I love Harmonie Korine’s film Kids. I first watched it with some of the crew I skated with when I was 14. For my friends and I, Kids captured our lives in an eerily stark way. It was so real for us that despite most of us having seen the film at least ten times over our teenage years, we never once had a meaningful discussion about it. Well, maybe we talked about Chloë Sevigny once or twice. We were more than content to sit with an engaging portrayal of the life we loved so much for a couple of hours and then move on. But, we all knew the film was rich both visually and poetically.
Kids’ developed a reputation for being a ‘poignant’ film about the AIDS epidemic. Also, as a film that offered “a wake up call” to society about what 90s youth is really up to! These characterizations clearly came from the marketing department, and they did a fine job. Don’t get me wrong, the AIDS component of the film is an important plot point, but if that’s what you focused on then you missed the film! Also, the “youth has gone crazy” aspect can’t possibly explain Kids‘ enduring legacy because those films are a dime a dozen. I think few successful (in the art sense) films have just one specific thing that makes them work. Nevertheless, one of the things that stands out for me as artistic triumph, is that Kids is an unusual fractal allegory on youth. An allegory focused on largely unexplored aspects of the concept of youth: evolution and conformity.
Dimensions of Youth in Art
In the static visual arts, allegories of youth are common, but they are almost always focused on the frailty or ephemeral nature of youth. I’m personally partial to Domenico Piola’s painting as I was able to see it when I was very young (the horizontal hourglass, that looks like a jar full of stuff you need an excuse to not eat :), is actually profound):
(Domenico Piola: Allegory of Youth; Blanton Museum of Art)
Of course, I’d estimate that there are at least a thousand examples we could pull from the Renaissance to present that are relatively literal for an allegory (often a kid next to an older person doing similar things):
(Tipi Napoletani – Seranata)
One could easily argue that the entire French Rococo movement’s foundation was an allegory of youth, but a thinly veiled one focused almost exclusively on youth’s fleeting nature:
(Nicolas Lancret, La Camargo Dancing; National Gallery of Art)
Youth is a topic that has so much dimension to it, and it’s not just in painting where that dimensionality isn’t explored much. In stories and poetry, allegories aimed at youth also focus too often on mortality or the fleeting nature of youth. Most everyone is familiar with the riddle of the sphinx in one form or another. Of course, my characterization of the whole body of literature and painting being one note on youth won’t stand thoughtful scrutiny, but my main contention is that the most common approach to youth is to focus of its ephemeral nature.
On 90’s Skate Culture
Kids is a daylong snapshot of the comings and goings of a group of New York based skaters and their varied entourage. The obvious image that snapshot conveys is ‘hardcore.’ The subjects are young teenagers, and they all exude hardcore. I think the gestalt of 90’s skate culture are captured well by Kids, much in the same way Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers does. In many ways, the general tone of Kids and 36 Chambers are identical:
But, every generation has had a group of hardcore teenagers. Even if Kornine could have gotten away with it, Kids would not have had the enduring cult status it has if it was simply a film about 90’s skate culture. A non-obvious aspect of 90’s skate culture that I think is helpful in appreciating Kids is how crucial the camcorder was to shaping it. We knew we were lucky that camcorders were so ‘easy’ to obtain and use. Easy wasn’t defined by everyone having an iPhone and LTE, but on any given day the contingent of our skate crew with ‘rich’ parents could ‘borrow’ their camcorder. If we couldn’t borrow one, we could rent one for $20 or so. And, if we had some exciting footage we could rent other equipment to splice bits of tape together, sync some music to it all, and even stud it with some text. Skaters around the world documented their adventures and shared them near and wide allowing us all a glimpse into the next amazing trick or how raucous our parties were:
The foundational element of skate culture (much like any sport or art) is seeking and pushing boundaries. Skaters strive to challenge themselves to do seemingly impossible things. Once these kids perfect the impossible, they move on to the next impossible trick. When you are in that mindset, watching others from around the world push themselves the same way is its own high. Skate videos celebrate the plight those who have chosen to take on a daily routine of relentlessly pushing against boundaries that evolved over ~83 million years to help ensure their species survival. The kids making and consuming skate videos were actively trying to erase the words can’t and shouldn’t from their brain, all during a time in which their brain were undergoing one of its most crucial phase of development. Under these conditions, boundaries naturally and progressively fade from all aspects of life.
