SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE THUMBSCREWS THEY ARE A-TURNING
This is the twenty-ninth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
The Thumbscrews they are a-Turning
One less than obvious title in the Special Friendships canon would be “TURN OF THE SCREW”, which has been filmed half a dozen times under various silly titles — “THE INNOCENTS”, “THE HAUNTING OF HELEN WALKER”, “PRESENCE OF MIND”. Although the friendship in question, between young Miles and the sinister Quint, takes place as a prelude to the actual story, it dominates the drama. Quint exerts a malevolent posthumous spell over his protégé, which both alarms and infuriates the neurotic new governess. Hints of “unhealthy” (ie, sexual) knowledge in the boy escalate until the governess provokes a confrontation, forcing Miles to repudiate his mentor Quint. He does so very reluctantly, and promptly gives up the ghost in his saviour’s arms. In exorcising Quint she has killed Miles. Nice going, governess.
She of course believes she has salvaged the “innocent” boy’s soul from Quint’s manipulation (the operation a success, even though the patient died), whereas all she has done, presumably, is reunite the two Beyond the Grave. In the world as it stands today, it is hard not to conclude that the neurotic governess, smothering her charges to death in the name of “protecting” them, has become queen of the planet. The prevalent victim culture mindset, the ubiquitous mantra of “health and safety”, the regime of internet “child filters” and “enhanced disclosure” vetting of anyone who wishes to come within shouting distance of children (a policy with its implicit creed of “unwholesome knowledge”), all seems to form a single matrix of compulsive control disguised as “risk management”. And children are not the only ones suffocating under its strictures. In short, the protection racket has itself become a power trip.
“THE INNOCENTS” (61) is a subtler, more layered film than it gives out on a casual viewing, as cryptic and impenetrable in its way as the source story was. Where later versions have attempted (of course) to impose a given reading on us, Jack Clayton’s film allows mutually contradictory readings. Lighting, sound and complex montage shots are employed to infuse a sense of alarm, or to reflect the mental deterioration of the central character, and it’s far from certain how many of her inferences and conclusions are justified. The children are not especially well cast but that scarcely matters, since what we’re witnessing is the governess’s internal hop, skip and jump from sentimental over-indulgence of her charges to a deep suspicion and mistrust of them, driving the one to hysterics and the other to his death. The film gradually distances us from identification with Deborah Kerr’s character, until we’re as ambivalent about her sanity as housekeeper Megs Jenkins is.
And far beneath all of that, the “profane knowledge” she suspects in the children is simply knowledge. What scares her (what scares parents) is the inkling that children are not the guileless “innocents” society chooses to pretend they are. Kerr is amused to hear Martin Stephens declare himself “a man” who will protect her (the little darling!), but startled to the core by the thought that he might, just might, be a little man in every possible sense. Her exorcism of Miles is, on that level, an act of wilful infantilisation, to crush him back into the cradle, reduce him to a pretty doll again. When she kisses his corpse on the lips, it has the same unsettling ambiguity as when earlier Miles gives her a very fulsome bedtime kiss. The paradigm of “protection or control?” is implicit in “THE INNOCENTS”, making it a very prophetic film indeed!
In the 1999 “TURN OF THE SCREW” (which retained the original title for once), starring Caroline Pegg, Miles does not expire in a vapour when he renounces Quint, but is literally suffocated to death in the governess’ bosom, making all too explicit the motif of lethal over-protectiveness. She is a “child abuse worker” trampling roughshod over the children in her urgency to pursue the contaminating male presence she senses. That penny did not drop with audiences, and one has to wonder if it did with the makers of the film.
Exactly ten years later, the BBC produced yet another version (also with the proper title), where even more of the dialogue is suffused with a profound horror of the male sex, not Henry James’ words anymore but the intemperate language of the Abuse Experts: “He (Miles) had been taught wicked things that normal children should not know”, “You wouldn’t believe what they got up to (Quint and Jessel). Filthy, dirty, evil things”, and “Quint and Jessel taught them depravity while you (the housekeeper) looked the other way”, Quint is, in the governess’ words, an “evil that will endure throughout the ages”. But what is being implied here, the evil that will endure throughout the ages, is merely sex, and although the language invites us to fill in the gaps with mental images of gothic perversion, there’s actually no hint that the children were anything more than passive observers on common or garden heterosexual licentiousness. Bligh was very small beer in contrast (say) to the goings on at the Hellfire Club, or Cleveland Street, or Tiberius’ playground on Capri. Our moral compass is being recalibrated for us to a highly proscriptive notion of what is permissible. To men.
