SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: I AM THE LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME (THOUGH YOU HOWL IT BACK AT ME)
This is the thirtieth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
I am the love that dare not speak its name (though you howl it back at me)
So finally we come to that small but fierce flame at the heart of all the smoke, those few films in which the boy’s love for a man, or the man’s love for a boy, do not stop short of outright sexual expression, even in a society which savagely suppresses that variant of love, inventing a whole new language of hatred for behaviour that in any other context would be considered natural and fine.
These then are films about pederasty, that ancient and multi-cultural erotic desire of men for boys around puberty, and vice versa. It is society’s deep abhorrence of pederasty, more fierce and hysterical today than at any time in recorded history, which spills over to infect all other manifestations of affection between older and younger males, and while this work is not intended as a treatise specifically about the sexual fringe of that relationship continuum, we can scarcely ignore it either.
Pederasty (very much distinct from “sex abuse”) is a small but fierce flame with radioactive properties, containing immense danger for both partners. That danger does not lie within the relationship itself, nor any sexual activity that may occur, but in the extremity of social hate and prejudice directed against it – primarily, it has to be said, by women, who falsely identify pederasty as the recruiting sergeant of misogyny. Patriarchal society suppressed it, viewing it as a recruiting sergeant for “effeminacy”, which is to say that it made boys and men “too feminine”. Women suppress it for exactly the opposite reasons, just as the Eternal Jew was despised both by Fascism and Communism, on diametrically opposite grounds. When one listens to the language reserved for this topic even among “liberal” commentators, analogies with anti-semitism scarcely seem overstated. One remembers the Nazi poster of the fat smiling Jew leering over two small Aryan children with his bag of sweets. How far we have not travelled indeed.
Arriving at this theme, most readers will expect to find “DEATH IN VENICE” (“Morte a Venizia”, Italy 71) the glorious centrepiece, Visconti’s turgid, somnambulistic interpretation of the Thomas Mann novella. The film, showered with festival prizes, was hailed by some (preposterously) as “the first gay movie” (as though we must now define “gay love” as the pursuit of schoolboys). But it is more a study in abstract self-destructive obsession, the smitten composer Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) fondly rearranging the deck-chairs of his fantasy while his ship sinks slowly beneath the waves. The boy Tadzio (Bjorn Andressen) is clearly his iceberg. “MORTE a VENIZIA”, as with Visconti’s previous film “THE DAMNED”, employs pederasty and homosexuality as overt motifs of decay, while Venice itself, a city quietly rotting into the waters, is stricken by a cholera epidemic. Such explicit metaphors scarcely add up to a celebration, whether of passion, desire, or spontaneous natural beauty. For me the film is rather a hymn to impotence and death, an exquisitely slow poem on futility.
Nevertheless it does contain bitter truth, and Von Aschenbach’s internal agony, as he hovers indecisively around the boy, never quite daring to speak, is so well-observed and emotionally accurate that Visconti clearly knew more of his theme than he was telling. In reality of course, Tadzio was a child of 10 called Wladyslaw Moes, and not especially well-favoured in the face, but Visconti took the same get-out Kubrick had done with his “LOLITA” (61), casting his irresistible boy less controversially in the mid teens. It is hilarious to read contemporary reviews of that film, the critics all anxiously tip-toeing around any suggestion the artist’s feelings for the boy might be (heaven forbid!) sexual. No no, he was enchanted by the “purity of youth”, dazzled by the artlessness of nature, pursuing his dream of blah-di-blah. They especially disliked the sequence on the beach where Tadzio wiggles his bottom at his admirer, sashaying along a promenade under an awning, the boy’s flirtation making the physicalities too explicit. But let us discard that opera of impotence from consideration here. Von Aschenbach did not exchange a single word with the obscure object of his desire — who had a tendency to strike pretty aesthetic poses for him — and so whatever that film was about, it cannot be construed a “friendship”, special or otherwise.
