Bright Lights Film Journal

All Tomorrow’s Playground Narratives: Stanley Kubrick’s <em>Lolita</em>

“Kubrick’s 1961 film is really the first 1970s movie.”

One of the many things that make Stanley Kubrick’s best films so endlessly re-watchable is how he makes cultural artifacts (hairstyles, wallpapers, furniture, etc.) that might normally date the film archetypal and uncanny. In his insane formal rigor he warps what passes for “normal” until the word loses meaning. He does this through circular movement: from strange to familiar and back again, slowly like the various orbits in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), In the ever-widening gap of time since that film’s release, our judgment of the red and white space station decor, such as the pop-art red furniture, has revolved all the way around from cool and contemporary (for 1967) to joltingly anachronistic (1980s) to back in retro Urban Outfitters-style vogue all over again (1990s), and now (2009) on its way into postmodern super breakdown overdrive; everything is now both in and out, all the time.

DVDs have put all of the century at our disposal — as Marlene Dietrich said to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “It’s so old it’s new.” Kids are becoming infatuated with manual typewriters and LPs. Having been born in 1967 myself, I now get a weird pang of nostalgic warmth from 2001’s 1960s decor, as if revisiting the cosmic playground of youth, wherein parents and monkey bars loomed tall as obelisks and one wasn’t expected to understand anything in any adult movie, let alone 2001. The very title of the film reverberates with this weird time loop frisson when you examine it in 2009, wherein humans may not be traveling to Jupiter, but we’ve got cool stuff Bowman and Arthur C. Clarke never dreamt of, like video camera-cell phones the size of a credit card. But with Kubrick, a 1970s sweater — even seen in the 1970s — or period modular furniture are as alien as if they were from the distant future or prehistoric past. Kubrick gives us nothing that is coincidental; everything is made frisson-laden, down to the last prop. Everything becomes referential to itself, or what Lacan calls a sinthom.

As with a child’s misinterpretations of real-life adult symbols and signifiers (why is daddy hurting mommy in the primal scene, etc.), childhood misunderstandings of popular movies form the basis of our pop mythology, much more than the actual films’ intended meanings. As a child, my friends and I regularly synopsized R-rated movies to each other, freaking ourselves out as films like Carrie, the Exorcist, Jaws, The Sentinel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Omen grew scarier with each embellished telling. That may have changed now that kids can call up any movie anytime on their wristwatches, but in the pre-VCR 1970s, to kids like me, these rehashes of R-rated films were urban myths, campfire ghost stories (which survives to some extent in the whistling in the dark horror blog approach of, say, Stacie Ponder or Tenebrous Kate). If you saw the movies in person, an inevitable initial disappointment was bound to occur. No amount of special effects can measure up to the full lurid breadth of a child’s imagination when told of a glass pane slicing a guy’s head off in The Omen (above). The actual Omen itself doesn’t come close; it’s quite laughably fake, actually.

In a land before VCRs and political correctness, these kinds of imagined fears were a great turn-on, the sublimated jouissance that was once focused around the threat of spankings, the sadomasochistic pulls of infantile sexual dread/desire. The myths of this age are the urban legends (the LSD babysitter microwave infant combo) and the R-rated horror movies. These films had a role in our lives, a giddy terror of inevitable initiation-style rites of pain and passage; they needed to seem terrifying, like a rollercoaster that sends an electric charge up your spine even while waiting in line. But once you rode it or saw the film, you were cool for life. The reality always turned out to be not scary or traumatizing after all; it was just a spook show.

The horror movies of today are less exhilarating due to the inescapable simulacrum of cable, Tivo, and DVD. Now we come away from the film not excited but traumatized. At the time you don’t experience fear, but then the tortures and sadism on display linger and circles in your head. What in 1970s was a rite of passage becomes merely a repetition-compulsion disorder.

Since VCRs have lowered the common horror denominator via the propitiation in the 1980s of slasher films and sleazy gore movies available to anyone with access to a credit card. [Erich: Previous sentence reads like a fragment. GM] It’s hard to remember that 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 (not just indicating sex but “mature themes”). These were films it was illegal to even think about as a child, making just the titles reverberate in the deep recesses of the mind. These films are ever adult, pulling no punches but also artistic; and thus they still carry the potent whiff of sexuality as a 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 postmodern “no tell” motels of 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 room, period). There are three levels of time passing in our filmic discussion: the span of time since Lolita was released, the span of time of the actual movie (2 ½ hours) and the time spanned in the movie’s mise en scene (as in “3 years later”). Kubrick in this case ingeniously unites all three. As the film progresses, it moves from shrill bedroom farce to tense Freudian scenes of insane jealousy; the film gets darker, moodier; the progression 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 into a sexual revolution, through the launch of the AIDS miasma and currently into a simulacrum fog.