This version ends with the governess packed off to a lunatic asylum (and rightly too), shrouding her in the mantle of Victim as it does so, but 2009 was the era of Twitter, so the screenplay must dispense with ambiguity for an audience with the attention span of a gnat. Splatter film sound cues warn us of every spooky encounter, every suspected sin, and poor Miles (Josef Lindsay, blond and pretty) is reduced to barking in a harsh basso profundo Quint voice, ripping off Linda Blair in “THE EXORCIST”. The sexual frustration of the young spinster governess, for all her post-WWI notions of female empowerment, is made self-evident (she secretly yearns to be ravished by Quint) but nevertheless we’re meant to take her utterances about corruption of innocence entirely at face value. Sexual liberation for women requires compulsory chastity for younger folk, apparently. When she receives the letter from Miles’ school announcing his expulsion, she declares at once (before even setting eyes on him) “It can have only one meaning. Miles must be a danger to the other boys!” Yeah right. We must build more lunatic asylums too.
“THE NIGHTCOMERS” (71) even attempted to fill in those tantalising gaps in Henry James’ story, being a “prequel” to “TURN OF THE SCREW” with Marlon Brando cast as Quint, but it was spectacularly dire, focussing on Brando’s vanilla copulations with Miss Jessel, and not on the crucial relationship with his young disciple. “LAST TANGO IN PARIS” meets “THE GO-BETWEEN”, it hadn’t an idea in its head beyond full frontal nudity (much in vogue back then) and Brando’s performance was ghastly. Benjamin Britten wrote an opera from the same tale, and that’s pretty ghastly too, but at least he recognised the story’s dark homoerotic undercurrents. There’s a deal of Miles drifting around in diaphanous nightgowns.
Let us consider just a few more examples from the Special Friendship canon before we come, in a sense, to the hard core cases, where those diaphanous nightgowns threaten to be cast off with scandalous abandon.
“NUOVO CINEMA PARADISO” (Italy 89) went down well internationally, as unashamed nostalgia feasts tend to do, the film only coming alive in the early boyhood segment with a crusty old cinema projectionist (Philippe Noiret) haunted by a poltergeist in the shape of the young protagonist Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio as the child, Marco Leonardi as the adolescent). It’s one of those unlooked-for Special Friendships, “DENNIS THE MENACE” fashion, from the adult’s point of view, but the boy is such a dynamo of life and enthusiasm that no amount of crustiness can withstand him. A very minor work compared with other European childhood titles to have won Best Foreign Film awards or Palmes D’Or — “PELLE EROBREREN”, “MITT LIV SOM HUND”, “FANNY OCH ALEXANDER”, “PRÉPAREZ VOS MOUCHOIRS”, “L’ALBERO DEGLI ZOCCOLI” — but at least it resisted the impulse to marry the old man off to the boy’s mother.
“DEUX IMBECILES HEUREUX” (“Two Happy Fools”, Fr 73) saw runaway boy Guillaume le Vacher encounter rural hermit Jean Roger Caussimon, a progenitor of the environmental warrior, and together thumb their noses from trees at the bourgeois establishment. It is some measure of our progress in thirty years that young boys running off to live with hermits in the countryside would today spell Acute Danger, not Healthy Individualism. The boy ultimately hops a bus home to mom and dad so that, even in 1973, Healthy Individualism was permissible strictly as a summer vacation. It may be so that runaways are generally children voting with their feet, but it wouldn’t do to promote a stampede. Ecological protestors back then were still a breed of eccentric. It wasn’t as though we needed to save the planet or anything.
“GUMMI TARZAN” (Denmark 81) was an even more conventional children’s story about a slightly-built boy, Ivan, 8 (Alex Svanbjerg), mocked by dad and schoolmates, who fantasises of becoming a superboy and reckoning with his tormentors. His retreat is a vacant dockside container — and yes, the professional worriers would worry about the health & safety ishooz of that too these days — but he is befriended by a crane driver at the docks who gently instils some confidence and self-worth into him. Like all too many children’s films, it offered a glib and fanciful “solution” to the perennial problem of bullying, but without overt sermonising into the bargain. It attracted favourable international press on release, and then vanished without trace. It was certainly never screened on UK children’s TV, which then as now was glutted with merchandising-driven American cartoons.
A sadly understated love story of the special friendship kind is hiding within “HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN” (52), between faithful apprentice shoemaker Peter (Joey Walsh, 14) and storyteller Hans (Danny Kaye). Shooed off to “Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen” by exasperated burgers, Hans soon becomes smitten there with a ballerina. Peter tries tactfully, and with only a hint of jealousy, to nudge his master away from the woman who is blissfully married already, only to be scolded and dismissed for his pains. Peter trudges sadly home, to be overtaken on the road by Hans, who has finally discovered his foolishness. No apologies are asked for or proffered, but Peter forgives Hans, and their former happy life together is resumed. Boy’s love for man remains unspoken, demonstrated without hope of acknowledgment. And incidentally, if ever a boy was born to play Peter Pan, take a closer look at the features of Joey Walsh.
