Sunday, May 30, 2021

Clu Gulager | A Day with the Boys

cold war strategies for the hot war to come

by Douglas Messerli

Clu Gulager (screenwriter and director) A Day with the Boys / 1969

When we describe something as being “on the surface” regarding a narrative work, we generally mean what is most apparent, what we perceive as obvious from our first reading or viewing. Yet any interesting work, we recognize, offers numerous other layers of meaning or perhaps even confusion regarding aspects of character, plot, dialogue, and location that when we consider the work more carefully seem to suggest other possible meanings or simply unexplained incidents that force us to rethink the work we have just seen or read. In the most significant works, many of these inexplicable aspects can never be thoroughly comprehended, just like our lived experience. There are always other possibilities, greater depth to be reckoned with in the best of literary and cinematic creations.

      So when I say that upon my first viewing of Clu Gulager’s A Day with the Boys (1969), I felt it was an enormously interesting and beautiful work that seemed worth writing about but not within the context of my queer cinema explorations, I’m talking about that “surface” reading which I first established in relation to my second and third viewings of this film I needed to help myself explain things—mostly unsuccessfully—which, in turn, led me to include it in the context of my LGBTQ writings. I am still not sure that the fascinating 18-minute work belongs within this context, but the very fact that it remains a “queer” text in the ordinary meaning of that word makes me want to bring it into the “queer cinema” fold.

      On the surface Gulager’s film seems to belong in the same genre with Peter Brook’s film version of William Goldings’ novel Lord of the Flies (1963) or, if we might expand it to include a more idealistic vision of boyhood, something like Ralph G. Bluemke’s Robby (1968) where a boy, discovering himself shipwrecked on an island with only another boy as his companion goes wild in the Robinson Crusoe pattern of going native in order to survive. Although both of these works involve nudity, neither are apparent LGBTQ works unless you are a voyeuristic pedophile.

     The 1950s and 60s were filled with such considerations of nature vs. nurture which these two films evoke—Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed (1956) is another example—in an attempt to determine whether violence, murder and mayhem was born within all of us or was a learned and accultured response. None of these films fully explored issues of  child sexuality, even though they may bring us close if we think of sexuality in any manner being related to issues of control and empowerment. Yet these works seemingly do not intentionally go there.

      They certainly share affinities also with Lasse Nielsen’s and Ernst Johansen’s Leave Us Alone (1975), but that film truly represents occasions of boy-love that somewhat separate it from Gulager’s, Brook’s, and Bluemke’s films; and I easily determined to discuss the 1975 film in the gay context without any qualifications.

      On the surface Gulager’s film seems to belong in the same genre with Peter Brook’s film version of William Goldings’ novel Lord of the Flies (1963) or, if we might expand it to include a more idealistic vision of boyhood, something like Ralph G. Bluemke’s Robby (1968) where a boy, discovering himself shipwrecked on an island with only another boy as his companion goes wild in the Robinson Crusoe pattern of going native in order to survive. Although both of these works involve nudity, neither are apparent LGBTQ works unless you are a voyeuristic pedophile.      

     Things get a bit more complex, the music representing those shifts, when one boy finds a snake and dangles it around his wrist and neck. And by late morning they have entered a burning garbage dump, gathering up odd things such as an old license plate, a tin can, a yellowing newspaper, a broken umbrella, and a pair of woman’s high heels which one of the boys puts on. Soon after, they run the fields brandishing large branches as if they were weapons. Total innocence has clearly transmogrified into something slightly different through their involvement with the remnants of culture that lies outside of their childhood isolation.

     Yet all the images, at times overlaying the previous, at other times perfectly framed in long shots and closeups, give the feeling of the entire as a kind of Hallmark greeting card. Surely these sweetly beautiful, mostly blonde-haired lads are the very image of undeterred childhood. Their beauty alone evidences their playful goodness.

      Even the public mural which Gulager inserts, painted in some of the same yellow, brown, and orange tones as Kovács’ shots, gives testament to their cultural identity. We know these boys; they are us in the days when in small town USA, where I grew up, you could truly step out of your house in the morning and roam through the fields and neighborhoods around until you were tired and dinner was ready to be served. My father had a whistle to call us when it was time to return home. We were recognized as something like roaming steers or cats to be rounded up before the sun set.