In the 1970s we dreamt and schemed for the day 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, being in your own little world 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 now. I remember seeing two commercials back to back after not having seen any for a while 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 have, the forbidden drug from which it gets half its name that is “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 addiction but the rats liked it. Therefore it’s dangerous. They just don’t want us rats to have a good time, man! Or is it that, like our concerned parents, they want us to stop watching old movies and go outside and get some fresh air?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for keeping irresponsible people away from drugs, but the switcheroo presented by these two commercials is the rat pellet equivalent of forcing the rat’s hand on the lever while giving him an un-drugged pellet. If you’re feeling high off of drugs, why tell your doctor? Now he has to do something about it, the twin serpents on his profession’s fraternal emblem obligate him. The doctors hold the keys to the kingdom, dangling the precious pills above our heads like doggies being teased by their owners. If we pant and beg, no treat; we have to seem utterly disinterested. Thus displays of enjoyment are rendered dangerous unless completely faked.

This cycle of bait and switch is the feature selling point of Lolita as it revolves gradually from bucolic innocence and back again, Lo’s glasses and pregnant belly proving 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. Outlying these introductory points are the scenes in Quilty’s mansion, which begin and end 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 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 sex, 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 for a goodly time 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 of any orgy plans that might arise. Scandalous intellectuals-only satire, however, would only do for so long. Without the same amount of repression to work your lusting Wildean wit against, 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 sophisticatedly scandalous had become cartoonish. But even there, Kubrick was ahead of his time, for now we’ve come back again full circle.

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. We 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 sitting through their classes with them, arranging play dates as if working for the secret service (’90s). Yet nowadays you walk down the streets of middle America and 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 moms, who are doughy enough to make Shelley Winters look like Nico and don’t seem to even notice. 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! And let’s not forget the craftsmanship-suffocated Lolita remake by Adrian Lyne! As with everything they touch, the bourgeoisie keeps the sex and scuttles the myth, and first demonizes, then overvalues, that which was better off without their meddling.

What’s most altered our perception of Lolita’s “sexuality” is the tumbling down of the enforced moral code, which has eliminated altogether the “did they or didn’t they” question. As a code-breaker, Lolita really has a lot in common with Baby Doll, such as the way Quilty and Lolita exploit Humbert’s insane jealousy. In Baby Doll, Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach deliberately provoke and tease the simple-minded hick played by Karl Malden. Each self-diagnosed cuckold wants to “know for sure” what the code can never explicitly say. The code itself is then the metatextual source of anxiety, and thus the films themselves serve as a satiritical “self-fulfilling prophecy” of the moral crusader’s hysterical repression. We can imagine one lone dude in the theater who still thinks there’s a way to prove for sure they did or they didn’t that morning in the hotel room with the cot, or in the room with the crib in Baby Doll.

One of the ways the frustration builds is by simply changing the time of day when sex in the code occurs. It’s implicit in code-sanctioned romance that the sex happens in the fade-out between a kiss before bedtime at night and the following day — with no distinct demarcation of sleeping on a couch or in the other room. If the next scene shows the guy waking up on a couch, then they didn’t (unless she kisses him first thing as if they did before he went to sleep on the couch); if the next scene shows him at work already, then they did. The next time he sees her, he will kiss her with the familiarity of a lover. The actual sex is absent, and the length of the time elapsed in the fade-out can range from a few minutes to decades. Only when the filmmakers deliberately toy with these symbolic markers for the express purpose of beguilement do genuine subversion and satire finally occur. 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 flared up again and 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.

These primal mystery scenes in Lolita and Baby Doll are worth examining: in the latter, Eli Wallach takes a nap in Baby’s crib while she sings him to sleep — FADE. Lolita wakes up in the big hotel bed and sees Humbert on the cot and whispers in his ear — FADE. The “did they or didn’t they” ambiguity/clarity of the code is foiled in both cases, since the customary cut is — as I’ve mentioned — from the night to the next day or later that night. The trysts occur in the morning or afternoon. The ambiguity of it is allowed to drive the censor stand-ins Malden and Mason to a point of insanity.