When all boundaries dissolve chaos reigns, and I know firsthand that most adults looked on skate punks as lawless sociopaths. I can’t blame them. If you were to stumble upon an average skate video without any context, it would likely shock you too. If you had only watched previews of Kids, they would have shocked you in the 90’s. But, I’d argue the behavior of these kids remains governed, at least tenuously, by a relentless devotion to doing the things you like as best as humanly possible. The inspiration for new channels to divert this psychotic geekery comes from the small group of friends around you, but with videos, you can connect with seemingly infinite sources of new inspiration and implicit validation. This notion is captured well by this random grab bag of moments from Kids, stripped from any larger context:
My friends and I made many (slightly more demure) variations of Kids while we were teenagers. It never seemed surreal, and it never seemed exhibitionistic. To any casual observer, skate videos would certainly appear to have no value beyond glorifying debased behavior. But, I would argue they let us embrace our non-music passions in an unprecedented way.
In the 60’s and 70’s the market for records blew up in a way that accelerated the global dominance of Rock Music at a pace that was so fast few adults could rationally process the long-term cultural consequences. Adults were so concerned that many felt compelled to send exorcists to Led Zeppelin concerts. Now, we (sadly) slap Page, Plant, Paul Jones and Bonham’s beautiful art on car commercials:
The youth of the 60’s and 70’s bonded over a near universal love of Rock music. That bond was not due to a passive interest, and it wasn’t really all about the drugs. The passion was a very real desire to consume and make art. An incredible number of hippies would at least make an attempt to start a band, and those that did took rock into so many different and interesting directions that music probably saw its most significant evolutionary phase between the 50’s and 90’s. Many factors caused this. The cost of inter and cross-continental travel was plummeting as many players entered into the global and domestic airline business. So, chances were even if you were a kid in Indiana not only would you be able to see Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, you would probably get a chance to see The Who, or any other band English promoters wanted to be the next big thing. That same kid could buy all of those records giving them a chance to endlessly critique and study Hendrix’s choice in chords and progressions. On top of that, instruments were being manufactured at industrial scale, so that kid in Indiana, and his buds could start a band after a few hard weeks of work. Lastly, for that kid in Indiana, the thought that they too could make a career making music was not insane because the path from hundreds of hours of practice in the basement to the ears of a British promoter was in fact shrinking.
What’s It All About?
Actual kids show us every day what life is about in a far more relatable and less controversial way than teenagers do. That purpose seems to be learning how to interact and shape the world around you simply because it is fun. Whether it was part of a grand plan or a fluke, we seem to be wired up to want to create, share and learn. Later we begin to realize that if we are to keep interacting and shaping the world, we have to figure out how to do it for fun and profit. This is the moment when things get complicated. By the time we are adults, some of us fight to stay young, while others, just move on. But, for teenagers, the reality of ‘the real world’ is just starting to sink in, and their ability to do real good or ill in the world is only bound by their era’s context. Teenagers may not have a fully formed and reasoned mind, but they can physically accomplish just about anything. And, they are in a ‘go for broke’ position if society is telling them they only have a few years before they have to report for duty in ‘the real world.’ Unsurprisingly, parental chiding about “immaturity” and “you aren’t going to get a job doing x” just adds fuel to the fire. It’s not rebellion per se; it’s teenagers trying to balance their desire to become expert at their passions with an occult fear they won’t be able to pursue them any day now.
I do not believe that teenagers are actively aware their behavior is shaped by the mental conflict between an intrinsic and desperate desire to be creative, with the pressure to be as good at that as they can before society traps them into conformity. Nevertheless, I do believe that conflict is the quintessential teenage experience. As society gets more complicated and reliant on skilled labor, the seeming lawlessness of teenagers will become all the more apparent. The more ubiquitous teenagers’ ability to share their pursuits with each other, the faster the one-upmanship will be. This admittedly nuanced, but I think a foundational aspect of youth is an interesting and beautiful phenomenon. This phenomenon is told expertly as an extended behind the scenes skate video in Korine’s Kids.