony stepping off a plane in Paris to meet a guy who asks him to sign a petition. "He said if he got two more signatures then rape would be legal in Paris. He told me he was a big actor. That was a big influence on me."
There's the hint of a smile, but never enough to decide between an amused recollection and a successful fib. "Another influence was like when my drama teacher had cerebral palsy and he did King Lear - seriously."
Harmony's straight-faced love for these unlikely situations underlines his absurdist creativity. Feed him a line and he'll dive in with a story. It feels like an exercise, a habit. "I wrote a thing about Patrick Swayze. He's cool too. He used to save his ballet slippers in a cardboard box."
Even his personal history is tangled up in a web of half-fictions and elaborations. His young memory fails him about past events, just enough to inspire a misty vagueness about reality. His father drifts from being a preacher to a Vaudevillian entertainer to a documentarian, and Harmony talks about his own time "in the carnival" and you don't know whether he was there as a sword-swallowing rubber-boy who ate razor blades, or just as a kid watching his father make documentary films.
The story Harmony wrote for Kids describes a day in the lives of a group of today's teenage New Yorkers; a day filled with alcohol, drugs, the occasional burst of a tribalistic violence, and the obsessive, predatorial search for sex. It's acted by a cast made up of pretty much the same youngsters who inspired the story in the first place, and by aiming at truthfulness rather than sentimentality, and with amateur performances that reach toward documentary-style realness, it gives its audience a gritty insight into the world of the American urban teen.
"I like you so much. I think you're beautiful. I think if we fucked you would love it. I just want to make you happy, that's all. Trust me..." With a voice that has too much mucous in it, Telly, the film's central character, attempts to seduce a girl still in the breast-budding throes of pubert. Telly's a gangling turkey-necked youth whose idea of safe sex is to restrict himself to virgins. Kids follows his attempts to increase his scorecard. He calls himself the "Virgin Surgeon."
The story gains much of its impact from the fact that Telly, unknowingly, is HIV positive. Without this you might see him as a charming rogue, merrily following his animal instincts. However, by giving devasting implications to his carefree sex, the story magnifies a normal teenage nonchalance into a chilling amorality. By writing HIV into his blood, the moral judgement of his actions is predetermined.
After the initial New York press screening of Kids, one critic was overheard on the phone to her editor: "I need a shower; I want to spray myself in Lysol." Lysol is a brand of disinfectant. The film shocks because it gives its characters a brutal, destructive innocence, rather than the romantic variety Hollywood prefers. They are too young and uncontrolled to have any moral thoughts, but rather than fall into the safety of natural loving goodness, the result is the collapsed chaos of the children of Lord of the Flies. For people who think of kids as essentially kindhearted it is no doubt an alarming movie.
Harmony says he gave little if any thought to the moralistic implications when he wrote the script. "I just wanted to make a film about these kids, my friends." He says he sees a lot of beauty in his characters. "I feel they're beautiful because they're so pure. They act out of purity. There's no one telling them 'don't do this, don't do that, this is wrong, this is right.' They're just living, they're young, they just are." Using the preacher's vocabularly he so loves, Harmony expresses their amorality perfectly: "They're living and they're sinful."
In fact the idea of the AIDS theme came from Larry Clark. The two had met when Clark decided to make photos of the skaters who fung out in Washington Square Park. Admiring their outlaw qualities, he infiltrated their ranks. Harmony remembers meeting the photographic frontiersman. "I met him on a fountain one day. I was skateboarding and he was taking pictures of everybody. And I just sat down beside him and started to talk - just conversing - and he said he wanted to make a movie about skaters. And he told me that he likes to out with women who only eat steak. I didn't even know he was a photographer. That was when he had a mohawk."
Feeling that his work to date had always been leading up to movie-making, and with encouragement from director Gus Van Sant (whose Drugstore Cowboy was inspired by Clark's life), Larry Clark was determined to make his first film. After seeing a high school screenplay this then 19-year-old had written, he asked Harmony to write him a new script about his skater buddies. He stipulated the story must be about a boy with HIV who sleeps only with virgins. Thanks to grandma's stick, Harmony wrote it in a speedy two weeks. The cast was drawn from his hang-out circle of friends, none of whom had any acting experience, and the movie was made.
The performances throught have the powerful honesty of a documentary or the immediacy of an improvisation, though all involved insist it is a 100 percent fiction and about 97 percent scripted. Not a single revision was made to the original screenplay: a tribute to Harmony's astonishing ear for dialogue. "Well, the actors were the real kids," he explains, "and I knew where I was writing from. I knew the subject. At the same time Larry knew these kids. He'd spent a year with them. And it just kind of happened like that. It was a very private film."
Nonetheless, its realism is astonishing. It is this that has made Kids so controversial. Clark was attacked immediately with accusations of manipulation and child pornography, as parents who saw the film preferred to continue deluding themselves that kids just aren't like that and that the onscreen nastiness was Clark's evil adult doing (interestingly, the smoke quickly cleared around Kids because the voices of protest were distracted by the recent Meisel/Calvin Klein ad campaign; a series of images which ironically owe a vast aesthetic debt to Larry Clark). Alternatively, the viewers who accepted the film as an honest depiction were also horrified along the lines of "what the hell has happened to our children?"
The current generation of New York youngsters are indeed a worryingly unmotivated bunch. They go to the night clubs and sit down on the dancefloor like sleepy litters of baggy-jeaned puppies; their drugs of choice are opt-out zombie dusts like ketamine and heroin; they get things pierced for the sake of conformity rather than rebellion. They'd often puzzled me with their lifelessness. After seeing Kids I felt I knew them a little better.
However, the outraged reactions to the film have more to do with America's long-time acceptance of Hollywood conventions than with a generation suddenly beyong redemption. US audiences have become too used to romanticised visions of childhood to recognise the ugly ignorance of the real thing. Hollywood's versions of childhood are usually no more than nostalgia-fodder for adults (with a retro soundtrack). America has produced its share of harsh teen-urban dramas - from The Wanderers to Menace To Society - but these rely on exciting dramatic narrative for their impact: fictions, deaths, majoy criminal behaviour. The US has no tradition of the kind of relentlessly depressing realism that, say, Mike Leigh or Alan Clarke work so hard to captrue: the introverted drama and tragedy of boredom and hopelessness. This is why Kids is such an important film.
Adults seeing it will be shocked because it's their first glimpse of these kids' private lives. Kids will understand that it's fiction more easily, because they've seen the same situation with less horrendous results; in fact, as Clark has cheekily suggested, they'll probably see it as a comedy.
Much of the debate surrounding Kids has centred on the issue of Larry Clark's motivation. As in his photography, his film refuses to censor the primal charge of teenage sexuality. Coming from a 53-year-old this naturally raises questions involving the word 'exploitation.' In one sense Clark's intent is innocent enough - he wants to continue or reclaim his own youth (or as Harmony suggests, he wants to "analyse" it), and he works to capture the images that resonate with essence.
But another way of putting this is to say that he photographically consumes his subjects, in a desire to feel their youthful energy: he's practising celluloid cannibalism. I ask Harmony what he gave Larry other than his script, meaning what does he think Larry needed him for. I want him to admit that in some tangential way Clark was purchasing his place in the teenage world. Harmony, very shrewdly, and perhaps quite rightly, soars over the suggestion of my question, sweeping aside the 31 year age-difference between him and his friend: "Well, I'm a writer, and he's a photographer. He needed someone to write a script."
Asking Harmony about his relationship with Larry is probably a bit like asking one of Larry's adolescent subjects about having him take their photo. In some respects he's stealing your soul, but once you've put your pants back on and he's sharing a beer with you the effect is more like 'no big deal.'
Thanks to the successful collaboration with Clark, Harmony is now all set. Hollywood has come courting, and he's had some fun at their expense while choosing to remain strictly independent. He's written two more screenplays, one for Larry called Ken Park, which he says is "about familes, the whole thing takes place in houses and it's told in pieces," and one which he will film himself: Gummo. This one he really can't explain, other than to say it's a comedy in a very non-linear form. "It's lists; it's a movie of lists."
As if to help the explanation he digs out some pictures of oppressively ordinary teens he met in smalltown Ohio, who might appear in the movie. "I think this girl's really pretty. She's really strange looking. She wouldn't smile, but she only had three teeth."
He reads a few scraps from his desk. "I wrote this one thing. I might call it Don't Criticise The Donor, because when people sometimes get organs they always complain 'cause it was a blackman. I would never complain. I'm serious. Whoever gave me an organ, I'd just be happy they gave it to me."
Because there's no coffee capability in the house we stroll down to a little expresso bar. The espresso girl knows Harmony and gives him a demo tape of her band. On the way back we stop in at the X-Girl shop. Kim and Thurston are there, wrapping their baby into a pushchair. Harmony says hi. Back at the apartment, he fields a phone call from Basketball Diaries' Jim Carroll. Harmony puts the phone to my ear so I can hear the sing-song way he talks. He shows me some more pictures, his fanzines, a few lists and some imaginary Kevin Costner quotes. We talk some more about his projects.
This leads naturally into some more Harmony Korine grade A fibbing. "I'm writing this other film," he ays, capturing me in an unblinkingly honest stare. "It's about people who love marshmallows." A smile? "That's the only way to describe it: it's people who eat marshmallows on sticks." I nod, cautiously. "But they're all sinners, you know. It's pretty sad. It's a tragedy."