Thursday, December 14, 2017

Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962) revisited

La ronde

(WARNING: Plot and narrative twists discussed in close detail

Credit where credit is due: was invited to listen to a podcast on Kubrick's film Lolita (which I'd written about some weeks ago) and while I disagreed with most of the conclusions reached the discussion did set me to thinking more on the film--leading to this, an attempt at elaboration and clarification.

Mention the film's title or the Vladimir Nabokov novel it was adapted from and people immediately think of middle-aged men chasing prepubescent girls; the name was enshrined in hardbound form in The Lolita Complex--a collection of cases about young girls seducing older men presented as a serious psychological study (actually fake, the author Russell Trainer--who could've stepped straight out of a Nabokov novel--being something of a con artist). When the book was translated into Japanese the title--shortened to 'lolicon'--was adopted to refer to a whole genre of anime and manga depicting attraction to young girls, not to mention the strange sad men who obsess over them.

I've found one serious piece on Nabokov's novel. Not a peer-reviewed research paper but an article by a psychology professor (Psychology Today, for the record)--and it discusses Humbert's narcissism not his pedophilia (or hebephilia, depending on the age of the youth involved). 

Unless someone can produce such a study (not saying it doesn't exist but there's nothing readily available through Google) I suspect Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is meant to be more of a literary construct (think Russell Trainer, only brilliant) than a serious psychological or psychiatric subject, the pedophilia (or hebephilia) in Lolita more a MacGuffin diverting attention away from the author's true purpose: to "fix once for all the perilous magic of" obsession.

The book hews closely to Humbert's point of view; many of Nabokov's effects are a result of this conceit--the long ramblings the baroque prose, the generously scattered hints and clues that the narrating 'madman' (more in a literary than psychological sense) suffers from an unreliable memory or is lying outrageously (Now where have we seen that before hm?). How is Kubrick to translate this kind of tricky narrative to the big screen?

Answer's simple as in Luis Bunuel simple: shoot the weird stuff let the meanings take care of themselves. As Thomas Allen Nelson notes in his essay Humbert (James Mason) walking into Clare Quilty's mansion revolver in hand is the equivalent of an avenger of normal society (as we learn later, Humbert belatedly assumed this role) straying into the hell of Nabokovian comedy--much of the the opening sequence's humor comes from Humbert insisting on the seriousness of the situation while Quilty (Peter Sellers) defies him with one lighter-than-air improv after another. 

After Humbert leaves Quilty slumped behind a bullet-riddled Thomas Gainsboroughlike portrait (actually of Frances Puleston, by Gainsborough contemporary George Romney) the story rewinds four years to find our 'hero' arriving at the house of widowed Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters)--ostensibly a respectably 'normal' household but (we soon learn) every bit as turbulent a physical and emotional playground as Quilty's Gothic mansion.   

And of course there's Dolores Haze or 'Lolita' (Sue Lyon) as Humbert nicknames her, dressed in a bikini haloed with a feathered hat sunning on a backyard blanket. Kubrick cast Lyon when she was thirteen filmed her when she was fifteen; actual age is  immaterial--Dominique Swain was roughly as old as Lyon in the ridiculously solemn 1997 version. Point is Lyons dressed spoke acted like a teenager, sixteen perhaps, and some have complained that Kubrick was trying to pass off an older girl as Humbert's object of desire. 

I don't buy it. Twelve-year-olds have been known to dress and make themselves up to look fourteen or older--not a big fan of Pauline Kael overall but when she said the film wasn't being evasive but accurate I agree; if anything the trend has worsened over the years. 

If Quilty's mansion echoes Charlotte's house the figure of Humbert echoes Charlotte--both pine for their respective objects of desire (Dolores, Humbert) said objects in return barely acknowledging their existence. The echoes bounce back and forth in time--we learn that Charlotte married early to a man twenty years her senior (the portrait of Mr. Haze sitting in her bedroom looks suspiciously like Nabokov); we learn Dolores is in love not with Humbert but Quilty--Humbert's mirror-image, playfully nipping his heels at every turn. 

Could Dolores Charlotte Clare all be variations on Humbert? Nabokov's Humbert holds sway over all, his voice and sensibility dictating who should appear in the novel how often and in what role: Quilty the shadowy menace Charlotte the monstrous virago Dolores the collection of ankles knees elbows braces, surrounded by a golden haze. What binds them together like a sadomasochistic daisy chain are their asymmetrically linked desires.

Kubrick at the time (I submit) wasn't up to capturing the feast of lush detail Nabokov-as-Humbert offered in the novel so the first-person POV (with the exception of passages read in voiceover from the diary) was the first thing tossed out the window. Instead of a possibly mad probably unreliable narrator Kubrick offers us a more subdued more conventionally handsome Humbert, Nabokov's more outrageous flavors funneled into the more prominent Quilty. And if Kubrick through staging framing cutting suggests Quilty's role is to play shadow, why that (in turn) plays into Nabokov's conceit of a world seen exclusively through our hero's eyes--only this is a solid (chunky, even) demonstrably independent incarnation of Humbert's self, given to wordplay, paranoia-inducing paradoxes ("I'm not with someone I'm with you"), inventive non-sequiturs, not to mention accents impersonations parodies (a mirror image that even mirrors others).
I've suggested that Kubrick and Winters retooled Charlotte to be more sympathetic (Nabokov's mater Haze comes across like a harpy) and that the change is consequential: when Humbert finally catches up with Dolores after a two-year separation (she had run away with Quilty) he finds her married and pregnant and looking uncannily like Charlotte. The force of the epiphany plus Dolores' stubborn refusal to come away with him reduces the sorely tried stepfather (and ex-lover) to tears. 

And we pity Humbert. Well we try--we pity him in Nabokov's novel and if you've read the book you're primed to pity him here. But you don't; Mason is sobbing and heaving for all he's worth while Bob Harris' lush piano score is heard in the background--only the piano bangs away too loud and Lyon's Dolores natters endlessly maddeningly ("Let's keep in touch okay?"). Kubrick for a final gag leaves us yet another echo, of Dolores parodying Clare Quilty, driving Humbert away not with inspired silliness but with invincible banality (Lyons is a limited actress to put it mildly but here her inborn callowness is a strident success). 

Quilty may have tossed Dolores aside like a used napkin but the girl not only survived she's found contentment however meager and even some measure of happiness in her oblivious husband (Gary Cockrell). She doesn't need Humbert--never did--and this realization destroys him. Nabokov in the novel granted Humbert some measure of sympathy; Kubrick doesn't even give the man the mercy of a dignified exit (to paraphrase from another great black-and-white film Humbert got his comeuppance: "He got it three times filled and running over."). All that's left for the desolate lover is the mansion, the revolver, and Quilty--and we all know how that turns out. 

First published in Businessworld 12.8.17

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