abuse and abuse
by Douglas Messerli
Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. (screenwriter and director) Abuse / 1983
Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. has to be perceived one of the most courageous of LGBTQ filmmakers to date. Not only did Bressan speak out earlier than anyone about gay men dying of AIDS in his 1985 film Buddies, demonstrating not only how the dying process of those infected not only altered their relationships with friends and family but even strangers (positively, in this instance), while challenging how the so-called support systems failed large portions of the US society—including the lack of governmental financial aid for help to find a cure and the slow establishment of local service centers—while simultaneously portraying the patient upon whom his film focuses with respect, revealing his humanity, joy of life, and even his sense of humor.
Some years prior, in 1977, the director had explored a gay relationship between a young man of 18 who had just come of age and who, although knowing that he was gay, had had no previous sexual experience with an older man which established Passing Strangers as one of the first cinematic homosexual romances that, without sacrificing the sexuality of gay life—its public celebrations, its porno houses and magazine shops devoted to sexual titillation, and its active street life—managed still to present us with an almost innocent portrayal of a one-day sexual encounter that made everything seem, as the title of Christopher Larkin’s more main-stream film of the same year declares: “a very natural thing.”
In 1979 Bressan had in Forbidden Letters (shot in an earlier period of the San Francisco gay scene of 1975) explored a situation in which a younger lover waiting for his older lover to be released from prison reads through his letters he wrote but never sent while his partner was in prison, hoping that when he returns he’ll recall their deeply passionate love enabling them continue where they left off. Once again, with its odd imbalances of old and young, a prisoner and an innocent youth, and immense differences in their sensibilities Bressan creates a nuanced while intensely sexual milieu that stands half-way between gay porno and mainstream filmmaking challenging the boundaries in the same way that other so-called gay porn directors such as Wakefield Poole and Fred Halstead had.
And in between Bressan celebrated gay pride days in his Gay USA (1977) through his immense collation from the shots of 25 cameramen in different cities covering the parades and celebrations across the USA throughout the late 1970s, which suddenly helped to transform these previously seemingly LGBTQ-only events into something of significant universal importance.
If he had made no other films, these four films would have assured Bressan, who himself died of AIDS in 1987, of a place in the pantheon of gay filmmakers of late 1970s and early 1980s—which the Bressan Project, in its gradual restoration and new promotion of his works, celebrates.
Of all of these films, however, the most problematic when it comes to his penchant for inquiring into the moral issues surrounding homosexual love and obsession was his 1983 film, Abuse, which having not yet been restored, is a difficult movie to find. Luckily, I was able to get hold of the DVD version I viewed this morning.
I say “luckily” because I feel almost honored to be one of the first to write a longer essay about this important work; but I also realize that I must myself be somewhat courageous in attempting to assert its moral perspectives. I knew well when I first began the immense undertaking of investigating all aspects of LGBTQ experience and sexual expression portrayed on film that I would be surely entering territories about which even some gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual individuals might not approve—let alone what normative heterosexual society might regard as morally reprehensible. So I claim no innocence or unintentionality in expressing the viewpoints about the film that I am about to, even though some may find those ideas perverted and even dangerous.
Bressan’s work, in some respects, is like a series of Chinese boxes, each hidden within the container of the other. On the surface—if you can describe any one of these narrative structures as the outer shell—is a documentary about child abuse being made as a film for graduation by the central character Larry Porter (Richard Ryder). Even before the cinema has begun, Larry has created several frames of abused children from hospital and morgue shots and interviewed individuals on the street whose various viewpoints represent a range from those who argue for more enforcement, for better teaching and counseling of parents to religiously-held viewpoints that argue parents must maintain absolute discipline to strong feelings that almost call for parental violence against disobedient children. Evidently he has also been illegally snooping with a long-range camera on children and their parents in park playgrounds, where inevitably one parent, at least, daily shows up to scold or slap her or his son or daughter or otherwise physically restrain their child’s play-yard behavior.
Since his project, overseen by a Professor Rappaport, is to be finally judged by six chosen students instead of by faculty members, Larry shows them scenes as the film progresses, they reacting as variously as the interviewees, some commenting that his choices seem stereotypical, others feeling they are fairly representative and sensitive to the feelings of real people.
It is, in fact, a brilliant way that Bressan has of critiquing his own creation, permitting us to develop our own perspectives on the character and the position of child advocacy with which we might align ourselves within his film’s narrative.
And obviously by featuring a filmmaker as his central figure Bressan automatically encourages us to see his work as semi-autobiographical, which in some respects appears to give more credence to his character, particularly when others, such as the adult advisors, friends, and confidantes begun to critique his methodologies and, more importantly, his real-life behavior. If nothing else, perceiving the film itself as a thing in process provides Bressan’s entire project with a strong sense of authenticity, no matter how fictional his material may be. We feel close to his characters simply because we so thoroughly come to believe in their existence within the fiction pretending to be a document of real experience.
