Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1962)

6. Lolita

Stanley Kubrick's films would attract a huge amount of controversy over his fifty year long career. “Spartacus” certainly was contentious, receiving protests from organization that deemed it to be Communist propaganda. Yet “Lolita” would prove to be Kubrick's first truly controversial movie. Vladimir Nabokov's novel is one of the 20th century's greatest literary works but it might also be one of the most polemical novels of the century too. The decision to bring the book to cinema screens, especially in the still young 1960s, must've seen especially inflammatory. “Lolita” was basically sold on that fact, with the tagline asking audiences how anyone could've dared to make the book into a film. We live in a less puritanical time now, making “Lolita” an interesting artifact: An adaptation of a still incendiary classic novel during a time when the basic premise was practically illegal to even discuss in a movie.

Humbert Humbert, a scholarly professor of French literature, travels to Ramsdale, New Hampshire to teach at the local college. He becomes a tenant at the home of Charlotte Haze, a middle-age widower. Charlotte doesn't know that Humbert is a hebephile, a man with a sexual attraction to girls in their early teen years. Charlotte's fourteen year old daughter, Lolita, immediately becomes Humbert's new obsession. He manipulates the mother, quickly marrying her, in order to get closer to the daughter. When Charlotte discovers this, she kills herself, giving Humbert unsupervised access to Lolita. Soon, the eager pervert realizes that the teen girl is not as innocent as she appears. And that he's not the only man interested in her.

Nabokov's “Lolita” is a difficult, multi-layered work that is still discussed and debated to this day. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is a classic example of an unreliable narrator. The literary Humbert often painted the picture of a willing, even conniving, Lolita. The first time someone reads “Lolita,” they might accept this treatment at face value. Multiple re-reads reveal a more complicated work, portraying a grown man manipulating and assaulting a twelve year old girl. Kubrick's film adaptation almost seems a simple reading of the source. This is still Humbert's story, showing an adult man carrying on a willing sexual relationship with his pre-teen stepdaughter, who often pulls his strings. One assumes that Kubrick didn't see “Lolita” as a quirky, albeit deeply unconventional and potentially disturbing, love story. Yet he didn't feel the need to incorporate much ambiguity into the finished film. This is a shockingly shallow adaptation of a very complicated story.

Of course, maybe this wasn't entirely Stanley Kubrick's fault. In the years after “Lolita” was made, the director admitted that he probably wouldn't have made the movie if he knew the strict censorship he'd face. The decency standards of 1962 prevent the director from frankly covering the material. Instead, Kubrick was forced to rely on suggestion and innuendo. There's a frequent winking naughtiness on display in “Lolita.” At Lo's school dance, a couple that are friends of her mother suggest they are swingers. The exact details of Charlotte and Claire Quitly's prior affair are obscured as a hushed whisper. Lolita also expounds on the naughty games she played at camp in a whisper to Humbert. The perverse sexuality existing under the film's suburban settings, revealed in Nabokov's book, can only exists as muted rustling in Kubrick's film.

However, if you're willing to dig beneath the surface a bit, “Lolita” can be read as a sly commentary about the way men abuse women. Humbert Humbert is a master manipulator. He clearly despises Charlotte Haze, finding her obnoxious and vulgar. He puts up with her only so he can get closer to her daughter. When he realizes Charlotte is attracted to him, he happily tricks her into thinking he reciprocates. Later, when Lolita braces against Humbert's rules, this aspect becomes clearer. Humbert is both obsessed with Lolita's nymphet purity and disgusted by her status as a sexual being. His attraction is seemingly based in contradictions, valuing the girl for her innocence but eager to sexualize her. Something our society is also guilty of, even back in the early sixties. So Humbert's personal hang-ups become a criticism of the culture at large. Assuming the director intended any of this.

Seemingly uncertain of what else to do, Kubrick makes his “Lolita” an outright farce at times. The film occasionally degrades into clumsy slapstick comedy. Such as in an out-of-place sequence where Humbert and an employee attempt to set up a cot in the hotel room, a few feet away from a sleeping Lo. The two stumble over a cot that refuses to unfold properly. It's a halting sequence, Kubrick proving that this level of slapstick is not necessarily his forte. There are other scenes built on similarly pedestrian antics. Such as Quiltly dressing up as a German psychologist or an embarrassing encounter between Humbert and a nosy next door neighbor. The film's lurches between travesty, polite comedy of manners, and salacious love story often leaves the audience with whiplash. 

