Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Woodsman

Miseryguts once told me how a pupil in his ancient history class stood up and asked a fairly familiar question: "Sir, weren't all ancient Greek men gay?" "Well, actually," he replied "they were paedophiles". I suppose he really ought to have said "pederasts", but this would have decreased his immediate chances of being understood, and might ultimately have contributed to another incident like the one in South Wales a few years ago where a paediatrician was molested by a mob of concerned citizens.

The practice in question was most fully institutionalised in Ancient Sparta where every boy of twelve was required to take an older hoplite as a lover. These days however, it seems that all the fear and loathing formerly levelled at witches, Jews, heretics, homosexuals etc. in the Western world is now firmly concentrated on the men (in particular, though efforts are being made by the media to curb this discrimination) who show a sexual interest in minors.

It's the closest thing our modern society has to thought crime, leading us to doubt the usual liberal distinction between morality and law − that the former encompasses our thoughts and the latter our actions. It's also one of those taboos that's worth talking about openly, if only to wrest the topic away from the torch and pitchfork waving tabloid readers.

When The Woodsman was released many hailed it as sensitive, non-judgmental treatment of the subject; a welcome alternative to hysteria. But sympathetic and insightful are not always the same thing, and whilst there's no doubt that it is a well made film with good central performances, Nicole Kassel's everyone is damaged scenario doesn't accumulate sufficient credibility and succedes only by muddling its audience's tendency to outrage. (I seem to recall that V quipped that "only a woman could make a movie like that about a paedophile".)

Walter, played by Kevin Bacon, locates the origins of his transgressions in a formative fascination for the smell of his sister's hair: weaker still perhaps than Humbert's self-exculpation in Lolita, where we informed early on that an interrupted adolescent love for a young girl called Annabel fostered his adult obsession with girls of roughly the same sort of age. (Though Humbert also reports having bribed a nurse to show him his psychiatric files, and discovered he was labeled "homosexual" there.)

However, I recently reacquainted myself with Eric Rohmer's Pauline à la Plage (Pauline at the Beach) a film I had first watched shortly after its release in 1983. At the time I was a near contemporary of the teenage star Amanda Langlet and I remember taking a bit of a shine to her. Many years have passed and I've move on a generation but, on this piece of celuloid at least, Langlet has remained the same precocious young French nymph of around fifteen. So on seeing the film again and remembering how it had tweaked my own adolescent libido, it was hard not to be reminded of that now distant desire. As a result I have conceived the following scenario: suppose a pair of adolescents create a homemade erotic movie using a camcorder and then, decades later, the male of the pair periodically still digs it out and gets off over it. In every other respect he's a 'normal' heterosexual, but how would society judge him if they knew about his favourite home movie?

Rohmer uses Pauline's freshness as a foil for exposing the hypocrisy of the adults around her on her beach break. Nevertheless, the script adopts an essentially masculine perspective on relationships and although Pauline leaves the beach uncorrupted at the end, the possibility of fast-tracking her into adulthood has been thoroughly explored by several of the thirty-somethings, and frankly, the camera too. There's no question that the French are much keener on Autumn-Spring pair-ups than most modern European cultures and this suggestive sexualising of very young girls is a recurring motif in their cinema. (The tummy-rubbing scene in Leon etc.)

Perhaps one day a brave documentary programme-maker will attempt to convince us that paedophilia has animal equivalents. Perhaps not. It may well be the result of a distortion of our symbolic consciouness, a uniquely human melange of memory, ideas and desire. The other day tranvestite potter Grayson Perry was interviewed on the BBC World Service and argued that fetishes and other forms of "kinky sex" emerge in adulthood as responses to the childhood environment. This seems to confirm the tale once told to V by a foot fetishist she interrogated, who explained that his mother used to rub her slippers against him as a child.

We've come across an apparently nympholeptic individual in Guatemala called N; a personable, well-educated young man in his mid-20s with strong protestant religious beliefs and the vocation to one day serve as a pastor. He rejects the idea of sex before marriage and is himself, he openly professes, a virgin. However, when he was seven he was sexually-abused by a teacher and has since had trouble forming normal relationships with girls of his own age because, he says, every kiss or caress serves only to remind him of that first, forced awakening. Unsurprisingly, he's been repeatedly dumped for getting stuck at first base.

N also appears all too obviously excited in the prescence of pretty, pre-pubescent girls. Perhaps men like him (Michael Jackson, etc.) are damaged personalities seeking sanctuary in innocence. Yet as they move physically further from childhood their obsession with it can turn predatory, and in today's world an affinity for virgins becomes more and more distasteful as wrinkles deepen and flesh sags.

Like N, Lord Byron was abused as a child, by his nurse. During and shortly after his time as a student Byron's sexual preferences were predominantly of the pederastic sort, indulged either as a sexual tourist in the Balkans or on a more romantic level by worshipping the choir boys of Cambridge. This odd combination of hands-off platonic yearning combined with spurts of more aggressive seduction would seem to be fairly typical.

Perhaps a damaged woman will chance into N's life and 'save' him, like Walter is apparently saved by Mary-Kay in The Woodsman. The only woman capable of saving Byron was his half-sister Augusta, which of course made his adult sex-life even less conventional.

It's not unlikely that any adolescent lover that N might take in Guatemala would be less innocent than him, and crucially less awkward about reproductive issues. Yet after all, he may not be the sort to act on his apparent inclinations. How many of the individuals recently entrapped by the Police were just paedi-curious, people whose inclinations would have gone unexposed before the advent of digital footprinting?

It's clear that our whole sense of rational moral responsibility, founded as it is on the notion of free will, is particularly threatend by this one form of deviant sexual desire and by the wider access to pornographic browsing in our comprehensively wired world. Child-pornography in particular is regarded as a pernicious cancer threatening the young and vulnerable in our society which, like the international narcotics trade, has both a demand and a supply side in urgent need of shaming and suppression.

At the age of seven V narrowly avoided being molested by a middle-aged Catholic priest. If there's one place we should focus our outrage it is on the individuals who systematically groom and abuse pre-adolescents, especially where a culture of impunity exists. However, in the UK the media response is increasingly informed by a swollen, ill-defined paranoia which lacks understanding of the spectrum of possible behaviours, attitudes and situations, not all of which are utterly beyond the ken of progressive, liberal tolerance. If an adult teacher has a relationship with a fifteen year-old pupil they should probably be fired, but not necessarily tarred and feathered for life with the sex register.

Anyway, back to the movie. The deleted scenes on DVDs often expand our understanding of the director or scriptwriter's intentions by revealing to us significant dialogue and character interactions that were removed, perhaps only for reasons of balance or flow. The Woodsman has one cringey yet quite central scene where Walter sits alone on a park bench with a young girl he has followed. The unedited version of this scene is so much more retchworthy that it calls into question Fechter and Kassel's artistic vision and argument as a whole.

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