While we’re about it, let us mention the Channel 4 television serial “Queer as Folk” (1999), in which another man’s pursuit of a 15-year-old schoolboy (and vice versa in this instance) was explicitly sexual from the outset. This too was made, advertised, and received as a celebration of contemporary gay life and culture, conveniently sidestepping the fact such a relationship is pederastic by any definition. When the man drives his boyfriend to school, and engages in fierce badinage with the queer-baiting morons of the schoolyard, we’re clearly not dealing with any safe, self-contained cultural ghetto here. The boy was three years below the notional ‘age of consent’. Arrant gay hypocrisies aside though, the drama was well done indeed, and certainly helped to dispel some lingering stereotypes of homosexual life. It was a television milestone on the subject, just as “Oranges are not the Only Fruit” (1990) had been for lesbians. Did it help erode society’s hostility to pederasty? Not a jot. Did it remind gays of their common cause with that older variant of homosexuality? Of course not, their self-interest lay in denunciation.
Films dealing with the sexual awakening of homosexual boys belong to a different paradigm than the one under discussion here, they are the logical extension of that “first love of boyhood” – between schoolmates of a comparable age. Still I can’t forbear observing that the angst and traum expressed in quite recent “cumming of age” titles reminds us how precious little progress has been made on that front, a full generation after Stonewall. Young teenagers who attach themselves to the “gay” identity (having no other construct of homosexual behaviour to choose from) undergo all the same misery and anguish, all the same brute ignorance, their antecedents did in the 1950s. Scant room for their pride in our desperately PC post-millennial classrooms, it seems.
Compare and contrast the charming French film “C.R.A.Z.Y.” (2005), which recounts the seventies teenage years of Zac, and his mortification on suspecting he might actually prefer boys, with Simon Shore’s 1998 British film “GET REAL”, the portrait of a contemporary homosexual boy equally unable to reveal his feelings to family or classmates. Steven, the hero of “GET REAL”, conveniently 16 to chime with the current gay “age of consent”, knows full well he’s homosexual, and begins an affair with an older jock in his school who is just about to go up to Cambridge. His lover does reciprocate the feeling, but is paralytic with dread of being “outed” and losing face. Steven, a promising writer, ultimately resolves the question by penning an anonymous “coming out” piece for the school magazine and, when the headmaster refuses to print it, declares himself in a platform speech at an award ceremony before an aghast audience of parents and classmates. Zac in “C.R.A.Z.Y.” (the title refers to the initials of him and his four brothers) does not even get that far, taking himself off to the Holy Land in his late teens before dipping his toe into a gay bar, and withdrawing it again in primal panic.
Both films are worthwhile, and do articulate something of the horrors of growing up homosexual in the steel-clad straightjacket of “normal” society, but both are amazingly coy when you think of the torrent of heterosexual dating operas that flood our screens. That very coyness is a concession to the selfsame prejudice – in parents, teens and teachers – the films themselves are complaining against. At least “QUEER AS FOLK” showed the 15-year old getting buggered, discovering analingus, enjoying actual full throttle sex. The most that Zac (who is delicious by the way) can accomplish is a cannabis “blowback” from his cousin’s new boyfriend, a phantom kiss. Steven, decades later, achieves several on-screen kisses, but that is as far as schoolboy homosexuality can be permitted to go, even in 1998. Steven’s desire for his friend is articulated in very passé terms, all about hugging and kissing and “making an honest man out of him”, nothing about fellatio and wanking and anal intercourse. Safe sex, when you’re under 18, means no sex at all when your taste isn’t for girls. Heterosexual teens can think and talk about raunchy sex, homosexual ones think and talk about kissing and romance, setting up home together, all the dewy Mills & Boon nonsense of 1950s schoolgirl fiction. Steven’s only confidante at school is a girl, and both Zac and Steven seem to spend a lot of their time in the company of girls, which is a dead giveaway of course. At least, it is if you’re still stuck in the “third sex” nonsense of homosexual identity.
