Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lyon in Winters


Where I come from, home for the holidays means dying lawns, cloudy suburban skies, foil-covered crock pots brought unwillingly from the car to the front door; chattering hellos from perfumed relatives; ceilings slick with condensation from ever-baking turkeys and boiling rutabagas; football and the voice of Sam Elliott extolling guts, glory, Ram, from the living room; a barrage of women nattering from the kitchen. It's a time to go to school reunions and movies just to get out of the house. Hometowns leave their mark, like a lash of sameness, slash of lameness you'll never paint over... but is it that bad? What if you come from a family rife with divorce, guilt, skeletons, incest? Pedophile freaks subverting the family dynamic? Lolita cousins coming onto you while aunts and uncles look at you harshly but you're too drunk to resist? Your honor, I was not even her first lover.

I had a fine podcast discussion with Jamey DuVall at Movie Geeks United for The Kubrick Series' -- and so I've been thinking of LOLITA all day. Let me share it with you as we close the holiday down:

Laws dealing with minors and corruption are tricky things. A kid (under 18) who rapes his cousin can get off with just a flick on the wrist, but a guy who sends one of his prostitutes home for Xmas on a train can go to jail, just for buying her a ticket that takes her across state lines. This all goes back to 1910 and a law meant to catch white slavers that was amended as the Mann Act in 1948 largely due to the newspaper headline case of Frank LaSalle, a an old pervert dragging a naive shoplifting minor named Florence Sally Horner, off on a two-year cross-country spree. The constant travel making it hard to discern the unkosher relationship kept in place by blackmail (he saw her steal a notebook from a five and dime and played copper). This was a vile case, a shot heard by journalists around the world, and the headlines have never been the same, for better and for worse. They made laws designed specifically to catch evil men like Frank (and Humbert). Good for them.

Kubrick's film LOLITA, as well as Nabokov's original book, seems to take the Horner backlash as a challenge to depict the corruption of a minor in a non-hysterical manner, with trans state-line travel galore. I've seen the film and read the book numerous times, but never thought of that strange but valuable law... suddenly, this past viewing, it was all I thought about.


My dad has a terribly long and ornate joke dealing with this law, involving transporting immortal porpoises over staid lions. The point is, it's a law designed specifically to counteract the moves of people like Humbert, himself an evil user of pretend morality. Humbert's flabbergasted relationship with Quilty is an ultra-cool mirror of the moral code (the cinematic version of that Horner law) challenging Kubrick to both adhere to and defy the "How could they ever make a movie of Lolita?" marketing catchphrase.


Over the years this film's been many things to me, but this last viewing it seemed to be about art vs. censorship and the way the promoters of 'childhood wonderment' and the Peter Pan 'if you can dream' aesthetic--the Norman Rockwell fishing boy logo of Dreamworks and the mouth agape wonderment of E.T.-- are the both the critics of and culprits who bring us the hyper-awareness of pedophilia. The two are entwined, a double exposure of exposing, like a cobra with the head of a tail-eating mongoose. The more you pine for and prize a 'perfect family' the more pressure-cooker force you put on those latent incestuous, pedophile dark desires. Pedophilia is the ultimate evil, after all, the kind of thing even the other prisoners will kill you for (in jail); it goes deeper than Oedipus, down into the murky swamp behind the Bates Motel, and it is embedded in the fabric of our modern trend towards the deification of children and their 'innocence.' Is it any accident that the two main architects of this hypocritical saintly children-izing in the early 1980s were Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg?


