SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: SAD AND FLEETING BEAUTY
This is the thirty-fifth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Sad and fleeting beauty
Notwithstanding all prevailing winds, Special Friendship films do continue to be made, and as the final draft of this work goes to the proofreaders, the venerable Michael Caine is in cinemas with “IS ANYBODY THERE?” (2009). Such contemporary titles all carry a taint however, they are edgier, nervier, more apologetic to suspicious minds. The casual friendships of men and boys must be watched now, supervised, regulated, constrained. Like McCarthyism and other social psychoses, this one too will pass in time, but not before it has tainted and corrupted a generation or two of young minds, left a quiet trail of suicides and murders in its wake. Historically it has always been easier to sow such poisons than to eradicate them. And the patient must first want to get better.
The argument of this study is linear, not circular. I began by stressing the importance of digging beneath surface stories in film to discover the hidden codes and agendas. There is nothing especially subtle or hidden in these strident “message” films I have finished with, and yet there are subtexts even there, about the innate “sinfulness” of male sexuality, the innate “danger” of adult men. The attack on pederasty is at root an attack on maleness itself. Such men are stereotyped as templates of all that is pernicious and “predatory” in the male psyche. They have a purpose to serve then, regardless of their true nature as people, but whose purpose is that?
As I argued above, it is society’s carefully augmented horror at sexual intimacy between boys and men which serves as the casus bellae to shut down all other avenues of social intercourse between males of different generations, old and young. Special friendships cannot arise in a culture which throws up a Berlin wall between men and boys. Already we are beginning to mark the sociological fallout, and murmurings are heard about the absence of male “role models” in the lives of so many contemporary boys, the absence of male teachers in our schools, the absence of fathers in our homes. It is almost as though this state of affairs crept upon us by accident, that it wasn’t part of some explicit design. Happily we still have the cinema of earlier times to remind us that the current malaise, that implicit mistrust of men, is a very recent mental disorder. But curiously enough, films from those earlier decades are shown less and less frequently on our TV screens, the video and DVD stores move them off their shelves to make room for newer, more “relevant” titles. If past society is not much to our liking, we can either “reinterpret” it to conform with our current prejudices, or else flatly ignore it. As always, we will do both.
Special friendships is a film genre of my own invention, but it is real enough and important, as one discrete element in the kaleidoscope of boyhood cinema. Boys (and girls too of course, but we have not been discussing them here) must test the water of adult life before they are plunged headlong into it. Close relationships with adults outside the family circle are an essential learning process, a medium for emotional growth, and my contention, obviously enough, is that we are harming youth, handicapping it, by intervening to discourage and forbid such liaisons, wherever they may lead. The cinema is testament to the diversity and richness of such liaisons across the adult/child frontier, and the immense benefit they can bring to the younger partner. A boy takes his first steps within the nursery, within the family, but the moment will come when he wants to take a step further, outside the home. It is not for mother to determine that precise moment, but the boy himself, unchaperoned, unsupervised. It is a step we all took, not waiting till we were 17 to do it, a watershed moment of personal independence. Some skills can only be learned within a caring family, some skills only from friends of your own age and environment, but there are other skills which can only be learned from self-reliance, from treating with the adult world on your own terms. The special friendship is a conduit to those skills. It should not be stigmatised or viewed with alarm, it should be celebrated.
This has been a fairly brisk canter through the scope of its topic, with no room for detailed analysis of scores of individual films, nor for discussing cinema as cinema – I have had little to say about cinematography, editing, location work, costume and all the other important elements which contribute to the gestalt, the emotional language of film. The archive on which this work is based was not so constrained, and tackled several hundred equally interesting themes and sub genres in the cinema of childhood. If all I have done here is to register Special Friendships as a more apposite classification than “coming of age titles”, which seems a very witless construct to me, then I have achieved something.
I wanted to round off this work by discussing one final title, for my money the most absorbing exploration of such friendships ever captured on camera. If I were to be doling out gongs for ‘Best Special Friendship Film’, this one would still take some beating. More importantly, it is unique in that it treats explicitly with the romance of boyhood itself, and one man’s lifelong absorption with it. Now that we have discarded or forgotten so much of our own roots as a culture, it is a rare and welcome reminder of the special magic which underpins all classic childhood fiction. Let us wrap, then, with that melancholy song to the sad and fleeting beauty of boyhood.
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The film Is Anybody There? is rendered safe by Michael Caine’s old old age. He was 75 at the making of, and they worked hard to add at least ten years. Physically he’s finished and spiritually he’s half way to the cutting room floor. Good performance by Bill Milner as plucky 11yo Edward saves this soggy old bowl of tapioca from being a complete waste of bran.
There was one message worth the gleaning. A bright, curious boy lives with his mum and dad in an old folks home. He spends his time trying to find evidence of ghosts. In this ageing, dreary, senile world, maybe the afterlife, the boy thinks, can offer a cure for his terminal boredom and isolation. Hats off to the metaphor, anyway. Used to be the boy himself was the surest way to heaven—now the lad has to jerry-build his own stairway.
The corpse of Caine past has enough crusty, coughing old echoes to offer the boy some hints of a friendship, and there is an occasional murmur of warmth amidst all the catarrhs and cold custard.
(Memo to film-makers: twinkly old-geezer humor--eg the nonagenarian's dirty jokes that scandalize a young priest--is more shopworn than Caine's slippers.)
But the moment the boy makes a big gesture, makes a sterling effort to bring light into the old codger’s life, with an important trip to a graveyard (where else?)--the old codger starts weeping about old regrets and suddenly looks at Edward and says balefully, “Who are you?” In the graveyard of Western culture, a boy has to know his place – which is roughly nowhere. Caine dies shortly afterwards. And the boy’s sad but wiser, apparently. Is anybody there, indeed.
“The attack on pederasty is at root an attack on maleness itself.”
Christianity did wage a war on the male violence in the European Dark Ages that we are all the beneficiaries of. There are gains to be made through culturally reinforced self-restraint and we undoubtedly made them. But any good trait is capable of becoming pathological. Honesty’s good. Pursued to an abstract extreme, it can be cruel and murderous. Moderating pederasty is good. Pursued to the pathological extreme Freeman describes well it becomes gangrenous. The protection of boys today is reminiscent of the way Ottoman heirs apparent were kept safe. Protected from every conceivable danger--along with quite a few inconceivable--they grew up sickly and decadent and myopically self-obsessed, not much use to anyone. Which isn't a bad description of western civilisation right now.