Better than either of these was the quirky Spanish film “GLUE” (2006) which follows Lucas, a 16-year old (that mysterious number again!) teetering on the fence between homo and heterosexual commitment. He steals a brief weekend with his closest friend at his father’s empty flat, like Steven in “GET REAL”, but the friend panics and flees after one glue-intoxicated night of crotch fumblings. The film has a much lighter touch than this makes it sound, and wins out above the other titles by articulating very little. It has all the rudderless sloth and ungainliness of adolescent life, all its hesitancy and withdrawal into self. In other words it has the smack of truth about it. Director Alexis dos Santos avoids soap-style verbalisations and relies instead on videocam footage, rough-cut editing, and patient observation of Lucas (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), who looks like nothing so much as a dazed 14-year old stretched on a rack, dithering between these two mutually exclusive life courses. Bisexuality, in 2006, has been relegated to some twilight zone of the unreal. Everybody must make their choice between two polarised identities, one kosher and the other not. Plenty for the gay ghetto to celebrate there then.
Returning to our theme, it’s hard to watch these films and not conclude that both Zac in the 1970s, or Steven and Lucas in the late 1990s, would have been far happier, and relieved of much of their burden, by having their rite of passage with an older, more relaxed, homosexual man, as thousands of teenage boys before them had done. But this is the nub of society’s dread of homosexuality, its detestation of pederasty. Society fears that boys can be eased more comfortably into homosexual life by an older man, and so “corrupted” from the proper way. There is still a tacit assumption in Western society that homosexual teens can only be accepted as such provided they keep their legs crossed until well past school age (when they are beyond redemption). We don’t want to make it easier for them. The much-vaunted tolerance of gays today is often a fig-leaf concealing much the same old bigotry and unease that was always there. When homosexual activity becomes commonplace in mindless teen dating comedies, when six year olds stop taunting one another with “you’re so gay!”, then we will be making some progress.
“MAN WITHOUT A FACE”, as already discussed, skirted this fire and made its protagonist the victim of misplaced suspicion, rather than sheer social intolerance, “IL SAPORE DEL GRANO” and “LA VILLE DONT LE PRINCE EST UN ENFANT” came within a hair’s breadth of it. A couple of other titles danced like moths tantalisingly near the flame. The first is, quite bizarrely given the culture that spawned it, a holiday romance for boys, without a girl in sight. “IKI HAOLE” (“My Little Friend”) tells the innocuous story of a boy (Nico Almasan) on vacation in Hawaii. Bullied on the beach by some local kids, an older youth (David C Naughton) springs to his defence, and the two of them become, er, bosom buddies, touring all the romantic island spots together, bathing nude in the sunset surf, and baring their souls on the coral sands. It is a hoot to watch, because of course not a breath of homosexuality passes between the young man and adolescent boy — even while the one dresses the other in a hula skirt — but the story makes no sense at all if it is not a coy holiday romance, less ‘innocent’ than disingenuous.
And the point about choosing that title first — after invoking the dread name of pederasty — is that it’s important to recognise that an age difference of four or five years, at puberty, is the same as an age difference of twenty or thirty years between adults. A boy of 12 and one of 16 — as with David Copperfield and Steerforth, or the schoolboy lovers of “LES AMITIÉS PARTICULIERES” (64), or a boy of 15 and a man of 24, as in “IKI HAOLE” — are not in fact peers, as in the conventional gay relationship. They are separated from one another by age and social standing, and this is integral to their mutual attraction. The famous “love that dare not speak its name”, so eloquently defended by Wilde at his trial, was not “gay love” between two adults of equal standing, but the love of an older male for a younger one, and vice versa. Gay historians have merely co-opted Wilde posthumously to their own social construct, whereas he belonged to an older, pre-extant form of homosexuality. “IKI HAOLE” was, therefore, a pederastic romance rather than a gay one, because such relationships are defined not simply by kinship of gender, but that crucial age gap. Vive la difference.
La difference could scarcely have been starker than in a modest Dutch film of 1994, which had about as much chance of a UK/US distribution as an al-Quaeda recruitment video. “VOOR EEN VERLOREN SOLDAAT” (“For a Lost Soldier”) is the autobiographical story of Jeroen, an Amsterdam boy (Maarten Smit, 12), evacuated to rural Friesland during WWII. A total fish out of water in that dour Calvinist province, his life changes when a small detachment of Canadian soldiers arrives in the neighbourhood in advance of the final thrust against Germany. Jeroen, as with millions of boys before him and since, is excited by the musk of distant war. Like so many Europeans, he is mesmerised by the glamour, affluence and swagger of these strangers, and in particular one young soldier, Walt (Andrew Kelly) with whom he falls into company. Neither can speak a word of the other’s language, but they communicate by smiles and gestures, and a bashful trust grows, each drawing some indefinable comfort from the other, strangers both in their surroundings. During a community dance to the scandalous new music of swing, man and boy withdraw from the throng, and do the jitterbug together.
