SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS BY STEVEN FREEDMAN
Special Friendships is a short unpublished book by the English writer and artist Steven Adrian Freeman (1954–2021), in which he brought together two subjects in which he was exceptionally knowledgeable, children in film and close friendships between men and boys. Presented here is the final draft, concluded on 27 August 2009, but which had not yet been proofread. What follows has been lightly edited and adapted for online publication.
The illustrations have all been added by this website.
- Special Friendships [Introduction]
- Boyhood culture
- Silent mischief
- Invisible boys in period films
- The three loves of boyhood
- Friendly no more
- Kid sidekicks do have their uses
- Desperadoes and their fellow travelers
- The child as catastrophic friend
- Boys on the bounding main
- The Western as playground (girls keep out!)
- Bachelor fathers (it wouldn’t do to encourage it)
- The outcast who does win the boy
- Sons and their fathers — for better or worse
- Men in boys’ bodies — and Vice Versa
- Cuckoos in the Nest
- The road has many turnings
- Jealousy of the hired hand
- Footloose and fancy free [303 words]
- The “pseudo boy” in commercial movies
- The cane in the cupboard
- A friend in need
- Follow Me, Boys! [386 words]
- Human cats, dwarfs, imaginary friends
- Self-assembly boys
- Amoral friendship — the vicissitudes of war
- Burnt little fingers
- The Thumbscrews they are a-Turning
- I am the love that dare not speak its name (though you howl it back at me)
- The Watershed of “Innocence”
- The A word cometh
- Boys for hire (easy terms)
- Minority reports
- Sad and fleeting beauty
- An Awfully Honest Film
- Other titles of interest
- INDEX BY YEAR
- INDEX BY NAME
- THEMES AND VARIATIONS
- [Appendix:] The Dark Side of the Coin
The cinema has always been a primary tool of social engineering, and it continues to exercise that role today, half a century after it was supplanted by television as the mass medium with the broadest reach. Social engineering through commercial films — sometimes subliminal, sometimes strident and overt — took many forms throughout the twentieth century and sold many different messages about life. Since the USA achieved global pre-eminence in the medium post-World War I (the ‘sole surviving superpower’ of cinema) most of those cultural messages have concerned American life, American values, American neuroses and prejudices. These are by no means as universal as the USA likes to suppose, but so seductive is the medium that the rest of the world has fallen unconsciously into step. As America speaks today, the world speaks tomorrow. The domestic cinemas of other nations and continents continue to transmit subtly different social messages and assumptions, but the overarching æsthetic is American, the prevailing definitions of “modern life” and thinking are conveyed through US commercial cinema, and through television, its illegitimate offspring.
In his Oscar-winning Network (1976), writer Paddy Chayefsky summed up the problem all too well, putting into the mouth of his messianic television newsreader an excoriating indictment of today’s couch-potato, cellphone-hugging generation:
[The problem is that] less than 3% of you read books. Less than 15% of you read newspapers. The only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the Ultimate Revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people …
Television is not the truth. Television’s a goddamn amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion-tamers and football-players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! You’re never going to get any truth from us! We lie like hell. We’ll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer and that nobody ever dies of cancer in Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in don’t worry, just look at your watch. At the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear.
We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night — all ages, colours, creeds. We’re all you know! You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you — you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs!
What was painfully true in 1976 has only gathered weight and substance over the intervening decades. And since cinema and television have become our primary tutors in life, throughout life, it’s all the more important that we be alert to those subliminal cultural messages they transmit, that their assumptions — about the family, about men, women, children — are not the random observations of ordinary people, but comply with various unspoken codes and agendas. When we imitate them, consciously or otherwise, we submit ourselves to those same codes and agendas. When television laughs we laugh, when it scowls we scowl. What it pleases to ignore, the world ignores.
Deconstructing the moving image, in that light, is no vanity game for the academics, but an essential defence mechanism for the independent mind. We all need to school ourselves to perceive the pattern on the loom, spot the subliminal message, recognise the “implied and assumed truths” we’re covertly encouraged to take as read. Cinema needs to be discussed, not only for the surface stories it tells us, but for the reasons it chooses to tell us those stories, why we are being prompted to act or think in this particular way and not another, and who is doing that subtle prompting. While we watch the Punch and Judy show, we must always remember the person out of sight behind the booth. From the days of Homer, storytellers have always had more to sell than mere stories.
All cinema, in the final analysis, is propaganda. This is such a basic truism that we may consider it significant children are never taught so in schools, and given the mental tools to guard against it. When school turns out, kids hurry home to their real teacher, the one with the remote control, and absorb far more instruction than they will ever do in the classroom. It is television that truly teaches the young how to think and behave – that, and older children – but why are children never mentally primed to weigh and question that instruction? Television is a great mammary of cultural messages, and we are all suckling infants, but the milk has many additives and flavourings. The whole trick with propaganda is to fly in under the radar, a maneouvre the advertising industry practises on us every day.
This work will look at just one strand in cinema and television which has fallen lately into disrepair, one which has become “off message” to those new interests in society who are working so assiduously to change the way we think, the way we behave, the way we are. To do so isn’t to dwell in the past. It is to point out something which is being quietly taken away from us. Not all change, after all, is progress. Not all things that have been done away with were redundant or obsolete.