SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE DARK SIDE OF THE COIN
The following appeared at the very end of the draft of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, (introduced here), after the indexes and a note about how the draft might be expanded with pocket reviews of the “additional titles”. It looks therefore as though the author had not decided whether to include it in the book or not. It is unfinished and unclear where in the book he would have placed it if he had included it.
The Dark Side of the Coin
We have to grant that this genre has its dark side too, its antithesis. A good illustration would be the 1994 short film “WANTED”, from BBC Wales. Adapted by director Jo Shoop from the story “Looking for Johnny” in A. M. Homes’ anthology “The Safety of Objects”, it follows a sullen, solitary boy who is abducted one afternoon from a playing field by a man who persists in calling him “Johnny”. The disheveled man, Randall (played by Philip Davis) is brusque and curt with him, but unthreatening. He drives the boy off to a remote country shack without phone, TV or radio, and all of us (not least the boy himself) expect the worst. But nothing at all sexual occurs, and we gradually perceive that this man, finding himself at odds with the world, is in full retreat from it, and has grabbed a boy simply to keep him company in a make-believe hermit life of fishing and self-sufficiency. It is another desperado and boy on the lam story (like “A PERFECT WORLD”) except that here the man’s preoccupation with the boy not being sufficiently “boyish” is strangely intense and unsettling.
The boy, Erol (John Bracegirdle) is about nine, fatherless, and vaguely alarmed by having a mentally disabled younger sister. He questions his own fitness for purpose. Even though he performs poorly in the frontiersman activities planned for him, secretly he begins to admire the rugged, uncouth masculinity of his abductor, so that when the two inexplicably have to move on, his narration says “I was sure this was what things were leading up to. I just hoped that, whatever my part was, I wouldn’t let him down.” But instead of their relationship evolving into anything more explicit, the boy finds himself driven home again and dumped unceremoniously on his own doorstep. “You’re not the boy I thought you would be” Randall explains crossly, “You’re the wrong boy. You’re not Johnny. Out!” turfs him from the car, and drives off. Erol is mortified, humiliated, and not in the least relieved to be home again. His sullenness and want of spirit have alienated even a man like Randall. Naturally he blames himself. He has been tested and found wanting. This was (given the climate in which it was made) a decidedly odd and surprising tale. A boy so hungry for adult male companionship that even abduction seems preferable to his home life.
“I KNOW MY FIRST NAME IS STEVEN” (89) covered very similar terrain, except that this film was based on a real case, and the boy in this case was indeed raped by his abductor. In fact they lived together, outwardly as “father” and “son”, redeploying at intervals to new homes and new schools, for several years until the boy outgrew his captor’s sexual tastes, and he came home one day to find a new younger “son” installed in his place. Like Randall in “WANTED”, Kenneth Parnell was so completely selfish and amoral that whenever he fancied a new boy in his life, he would simply drive about town and pluck one off the street, using a combination of lies, threats and bribes to quell the boy into obedience. Not wishing to see his own history repeated by this new boy, Steven grabs the child and runs away to the police. He is reunited after long years with his true family. But here the story takes a sour and non-formulaic twist, because Steven soon found himself ostracised by his father and former classmates on the grounds he must have enjoyed being sodomised regularly if it took him so many years to evade it. He is contaminated now, probably “queer”, more deserving of contempt than sympathy. This bitter coda, echoing the one in “WANTED”, is all the more wrenching in that Steven Staynor, the abducted rape victim whose story is told, had to live through that too.
It may seem perverse to find space for such titles in a piece on Special Friendships, but both describe an intense man/boy relationship through the ugly prism of abduction. Staynor himself did not, I think, report that his kidnapper treated him badly during their life together (if we discount his forcible induction into a sexual relationship, and why would we do that?), so that both stories, like it or not, describe an attempt by those men to forge a close relationship with the boy, albeit through profoundly base and unethical behaviour. They are, as I say, the dark side of the coin, and dark because of the means, not the ends. Recent tabloid reports of individuals locked in secret basements for years reveal the same sickness of mind, the desire to fashion your own fantasy world and people it with living people who have no choice but to do your bidding. I daresay not a few marriages have belonged in that category too. There can be an attempt to steal or compel our friendship, to inflict friendship upon us.