In later interviews, Stanley Kubrick would say James Mason in “Lolita” gave one of the best performance he had ever seen. Kubrick was a fan of Mason before casting him, as he appears in several films by Kubrick's hero, Max Ophuls. Mason captures one aspect of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert brilliantly. Mason embodies the character as a pompous, erudite genius. We get a clear image of Humbert as someone overly confident in his own intelligence. Mason obviously has fun mocking stuffy intellectuals, playing Humbert as someone so stuck-up he can barely move. Yet this overlooks the inner complexity of the character. Once again, the film wasn't able to truly explore Humbert Humbert's erotic obsession with Dolores Haze and other nymphets. So Mason's character is an amusing caricature but lacking in more complexity.

Despite the limitations of the time, James Mason is still a pretty good Humbert Humbert. Yet a pretty good Humbert pales in comparison to the film's pitch perfect Lolita. Fourteen year old Sue Lyon was plucked out of obscurity to play the titular character. Except for being a few years older, Lyon is an accurate vision of the character as depicted in Nabokov's text. Lyon's Lolita has a coying sexuality, a young girl only just now becoming aware of her body and what it can do to men. Yet she's also a kid. Lo eats too much junk food, reads only comic books, and is frustrated by the lack of control in her own life. You can see what someone like Humbert would see in her while also glimpsing the reality of her being a fourteen year old child. Lyon's performance may strike some as slightly unpolished but this fits the role of a rowdy teenage girl, pulled apart by two different sexual predators.

There's one cast member in “Lolita” who overwhelms the material. Peter Sellers was a comedic performer beyond reproach and a great actor in general. Soon enough, Kubrick would bring him the perfect vehicle for his unique shenanigans. In “Lolita,” however, Sellers destroys every scene he's in. His Claire Quilty is a deeply off-putting character. Which makes sense on one level, since Quilty is an unrepentant sexual predator. Yet he's also a well respected writer, a local celebrity. It's hard to believe anyone this off-putting could ever reach that level of fame and respect. He's really annoying. When he tries to convince Humbert he's a police officer, Sellers' stuttering performance makes you deeply uncomfortable. Moreover, Sellers' attempts at broader comedy conflict badly with the film's general tone. Funny accents and one-sided ping-pong games probably don't belong in a film about a man statutory-raping his stepdaughter, even if it is a dark comedy.

If Stanley Kubrick's films had a re-occurring flaw, it's their length. Even “Spartacus,” a shockingly well paced film considering how long it was, ran into this problem. At two and a half hours long, “Lolita” definitely drags in spots. The build-up to Charlotte's death wares on the viewer. The last third condenses a long portion of Nabokov's book, devoted to Humbert and Lolita's road trip, into a sometimes laborious paced hour or so. One deviance from Nabokov's text especially drains the movie's pacing. The film begins in media ras, opening with Humbert's murder of Quitly. This is a mistake. The movie's robbed of an explosive climax, the ending feeling like a foregone conclusion. That the film tacks on a text wall, detailing Humbert's fate, also feels like a dismissive kick out the theater door.

“Lolita” feels like more of a Stanley Kubrick movie than “Spartacus” did. However, the Kubrick style mostly manifest in the somewhat chilly atmosphere. The camera often adopts a distant, far-off perspective, making the director feel more like a scientist dispassionately watching the bizarre sexual habits of the human race. Kubrick's trademark tracking shots are less flashy than in “Paths of Glory.” There's a fantastic shot, where the camera pans down from Charlotte's upstairs bedroom to Humbert in the kitchen. Another good moment involves the camera slowly tracking Humbert as orderlies march him out of a hospital. Yet the director's habits are more visible in how the film feels than in how it looks.

For all its polarizing aspects, one element of “Lolita” is universally beloved. The music is pretty great. Bob Harris' main theme, “Lolita Ya Ya,” captures the attitude of the titular character fantastically. It's a breezy upbeat piece of music, the lyrics made up of the mindless yammering of a young girl. It's exactly the kind of pop – catchy but meaningless – that would appeal to Dolores Haze. Fittingly, it would become a hit on the radio. The rest of the score is from Nelson Riddle and is a gorgeous, sweeping piece of instrumental music. The lush piano theme fits in with Humbert's self-aggravating ideals of romantic love. In fact, the music is so rich, so thematically broad, that it almost feels like a parody of romantic film music. This also fits the subversive world of “Lolita.”

Ultimately, “Lolita” is a compromised film. If Kubrick had made it only ten years later, he probably could have created a motion picture truly worthy of Nabokov's book. Or at least one that wouldn't have to back down from the unsightly union at the center of the story. Stuck in the early sixties, his hands were too often tied. The resulting film uncomfortably settles between a serious adaptation of the novel and a more farcical riff. The performances are usually excellent. The photography is solid, the music is great, and the film comes close to capturing the heart of the book. Yet the writing is often uncertain, resulting in a frustrating adaptation. [Grade: B-]

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