Horseplay in the shower one rainy day leads inevitably to deeper intimacies, and the camera — astonishingly for a 1990s commercial film — finds the two of them in bed in the act of sexual intercourse (usually called worse things in the vocabulary of disgust). A matter of moments on the screen, the interlude is neither over-dramatised nor romanticised. It is as casual and intimate as a stolen kiss, and is not spoken of again by either one. Jeroen’s reactions, as he stands contemplating himself in the mirror afterwards, display no shock, fear or shame, no self-disgust, but only a reflective puzzlement, that so much importance is invested in such a little business. Walt’s company are deployed eastwards shortly after this, but the man cannot bring himself to take his leave of Jeroen, and vanishes from the boy’s life without a parting word. Jeroen, understandably hurt and grieved, returns presently to his mother in Amsterdam, the same young boy and yet not the same. Different and yet not different. It is, in that howling cliché of film criticism, a “rite of passage” story.
Reviewing the film for the magazine Gayme, Frank Torey wrote “…in the book the twelve-year old boy has ambivalent feelings about this first sexual experience of his life (what the specific acts were is left up to the reader’s imagination), while in the film, amazingly enough, the boy is simply and sunnily in love with the soldier and has few observable problems with the sex.” However, in an interview with the same magazine the film’s director, Roeland Kerbosch, says “In the book the sex scenes were much more explicit, and there was much more – it’s difficult to find the right words for it in English – it was rougher. There would have been some problems showing all the details. You can show almost anything on screen when it comes to a love scene between men and women, but not when it comes to two men. In American movies you can’t show a penis. Frontal sex is prohibited. Though I think that’s ridiculous, it’s still a fact. If you want to reach an audience you have to make some concessions.” And before people jump happily to false conclusions, the word “rough” in Dutch does not imply violence or force, but coarse animalism or bluntness. Perhaps the word he was reaching for was “raunchy”.
The film, and let’s hasten to make this explicit, does not attempt to wrap Jeroen in the cloak of “victim”. It is based, after all, on the auto-biography of a living Dutch ballet choreographer, and the book itself makes his own feelings plain about that brief boyhood affair. “VOOR EEN VERLOREN SOLDAAT” is by no stretch of the imagination a great film, or even a particularly interesting one. Dutch cinema, alas, is generally awkward and clumsy, like a man dancing in clogs. It even manages to make such incendiary subject matter humdrum, which must be accounted a minor miracle in today’s climate, treating in the so-Dutch matter-of-fact fashion with an overt pederastic affair. It begins, it ends, and life goes on. The heavens do not fall on Jeroen or his soldier. He is treated shabbily by Walt, not in the act of anal sex, but in the act of abandonment, and the film shrugs this off with the same wordless stoicism. The day may come when the United States has the courage to make such a film, non-judgmental, free of melodrama and zealous hand-wringing, but pigs will roost atop the Statue of Liberty first, I suspect.
“SOLDAAT” is not even a film that could be called erotic, for all its hints at the curiosity of puberty. It shows little insight into the boy’s feelings or motivations (we are left — dangerously — to fill those in for ourselves), while the book-end sequences featuring the present-day, adult Jeroen shed no light at all. Nevertheless it is a modest breath of fresh air. Such things happen, says the film, and what if they do? Why must there be externally imposed boundaries on such a friendship? Men and boys share an ancient secret together, but it is a masculine secret, and sometimes it too can be called “love”.