       They soon overrun an empty playground, whirling on a merry-go-round, and swinging away for hours without the need of parental control. These boys are iconic images, so it appears, of American youth.

      At 11:00 they reach another buried trash spot guarded by large scavenging birds and crows who the boys rambunctiously scare off. Soon after they have retrieved their toy rifles with which they began the day, however, and are carefully creeping through the terrain to discover and engage one of their peers as he signals his existence from time to time with a musical song boomed out on his small portable radio. But even here their tangles with imagery death seem more like “tangos with death” as radio plays just such a song and they uniformly peek out of the pilings behind which they hide and return to disappear from sight.

     But at that very moment they spot something else yards off on the streets of the area in which the probably live: a businessman (James Kearce) dressed in his suit and carrying a briefcase as he parks his car to walk home. 

     One of their group cries out with the discovery pointing at the walking man of Stanley Hill Road. The composer’s music turns highly dissonant as the man, observing the children, briefly waves to them. In the midst of such a wild terrain which the boys temporarily abandon, the man appears almost as a comic figure, reminding one a bit of Saturday Night Live’s Dan Ackroyd playing an awkward family man.

     The small military unit come running and surround him, apparently trying to encourage him to join them. At 1:0l he agrees, half following, half leading them back into their raw paradise. Still fully besuited, briefcase in hand he marches with them across fields, trotting near fence lines, the camera catching a double image of the retinue as if it were a major military deployment, their travels accompanied by a quietly beating snare-drum.           

    A few minutes later they run down an old rail line, the snare drum picking up its beat. And finally we see them spread out in the open landscape under a single tree, two horses looking on, a scene that cannot help but remind us a little of the Ingmar Bergman representation of death in The Seventh Seal. We can now guess where this all might be leading, but we’re still disbelieving. What could these imps possibly accomplish of their own accord?

     Symbolically, the children can apparently play out a great deal of horrific adult wartime behavior. After walking him up a long hill they enter a high woodland where they lead him through a dense undercover of flowering plants and branches. At 4:15 our businessman has removed his suit jacket but still is playing the good sport in joining in their childhood games. 

      At a small brick outbuilding they stand him up against a wall, still broadly smiling as they take out their weapons while another of them yells fire. They shoot him dead, jumping up and down with absolute pleasure. Agreeing to what he intuits as their desire, he removes a few branches and  lays down upon the forest floor to play dead.

      Together they grab his feet and drag him a significant ways away, dumping him in an open pit which evidently they have previously dug. He looks as if he’s actually enjoying the rough contact, but appears a bit surprised at the ready grave they’ve already dug for him. Before he might even protest he lands face down as they begin shoveling dirt over him. The screen goes black.

     As the music now returns to merry playfulness, we observe the boys patting down the dirt atop the deep grave. One of them plants the man’s briefcase on the top as if to serve as a burial marker.

     As the camera pans slowly right we see another such grave marked with a golf bag with clubs intact; a few feet later we see another such spot commemorated with an open book, some of its pages frozen open with mildew. It is now 5:37. A few feet over we see another such spot marked by a picnic basket; and finally we see a grave topped by a child’s play stroller and doll hanging over its seat.

      As the credits begin to roll we hear the heavenly voices of the Jimmy Joyce Children’s Choir, the boys, now naked, bathing in a stream, cleaning their bodies in innocent roughhousing without any seeming awareness of the crimes they have committed.

       It is a ghoulish play, evidence, as so many writers such as Graham Greene have attempted to show us that innocence is often connected to evil and destruction. Perhaps only experience, as much as William Blake perceived its restrictions, can help us to comprehend that our actions, even if seemingly symbolic, profoundly affect others. Yet perhaps these children, through their culture’s images of war, learned to behave in the manner which they have acted out. Since we have no firsthand knowledge of their home lives to we have no way of knowing. All we have of evidence is the radio they play, detritus left behind in the garbage dumps, and, most importantly, the toy rifles their parents have evidently given them as gifts that might suggest that society may have already taught them to value violence and death; but it may equally be the ignorance of innocence. Just as in such other metaphorically constructed works questioning the dominance of nature vs nurture , there is no definitive answer to explain why children can be profoundly evil when judged by society’s experienced values.

      But no matter how we might interpret these boys’ actions there is still a gaping hole in the logic of this otherwise rather profound little film. And the questions it poses are perhaps just as important if not more important than our interpretation of the children’s acts.  

