SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE WATERSHED OF "INNOCENCE"
The Watershed of “Innocence”
That period of the early seventies was an important watershed in the cinema of childhood, and therefore the cinema of boyhood. The ambient trend towards ever greater “permissiveness” (as liberalism was called back then) eroded many tabus such as “full frontal nudity” (as that was called), but it also allowed children and adolescents to be portrayed on screen in ways that would have been unthinkable only ten years before. It’s no accident that a whole slew of titles depicting children as demonic, psychotic, or homicidal corresponded with another batch of titles portraying them as overt sexual beings. The Child as Evil in Our Midst was not a new trope of course - “THE BAD SEED” gave us Patty Duke as the kid “born bad” in 1959, “TOMORROW THE WORLD” (1944) introduced Skippy Homeier as the Hitler Youth who doggedly refuses to be domesticated – but that theme proliferated greatly in the seventies. “THE EXORCIST” (73) and “THE OMEN” (76) were simply the most obvious examples of the trend – others included “DEVIL TIMES FIVE” (74), “ERASERHEAD” (76), “I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN” (76), “IT’S ALIVE” (74), “THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE” (76), “NIGHT HAIR CHILD”, (71), “THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA” (76).
Childhood, it seemed, was no longer off-limits or sacrosanct, its “innocence” exposed for the nursery tale we always knew it was. All those coy, demure “first love” stories like “FRIENDS” (71), “SUMMER OF ‘42” (71) and “A LITTLE ROMANCE” (79) were looking decidedly passé now, far more cutting edge were “under-age” prostitutes like Jodie Foster in “TAXI DRIVER” (76) or Brooke Shields in “PRETTY BABY” (78). The banal but chaste summer camp frolics of yore gave way to banal lose-your-virginity contests like “LITTLE DARLINGS” (80) and “LOSIN’ IT” (83) and a whole stream of schoolboy-seduced-by-adult-woman “comedies” – “MALIZIA”, “NORMAN LOVES ROSE”, “PRÉPAREZ VOS MOUCHOIRS”, “PRIVATE LESSONS”, “WEIRD SCIENCE”. The subtext was that kids below the notional legal age were not simply interested in sex, they were positively gagging for it. Heresy of the first order.
None of those titles have any direct relevance to this particular study, except that the trend they reflected threatened to transgress the ultimate cultural tabu of paedophilia, and the paranoia which has swept the world in subsequent decades is in part a reaction to what was widely perceived as “permissiveness gone a step too far”. “DEATH IN VENICE” itself, as we’ve seen, appeared in 1971, no doubt appearing to more conservative outlooks to broker the scandalous proposition that willowy Bjorn Andressens were as much fair game as the Tatum O’Neals and Jodie Fosters. None of those “controversial” titles (“PRETTY BABY”, “TAXI DRIVER”, “THE EXORCIST”) were exactly singing the praises of “under age sex”, quite the opposite in point of fact, but their subtext over-rode the surface message, making the unmentionable mentionable, making it visible, allowing audiences to entertain sordid ideas of their own on the question. They were the thin end of a wedge that violated the Sanctity of Family Life (something which epidemic divorce rates, apparently, did not do).
It’s such a great pity, in the wider libertarian sense, that just as cinema was beginning to countenance this notion that kids are merely young human beings, anything but the doe-eyed neuter objects they are supposed to be, it did so in the most sensationalist of contexts, provoking a counter-wave of such fury that all adult-child friendships in the future would be contaminated by suspicion and mistrust. All honesty on the question of pubertal sexuality and behaviour was excoriated, throwing the 13-year old boy out with his bathwater, to be replaced by a new trend of gothic “sex abuse” melodramas. Now that is what you call a watershed – when a trend that lasted no more than six years provokes a reaction that has continued unabated for thirty years and counting.
I have not seen “UN ENFANT DANS LA FOULE” (“A Child in the Crowd’, France 1976), but it arrived at the very end of that watershed, a WWII tale concerning a French orphan who makes himself very amenable to German officers during the occupation, and then when the Americans drive his former protectors out, strikes up friendships with Uncle Sam with equal solicitude. My understanding is that the film does not equivocate about the sexual nature of his services, but nor does it attempt to pass judgment on him or the relationships of convenience he strikes up. The central boy is a pragmatist, seeking comfort and security where he may, not a “victim” (except in the sense that all orphans are victims of chance) but a latterday “camp follower”. The unwritten history of warfare saw thousands of lads like him trailing after the armies and baggage trains, or enlisting as drummer boys and pages, and don’t deceive yourself that unwritten history doesn’t continue quietly in the wars of today. Today it will simply be spun at us in a very different fashion – sex as one of the (male) iniquities of war.
 Paul, the boy in question, is not actually an orphan, but, worse, lives with a grim mother who does not reciprocate his love for her in the slightest. [Website footnote]
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters to the Editor (some editing may be involved)