“MONTREAL MAIN” (Canada 1974) was a more tentative foray into the same minefield. Simple, direct, honest, painfully naïve, by turns contrived, amateurish and rudderless, it is the quasi-documentary “reconstruction” of a brief affair between Montreal photographer Frank Vitale (played by himself) and the shy, faintly epicene 12-year old Johnny Sutherland (played by himself). The boy’s outwardly trendy, “laid back” parents (played by themselves) — whose initial reaction to Frank is a patronising pity — grow suspicious almost immediately of their son’s friendship with the man, most of whose circle are openly gay, and finally they forbid Johnny to see Frank again. Frank is summoned to dad’s office for a friendly chat, and a firm warning off. Johnny, outraged at this interference in his private life, runs away to Frank’s place, assuming they can simply live together, with or without his parents’ approval. It is the adult, Frank, who loses his nerve, and effectively abandons the boy to avoid trouble with the police.
Unlike “SOLDAAT”, there is no suggestion here of any contact remotely sexual between the two, nor is the subject broached — however remotely or abstractly — in their conversations, yet the parental suspicion is explicit, and so is the discomfort Frank’s new friendship excites among his trendy gay dropout friends, one of whom attempts to characterise the relationship as “a kind of vampirism”. To hippy and square alike, “gay” and “straight” alike, a love that does not lead inexorably to sex seems unthinkable, and sexual relationships outside their own narrow confines are not to be tolerated.
But this is not so simple and straightforward a tale as “MAN WITHOUT A FACE”, where everybody just leaps to the wrong conclusion, because the film opens with Frank, on the rebound from a broken heterosexual relationship, trying (with hilarious awkwardness) to forge a homosexual one with his best friend Bozo (played by himself). Frank is extremely awkward socially — around adults — and this can certainly be an indicator of one who prefers the company of boys. His courtship of Johnny is uncertain, diffident, riven with self-doubt, yet the boy seems to find his company agreeable, is flattered by the attentions, and appears to have fewer qualms about it all than any of the adults. Where Frank or Johnny thought this friendship might ultimately lead them is never hinted at, but this bizarre re-enactment of it all on film begs many questions. By the close, Johnny has been betrayed or abandoned by both family and friend. He has made his own choice, without duress or inducement, and has had it negated, invalidated, by adult neurosis, adult scepticism of his capacities. His virginity may remain intact (hallelujah), but he has lost something altogether more precious, his emotional faith. He has been firmly put back in his place. Run off and play, little boy.
A sub-atomic budget underground film given a negligible art-house release, “MONTREAL MAIN” hums with the listless, vacuous sensibilities of the hippy ghetto that spawned it, and it locates with surgical precision the point of maximum social unease where hippy and traditionalist outlooks converge: a burgeoning love affair between an adult and a boy on the cusp of puberty. All you need is love maybe, but that isn’t meant to include man/boy love, or is it? No, all you need is any love but that one. Cool man.
I’ve spoken already about man/boy/man love triangles in cinema – a construct that will give critics acute indigestion – and the most egregious of these would have to be Ascyltus/Giton/Encolpius in “FELLINI-SATYRICON” (Italy 68). Freely adapted (as the euphemism goes) from the remnants of Petronius’ bawdy classic, Fellini’s film is a freakshow, a circus of erotic decadence. Indeed, it’s hard to find more meaning or substance in it than that, a leery Cecil B De Mille epic with the biblical cover story shorn off. The film begins with two “students” (did they have those in Petronius’ day?) falling out over the pouting, eyelash-fluttering slave boy Giton, whom one has stolen from the other, then sold on to a theatre manager.
Giton is the Dionysian obverse of Visconti’s Tadzio in “DEATH IN VENICE”. Where Tadzio is a remote, untouchable, ethereal beauty, Giton is the consummate catamite, blithe to be sodomised by all comers. He’s a sex toy in frilly white mini-toga and Mary Quant wig, passed from man to man to man with but one service to perform. Apart from a little song in one brief shipboard sequence, he remains as resolutely mute as Tadzio. They are both prizes rather than people. Max Born in the role was already 17 (described by the director as “a whore with an angel’s face”) so he too counts as one of the pseudo-boys of cinema, playing a much younger part, and for very obvious reasons. The film’s title does sound distinctly conceited until you realise that a cheaper, quicker, bawdier cover version of the story was released just ahead of Fellini’s, and Gianfranco Polidoro’s “SATYRICON” (68) featured a 14-year old boy (Francesco Pau) playing Giton. The film was impounded by police and the director promptly arrested on charges of “corrupting a minor”, until it could be explained to the judges’ satisfaction that his actor was not physically present during the orgy sequences Giton appears to witness, that the effect had been created by the mystery of “cross cutting”. Fellini obviously chose to avoid similar misunderstandings.
