Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mid-Life Crisis Superstar: Humbert, Lo, and the Bait-Switch Cycle

I'll be a guest on Film Geeks tribute to Kubrick podcast this Dec. 5: here's an excerpt from my 2009 Bright Lights Film Journal article:

"All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives"  Stanley Kubrick's LOLITA:
It's hard to believe now in our jaded world but in the late 1960s/1970s, even first-class artist filmmakers such as Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) earned X ratings, making their movie posters reverberate in the deep recesses of my child mind, seeing their ads in the paper (right next to the comics) and getting a chill in the base of my spine.  Back then, an X could be artistic as well as adult, and thus these films still carry the potent whiff of sexuality as a genuine danger, whose loss Camille Paglia, and this essay, laments. The danger still exists, but we are disconnected from the accompanying desire;  it is too late to feel things deeply, in the flesh. We check in with our bodies periodically, during a commercial break, or when it's time to pass the joystick. Only later, when the TV and iPods are all shut off, do the demons and traumas make themselves felt.

Like most of Kubrick's work, Lolita (1961) reflects this gradual rotation ever further into the simulacrum but from an earlier epoch, going from the refinements and closeted perversities of old Europe to the prefab motels of post-modern America (remember these were the days when police could arrest you for transporting a minor over state lines, or just having a woman in your hotel room who wasn't your wife). So to unravel this, let's clarify that there are three levels of time at work in our appreciation of Kubrick's film: the span of time since Lolita was released (half a century) the span of time of the actual movie (2 ½ hours), and the time spanned in the movie's mise en scene ("3 years later"). Kubrick ingeniously unites all three, anticipating its cult status in the century of evolving mores to come--ensuring it will never be outdated or 'campy. As it meanders from shrill bedroom farce to tense Freudian scenes of insane jealousy and the film itself becomes full of deep, sad shadows. This progression into madness is similar actually to another of Mason's roles, that of the cortisone-maniac dad in Bigger Than Life. The monstrousness of his actions becomes apparent only later, when he's struggling to keep his mask on in the face of all the subterfuge --the self-fulfilling prophecy of jealousy. Simultaneously, we move as a world from the giddy high of a genuine sexual revolution through to the launch of the AIDS miasma and into a simulacrum fog. Sex now involves so many layers of protection we're better off just imagining it --in your shadows of your own mind.

In the pre-VHS 1970s we wished for the some weird new form of cassette, where we could compile our favorite movies around us as a fort, to not be enslaved to the TV Guide (I sometimes arose at dawn just to see some bizarre piece of crap like Zombies on Broadway). In the 2010s we are stuck, like James Woods in Videodrome, with our head halfway into the cathode ray mouth; our Satanic wish has become fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams, in excess to the point of nightmare. Now that the entire world has access to all the movies ever made, so being surrounded by favorite movies carries no currency. As Baudrillard put it in The Conspiracy of Art: "It is useless to be dispassionate in a dispassionate world. Being carefree in a divested world has no meaning. That is how we became orphans."

We can see the bait-and-switch of the simulacrum in the commercials shown before movies in theaters now. I remember seeing two commercials back to back after not having seen any for a while (I gave up cable for a few years) and was flipped out of my gourd. The first ad was one of those anti-drug messages, aimed at teens: "Coke Kills." The next is a Coke (as in Coca-Cola) commercial, where a sad little boy takes a sip from his glistening black bottle and flowers and rainbows shoot out of his head: "Coke is life." These are cinema's options — the approved drink is named Coke (which originally had cocaine in it) but is pitched at having the exact effect of the one drug it does not contain, the forbidden drug from which it gets half its name --"the real real thing." This is a very devious switcheroo, regardless of whether it's for our own good. My shrink told me the other day that one of the strands of drugs I was on was scheduled by the FDA on the level of Valium, etc. And why? Because the rats liked it. They kept pressing the lever. No other noticeable problems to long-term use but the rats liked it. They just don't want us rats to have a good time, or is it that, like our concerned parents, they want us to stop watching old movies and go outside and get some fresh air?

I'm all for keeping irresponsible people away from drugs, but the switcheroo presented by these two commercials is a Pavlov equivalent of forcing the rat's hand on the lever while giving him nothing in return. If you're feeling high off drugs, why tell your doctor? Now he has to do something about it, the twin serpents on his profession's fraternal emblem obligate him to halt your ecstasy. The doctors hold the keys to the kingdom, dangling the precious pills above our heads like we're doggies. If we pant and beg, no treat; we have to seem utterly disinterested. Thus displays of enjoyment are rendered dangerous unless completely faked. Baudrillard's orphans only find parents on the monitor, in the movies of the past, where enthusiasm, love, and desire can stay potent under the condition they are acted rather than real.