Two antipodean titles worth noting quickly, both made for younger audiences, were “CHAMPION” (NZ 89) and “THE END OF THE GOLDEN WEATHER” (NZ 91). The first was a WWII story in which a boy’s family take in a young American GI, only to find on his arrival (with some dismay) that he’s a black man. When he goes AWOL rather than return to active duty, the boy (Milan Borich, ±11) and his friends help the man hide out on a riverboat. In the second, a boy of 12 (Stephen Fulford) strikes up an odd companionship with a local outcast of doubtful mental capacities who believes himself a runner of Olympic potential. Derision (not least from the boy’s father) gradually escalates into something crueller. It’s another bullying story then, except that for once the adult is the butt of it, and not the child. Unfortunately, by encouraging his friend in his wild aspirations, the boy inadvertently goads the community into taking him down a peg, resulting in the man’s death. Australia and New Zealand have produced many better titles than these in the cinema of boyhood — “THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”, “CAPTAIN JOHNNO”, “BLUE FIN”, “NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY” — but none of these involved Special Friendships of note.
“SLING BLADE” (96) had some strands in common with “END OF THE GOLDEN WEATHER”, in that the friendship is with a man freshly released from an Arkansas mental hospital (when he was 12 he butchered his mother with a scythe, or “sling blade”). This is a far subtler character portrait however, with fine performances from Billy Bob Thornton (who also scripted and directed) as the man and Lucas Black (of “American Gothic”) as the boy. It plays partly as a less whimsical “FORREST GUMP”, because Karl Childers (Thornton) is equally ungainly and slow of speech, but he seems to read people shrewdly enough, and in due course he has his Boo Radley moment, rescuing Frank from mom’s obligatory “abusive” (ie: violent) boyfriend. Less showy than the Tom Hanks film, or “RAIN MAN”, it contained the same disingenuous message: who are the real crazies after all? The boys in “SLING BLADE” and “GOLDEN WEATHER” are little beacons of non-judgmentalism, extending the hand of friendship to society’s outcasts. Tch tch, we chide ourselves, why can’t we all be as open-hearted as that? Yeah, right.
And what about “ABOUT A BOY” (2002), on the face of it a cut-and-dried Special Friendship title from the modern ice age? I have not read Nick Hornby’s source novel, but I’m told the film is fair to the book (so far as that is ever true). The film’s title, however, is more ironic, because the “boy” it’s “about” is clearly not 12-year old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) but Hugh Grant’s character Will, a manipulative, self-centred eternal bachelor who plumbs new depths of shallowness. He drifts toward an S&M support group (Single Mothers), masquerading as an abandoned father, on the calculation that the mothers there will be easy sexual conquests. He falls into company with Marcus’ ditsy mother, and the lonely, alienated boy just sort of accretes onto him, as a limpet to the keel of a ship. Both males are non-conformists in their fashion, both with an itch that they might possibly be happier merging with the general herd. Remembering the argument I began with, let us unpick some of the coded messages implanted in this film, whether or not they were intended by the story’s author.
I was surprised to find myself liking it rather more than anticipated, and surprised too that the unlooked-for affection between Marcus and Will does indeed form the emotional core of the film, rather than the man’s shambolic efforts to get himself laid. “The women in the film are, by contrast, unsatisfactory” commented critic Alexander Walker, and how right he is. They are, almost without exception, repellent. The film purports to wag a finger at the shallowness of the male psyche, when in truth it is reflecting equally on the self-obsession, superciliousness and deep chauvinism of women. So is Hornby a closet misogynist (because his character Will certainly is not)? Or is he pointing out some painful home truths about both sexes, when on the surface he is only criticising one? Either way, it comes as no surprise that the reviews concentrated on the deficiencies of the males, without comment on the obnoxious way they are treated by the females.
It plays as an alternating first-person monologue by Will, who is “resting” from having no career at all, and who has no ambition to find one, and Marcus, who is plagued by thugs and morons at his nightmare state school, and deeply worried about his terminally-depressive mom. Will believes, contrary to John Donne, that in today’s world every man is an island, and that he is Ibiza, visited at intervals by nubile Swedish tourists. So far from envying his married friends the joys of “commitment” and raising a young family, Will contemplates them with appalled pity, as one would watch a fox gnawing off its own paw. He’s content to be shallow and superficial, provided his oats are in regular supply, but increasingly he finds turn-of–the-millennium woman, so far from being a potential playmate, sitting in judgment upon him and challenging his values at every turn. He adjusts his tack prudently, but finds there is simply no placating them.