The DVD release of “FELLINI-SATYRICON” nonetheless employs the (empty) promise of pederasty to boost internet sales. The sleeve image features none of the principals, but the gluttonous face of Trimalchio (a rich elderly patron from a feast sequence) beside a powdered young boy in lipstick (another non-speaking role). Fellini was avowedly heterosexual, yet his film is chiefly larded with camp homoerotic imagery and dialogue, like Visconti employing homosexuality as a “motif” for decadence itself. He appears to be saying that carnality is the bread of life, not its wine, and all forms of carnality are essentially interchangeable (when law looks the other way). In truth the film contains scarcely more screen sex than “CARRY ON CLEO”, and is certainly no better acted, but some of his tableaux are rich in visual invention, as are Danilo Donati’s production designs. Max Born was an elderly Giton then, but he swishes through the film making man/boy sexuality as cheap and unremarkable as muzak in a shopping mall.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was a very different kettle of fish to Fellini, but in the same period he was directing “THE DECAMERON” (70), “THE CANTERBURY TALES” (71) and “THE ARABIAN NIGHTS” (74), each of which doffed its cap (albeit very briefly) to pederasty. In “THE DECAMERON” for instance, the young hero joins a crowd in a marketplace, sidles up to a likely looking lad of 14 or so, and tickles his genitals meaningfully. The boy promptly draws a dagger to defend his manhood, but when the man proffers a well-hung bag of coins he grins and escorts him back home – only to shove him down a shaft into a cesspit. In “THE ARABIAN NIGHTS” another young stud is wafted to a magical island where his only companion is a beautiful young boy in a sumptuously appointed boudoir. It has been foretold that if he sleeps with the lad he will also murder him, but he waives that nonsense aside – and wakes the next morning from his night of passion to find the boy’s butchered body beside him. Pasolini’s own taste ran to swarthy satyr youths – as displayed to excess in his final film “SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM” (75) – and indeed he was murdered on a beach by a group of them shortly afterwards, but he recognised that vanilla homosexuality and pederasty were simply part of the same continuum, not the entirely separate phenomena people try to insist today.
Continue to the next chapter: The Watershed of "Innocence"
 There are two popular fallacies that Freeman has fallen for here. The first is to assume that Visconti went for a mid-teen boy as “a get-out”. The present editor also fell for this until he saw Visconti’s 1970 documentary Alla ricerca di Tadzio (In Search of Tadzio), which makes it clear his efforts to find a suitable boy were concentrated on finding a 14-year-old until he met Andrésen. The other fallacy is that the real Tadzio was the plain 10-year-old Moes rather than a beautiful 14-year-old, as described by Mann. Moes himself was the originator of this vain claim, which Visconti rightly ignored, and it was later taken up without question and popularised as a good story by Gilbert Adair in a short book, The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' and the Boy Who Inspired It (2001), but the grounds for the claim were very weak, as set out in this review of Adair’s book. [GLTTA website footnote]
 Really? “He rolls me over him, kneels above me, turns me on to my stomach and licks my body like an animal. Then all of a sudden he interrupts the wrestling, lifting up a corner of the mattress and feeling about with his hand. A small metal lid falls to the floor; I sit up and look at it. He rubs a smooth, cool finger between my buttocks [...] I arch my back and tense my legs, his thing prodding my body impatiently, insistently, an unimaginably coarse and blunt instrument trying to make an opening into my body.” etc. (Rudi van Dantzig, For a Lost Soldier, London: Bodley Head, 1991, pp. 157-8). [GLTTA website footnote]
 This is inaccurate: it had been foretold that the boy would be killed by a king’s son on a particular day, but this was not contingent on anyone sleeping with him. [GLTTA website footnote]
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