The difference in the pre-ET 70s was that no one wanted the Norman Rockwell 50s 'childhood wonderment' thing anymore, so there was less to repress, and what you don't repress you don't have to 'act' out in sexual transgression. The pedophiles and flashers were still around in the 70s but parents' intense fear for their children's safety didn't seem as ubiquitous. The Don Draper cultural rubric didn't include constant monitoring of playdates. The kids were left to roam the house, yard, or neighborhood while parents smoked, drank, swapped, played bridge, and carried on. We kids knew not to get into cars with strangers or take their candy, and above all we knew when to stay out of our parents' way and when was the right time to creep downstairs and steal from the Peanut M&M dishes. We knew when the bridge games would devolve to the point that our presence would be greeted with hilarity and welcome instead of stern reprimand; we knew the tartness of our parents' whiskey sours and Tom Collins' kisses; we learned to mix drinks with the powdered packets of whiskey sour mix. Adulthood was virile in the 70s... there was no clear line to cross. Sometimes, it just reached out and grabbed you. You felt safe around it, yet knew that it was, itself, unsafe. You know, like life?

The sad thing now for an old rager like me watching LOLITA is to see the inexorable passage from mom to daughter to daughter-mom in Sue Lyon, as it so preternaturally predicts the arc of America's cultural mores, from repressive 50s-early 60s, (Shelly Winters) to liberated late 1960s-70s (Sue Lyon) to repressive 80s (Lyon-in-Winters). Elaborating the transformation is Sellers as the liberal trickster elite and James Mason as the outflanked conservative imposter. Just as the most vocally anti-gay politician is inevitably found drunk in a gay nightclub, so does Humbert Humbert hide, like a scoundrel at his last refuge, behind the outrage of conservative wagon-circling.

The message was clear and simple to a generation for whom Freud was like Oprah: the more concerned you are over your child's well being the more suspect you are. I was more or less Lolita's age when I first saw LOLITA, and my perspective and identification with it has changed a bit now that I'm Humbert's age, or rather Quilty's. It's the Quilty character who dominates now, more, for me. The vantage point from which art--through its transparency and deliberate digging for dirty truth--looks down upon dull, corporeal expression of desire. To paint a nymphet, like Degas with his ballerinas; to film a nymphet like Rollin with his vampire women; to write of one, like Nabokov, is to effectively sublimate the desire to corrupt them in the real. The artist has 'already' tasted such forbidden fruit in this sense and found he much prefers using the desire and rapture as a inspiration, a springboard into art. rather than actual tawdry seduction. Artists understand that sexual gratification means an end to the dance, a sudden return to shame and self-consciousness, a hasty, guilty retreat through the parking lot. Instead of making art you made a 'situation', a guilt trip, a baby, or a messy crime scene.  The trick is not to 'grant' the sleazy pay-off... and thus avoid orgasm's desolate attic. Compared to the divine rapture of creation, which is eternal, it's just a negative chalk mark on your karmic blackboard.

Kubrick's film is also a fine metaphor for art vs. censorship, with Lolita as the muse, dragged down too soon into the tedious abyss of mortality (i.e. getting knocked up, moving to Alaska, where maybe she'll grow up to be Sarah Palin!), and Humbert the bourgeois authority that proclaims things art or pornography according to his own licentiousness (he makes things -- Lolita herself -- forbidden to the masses [not letting her in the play] so he may enjoy en toto under the pretense of protecting her morals) and Sellers is the artist, the Bugs Bunny  who actually controls the stuff of 'real' art, for he knows what's really going on... and that is the primordial jazz of constant persona dissolution.


The moral to all this? Family ain't perfect, but you can trust its imperfection a lot better than you can trust the TV that tells you a true family is perfect. TV gets its messages from the Quilty/Humbert elite and they don't have your best interests at heart, and never did. In the 1980s, before SSRIs were popular, some of us had to kill ourselves just to convince our parents we needed therapy. In the 1990s it's reversed, but the same principle of fear and gray flannel blending applies. Therapy was once taboo, now the attitude that it's taboo is itself taboo. We've got to get the Lyons back out of the winters and free the immoral porpoises. If we can wise up to the fact that our desire is inherently unfulfillable then we can wise up to the double-edged sword of desire, and just hang it on the wall rather than wield it and in the process cut our soul to ribbons. The only exorcism of desire that truly fulfills and heals that soul is art. Humbert can shoot up the Quilty art museum all he wants, but he's already lost the war.

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