This cycle of bait and switch is the feature selling point of Lolita as it revolves gradually from the bourgeois end game hungover morning after (death) to bucolic innocence, to gradual dissolution and back again. Lo's glasses and pregnant belly (at the end of the film) prove a less shrill but nonetheless archetypal blonde suburban mom a la her mother, whom Humbert visited with equal muted horror at the beginning of the film. A similar revolution on the meta level mirrors this: as the film grows less and less "contemporary," it grows less "obscene." Yesterday's pornography is today's literary canon, though a return to it being burned in the street in some Handmaid's Tale-style future seems still distantly possible. Even so, Lolita is an odd-film-out in the Kubrick oeuvre, particularly in that it's one of his few films that attempt to deal with sex, his Achilles heel. Always squeamish about consensual coupling, for Kubrick impotence becomes, by default, his sinthom magnifique. (Sterling Hayden's mad general in Dr. Strangelove: "I don't deny myself the company of women, Mandrake. I just deny them my essence.")

To see how Kubrick's 1961 film is really the first 1970s movie, we have to look way back before that, to the late 1950s: repressive Cold War paranoia was giving way to the emerging strands of freethinking that would gradually weave into the rope of countercultural "free love." Sex, which had been safely encrypted in the pre-suburban "Our Town" style of living before WW II, came roaring up from the land of the repressed in cinema via films such as 1954's Baby Doll. The Kinsey Report had made "the sex life of suburbia" into a hot topic, as did the craze for Freud and psychoanalysis. Why not swap wives when we're all comfortably middle class and hip to the Oedipus complex, and drunk? Kinsey made it seem like everyone else was doing it, and one wouldn't want to be left out. Scandalous intellectuals-only satire, however, would only do for so long. Without the same amount of repression to work your lusting Wildean wit against, a book or movie like Lolita ceases to be subversive. Viewing the film in the 1990s, it was no longer risqué but a shrill bedroom farce in the style of Fox's early 90s sitcom, Married with Children (which also featured a hot, nubile daughter perched scandalously amidst a family of raving sex maniacs). What was once scandalous has become cartoonish.

Lolita sits at the tape mark on a Moebius strip of time dealing with our national obsession for nymphets: A huge backlash against the loosey-goosey sexuality of children began in the early 1980s, with day-care molestation scandals and TV's America's Most Wanted. Parents went from letting kids run wild in the streets if they were old enough to walk ('70s), to freaking out if they're out of our sight for a second ('80s), to accompanying them to school and having to be forcibly prevented from sitting through their classes with them ('90s-forever). Yet nowadays, in more depressed areas, like the mall, you see the 13- to 16-year-old Hannah Montana nymphets glorified in short shorts they never would have been able to wear outside the house even in the '70s, and a salon tan, and bottle-blond hair, Britneyed to the nines, wobbling around the mall on their high heels in the company of their obese moms who either don't seem to notice or enjoy the looks by proxy. The idea of women teachers sleeping with young male students, meanwhile, has become top news and fodder, and multiplexes pack in single working women on Friday nights to see Notes on a Scandal, Sex and the City, Elizabeth, The Reader. Koo Koo ka Choo, Mrs. Robinson - just keep it on the screen and out of the real. And let's not forget the dour, craftsmanship-suffocated Lolita remake by Adrian Lyne! As with everything they touch, the bourgeoisie keep the sex and scuttle the myth. They first demonize and then overvalue that which was better off without their meddling or even knowledge.

What's most altered our perception of Lolita's "sexuality" is the tumbling down of the enforced moral code, thanks to the "did they or didn't they" question on which it hung being flipped upside down through hipster hand magic. As a code-breaker in this sense, Lolita really has a lot in common with Baby Doll, i.e. the way Quilty and Lolita work together to exploit Humbert's insane jealousy, driving him to murder, just as in Baby Doll, Carroll Baker (below) and Eli Wallach deliberately provoke and tease the dirty-minded hick played by Karl Malden until he runs amok with a shotgun. The 'did they or didn't they' question on both of their minds is something neither they nor we ever learn the answer to.

Each self-diagnosed cuckold (including ourselves) wants to "know for sure" what the code can never explicitly say. The code itself is then the meta-textual source of anxiety, a stand-in for the insanity of jealousy, itself a smokescreen for the universality (and therefore mundanity) of our hitherto most private sexual impulses--and thus the films' code-enforced sexual ambiguity serves as a "self-fulfilling prophecy," driving the Joseph Breens into lynch mob madness. No matter how successfully they censor, their own curiosity drives them insane. There's always one viewer who believes it's possible to 'know' what Lolita and Humbert did or didn't do that morning in the hotel room with the cot, or what happened during the nap with Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker in the room with the crib in Baby Doll. 

That one lone dude in the theater is the censor.

(read full article here)

Lolita and Baby Doll are movies that explore the frustrations created by the code on our desire to know what happened in between the kiss and the next day, the Oedipal detective mystery of childhood consuming us as if it had never been dormant. Even if we've had actual sex since then, it's been no more than a phony head getting sliced off by a castrating sheet of glass compared to the wild lurid promise of our imaginations.

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