IN 1994, WHEN I WAS SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD, I spent a summer with my friends filming a movie on New York City’s Lower East Side. It was called Kids and was directed by Larry Clark and written by Harmony Korine. During its shooting, I lived with my best friend at the time, Chloë Sevigny, who ended up playing the main character, Jennie. The film’s costume designer had sublet her Second Avenue apartment to Chloë, and I moved in with her. It was the first time either of us had had keys to a place we could call our own, even temporarily. At midnight, we would go downstairs to shop on the sidewalk between St. Marks Place and East Seventh Street at a makeshift street market where people sold stolen goods displayed on blankets. We had been crashing on friends’ and friends of friends’ couches for a few years, escaping the suburbs for the place we considered our real home: New York below Fourteenth Street.
Kids was released in the summer of 1995. I see it as an event that transformed, if not destroyed, the essence of that insular downtown world in which we lived. But at first I didn’t think it had had much of an impact on anything. After it wrapped, we went on with our lives as if it hadn’t happened. It was as if it had been just an extended version of the photo shoots that many of my friends and I were doing for magazines like Paper, Sassy, Tell, Details, and High Times. Chloë and I moved out of the apartment with the help of a writer, Jay McInerney, who was writing an article for the New Yorker about Chloë being New York’s next It Girl. He picked us up with our bags and drove us to Chloë’s Connecticut home. I knew of McInerney from his book Bright Lights, Big City (I had watched the movie many times) and wondered why he would choose to write about Chloë and the rest of us. I didn’t get that we and the lives we were living were of any interest to outsiders, much less that we might exert some kind of cultural influence.
In 2015, twenty years after Kids came out, there was a reunion celebrating the film’s iconic status. A screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was followed by a panel discussion with Clark, Korine, and three of the “kids” who’d gone on to successful acting careers: Chloë, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick. The five of them discussed their experiences, how it was essentially the first time any of them had made a film and what it was like to watch it now. I remember thinking there was a whole community of people whose lives were reflected on that screen but who had been relegated to the audience.
IN 2021, THE DOCUMENTARY THE KIDS, since retitled We Were Once Kids, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The impetus for the project had come from Hamilton Harris, one of the cast members and a friend of mine. Initially financed through a Kickstarter campaign Harris launched in 2015, it was proposed, both in conversations I had with Harris and in the marketing materials, as a corrective to the original feature, a kind of reclamation of the narrative, a telling of the true story of those who were affected by being in the original film but who had not had the chance to give their own perspectives. In an act that exemplified this focus on foregrounding voices previously unheard, Harris and others who were initially associated with developing the project invited us all to submit self-filmed interviews discussing our experiences making the movie and how it had affected our lives since. At first, Hamilton was going to tell the tale as a narrative film based on these interviews and other archival materials. Upon facing the practical and financial difficulties of directing the feature himself, he turned the project over to an Australian production company, and it evolved into a documentary directed by Eddie Martin, whose previous work includes the 2014 skateboarding film All This Mayhem. Hamilton is the primary narrator, and his experiences are the film’s spine, but a select group of other people are interviewed as well.
In addition to highlighting cast members who have not been heard, the documentary sets out to include people who are central to the community but did not appear in Kids, and it also brings attention to two people who can’t speak now: Justin Pierce, who played Casper, and Harold Hunter, who played a character who shared his own first name. Both have died since the making of the film.
According to Shannon Swan, one of its producers, the documentary is in search of a distributor. We Were Once Kids has made the rounds of the festival circuit, although it has yet to stream or see a theatrical release. Reviewers have commented that they were confused as to the logic behind the selection of the interviewees, especially those who were not in Kids. And it’s true that the rationale isn’t necessarily obvious. But for those involved with the 1995 film, the choice of people interviewed reflects a dynamic internal to the milieu from which Kids emerged, a conflict over the question of who really belonged. The documentary’s narrative isolates a particular group—the original skateboarding community of New York in the ’90s, which included people who refused to be in Clark’s 1995 film and actively rejected any association with it—as the real source of Kids. According to conversations I’ve had and the social-media posts of some old friends who were in the original film, this framing angered those who were in Kids but were not invited to appear in the documentary. There have been complaints that the documentary reductively and narrowly reflects the perspective of just a few people (namely, Harris). As the documentary states, “Neither Clark nor Korine agreed to participate.” “Martin says that someone is trying to thwart the documentary’s release,” Variety noted last year. Martin was quoted as saying, “Someone has been trying to shut the film down from a legal angle. They’re trying to stop it and we’re getting into fair use and the owning of material. They can’t stop these individuals from telling their side of the story, so they’re trying to do that by blocking the use of footage.”