Humbert functions both as stand-in and flawed subject, a victim of his own tight-lipped lechery in a way that prefigures us into his triangle (since he narrates). He wants us to sympathize with his insane jealousy, and we don’t, but we’re still involved in his prolonged scenes of suspicion; he thinks we’re riding with him the way we ride with Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, but we don’t, mainly because he’s a drag, a wet nurse, a smother lover. That sort of jealousy is always eventually a self-fulfilling prophecy, as is the code’s inherent fascist hysteria.

Luckily, picking up much more slack than he had in the book, Clare Quilty is on hand to represent full Bugs Bunny power, and Humbert becomes merely a jealous old dude. Only when Charlotte reads aloud from his diary do we get an inkling of the true evil wit he had in the book, and his grandiose fraud is exposed. Mason’s close-to-the-vest approach requires him to hang back, and so Sellers runs with the tangential riff ball, way beyond the touchdown line, out of the stadium, down the street. Similarly in Baby Doll, Eli Wallach, usually hamming it up as the “ugly,” here runs with the chance to be “smooth and seductive” with a natural ability to mix grotesque sexual symbolism and genuine compassion (he’s nice to the spinster aunt). He is able to access a child’s sense of play, of childhood games of hide and seek, etc., in other words to defer gratification of his desire via the sublimation into art. In this case Wallach seems to be method acting out the poetry of sublimation, by which he uses his attraction to Carroll Baker as fuel for his engines as he sinks deep into hypnotic Sicilian cobra mode.

We fall into his spell too, his easygoing ways with the spinster aunt, his professional respect for his own men; all interaction is symbiotic and quid pro quo with him, as it is undoubtedly with Quilty. In each film the stiff unbendable patriarchal authority figure collapses in his fight against the rival for his love’s affections. We saw this too in The Piano, where Harvey Keitel’s character has embraced Aborigine ways and adapted rather than losing his mind trying to act like Sam Neill; or the way Hawkeye goads Frank Burns in M*A*S*H., or Hannibal Lechter eats Dr. Chilton, or Ben Quick (Paul Newman) makes a sucker out of Will Varner’s lily-livered son Jody (James Franciosa) in The Long, Hot Summer.

The woman always goes for the trickster, because he cannot be shamed; he is too transparent, “clear” enough to be invisible except as a serious of roles each easily discarded for the next. The Frank Burns/Jody Varner type inevitably resorts to violence, for they presume their warped idea of dignity and ownership is an essential right, worth killing over; each feels justified in the use of firearms against the trickster who mocks him — and in the 1960s it was because the repressed guy was closeted, or abused, or a mélange of the two like in Bertolucci’s The Conformist. The trickster’s game involves exposing these straightedge characters for the damaged bullies they are, and thus their bedevilment is meant to expose their true nature as they can’t help but leap across the mess hall table and start strangling Donald Sutherland. But even here the trickster’s power is healing and transforming — his opponent’s straightedges have been rounded off against their will. Maybe now Burns will learn to smoke pot and lift weights in his garage, like American Beauty . . . or get a motorcycle like in Wild Hogs!

Quilty mocks Humbert from various disguises the way Bugs Bunny might outwit Elmer Fudd, changing accents, positions of authority, etc., but always going back to the same spiel, about how “great it must to be to be so normal all the time.” The normalcy advocated by Quilty, via a phony accent and identity (a cop at the convention), is that of Humbert who is in fact a sociopathic libertine feigning academic fustiness. Quilty, in his “normal guy” envy, behaves meanwhile openly as regards his loucheness but keeps a streak of genuine altruism and compassion hidden under the egomaniacal exterior. If we observe his eyes when he overhears the bellhop’s registering Humbert (“yes, just the girl and myself”), it’s not just wry amusement but genuine alarm and concern; Humbert is not to be trusted because he may have murdered Charlotte just to get Lolita alone. On the other hand, we trust Quilty: only true free spirits can dance in the Bugs Bunny/Shiva flame. The terror that overcomes Quilty in the opening scene is the realization that his mojo improv jive — which has bedeviled Humbert up to now — will no longer stick, as Humbert has shed his phony veneer that ensured he had no choice but to accept the phony veneer of another, and all that’s left is the sociopathically jealous lover. That must be the last Bugs Bunny cartoon, when Elmer finally stops falling for the “look behind you” gag and finally gets dat wabbit. Bang!