What Larry the director and Bressan the director both perceive simultaneously is that they need a central character directly involved in such abuse in order to tie the various talking-heads, interviewees, and stock footage images together. Larry finds that person when suddenly his young intern doctor friend, Dr. Bennett (Steve James) calls him to observe a young boy who has just been brought into the ward because he has inexplicably gone into convulsions. The boy also has a broken arm that has seeming cured of its own without medical attention, and a chest showing signs of cigarette burns as well as various damaged bones in the other arm.
It appears that this boy, Thomas Carroll (Raphael Sbarge), has been abused, but there is not enough specific proof to make a charge against the parents who have brought him in to the hospital. Perhaps the boy has been burning himself, the arm broken during amateur sports, etc. Charging parents with such crimes demands a long-term commitment and far more extensive evidence; and like most of the adults in this film, the intern, about to finish up his residency, is fearful of how it might affect his own career.
But seeing this handsome young boy, Larry is convinced he has come across the perfect focus for his film. The problem is how to approach the kid who is being sent home the next morning.
And a few days later he receives a call from Thomas, asking him to meet on Sunday morning, evidently the one regular time when the boy is permitted to leave the house. Larry meets up with the boy and after some clumsy moments he suggests they go for a coffee, but when the boy resists, changes their breakfast location to his own apartment. So does the film shift yet again as Larry, eager to get information from Thomas, finds himself describing the several men in the photos strewn about his room, open evidence of his own gay sexuality and former job as a male model. In this first meeting it appears that Larry spends more time describing his own past experiences than the boy expresses his daily terrors and personal suffering. At one point when the conversation shifts, Thomas asks the obvious question, “is Larry gay?” responding that he too is gay without any close friends at the moment. Thomas will not even shower with his classmates, afraid that they will discover the burns tattooed into his chest.
Almost immediately the two develop a rapport, as Larry offers him a beer—the first of the elder’s illegal and irresponsible actions—and a stick of Trident to cover up the smell when the boy returns home, evidence that he knows the significance of his actions. And over their next couple of get-togethers, the director increasingly entrusts his camera to Thomas, not only eliciting a terrifying and fascinating confession from the boy, but enlisting his help in making other shoots such as those he does of playground adult abuse.
Just as his film takes on greater resonance with the presence of Thomas, so do we, the audience of his film, begin to comprehend the cycles of abuse in better terms. We learn, for example, that Thomas still loves his parents despite the horrible things they do to him, arguing that between their sudden eruptions of hate, they show him love, help him to mend, allow him to sleep between them, and shower him with attention. Not only do we begin to understand why so many abuse victims do not immediately run away from the source of their torture, but in some respects embrace it, becoming unknowing triggers for further abuse as they begin to truly believe that they, in fact, have done something worthy of their punishments.
Furthermore, Thomas now has the guilt of
sharing his familial secrets with an outsider, a stranger who also cannot truly
comprehend how thoroughly embedded in his and parents’ lives are the
alternating responses of love and aggression. At one horrible moment when the
boy is telephoning Larry, his parents arrive home. The boy quietly puts the
phone upon the floor while he runs to greet his father at the door where the
share a deep hug—so intense that for a moment one might even wonder if there
isn’t yet another kind of abuse hidden within the obvious one—before his mother
enters demanding Thomas be punished for still being up. The father begins to
slap and then beat the boy, Larry’s machine catching his screams and shrieks of
pain. When Larry
Accordingly, we also now perceive that in his slow reconstruction of the film—the addition of a beautiful spiritual-like song about suffering children by a black performer, the introduction of new clips he and the boy have shot, and the very moving interview he had with Thomas—that he may be exploiting the tortured young man, abusing the boy in yet another manner.
This is made even more clear in a conversation with Professor Rappaport who is fearful that in introducing the boy into the film will make them all legally liable if someone were to notify the parents; since the film must be shown to an open audience, he suggests that Larry cut out the scenes with the boy—now the heart and soul of his film—Larry angrily responding that he might as well put a black bar over Thomas’ eyes just as they have over all the hospital and morgue children included in the film used as evidence of the various kinds of torture children are forced to suffer.
It is difficult to hear his advisor’s viewpoint, since we quickly recognize it an example of the worst kind of censorship that would turn a potent statement into yet another meaningless sympathy card to all those children who have endured and died from such abuse; yet we cannot help but recognize that Larry has entered dangerous territory wherein he is making claims that may open them all to libel, and might actually be a misreading of the situation.
When Thomas discovers Larry in the bathroom dousing his face with water, he carefully takes up a paper towel to wipe Larry’s hands and face, the two standing for briefly face to face before the boy demands a hug which Larry joyfully awards him. But as he readies to return to the table, Thomas pulls him back yet again as the two looking into each other’s eyes come together in a kiss from which they obviously can no longer restrain.