Kids was released in the summer of 1995. I see it as an event that transformed, if not destroyed, the essence of that insular downtown world in which we lived.
I DON’T REALLY TALK ABOUT KIDS. I had a very small part in the film, though it absorbed my whole life for a summer and more. I failed the audition for a part that was written for me. It was as one of the girls who makes out with another girl in a pool. Once I was actually standing in front of Harmony, Larry, and the casting director in the production offices in a building on the corner of Broadway and Houston, I felt a dissonance with my role in the script and the way girls’ roles in general were written. My speech, my behavior, my physical presence—my self—was something I couldn’t perform. I forgot all my lines. Afterward, I was awash with a sense of failure. I had failed at being myself. At seventeen, I found that feeling pretty familiar. I felt as awkward simulating a sex act as I did with the real thing. In the end, Carisa Glucksman and Michelle Lockwood played the girls in the pool.
THE BEST PART OF THE DOCUMENTARY is its initial exploration of the pivotal role skateboarding played in the lives of New York teenagers in the ’80s and ’90s—the way it brought together a diverse community of kids from the projects and outer boroughs and forged an ethos based on physical creativity and escape. As Harris puts it, “The skateboard is something that you get on and you can ride away from what was going on at home. The skate shop became refuge.” In 2015, he told The Guardian, “As a skater you’re physically at risk jumping down a flight of stairs or sliding down a bannister [but] if you were in an abusive relationship at home, then falling down stairs is a joke; you’ve been hurt deeper.” The film includes vintage footage in which a city on the verge of massive gentrification is transmuted into a concrete playground through the act of skateboarding. As the documentary shows, skateboarding in NYC incorporated attitudes and survival mechanisms learned from societal and familial dysfunction and poverty. It melded the body of the skateboarder with the rhythm of the city streets, inspiring inventiveness, quick reflexes, and a confrontational ethos. Skateboarders announce themselves with the smack of an ollie and the raucous rumble of wheels over pavement; you can hear a skateboarder from a mile away, cutting through city traffic on just a piece of wood and wheels. It transforms the cold, hard reality of concrete into a surface that supports the act of gliding, with an ease and grace of self-assurance bordering on pure cockiness—an attitude that epitomized the character of New York City back then. By the time of the making of Kids, New York, especially the Lower East Side, was in the throes of an economic and social transition that would eventually wipe away its character. It was two decades after the burning down of Alphabet City and just before corporate real-estate development took hold in the aughts. The neighborhood and its population were still unregulated and fiendishly resourceful, with squatters taking up residence in abandoned buildings and drug dealers and tabletop cassette vendors sharing the corner spot. The documentary implies a correlation between the boomtown atmosphere of late-twentieth-century New York and the monetization of downtown culture by the makers of Kids. High—one of the main interviewees and also someone who refused to be in the film—is one of several people who allude to outsiders, meaning Clark and others unnamed, coming into the community; Harris mentions these interlopers’ eventual “abandonment” of the scene in the wake of the film’s success. Skateboarder Ryan Hickey, another person who refused to be in the movie, says that Clark looked at the community and “saw dollars.”
