Stanley Kubrick had never directed a comedy when he adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita for the screen, but its farcical mechanics gave expression to a budding worldview. Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, presents himself as the consummate litterateur—a dandy whose attraction to underage girls is a matter of nonconformist élan. But, for all his preening, the character was born of a baboon: Nabokov was inspired by an ape in captivity that sketched the bars of its own cage.
Author: Elliott Feedore
Last year, the modern blockbuster celebrated its 40th anniversary. Following the success of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, the Hollywood system once again smelled blood in the water. Two years later, it went in for the kill. The phenomenal returns for George Lucas’s STAR WARS (1977) made JAWS look like a guppy, and changed the media landscape forever. Q.E.D. But the legacy of STAR WARS, and the commercial resilience of the tent pole JAWS had raised, were cemented a few months later by Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: an obvious counterpart to Lucas’s film, but a different reaction to the same bloodied water.
M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.
Genre revisionism in these post-Tarantino days is about as close as you can get to armchair activism without having a Facebook account. It wasn’t always this way. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, reverse engineering the symbolism in a genre film meant subverting the expectations that decades of studio programming had groomed. It meant unpacking the myths that were sold to the “masses” – who were rather falsely assumed to have swallowed the illusions whole. Audiences may not have believed the myths, but they enjoyed the comfortably structured fantasies and accepted them, and to the counterculture who saw that acceptance culminate in racism and violence, this was a dangerous delusion. Genres were stand-ins for conventionalism, which was itself a stand-in for authority – albeit one that seems quaint and almost benign in retrospect. The remedy, it was believed, was to respond in the same language – with Westerns featuring cowboys as mercenaries (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) or as butchers of Indians (LITTLE BIG MAN) or gangster films about criminals who were less objectionable than the authorities they fled from (BONNIE AND CLYDE). These winks of subversion would later fall under the umbrella of “culture jamming.” But the sad truth of the matter – from a political though not an aesthetic point of view – is that disrupting people’s fantasy lives is not always the same as changing their behavior.