At that moment, the second narrative structure immediately breaks open to reveal an illicit love story that transforms almost all of the director’s deep concerns for children being abused into a new kind of abuse tale that no longer has necessarily to do with a child being physically tortured but being abused, in legal terms, through sexual contact.
The boy, he soon tells Larry, is only 14, and when in the very next scene we discover they have left the restaurant to return to Larry’s apartment where they now both lie naked in bed it seems ludicrous to describe them engaging in what one otherwise intelligent commentator observed as “moments of physical affection.” No, they have just had sex. And in crossing that line, not matter how much sympathy one has for both of them, we cannot deny that Larry has according to the law just committed child abuse in any US state, and in 1983 might have broken the laws against same-sex relations in numerous American places.
Even if we argue, as I will, that Thomas initiated the act, it does not matter since a minor in desperate need of love may act unthinkingly, while a senior is able presumably to control such emotions.* Even worse Larry realizes by opening their friendship up into a sexual relationship he may have even further endangered the boy’s life. Surely, as Thomas hints, if his gay sexuality were to be discovered, his parents would kill him. And when Thomas does not show up the next Sunday, Larry can only fear the worst.
Larry returns to Dr. Bennett, admitting
to him all that has happened, and hoping
Larry himself now recognizes the dilemmas he has created, fantasizing a nightmare arrest as he returns home late after trying to drink away his fears for Thomas, whom he now imagines as being involved in an attempted bathtub drowning.
He almost succeeds in psychologically cutting himself off the from the boy by throwing his energies into the re-editing his movie, but the question of one of the authorities he has filmed keeps coming back to him: why do some children remain in abusive situations while others escape? He reconnects with her in a further attempt to comprehend the various kinds of abusive cycles that occur within families, reconfirming and further explaining information provided to us earlier in the film—another brilliant maneuver on the part of Bressan that provides us with further information by pretending to reeducate the fictional filmmaker.
She tells the story of one boy being taken away from an abusive home only to recreate the same kind of abuse, evidently involving sex, with his new foster parents. It was only when the child finally decided to himself to break that cycle, that he turned himself in the authorities for protection. In his fears, Larry has withdrawn all the money from his personal account, planning to run off with Thomas in order to protect him. She warns Larry that such an act would be completely self-destructive. Surely he would be arrested and the boy might claim that he had been abducted. If there were to be any hope of true escape and a future relationship, the boy must leave his parents of his own will and seek out Larry’s help.
Larry finally appears to give up on his attempts to save Thomas, just as we have seen all the others abandon the terrorized boy as if he was simply a “situation” instead of a human being, citing the lack of evidence that is, nonetheless, clearly marked across the boy’s body and their own inability to involve themselves which merely informs us of their own lack of true caring and courage.
Since Larry has not yet appeared, Rappaport asks his secretary to telephone him, she receiving a recorded message that he no longer lives at that address. Clearly, Larry has escaped with the boy to wherever they might imagine they can find refuge.
I am afraid that far too many viewers of this film might very well agree with The New York Times critic Vincent Canby’s assessment: If Abuse were a better film, one might be able to call it sordid. It's only tacky. In style it's of the sort of pseudo-educational, sane-sex movies made in the 1950's, especially Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad.”
In hindsight, I alternatively agree with Vito Russo’s response: “[Abuse] is not just the best gay film I’ve seen this year, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year.”
To my way of thinking Bressan’s film is so important because it portrays a moral man who breaks the law in order to save a boy the system refuses to protect. Love is always involved with such moral decisions, and sometimes that love goes beyond mere beneficence of the heart, to involve both the brain and the dick. All the other so-called righteous beings in this film simply will not help to release this child from the pretense of both parental and societal love. Even feelings of good will, however, do nothing to protect anyone from evil. Only true love, whatever kind you have to offer, can accomplish that.
In creating such a conundrum Bressan has not only puts his character at danger for his life, but places himself equally in the position of being accused of the very villainy which his film is bemoaning, transforming his work, in the end, from a domestic romance back into a documentation of a moral solution to an impasse. Who finally, in this film, might be most properly described as the abuser: the parents, the central character, the director, or the society, parallel to our own, which it depicts? In some respects, all of them might be called abusers. But there is abuse and abuse. It takes a truly moral person to comprehend the differences. I’ll gladly join hands with the character and his creator before I reach out to any other others.
*As I described in my essay on several films of the early 21st century in which young boys, having come to terms with being gay, sought out older men for the experience of sex and sexual education, what Thomas seeks in Larry is a kind of double opportunity, a wise man to help him escape and a sexual partner rolled into one. Literature and filmmaking has a long history of just such juvenile matchmaking. Only in our times have we come to demean such opportunistic “marriages” in males. With regard to women we seem to have less difficulty whether they be heterosexual or same sex commitments. We generally describe the later as a “mentoring” relationship or a “mother/daughter-like alliance.”
Los Angeles, May 27, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).