Underlying this resentment, as Martin suggested in Variety, is a conflict over ownership—specifically, of the image. The vilification of Clark in We Were Once Kids is tied to his production of pictures of the teenage skateboarders. The documentary puts forward a kind of iconoclastic narrative, according to which Clark and his creation of images are things that should be opposed because of the power they hold—a power manifest in both their negative effects on their subjects and in the financial benefits they generated for Clark. This way of looking at the situation is vividly elaborated in a conversation among Hamilton, Priscilla Forsyth (also a cast member), and High. They describe their disbelief on seeing Clark’s photographs of their friends on a gallery wall with price tags attached; their astonishment increased when they realized the photos were sold out and none of the people in them had received compensation. High offers the strongest condemnation of the images’ power when she states her belief that Justin would still be alive if the movie had never been made.
Yet the documentary is filled with images, including photographs (many my own, some of which I gave permission to use) and video made by the interviewees and a wider community of photographers, filmmakers, artists, and skateboarders connected to the scene. A number of the images come from an independently published 2017 book by High and Mel Stones, That’s a Crazy One, a compendium of photos the authors took of each other and their friends in the ’90s. High and Stones shot these from the vantage point of two girls who were at the center of this life, and the pictures betray a level of intimacy, taking the viewer inside the homes of, and inside the sense of home that permeated this community. There’s an insular character to the photos, as if High and Stones took them only for each other, without much concern for the rest of the world. Such personal photographs and footage supplement the narrative that is pieced together from the recollections of the interviewees. Underlying this narrative is an implicit differentiation of the “good picture” from the “bad picture,” a distinction based on the proximity of the photographer to the subject: the insider who documents their world versus the outsider whose gaze can only be exploitative. The good correlates with a truthfulness that the documentary claims to convey, while the bad picture is equated with falsehood.
External to this conflict over outsider versus insider, good versus bad picture, is a subtle and more interesting conflict over the issue of ownership of representation: that is, a desire to express a truth of self and an attempt to extricate that truth from the artistic vision of the film’s creators. Truth is an ethical concern and not an aesthetic one. Considering this, the two films really don’t speak to each other on the same terms. Kids is an artistic creation mistakenly treated like a documentary because of the authenticity it aesthetically inscribes onto its subjects. We Were Once Kids is a documentary that aims to portray a corrective truth; in doing so, it appeals to the ethical concerns of the image.
When you look at both Clark’s and Korine’s work more broadly, it’s hard to miss that expressing a truth isn’t exactly their goal. Korine’s films have been defined by a kind of heightened reality. They convey sensation through aesthetic experience. This is what was actually so successful in Kids. There is a beauty in the way that film captures the city and its rhythms through saturated primary colors and the blur of melted concrete seen through the simmering rise of New York summer heat. The movie’s artistry lies in its persuasive rendering of the intensity of teenagedom. It’s as if the story and its characters are inventing themselves as the film progresses. Kids had the energy of something being created amid a lot of everyday chaos and dysfunction—as when clothing was stolen during filming by the actors or their friends from the costume trailer—which was a truth in the experience of its making and I think was communicated in its presentation.
Clark’s investments in representing truth are more complicated. His acclaimed books of photographs Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983) shed light on an American youth culture that was mostly unseen. Their focus on adolescent sexuality and on the dysfunction and violence of drug addiction was in line with the traditional documentary drive to expose situations and social groups that are ignored or marginalized. The work acknowledges social and economic deterioration and the breakdown of the nuclear family that was gathering momentum in the 1960s and ’70s, countering the normative myths of the Eisenhower years (the era in which Clark grew up). His images are polemical, totems of resentment that rail against the obliviousness of a conservative, out-of-touch adult world.
But while Clark’s photography falls within the genre of documentary in all these respects, the “truth” his images communicate is personal and deeply subjective. There is a tenderness toward the individuals he captures, no matter how brutal the content of their actions. These images and their aestheticization of the rawness of youth culture became central to the ’90s trend of “heroin chic.” Clark has said that he was addicted to heroin until 1998. As an addict, he was also an enabler of other people’s habits, including those of the teenage skateboarders he befriended and who worked on the film. As is not uncommon in the blur of addiction, he tried to get some individuals clean and sober while being unable to get clean and sober himself. Driven by his long-standing impulse to counteract the socially conservative denial of the experiences of young people, he wound up myopically projecting his concerns with addiction and teenage male sexuality onto the film’s subjects. In doing so, Clark identified with those subjects and, as he did in his photographs, created a world in which adults have no part to play except as voyeurs and adolescents make their own rules. With its polychrome palette, Kids departs dramatically from Clark’s previous black-and-white aesthetic, while the grim ambience of his still photography gives way to urban splendor and emotive close-ups. But the throughline is sustained. Here, as in his earlier work, the self-destructive and violent tendencies of his subjects form a narrative of trauma that is his own.
