SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE WATERSHED OF "INNOCENCE"
This is the thirty-second chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.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 A word cometh
I described in my opening paragraph how US cinema and TV seduced the wide world with its slick visions of a Better Life, a lush life of indulgence, and US culture insinuated itself into the aspirations and speech patterns of audiences overseas. Towards the end of the century that process has only accelerated, so that here in the UK television looks ever more like US television, politics look ever more like US politics, law borrows wholesale from US law, people dress and speak and think in slavish imitation of whatever the Americans do, and have even started to call themselves “Brits”, like the Americans do. British audiences hoot and squeal like stuck pigs now – something they never did before – because that’s what audiences on “Oprah” do. Our schools have become “high schools”, our pupils “students”, children go “trick or treating” on Hallowe’en instead of building bonfires for Guy Fawkes night. People festoon the outside of their houses with tacky illuminations at Christmas, and jostle round their “barbies” in the summer, shepherd their kids to school in four by fours, and keep them indoors year round. Our building sites promise new “apartments” for sale in place of flats, and we now have a “supreme court” we seemed to manage well enough without for centuries.
This slavish obedience has meant we were also among the first to import all the American social diseases, whether it be epidemic drug use, chronic obesity, turf wars between race gangs, plastic surgery, gated communities or piratical hedge funds. Whatever was bad enough for America was good enough for us. Accordingly, “sex abuse” plotlines became a mainstay of British soaps, police shows, current affairs strands and National Enquirer style news coverage.
If American cinema had been hesitant to broach the whole subject of illicit juvenile sex prior to 1980, it has been more than happy to make up the deficit post 1980 with a tsunami of “sex abuse” melodramas, feeding that parental paranoia which was unhealthily inflamed already, and channeling society’s innate homophobia towards a new bogeyman no bleeding heart liberal would stoop to defend.
Take, for example, “RETURN TO INNOCENCE” (2001), which I am happy to say I have not seen, nor do I expect to like much when I do so. Ineffably crass title aside, it belongs to a growing canon of recent productions which have all the objectivity of raw political propaganda. The story is that of Tommy Jackson, 13 (Andrew Martin), placed in a “counselling centre for abused boys” when his mother is imprisoned for posting pornographic material of him across the internet. At that centre, implausibly enough, he forms a close relationship with one of the “counsellors” assigned to him, and a sexual intimacy looms between them. The watchful director of the home – shades of “LES AMITIÉS PARTICULIERES”, “ANTHRACITE” “LA VIE DONT LE PRINCE EST UN ENFANT” – suspects the truth and intervenes to extinguish what, from his benighted perspective, must be a “harmful” relationship. Tommy, enraged at this anti-sexual interference, retaliates by accusing the director of sexual interference. So the director finds himself duly in court, the object of grave “sex abuse” allegations, his unimpeachable credentials in tatters.
Although, so far as I can gather from reviews, the film squarely takes the part of the “innocent” director in his predicament, we are entitled to read it – like any other film – how we damn well please, and I submit we can read it as the tale of a bigot hoist on his own petard, the biter bit. If the boy, against all probability given his background, was willing to enter a sexual relationship with his counsellor – which might indeed have helped heal the wounds of earlier memories – he was justified in regarding the director’s interference as a hostile act, not as a move to “protect” him, but to protect the prejudices of the status quo. More to that, it isn’t only the directors of “counselling centres for abused boys” who fall prey to false or malicious allegations, and many of these are conveyed directly to jail under the mantra “the victim (even a fictitious one) must be believed”. Hasn’t cinema itself been active in fomenting a culture of suspicion, the very climate that fosters bogus allegations? Isn’t this another case of cinema wanting to have its cake and eat it? So pardon me if I shed no tears for those in the employ of the sex abuse industry who get caught in their own web of distortion and mistrust. The key word in “age of consent” is not “age”. It is “consent”.
I have to allow that this may be very unfair to the film, which may be more nuanced than the reviews suggest. But we can discuss the themes and value judgments a film invokes, without prejudice to the film itself. Cinema is merely a distorting mirror held up to the attitudes prevailing in its day. It is never a true reflection, nor does it even try to be (we can’t even say so much for many “documentaries”), so it is as valid to deconstruct the assumptions a film makes as to discuss the way it addresses those assumptions. And, like the tabloid media with which cinema has a mutually parasitic symbiosis, film as often as not tries less to reflect what we truly think than to tell us what we should think about it.
One early reader of this work suggested I was speaking against myself here, implying some monolithic consensus in “cinema” while citing direct evidence that refutes it. Cinema can say mutually contradictory things with the same voice. But cinema is simply a medium of public instruction that wears the hat of “entertainment”. It has various agendas and constituencies, not merely one. There have always been dissenting voices, as there are in any medium, but the same audience which trots along to watch a film portraying children as evil and feral, absorbing the messages from that story, will months later troop to another film insisting children are darling innocents. Both lessons can be learnt, being taught in the same classroom with the same teaching techniques, and any conflict between them easily overlooked. Cinema is large, it contains contradictions. Children may be “evil” or “innocent”, whichever it pleases us to believe at the time, both constructs being flatly untrue.
“PIANESE NUNZIO, 14 ANNI A MAGGIO” (Italy 96, “Nunzio Pianese, 14 in May”) was altogether more ambivalent than “RETURN TO INNOCENCE” in pointing its finger of blame. It is the story of a Naples priest, Father Lorenzo, who attracts controversy by publicly condemning the Camorra (how the Mafia is known on its home turf), and the culture of sullen acquiescence to it, the protection rackets, the street shootings. It is also the story of thirteen-year old Nunzio (Emanuele Garguilo), who lives with an aunt, sings ballads on bootleg TV (as “Nino Pinis”), and wants to be a priest. He plays the organ at Father Lorenzo’s church, and Father Lorenzo returns the favour. After Lorenzo gives a press interview attacking the local Mafiosi, a whispering campaign begins against him and the boy. “Social workers” (in fact undercover police officers) turn up at the boy’s home, and then at his school, to question him. When Nunzio adamantly refuses to make any statement implicating the priest, the social workers’ “we only want to help you” and “we don’t want to invade your privacy” soon shift into veiled threats of letting the word get around in his neighbourhood. Panicked by this sudden threat of exposure, Nunzio begins to cool his enthusiasm for Father Lorenzo’s attentions.
A strangely noncommittal film, as emotionally unengaging as it is morally ambiguous on the central question, it is punctuated throughout by cast members delivering statements direct to camera as on a witness stand. Garguilo makes for a vacant central character, having grown up among the teenage thieves and drug slaves of Naples, and the fact he looks and behaves more like or 15 or 16 than 13 is the same dodge we saw worked in “DEATH IN VENICE” or “LOLITA”, those few years difference in age working to neutralise somewhat the “scandalousness” of his sexual involvements. We see Nunzio and the priest naked in bed together (but only from the waist up), or the priest fellating the boy, (but only from the shoulders up), whereas when Nunzio is picked up by an adult woman in a car and taken straight to bed by her, we see that copulation full length. The “sexual abuse” of (willing) 13-year olds by grown women is still far less problematic to audiences and censors than when the adult is male, even though the boy happens to be willing there also. Heterosexual hypocrisy is quite shameless in that regard. Shedding your virginity is a “coming of age” event, provided you do so within the convention of “male-appropriate” behaviour, otherwise it is an act of contamination (of our own shared masculinity).
Gay critics praised the film for its uncensorious portrayal of an illicit man/boy relationship (defined by them as a “gay” one, naturally), so that when Nunzio finally succumbs and incriminates the priest, this cannot be taken as anything but a defeat, a surrender to moral blackmail. The same critics were less keen to spot the subtext equating the “child protection” agencies with the Mafia. The one shoots its opponents dead on the street, the other in the courtrooms, but the tactics they employ are pretty much the same. As happens often enough in real life, the boy in such a predicament must choose between siding with his older friend as he’s shot down in flames, or siding with society at large in condemning him. It’s an impossible burden to put upon an adolescent, his sense of his own status in society already precarious enough, but it is police, prosecutors, social workers, who place the boy in that dilemma, and not the adult friend.
Most recent films have had no such qualms who is the one to blame. We could discuss “HAPPINESS” (98) – one segment of which concerns a father who acquires a yen for the male friends of his eleven-year old son – or “THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT” (2004) or “DER UNHOLD” (“The Ogre”, 96), or “ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW” (2005), but these are all, in the final analysis, greedy voices in a crescendo of intolerance, beating their breasts all the way to the bank, along with every TV cop show from “The Bill” and “Prime Suspect” to “CSI” and “XXX: Special Victims Unit”. The cult of Victimhood has proved good box office, and to hell with the dishonesty of it all. Abuse cinema is nothing more than a variant of child pornography for those who get their rocks off on emotional condemnation of other people. Should it be banned? Well, that is an argument for another day. Should it be given serious consideration? No pornography is worthy of that.
Continue to the next chapter: Boys for hire (easy terms)
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