Maybe you know the Thurber up-dated version of Red Riding Hood. The little girl goes skipping down the path with her basket and the wolf comes out of nowhere. “Hello, little girl! Where are you off to with that basket? I’ll bet it’s full of goodies!”
The little girl reaches into her basket, pulls out a .45 and plugs the wolf dead. Moral: little girls aren’t what they used to be.
“Hard Candy” is a film that came from a news story in Japan that involved a girl who was attacked and hurt. Her friends formed a group, fooled the attacker into coming to an apartment, and beat him thoroughly. The man who heard this was a Hollywood producer who sketched out a version with only one girl, who plans pay-back for the murder of a friend. He took the story to a writer who developed it into a script. They chose a director and crew, found financing and cast the movie, which became a sensation.
Much of the reason the film was so powerful was the casting of Ellen Page as the girl. The story told is that over 300 girls were auditioned without finding the right person. Finally, they looked at a tape of what seemed to be a 12 year old boy with a buzz cut — except that she was a girl with an incredible facility with language. She was not a gamine, not a pixie, but almost an androgenous urchin. In the film she plans and executes a castration, plus other destruction, but there is little violence, no blood, and the worst stuff is off-camera, even the pornography this photographer has supposedly taken. We never see intimate body parts. But are never exactly sure what’s about to happen because the plot takes turn after turn.
It’s not a thriller or a horror show. The producer calls it a polemic. It balances on that knife edge in our culture between the demand for freedom to the point of death and a clever depiction of the fantasy approaching dementia that will makes us rich and admired. Then there is the poison thread of pedophilia, reversed, so that the adult man is the victim.
I only knew about this film because of the book called “Queer Children” by Kathryn Bond Stockton in which there is a discussion of “Lolita” as one type of exceptional child, a category that includes all kids who are pushed out to the edge whether because of trauma, color, disease, gifts, gender affiliation, or any other marker of not fitting the mold. Stockton uses the subtle but powerful theories of the constructivist and post-construction theorists who have become so influential in the academic world, providing a way of critiquing society with great grip and grit (when it’s not inscrutable). The idea here is that our society is afraid of its own children, even the standard predictable ones. Lolita is an example of how powerful a “little girl” can be.
There are two movie versions of "Lolita", which I’ve just rewatched. Lolita herself is the victim of a monster mother whose life is control, image, and vicious abuse of her daughter. Shelley Winters, in Kubrick’s version, adds utter stupidity and whiny, clinging obnoxiousness, but even Melanie Griffith in the later, kinder version is unappealing.
Nabokov himself wrote the script for the Kubrick film, which is much more of a traditional thriller which (unfortunately) Peter Sellers kidnaps. James Mason is a sinister, sweaty, conflicted figure but Jeremy Irons is a dreamboat, just a little out of control. In both versions Lolita is desperate to escape the banal life of post-WWII Middle America “Happy Families” but then falls back on exactly that: bills, babies, and a boob of a husband.
Each of these three stories uses the same triangle (mother-daughter-lover) in terms of the culture in which the film is made. The first is the sinister, excessive, noire cop show; the second is the romantic seduction comedy of 1997; the third has no explicit mother but a coldly competent father in the back story. The victim this time is ambiguous, both charming and guilt-ridden.
When I took a look at Netflix offerings this same triangle was everywhere in the movies. For instance,“Guinevere” is a film for teens with the Gorgon mother played by Jean Smart, vicious enough to give anyone chills. This girl, Sarah Poley, is nymph/dryad rather than pixie, nearly transparent. There are nude photos of her — the man is again a photographer but of weddings — super-closeups of bits and pieces.
The title of the movie has to be ironic, hard to justify. The photographer is the urchin. He survives by seducing young women -- just learning a lifework -- into doing his work for him, asking them each for a five year commitment which none fulfill. The storyline is rationalized by showing that the seduced girl grows and learns until she’s ready to leave. The photographer doesn’t oppose this. He’s a rueful, helpless man.
On reflection these films are not at all about “queer children” but about how demented our culture is when it comes to social patterns, and how twisted perfectly normal children can become when they are treated abusively. The assumptions about gender identity and desire — what age, what protection, how much sexualized, what sex has to do with survival, how much everything is dominated by appearances — in particular within families — are all for the good of the merchandizing majority and very little to do with the integrity and abilities of children.
They say that at the end of his life Carl Sandburg was reading “Lolita,” and there is a charming bit of video about he and Marilyn Monroe together, visiting, goofing off, and doing Sandburg’s daily exercises with a palpable empathy between the two of them, though they are hardly alone.
The culture says “sex” and the individuals say “love.” But the balance keeps getting skewed by fame and money. I would like to see this triangle illustrated in a same-gender context, with or without the sex element. In some of the more public versions of this. Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff or St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé come to mind. In both of these the younger is the gifted one and the older man is the stabilizer and protector.
I suppose that there’s no way to keep a culture from forming strong templates for how people ought to relate, but it is one of the bitterest accusations against religion that it creates hypocrisy and emotional torture. The call for freedom to create attachments comes up against two powerful opponents, one the socially sponsored criminalization of situations that damage the vulnerable, and the other the biological forces we carry in the genetics of our fleshly development. Lolita is called back to conventionality, husband and child in a home she maintains.
One wonders what the vengeful girl in “Hard Candy” is going to be like at thirty. Probably running a film studio. As for "Guinevere," I predict she will marry a woman and become a UU minister. Or an astronaut. Or a novelist. Whatever is trendy.