What was absent from the TV film “I KNOW MY FIRST NAME IS STEVEN” was the middle act of the story. It focused on those bookend episodes, the abduction at age 7 and the ultimate fleeing at age 14, but the real enigma lies in between, the years Steven spent living with Parnell, going to school, making new friends, saying nothing, leading an outwardly conventional home life but watching askance as “dad” took a shine to this or that of his schoolfriends. What is it like to live as someone else’s private chattel (in the genuine sense) and keep that to yourself? Did the man have no compunctious visitings of remorse for what he had done to Steven? Did he become emotionally attached to his ersatz “son”? We are not told, because any attempt to bring nuance into the relationship would seem to condone or forgive the crime which occasioned it. We don’t need to understand our “monsters”, we only to need identify them and lock them away.
It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention (anyone who was paying attention) that there’s been a huge proliferation in cop shows and special police unit cop shows concentrating to the point of unhealthy obsession on missing children stories, convicted sex offender stories, kidnappings, child murder and that catch-all vagary “child abuse”. Once upon a time the term “women’s picture” used to denote a romance or domestic drama, today that same constituency is spoon fed on a diet of paranoia, suspicion and victimology. If you want to grab women’s attention, writers have discovered, toss a child rape into the story.
In “DIRTY HARRY” (71) the audience learns, almost from a throwaway line, that the psychotic killer he’s been pursuing has also raped the 14-year old girl he kidnapped and left down a hole to die. The main problem is that he keeps shooting people. The rape of a minor was purely incidental. Far from incidental was the extent to which the director placed his Scorpio killer in close proximity to children throughout, pushing a then as yet unconscious panic button.
By the 1990s that panic button was being pushed so incessantly that it had become a kind of lazy shorthand for “irredeemable wickedness”. So Quentin Tarantino conjures a paedophile yakuza boss for the child O-ren Ishi to slaughter in “KILL BILL, Vol I” (03), and in order to cast psychopath Dr Lecter as the “hero” of “HANNIBAL” (01), the writers needed something a quantum leap worse than a cannibalistic sadist and serial killer. That’s right, for a true villain you need a self-confessed child molester (who didn’t actually murder or eat anyone, but something far worse than that). And we are informed, inter alia, that the killers of “MANHUNTER”, “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” and “RED DRAGON” were themselves horribly abused as children. Which is what made them crazy in the first place, you see. Hitler’s stepfather used to beat him on occasion as a child. So now we know why the Second World War happened, right?
The opening scene of “THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD” (95) has the simpleton son of a crime lord scrambling over a schoolyard fence to proposition some “itty bitty titty”, and this horrendous social gaffe sets in train the whole comedy of errors, until Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) ultimately murders him in revenge against his crippled homicidal father. The dastardly Taliban of “THE KITE RUNNER” (07) are confirmed to be Evil (a construct which has enjoyed a disturbing revival in our supposed age of secular tolerance) not because they behead people or run a theocratic terror state, but because they siphon off the prettier boys from local orphanages and debauch them. This encoding displays the same laziness (and cultural imperialism) with which American cinema caricatured communism and the Soviet bloc for the better part of thirty years. The same laziness that made stereotypes out of black people, and homosexuals, for decades. We have found a new dog to kick, and even the old dogs are happy to join with us in the visceral joy of dumping all our hate onto this new outcast minority. Serial killers, terrorists, religious extremists – let’s make them all paedophiles, then everyone will hate them.
Even the innocuous period melodrama Catherine Cookson’s “THE BLACK VELVET GOWN” (91), with all its obvious borrowings from “Jane Eyre” and ilk, concerns a housekeeper for a kindly bachelor landowner becoming enraged when she decides (on very slender evidence indeed) that the man’s fondness for her young son has vile (ie sexual) ulterior motives. We can happily paste the neurotic obsessions of the present onto any period of the past and audiences will gobble it up, their worst suspicions happily confirmed again.
 Actually, his father. Hitler had no stepfather.
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