Published June 14, 2002
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, which is adapted by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni from the novel by the late Chris Fuhrman and directed by Peter Care, is not about what you might think it is, given the public and media outcry about priestly abuse of young boys — and yet it is not quite unrelated to that controversy either, at least in the sense that it is similarly of use to those who wish to propagate slanders against the Church. Not that the Church has not done plenty to bring these on itself in the case of the pedophilia scandal. But it is too seldom noticed that many of those guilty of actually molesting children (though not necessarily those who have protected them) share not the Church’s traditional view of human sexuality but that which movies like this one are continually offering in its place.
At one level, the film is an absurdly long and far-fetched prelude to a reading of William Blake’s most famous poem, which begins “Tyger, Tyger burning bright” and which is trotted out for the occasion of a eulogy for a young boy whose magnificent amorality is meant to be compared to the tyger’s. It also provides an opportunity for animation sequences by Todd McFarlane whose comic book superheroes, though they don’t look anything like Blake’s drawings, do have in common with “The Tyger” a weird amalgam of the organic and the mechanical.
Perhaps the acquaintance of Mr Fuhrman and his adaptors with the poetical oeuvre of Blake began and ended with the good old (sexless) tyger, but much more a propos for this film would have been “The Garden of Love” which, like it, is to be found in the Songs of Innocence and Experience. It is short enough to quote in its entirety.
I went to the Garden of Love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,
Ad I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
Sound familiar? Hollywood really ought to give Blake more credit as one of the earliest exponents of the idea, which has lately become such a commonplace there, of the Church as moral oppressor and manufactory of sexual guilt. “Blake is a very dangerous thinker,” as Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) tells young Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) — a fact which, though true, is not instantly obvious from the example of the mechanical tyger as it is from “The Garden of Love.” But Fuhrman and/or his adaptors have a much loftier end in view, which is to make Tim and his friends, Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), into an object lesson for the Blakean Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Like Milton’s Satan (in Blake’s view) they seek self-realization through sin.
It is ridiculously over-ambitious to try such a thing in a movie, particularly a movie about school-children, and so what we are left with is the suggestion of some sort of link between sexual guilt and perversion, albeit not the sort of perversions and even crimes of which we have been hearing so much lately. Neither Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio) nor Sister Assumpta, who between them seem to make up the entire teaching staff of St. Agatha’s Roman Catholic Middle School, are sexual predators or even blatant hypocrites. Their badness is confined entirely to their efforts to constrain youthful sexual urges rather than to exploit them. But the sophists of vulgar Freudianism would argue that the one is as bad as — and, indeed, probably the cause of — the other. Repression and corruption are thought to be complementary.
Some such idea as that, I take it, is what leads us up to the terrible moment when we are invited to feel sorry for poor Margie’s inviting her own debauchery, driven to it (presumably) by all that “repression” in her Catholic background. The connection between these very grown-up matters and the Church’s teachings about sex is, however, left deliberately vague, as the film sheers off again into another of Hollywood’s celebrations of the adolescent, even the pre-adolescent sensibility at the expense of the adult. Like a child grumbling because he has to do homework or chores around the house, the Hollywood culture continues its complaining about how unfair it is that kids have to grow up, and plunges them into a comic book world in which adult demands are met by children’s power fantasies in the form of absurd “superheroes.”
These, invented by Tim and his friends, include Asskicker, Major Screw, the Muscle, and Skeleton Boy, and their purpose is to vanquish the supervillains of the ugly and treacherous adult world dressed up as nuns in honor of Sister Assumpta. Better yet, they are to become its victims and so get to wallow in self-pity — as the movie itself does for the patently self-destructive Tim. The disparity between such childishness and the satanic majesty of Blake’s poetry is an acute embarrassment, but it’s nice to think that the Church is still a plausible villain in this sense — that is, in interposing itself between childishness and the wish to continue being childish — and not the newer one of corrupting childish innocence. There may be hope for it after all.