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How to Film a Virus: The Evolving Depictions of HIV/AIDS from 'Kids' to 'Precious'

Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson stunned audiences in Larry Clark's slap-in-the-face 90s classic, Kids. A decade later, both actors would go on to star in far more milquetoast depictions of the HIV/AIDS crisis in America.

by Mayukh Sen
Jun 6 2015, 4:00am

Rosario Dawson as Ruby and Chloe Sevigny as Jennie in Kids

This article is part of a series of stories inspired by our latest documentary, Stopping HIV? The Truvada Revolution.

Ruby and Jennie are sitting with their friends, cracking jokes about sucking dick. It's 1994, somewhere in New York City, and they are just shy of 17. You can tell how hot it is outside because of the way Ruby's long brown hair is sweating, curdling into gross, wet tendrils that she occasionally stops to slick back.

"Hardcore-pound-fucking, that's the shit right there," she declares. She's spitting the words out as she smacks her gum around her mouth. "There's a difference between making love, having sex," her face just teems with disgust when she describes something as maudlin as having sex, "and fucking."

The other girls laugh, talk, protest, disagree. Semen tastes bad, some say. Sperm gets stuck in your teeth. Sex, when it's good, feels like boom, boom, boom, man. Ruby likes getting fingered. "He was sucking on my tits and I was like, 'You go boy.'"

"The worst is sucking dick," Jennie, a girl with cropped red hair, interjects. She'd been quiet up until that point. The girls nod furiously in agreement. In a few moments, Ruby and Jennie will be sitting in a doctor's office getting tested. Jennie, who's only had sex with one guy, learns that she has HIV. Ruby, who's had sex with many more, learns that she doesn't. Their lives start to feel unbearably, senselessly cruel.

Ruby is Rosario Dawson; Jennie is Chloe Sevigny. They are the girls from Kids, Larry Clark's painful, vital 1995 film about the troubled teens of New York City. Though some of the film's stars would have real-life tragedies on their own, dying within years of its release, the film would make stars of Dawson and Sevigny. They're both actresses who, no matter what the decade is, seem to embody an effortless and eternal breed of cool. Kids was where their cool began.

Both of their performances are, unsurprisingly, superb. Dawson's punchy, staccato line delivery is so abrasive that it's charming. When she speaks you can't help but listen and hang on her every word. She's entrancing in the way some delinquents just happen to be.

Kids was not just a tonic: It was an explosion.

With Sevigny, it's something different. It's in the way her lucid, sad eyes communicate the small earthquakes we endure as we grow older, shedding the skin of adolescence and graduating into adulthood. When the camera glances at her, she glances right back in a way that cuts through the bullshit and gets to the heart of what's ailing her. She's been infected with a disease that will grimace over her for the rest of her life, and she's terrified.

Now that the film is celebrating its 20th birthday, Kids—which director Larry Clark wanted to make into the "Great American Teenage Movie, like the Great American Novel"—has become the stuff of lore, sewn so tightly into our cultural fabric that it seems silly to talk about how important a film it is. Upon Kids' release, critics were up in arms about it, some seeing it as a wake-up call, others thinking it was trash, a lot of people declaring it was close to a masterpiece. Perhaps it's all of those things at once—a brutal, ragged, and crudely effective film about the breathtakingly stupid things we do when we're young, and the awful ways life preys on youth's blind spots.

It's also a film about a vivid cultural moment, one in which HIV, in popular movies, stopped being something stars could suffer nobly through. HIV had a hard time entering movies. For a long time, most frank and brutal depictions existed in the cultural ghetto of arthouse cinema. A Steve Buscemi movie called Parting Glances was, in 1986, one of the more high-profile films to feature the disease. In 1992, Gregg Araki of Mysterious Skin fame, tackled it with The Living End. So did Derek Jarman, another icon of New Queer Cinema, with his final film, Blue (1993), which he made right before he died of AIDS.

