Kubrick’s 1961 Lolita is the First 70s Movie

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The other day I read a rambling but entertaining essay over on Bright Lights Film Journal, called All Tomorrow’s Playground Narratives, which analyzed Kubrick’s Lolita in terms of — well, approximately anything that occurred to the guy, it would seem.

But it contained some memorable quotes, like “Lolita sits at the tape mark on a moebius strip of time dealing with our national obsession for nymphets,” and one really great passage claiming that Lolita was “really the first 70s movie”:

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.

It’s full of great passages like that, though I can’t honestly say it seems to add up to much. (It even contains what appear to be undeleted editorial notes!) But he also makes an interesting link between James Mason’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid Humbert Humbert with his earlier portrayal of an increasingly-manic cortisone fiend in the hard-to-find Bigger Than Life (1956). Now I really want to see that movie. The full essay is here.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →