Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Erich Kuersten: All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives -- Stanley Kubrick's Lolita

All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives: Stanley Kubrick's Lolita
by Erich Kuersten
Bright Lights Film Journal

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.

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