There were a few "watershed" movies about HIV that captured the populist imagination, but their bleakness was careful and calibrated. One was Norman Rene's Longtime Companion (1989), which got Bruce Davison an Oscar nomination for playing a gay male dying of AIDS. Another was Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993), which featured Tom Hanks in the Oscar-winning role of a sexually castrated man dying of AIDS. The movie needed Denzel Washington to play the audience surrogate in the form of the homophobe whose prejudices ease up as he sees the human face of AIDS. These movies had traces of horror that were implicit, not explicit—all trace and suggestion of some monster that existed in a place we couldn't see.

In that context, Kids was not just a tonic: It was an explosion. Now, the world was seeing that New York City's stoop kids could get HIV, that its agents were reckless, and that it was ugly.

Kids would illustrate this social reality with a frankness that was at once both refreshing and hard to swallow. Today, its devastation feels particularly brutal because we see this disease map itself onto two young actresses, Dawson and Sevigny, who are so appealingly and artfully vulnerable. They make the naiveté of being a teenager seem like the world's most forgivable sin.

Rosario Dawson as Mimi Marquez in Rent, third from left

An exact decade after Kids, Dawson would enter our greater cultural consciousness playing Mimi, the HIV-infected stripper of Rent. It's a film that is so hopelessly, ridiculously uncool, especially when compared to the gritty iconoclasm of Kids. Kids became an emblem of an American cinema that was daring, original, and a little weird, willing to expose truths in ways that some could cast off as base and tasteless. Rent was only subversive in the context of theater camp.

For me—an outsider to Rent and the cultish, fanatic subculture it left in its spawn—Dawson seemed like the one near-perfect thing about a movie filled with less-than-great elements. She sang with a sweet, milky voice—something like a purr—that had traces of a real bite that made Mimi seem as if she'd seen it all. She was a junkie who seemed to make a ton of bad decisions that came close to destroying her, but she'd always come back. As an actress, Dawson had such a direct, accessible tenderness that Mimi's mistakes didn't seem to matter. You wanted to hug Mimi and take care of her, even if you knew she'd, through some scraggly combination of luck and hard work, be just fine on her own.

But this wasn't Kids. Rent was a film where characters gauzed the pain of HIV away through singing and dancing on tables. And Mimi? She wasn't Ruby. Those girls occupied different orbits—cinematically, culturally.

To care about HIV in cinema, audiences need their compassion to hinge on some imagined moral compass: a character they see themselves inside, usually in the form of a big-name star.

That same year, Sevigny would also be placed in the center of a film about the HIV/AIDS epidemic: American-Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald's 3 Needles, in which she plays a South African nun. Her rebellious saint of a character, Clara, tries desperately to save the workers on a plantation where workers are being infected. The film strives for the grandiose canvas of a Robert Altman film like Gosford Park, but, instead, it achieves the soft symmetry of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel. It is meticulous in construction, but ultimately too tame to register. Its big statements on the global reach of this terrible disease land with a quiet thud.

In 3 Needles, Sevigny would be a symbol of defiant purity, a courageous and soulful nun who risks it all to shield those she unconditionally loves from a destructive disease. And those trademark Chloe eyes—the ones that exposed Jennie's silent screams of fear, ten years earlier—now told the story of a woman moving through her complicated faith.

How odd that, an exact decade after Kids, both actresses would assume roles in movies about HIV that were so decidedly tame, so stylistically unchallenging for a theme so complicated. Both Rent and 3 Needles flooded their narratives with tragedy, but they contained little of the unabashed candor of Kids. Rent softened its blows with the careful, twee artfulness of song and dance. 3 Needles did it through the confines of a failed epic, one that wanted to capture the daunting scope of the disease without probing the intimacies of its horrors. These kids had grown up and into a different world.