     Although the film has, despite its obvious emotional manipulations, basically represented its narrative in naturalist terms, it is difficult to comprehend the actions of its major player, the businessman, as fitting into that pattern. Why has a seemingly devoted worker, perhaps one of the boy’s fathers or certainly a neighbor, decided to suddenly join their ragamuffin gang for a four-hour march into the wilderness while dressed still in a suit and carrying his briefcase which he surely might have locked in his car trunk along with his jacket if he’d been anyone with sense. Even if we ignore the matter of the unusual hour which he has returned from work, how might these children have convinced him to join them on an exploration into the wilderness seems to be a somewhat mind-boggling question.

      I will assume that most sane-headed adults would have simply laughed off the request, even if somewhat charmed by the invitation.

      But let us assume that he—like the numerous male Peter Pan’s of the world, who because of their inborn male authority never truly grow up and long to return to the idyll of their childhoods—suddenly felt an inward to desire to play like a child again while providing these boys with an engaged parental figure. Let’s imagine the nostalgia for his youth suddenly spilled over with the joy of their request, and, accordingly, he was willing to go along with everything their imaginations called up.

     But even then, there obviously would have been limits. Surely, having just come from the office, he might have been too tired to traipse out into the wilds, walking long distances simply to pretend to be shot and killed. Wouldn’t he have simply, at some point, admitted he was bushed and needed to abandon their playland. Even the most devoted of parents halt their daughter’s miniature tea-parties at some point. Certainly, as they began roughly dragging his imagined corpse down the steep hill he might have stood up to laughingly complain, or jumped up in the hole into which they had tossed him? Why does he remain so agreeably passive?

      But then, other questions also arise. Any normal responsible adult would have realized that an mature male joining up to play with a small army of nine boys would represent a very questionable situation when these boys returned home to share with their parents what they did during the day. “Mr. Briefcase joined us today Daddy. He was a good sport and lots of fun.”

       Just maybe our businessman had a hidden obsession. Perhaps he very much liked children, especially grade-school boys, and was only too happy to join in playing their games, particularly if they got a little bit rowdy; and most definitely he would love to have been able to join them at the end of the day as they frolicked in the local stream completely naked. Perhaps this is a film  after all as, denied in my early paragraphs, that is very much attune to the lure of “voyeuristic pedophiles.” That, at least, might explain his endless patience with their long trek and their physical abuse of his symbolically dead body.

      And, just for a moment, let us imagine that the boys sensed this from the beginning. If it is easy to imagine this pack of 9 boys as representing a romanticized notion of youth before the repressions of the adult world set in—as a kind Blakean world of innocence before experience darkens their joyful activities—it is also possible to perceive them as the opposite: a small social band of same-thinking outsiders who resist or, at least, fear normalization, intrusion, or any force that they feel might attempt to control them. We all know that youths have an amazing ability to see through the ruses adults put up in an attempt to hide truth from them. They may often be mistaken in their conclusions, but they can see through anyone who might attempt to deflect or alter their determined course. 

       If these two forces meet head on—obsession and self-protection—neither can deter their own volition, and a struggle between the two is inevitable without either giving a clue that they are involved with what is actually occurring. It just happens. The obsessed adult, in this case, knowing that if he is recognized for who he is it would mean his downfall, while for the children to admit to anything more powerful would mean to accept and give obeisance to it. As the highly intuitive children of Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) and Anton Leader’s Children of the Damned (1964)—two other movies quite paranoid about children of the 1950s and 60s*—fully realized, in order to survive your childhood you need to get rid of intruding adults and children who might bar your way—or, in the case of the children in these films, become wise of amazing powers.

       Gulager’s film does not make this argument. And my comments are only speculative. But they at least might help to explain the inexplicable series of events once these beautiful boys get their hands on their ridiculous adult playmate. And if there is even a slightest possibility of this scenario, A Day with the Boys is very much a kind of gay sexual drama wherein a same-sex society takes to the streets to assure its ability to survive outside of the normative boundaries of the world in which it exists.

*It’s important to remember that from 1946-1964 the so-called US “Baby-boom generation,” 78.3 million children were born, making it seem almost as if there were more children than adults. Obviously, parents felt they had reason to be fearful of their children, and that generation, in particular, did indeed radically challenge the values of their parents.

May 30, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2021).


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