Marcus for his part is escorted pitilessly to school every day by his mother. He is draped in a woollen Inca bonnet over a pudding-basin haircut, and has curious Mr Spock eyebrows, while his mom is festooned in outlandish dead-hippy clothes, and insists on yelling “Marcus! I love you!” as he disappears into the crowded battlefield, to howls of derision from the rest of the school. When he approaches a couple of Asian friends at breaktime, they tell him bluntly they don’t want him to hang around with them anymore, because they’re starting to catch collateral damage from the daily bullying regime he endures. Marcus accepts all this with weary resignation.
At a “lone parents” picnic, Will finds to some annoyance that his pick-up strategy is undermined by an odd 12-year old boy (Marcus) who is attending with the woman Will has eyes upon, a friend of Marcus’ mother. While feeding his mother’s inedible “healthy” bread to the ducks, Marcus slings the whole loaf at the lake, and kills a duck in the process. Only Will’s swift patter rescues him from difficulties with the park keeper. When Will drops Marcus home after the picnic (his car strategically littered with mess by his absent “son”) they find Marcus’ mother slumped insensible on a couch after a suicide bid. They rush her to hospital and she is revived. But now the boy’s anxieties about her are redoubled. Two people in a relationship is not enough. To provide back-up, he concludes, there must be three. He decides to fix his mom up with that man at the picnic, and promptly organises her a date with Will. (By the way, there’s another little cinema sub-genre right there – the child as matchmaker or matchbreaker, dozens of titles knitted around that simple premise.)
Keeping awkward company, Will tries to address Marcus’ bullying problem, and his panacea is to teach the boy how to be “kewl”, how to dress and act and speak as is required of him. So the film is about our obligation to conform — if people do not like you because you are different, stop being different and then they will like you. In other words, just quit the synagogue and join the Hitler Youth, Marcus. The boy’s dress and hairstyle are out of step with the rest of his school — ergo naturally he is bullied. Answer? Boy must learn to dress as they dress. Man lives a bachelor existence and has no yearning to form a monogamous unit, ergo (despite exposure to a series of casualties from other failed monogamous units) he is out of step with his peers. Answer? Man must get himself into a monogamous unit like they do. Prognosis — Great Happiness.
The housebreaking of rogue males may have an endless fascination to women who prefer to be on top, but it’s of desperately little interest to the rest of us. Furthermore, if the “boy” of the title is meant to be Grant, then there’s a coded assumption that he can only become a “real man” by settling down and starting a family, or ahem … getting himself “committed” to the institution. Will is free at the start of the film, and non-conformity is only another way of saying free will, so perhaps his reluctance to join the ranks of the terminally depressed could be read as a sign of mental health, not immaturity?
“ABOUT A BOY” is interesting because it speaks with forked tongue. Or, to be less charitable, because it provides ample evidence to demolish its own central thesis. The cold war of gender politics saturates it to the marrow, but we remain free to reject its glib solutions, and conclude the exact opposite. There’s one midway sequence, for example, where Will is sitting in a restaurant with a woman friend. Marcus’ furious mother bursts in, dragging the boy after her, and publicly accuses Will of “molesting” her son. “What are you, an unmarried childless man, doing letting 12-year olds into your house?” she demands (abandoning her hippy credentials for the moment). Will is indignant at the allegation, tells her a few home truths about how she has selfishly neglected the boy to his tormentors, and says he wants nothing more to do with either of them. At this point she sits herself down at his table and, in a complete volte face, chides him for abandoning his obligation to the boy (all of this without stumbling into her own mouth). Will’s table companion, and the woman serving their table, now both take her side against him. He, the accused “child molester”, is now in dereliction of his social duty for refusing to mentor the boy! This scene crystalises for us the monstrous conceit of the one sex toward the other, their right to pronounce (mutually contradictory) moral judgments upon it without acknowledging any fault of their own.
In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is not king, and he may often be persecuted, but at least he has the advantage of being able to see clearly. This film can be read as “conformity is the key to happiness”, or that conformity is a prison where the inmates are miserable but united in their mistrust of outsiders. If it casts men and boys as basket cases in need of corrective therapy (from women), it also carries the implication that men and boys might ally together to preserve, not reject, their non-conformity. Perhaps there is a “third way”, to escape the entrenched positions and mutual mistrust of gender war? Perhaps monogamy is a symptom of the disease, and not the cure the cinema has always claimed it to be?
Continue to the next chapter: I am the love that dare not speak its name (though you howl it back at me)
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