The experience of being turned into an image, into something imagined through Clark’s artistic vision, intervened in my life as both a record and a projection.
LATER ON THE DAY of my embarrassing audition, I bumped into Harmony at Astor Cube, one of the main spots where we used to congregate before there were cell phones to locate friends on the move. Harmony and I were never close. At the time, we shared a best friend in Chloë, and when he came around, he would often act as if I were invading their privacy. This time, though, having witnessed my failed audition, he put his arm around me and asked with genuine concern if I was OK. He said he would write another role for me. It was small. Instead of consenting to getting naked and making out with someone, my character would be saying no—a little truer to reality than the pool scene. In fact, the part he wound up writing was based on actual dialogue between me and Harold Hunter. Whenever I bumped into Harold at night in the clubs we frequented—Palladium, Limelight, NASA, the Tunnel—we used to play this game. He would try to get me to kiss him. And I would always say no. He would come up with all these outlandish reasons why I should say yes, often acting them out, constantly devising new and funnier caricatures of desperation. He was a genius of physical comedy, like Charlie Chaplin. He would have me laughing on the ground by the end. He knew I would never say yes; repetition was the point. Whether it was skateboarding tricks or hilariously ludicrous reasons for a girl to kiss him, the point was to develop his improvisational repertoire and come up with ever riskier, funnier, more inventive ways of doing it. It wasn’t really about the kiss. It was just us kids playing a game in a club full of people nodding out from K-holes and taking things too seriously. So this routine of ours got written into the movie. During the filming of this scene, Harold, in nothing but his tighty-whities, and I had to sit next to each other on the floor for hours in the apartment of a friend on Houston and Avenue A, where the final party sequence of Kids was shot. As we reenacted our dialogue over and over, it kind of lost its spontaneity and fun. And then it was mostly edited out.
SO MUCH OF MY EXPERIENCE of being a teenager was living through multiple and fleeting identities that were often reflected back to me through the eyes of others, friends or enemies, and so much of it was defined by feeling a sense of intimacy before I even knew what that was. The experience of being turned into an image, into something imagined through Clark’s artistic vision, intervened in my life as both a record and a projection. On the one hand, Kids championed our community; rather than just celebrating our fashion sense, it depicted an ethos, a vernacular, and a way of being in which friends were chosen family. Clark and Korine updated the classic American coming-of-age film, traditionally set in rural or suburban landscapes, and relocated the site of adolescence to the urban environment. They memorialized an era when skateboarding was still a shadow culture, an anti-sport not yet turned into a commodity for corporatized cultural appropriation and light-years from its present status as a category in the Olympics. Their film crystallized the last generation of youth culture before the internet and social media. Strangely enough, in some respects it comes across now as a record of a time of innocence.
Skateboarders announce themselves with the smack of an ollie and the raucous rumble of wheels over pavement; you can hear a skateboarder from a mile away.
On the other hand, there is Clark’s focus on teenage boys as vectors of violence, sexual violence in particular. If the film were really honest, it would have been titled Boys. The narrative is driven by the motivation of the protagonist, Telly (played by Fitzpatrick), to “fuck virgins”; he calls himself the “virgin surgeon.” This plot was so ridiculous and contrary to reality that most of us just laughed at it at the time. It so obviously came from the mind of an adult. Every boy I knew was interested in experienced, if not older, sexual partners, not virgins. The “virgin surgeon” plot device underscored a narrative central to Clark’s own artistic vision, namely the destruction of innocence. From the point of view of many of the girls involved in the film—for example Lockwood, as she has told me—the initial screening was a traumatic experience because of the gendered character assassination of its female protagonists, written as the targeted objects of a “cherry-popping” sexual conquest. Beyond the spectacle of eroticization, there was a lack of acknowledgment of the role girls played in skateboard culture, in which they participated as skaters, photographers, family, and friends. Considering this backdrop, many of us were hoping that the subject of gender and the experiences and voices of the female characters would figure prominently in the documentary. One of the most entertaining scenes in Kids featured girls frankly discussing their sex lives. The documentary’s failure to foreground the experiences of the film’s nonmale characters—a perspective that was mostly lacking in the original film—was a missed opportunity.
