Monday, August 3, 2015

KIDS @ 20

Twenty years ago this summer a low-budget movie about teenagers hanging out in Manhattan hit theaters. The movie had no stars and was shot in a documentary, cinema verite style (basically it was a 1990s American version of an Italian neo-realist film). It also had an unassumingly simple title: KIDS.

But oh ... the kids in this flick were doing very un-kid like things. Oh my, they were hardly paragons of youthful innocence. They were doing very nasty and quite disturbing things, like having sexual intercourse, and consuming drugs, and getting into street fights, and even skateboarding in a very dangerous manner. It was an expose, a "shocking" look at young'uns in America (or at least NYC) gone wrong. It was, as one reviewer at the time put it, "a wake up call to the world."

Yes, right under our noses and on our streets and in our buildings, teenagers were behaving very badly.

The "plot" of this film concerns a teenager named Telly who likes having sex with virgin girls when he's not hanging out with his friend Casper whose main interests are drinking 40 ounces of malt liquor and sticking tampons up his nose. Together, they spend a day "cold chillin'" in NYC with various friends. Meanwhile, a girl named Jenny that Telly previously de-flowered discovers that she has HIV -- and that means Telly, her only sexual conquest, was the culprit. She spends her time during this day trying to find him but can she do so before the self-described "virgin surgeon" strikes again? Oh my indeed.

One thing that's interesting to see in this movie, and what makes it something of an historical document, is that cell phones/smart phones and social media are totally absent in it. They didn't exist yet. Heck, these kids don't even have beepers! (Remember them?). Remember, this movie came out in the mid-1990s so Jenny actually had to track down Telly in person to inform him of her (really their) plight. Doubtless, today, Jenny would call or text Telly (assuming she had his number or knew someone who did) or she'd just go on Facebook and flame "THAT TELLY MUTHAFUCKA GAVE ME AIDS!"

I remember when this movie came out in '95. It was the summer I went to college. The movie was very controversial and very much discussed in the press. And then it was pretty much forgotten about. After all, once the shock value wore off, people were just left with watching a rather gross, tedious movie. That said, the movie had its virtues. KIDS did not moralize. It didn't claim to have any answers about the youth crises in America. It was just a look at a bunch of teenagers living lives of boredom in despair in the richest most powerful nation in history ever to bestride the face of the earth. It reflected the mirror to nature, made us look at the world we had created. And it sucked.

However, now that the film is older than most of the actors who were in it, those of us who were teenagers back then seem to be remembering it. Here's one article that is a retrospective of KIDS, of what it meant to American society and popular culture at the time, and its legacy today. And here's another one about many of the locations in NYC that appear in the film (it was shot in 1994) and what they look like today.

One thing about this movie that really dates it: the teenagers in it are clearly lower-middle class kids, kids who aren't academic geniuses or great athletes, kids whose futures seem very bleak. Today, in post-Bloomberg NYC, there are barely any lower middle class people in Manhattan anymore. If this movie was being made today, these kids would probably be hanging out in some of the rougher parts of the outer boroughs. KIDS takes place in the era when the great bad old days in NYC were ending and the Comeback city was emerging. Take, for instance, Washington Square park. Back then, it was a run-down haven for young people and the disaffected to hang out, do drugs, and get into trouble (in this movie, a scene in Washington Square park turns into a violent melee). But today, the park is ... bucolic ... serene ... a friendly place for families and NYU students alike. Today, if a bunch of kids beat someone up there in broad daylight, they would be arrested and booked within seconds.

In many ways KIDS is ... old.

The crime is gone. The AIDS crises has largely receded. Teenagers are having less sex and pot use is virtually legal. The city has changed. Now being a non-having sex, book loving, computer using nerd is considered cool, even sexy. Being a druggie loser has lost its appeal for many young people. But in looking back at this movie and at the time and place and issues of the day it addresses, you have to wonder, won't kids always be kids?