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The first film directed by Larry Clark, long controversial as a photographer of desperate adolescent characters, follows some teen-agers around Manhattan. Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is a swaggering but geeky Casanova who thinks he’s found the ultimate in safe-sex precautions: He screws only virgins, the younger the better. Casper (Justin Pierce) is Telly’s drug-addled cheering section; he’s mostly passive, but in the film’s final minutes he commits one of its most heinous offenses. Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) is one of Telly’s former conquests; she’s just discovered she’s HIV-positive, with Telly the only suspect.

The film isn’t titled Telly, however, or Casper, or Jennie. It’s called Kids, as if it’s some sort of generational statement. It’s not, but in certain circles it’s been accepted as one.

One reason for the hoopla over Clark’s long-delayed directorial debut is that it serves as aesthetic payback time. Directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Gus Van Sant (one of Kids‘ executive producers) have credited the photographs in such Clark books as Tulsa and Teenage Lust for shaping the look of, respectively, Taxi Driver, Rumble Fish, and Drugstore Cowboy. As part of Kids‘ publicity blitz, Van Sant interviewed Clark for Interview, while director Paul Schrader did the same for Artforum. The film’s hook is its purportedly lucid view of adolescent depravity, but its constituency is the Manhattan art-film world. Clark’s favorite director, it turns out, is John Cassavetes.

Yet Kids isn’t especially reminiscent of Cassavetes. Clark and cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards (who worked on Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho) use a lot of handheld shots, the performers are anything but glamorous, and the dialogue (by Harmony Korine, 19 when he wrote the script) is in a pungent New York vernacular. The opening scene, a tight closeup in which Telly seduces a girl who looks about 13, has a faux-documentary intensity worthy of Clark’s cinematic model (although its protracted French kiss also evokes the farcical Big Top Pee-wee). As soon as the film cuts to the girls, however, it’s clear that the actors (all nonprofessionals) are not improvising. No group of young women could have fashioned a conversation that sounds as false as the one Jennie, Ruby (Rosario Dawson), and their friends have.

Just as its title promises a broader focus than Kids actually achieves, so its ad campaign suggests a balance between male and female characters: The print ads give equal play to photos of Ruby, Telly, Casper, and Jennie. But Ruby drops out of the story early, never to return, while Jenny spends the film in a quest for the aloofly rampaging Telly and Casper, only to be subjected to another violation when she finally finds them. (Even Sevigny, Korine’s girlfriend, says “the girl parts in Kids were so-so.”)

Now in his 50s, Clark still likes to hang with kids, in an admitted search of the adolescence he claims he never had. While he and his prepubescent son were cultivating skateboarders in Washington Square Park, he heard about the real-life inspiration for the character of Telly—a cowboy who never goes to the drugstore, at least not for condoms. Clark says he’s always conceived his series of photographs as films, yet also that he’s not a writer. So he enlisted Korine to fill in the details. The result is lurid yet icy, a Manhattan freak show that counts on AIDS for a sense of moral gravity.

Telly and Casper compare notes on the former’s career as a “virgin surgeon” in language that demonstrates the influence of hiphop: “That bitch was bleedin’,” Telly brags. (The boys in this multiculti but predominantly white world also call each other “nigger.”) They shoplift malt liquor and then steal money from Telly’s mother, one of the few parents to make a brief appearance in this unchaperoned demimonde. In a section that’s almost an instructional film on how to be a teen-age waster in Washington Square Park, they help make a “blunt” and then join in the savage beating of a guy who started a fight with a skater. After the victim’s been pulverized, Telly spits on his bloody face.

While Jenny searches for him, Telly sets out to seduce another 13-year-old virgin, Darcy (Yakira Peguero, who like all the principals was at least 17 when the film was shot). Wandering through a disco, Jenny obligingly swallows a pill stuck in her mouth by an acquaintance (played by Korine) who says it’s “better than Special K,” the hallucinogenic animal tranquilizer currently popular on the Manhattan club scene. She eventually finds Telly, Darcy, and Casper at an unsupervised party where the floor is littered with comatose 12-year-olds, but by then she’s too stoned to be anything but the victim that, by Kids‘ rather old-fashioned reckoning, all young woman are.