Chloe Sevigny as Clara the Novice in 3 Needles

So what can you say about the fact that these two actresses would fall into films that looked at the epidemic through the gauzy eyes of Hollywood? It's been 20 years since Kids; it's been 10 since Rent and 3 Needles. But when it comes to depicting the HIV/AIDS epidemic on film, it's unclear whether America can stomach another Kids. With Clark's film, Dawson and Sevigny came to embody a kind of iconoclasm: a new kind of cinema that dared to show kids in all their stupid, fucked-up, and vulnerable glory. Is the fact that these two actresses graduated to stuff so milquetoast just a big old sign of our stiffening cultural mores? That Kids was just a one-off, something we'd talk about as if it were a revolution without realizing that movies about HIV didn't really change at all? Was all of this a sign that we were devolving into a culture of pansies who needed to be coddled into understanding the shades of an awful disease?

To care about HIV in cinema, audiences often need their compassion to hinge on some imagined moral compass: a character they see themselves inside, usually in the form of a big-name star. That's the beauty of actors who double as stars. They're grand, but they're also intimately, identifiably human.

"We have a major star, playing a significant role with a visual for HIV, acted out beautifully as a movie that's award winning," Gary Bell, a Philadelphia-based HIV advocate, told NewsWorks in a 2013 interview on Philadelphia's 20th anniversary. When asked about the Denzel Washington character, whose prejudices ease up as he sees the disease rip through Tom Hanks, Bell noted, "He gave voice to the fear and the stigma to all the things that were holding people in getting involved in this or learning more about it." That, Bell argues, is why the film was so deftly able to shift America's attitudes towards HIV: Philadelphia was a baby step for a country that couldn't handle a slap in the face. Washington's character was the film's necessary evil, cushioning the disease's dire message.

Kids, on the other hand, has no moral compass. It gives us a world filled with brats, and the puppets behind these precocious messes aren't Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington.

These are the tidy politics of a movie like Philadelphia: It provides an easy frame of reference for an uneasy subject. America had fallen in love with stars like Hanks and Washington before, so seeing them wrestle with the battle of what was seen as a gay cancer activated their sympathies. Kids, on the other hand, has no moral compass. It gives us a world filled with brats, and the puppets behind these precocious messes aren't Hanks or Washington. This was Chloe before she became Chloe, Rosario before she became Rosario, two actors before they became cultural institutions, stars we now hold close to ourselves. In 1995, these kids were nobodies.

Today, it's unclear whether America could stomach another Kids. We've increasingly developed a cultural propensity to distill HIV's narratives of horror through palatable Hollywood formula. We like to have HIV's narratives of horror delivered through the stylish hypertension of Precious (2009). It's a movie that presents an over-stimulating torrent of bad things, like HIV, happening to people we've seen before—Mo'Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey. We like to see HIV disrupt the disarming Southern twang of Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

None of these popular films dig deep into the skin of this disease, its many shades of terror. The few moments of truth come when the actors punch through the artifice and give it to us straight. In Precious, it's in that stunning final monologue when Mo'Nique unleashes the cycles of hurt that have turned her into a monster. Precious takes a whole movie to reach something close to truth. In that moment, truth is grisly; Mo'Nique's character becomes a beast who makes sense, whose awful behaviors you understand.

Of course, it's ephemeral. Soon after, the movie lulls itself back to the tidy comforts of being numbingly miserable. But it's a special kind of thing Mo'Nique does—that distillation of a certain mood that is so painful, so wrenching, it overwhelms everything around her.

Dawson and Sevigny, when they were the Ruby and Jennie of Kids, could accomplish that exact feat with one look at the camera. Maybe it's because they were young, because they didn't have the professional training of actors who'd done this so many times before. But, so often during Kids, they invite us into the headspace of teenagers who are realizing, quite painfully, that their lives will be filled with false promises and dead ends. We cozy up to the grim reality that's dawning on them. They show us the ugly world of an ugly disease, and it is eating their lives.

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