The documentary’s critique of Kids is ultimately an argument about the instrumentality of art, its purpose and meaning, what it should do and for whom.
We Were Once Kids addresses the still tender and painful heart of the 1995 film’s aftermath, the deaths of Pierce and Hunter, who could be understood as best embodying the ethos portrayed in Kids. It conveys the difficulties that both of them, like other cast members, faced after the movie had been released: struggling with addiction and alcoholism while facing the challenge of maintaining authenticity after being made into an image, and navigating what must have felt like a make-believe world. As High made clear when she speculated that Justin might be alive if not for Kids, the deaths of these two people who were so central to this group of friends are part of the resentment that feeds the narrative in the documentary. To everyone who knew Justin, he represented the essence of being a kid in its rebelliousness and fuck-all spirit. Because of his childlike quality, he elicited a kind of protectiveness from his whole tribe. His eventual death by suicide caused a heartbreak that reverberated among everyone in this community. The later death of Harold—a legend and a leader of the creative, bombastic, and autodidactic spirit of New York skateboarding—from a cocaine-induced heart attack intensified this heartbreak. Grief over Harold and Justin may manifest as anger in We Were Once Kids, but ultimately it is an expression of loss. The documentary is right to include these deaths as crucial to the story of Kids, but I can’t agree with the simplistic idea that they would be alive if not for it. What is clear is that the image that Kids projected of its subjects is still very alive for some of those connected to its inception and that what constitutes truth in and around both films is heavily conditioned by trauma.
In thinking about the legacy of Kids and the ways its image of us continues to be a central reference in cultural production today, I’m reminded of what W. J. T. Mitchell describes as the surplus value of an image, when an image becomes the focus of over- or underestimation and takes on a life of its own, with its meaning and what it can “do” continually expanding in contexts beyond that of its original purpose. While Mitchell, despite the Marxist provenance of his key phrase, tends to emphasize surplus as the social agency of an image, Sohrab Mohebbi has argued that an image’s surplus value accrues from all it relations within the image economy, the whole vast network of producers and consumers, distributors and mediators, the totality of an infrastructure that is propelled and managed and economically sustained by an image industry. As is parsed out in the documentary, the image of Kids becomes a site of convergence for all these factors and the economic and social relations they delineated. The documentary’s critique of Kids is ultimately an argument about the instrumentality of art, its purpose and meaning, what it should do and for whom. Yet what it should do, and whether it succeeds in doing it for everyone—its audience, its subjects, its creators—is conditioned by the multiple and layered contingencies of its reception. The central conflict of the good/truthful image versus the bad/false one provides not so much a corrective to the original film as a contribution to its continuing surplus value. This particular surplus, as defined in the documentary, is not realized through its aesthetic value but rather experientially—specifically, by the experiences of some of those who were its subjects. For me, for instance, there’s an ineffable surplus in some footage included in the documentary in which Justin and Harold accept an Independent Spirit Award. Justin is uncomfortable at the podium, unsure of how to accept this recognition. Harold takes the mic and mimics a caricature of what a person is supposed to sound like when receiving an accolade through overplayed tears. He puts on an act in a situation where he’s being asked to be himself. I was struck, when I saw it, by the contrast between this scene and the realness both of them projected in Kids, where each presented a truth of self to help create a fiction.
Lila Lee-Morrison is a visual culture scholar and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark and the author of Portraits of Automated Facial Recognition: On Machinic Ways of Seeing the Face (2019).