Many mainstream journalists have Viewed With Alarm the sensationalist day-in-the-life of Kids, and at least one has noted worriedly that these bad kids are shown reading Peter Bagge’s comic book, Hate. In fact, Clark and Korine’s slackers are not unlike Bagge’s, although the latter’s live in Seattle and tend to be older. The main difference is that Bagge plays his tales for laughs, while Clark and Korine have managed to give their scenario a patina of docudrama earnestness. Just because they take it seriously, though, doesn’t mean anyone else has to. Kids may be an exceptionally acrid stunt, but it’s a stunt nonetheless.

Violence is as American as apple pie, but ultraviolence seems to work better with a foreign accent. First Hong Kong mayhem master John Woo lost his way in the murky bayous of Hard Target; now the bloody grace of Robert Rodriguez has been similarly undone by Hollywood acceptance.

Rodriguez is actually an American, but both his new Desperado and its $7,000 predecessor, El Mariachi, were made in Mexico. This time, however, the writer/director (who also produced and edited) was well equipped with American money, American stars, and American irony. These commodities have given Desperado few advantages over its antecedent.

Essentially a sequel to the earlier movie, Desperado continues the saga of the nameless mariachi (now played by gone-Hollywood Spanish star Antonio Banderas), a former musician who has turned to murder to avenge his slain girlfriend and his mutilated hand; in a small, nasty Mexican town, he seeks Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the druglord whose thugs committed these crimes. Unlike in the first film, he now has some allies, including a garrulous scout (Steve Buscemi) and two mysterious friends summoned for a climactic battle. He also acquires a voluptuous new lover, Carolina (Salma Hayek), who owns the town’s café con libros—its version of Kramerbooks & Afterwords.

If that seems an arch gag, it’s not the only one. Bland, blond gringo tourists appear to be shocked by the aftermath of one bloody shootout, heavy-metal guitar Americanizes the soundtrack (which is mostly by Los Lobos), and the mariachi’s final confrontation with Bucho stumbles over a weak genre joke. Chong-less Cheech Marin is behind the local bar, and Rodriguez’s pal Quentin Tarantino shows up to deliver another one of his rambling, self-conscious speeches. (Tarantino and Rodriguez each directed segments of the upcoming Four Rooms, and the former scripted and stars in the latter’s next film, From Dusk to Dawn.)

Some of Rodriguez’s jests work, and they’re usually the ones—like the quick shot of a highway sign marking a scorpion crossing—that don’t last too long. The livelier scenes have the no-nonsense snap of the film’s predecessor, but Desperado‘s pacing is erratic. Though the film is not that much longer than El Mariachi, the added minutes provide room for some surprisingly ordinary interludes, including an almost-routine sex montage. (It ends with a joke too, but it’s still dull.) Rodriguez set out to make a throwaway genre picture with El Mariachi, but this one is the more conventional.

Still, the director has not lost his flair for kinetic, overstated action sequences, or his luminous style: In one sequence, the mariachi launches himself backward off a roof, firing with preposterous precision as he goes, and there’s a confessional scene in which both participants are marked with crosses of light. Despite his training in Pedro Almodóvar’s camp, the charismatic Banderas sustains his deadpan cool under the pressures of both the delirious choreography and the dialogue’s heavier ironies, while Buscemi, de Almeida, Hayek, and Marin are all sufficiently winning to overcome the script’s reluctance to choose between myth and spoof.

El Mariachi charted an innocent’s education in the ways of berserk Mexican gang warfare, and innocence is what’s lacking here; in just a few years, the director has become too knowing for this sort of outsize parable. Desperado‘s miscalculations don’t cast doubt on his talent, but they do suggest that he was unwise to revisit the site of his first success.