Sunday, July 21, 2013
(June 1962, U.S.)
Well, folks, here it is again...any opportunity I get to discuss one of Stanley Kubrick's films is always a good one. This story, based on the original classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov, of a middle-aged professor who becomes completely obsessed with a teenage girl, is one that by today's audience standards of what is considered shocking and immoral in film would require a great degree of imagination and appreciation of the time and era when such a story's content would be shown on the big screen to the seemingly innocent public. Look carefully at the movie poster's caption of "How did they ever make a movie of LOLITA?" and try to understand how incredibly risky and dangerous it must have been to attempt to bring such a subject matter out in the open like this. And yet, Nabokov crafts the screenplay of his own work to convey it's hidden deeper message of such a forbidden sexual obsession and fantasy without forgetting that this was the year 1962 and their was (still) only so far Hollywood was willing to go with cinematic decency and moral codes. Due to the MPAA's restrictions at the time, the film has greatly toned down the more provocative aspects of the novel, sometimes leaving much to the audience's imagination and whatever intelligence they possessed. The actress who played Lolita, Sue Lyon, was, after all, only fourteen at the time of filming. Interestingly, Kubrick later commented that, had he realized how severe the censorship limitations were going to be, he probably never would have made the film. That would have been too bad, to say the least.
The movie begins with the murder of Clare Quilty (played brilliantly by Peter Sellers) by the hands of Humbert Humbert, a forty-something British professor of French literature (played by James Mason). We immediately learn that Humbert has been greatly wronged by Quilty in some manner and that it somehow involves a girl called Delores Hays, aka Lolita. We as the viewer are not meant to know the what or the why yet, so we're taken back four years in a flashback that will tell the story of how things came to this point. When we first meet Humbert in the flashback tale, we immediately wonder (or perhaps it's just me?) just what the hell he's really doing in America because our first impression of him is that he has a general distaste for American culture and the rather low class character of American people. You almost can't blame the guy's attitude when one of the first people he encounters in Ramsdale, New Hampshire is Charlotte Haze (played by the always irritating Shelley Winters), an overweight, sexually frustrated widow, who invites him to rent out a room in her house for the summer. He declines until seeing her daughter, Lolita, a soda-pop drinking, gum-snapping, overtly flirtatious teenager ( or nymphet, as Nabokov refers to her), with whom Humbert falls in love. Love? Seriously? Pardon my French, but a middle-aged man thinking with his dick in the quest of teenage pussy is hardly what I'd call LOVE!). Anyway, right there and then, Humbert accepts lodging in the Haze household just in order to get closer to Lolita. But ever-annoying Charlotte wants all of "Hum's" time for herself and soon announces she'll be sending Lolita to an all-girl sleepaway camp for the summer. After the Hazes' depart for camp, Humbert is given a letter written by Charlotte in which she confesses her love for him and demands that he vacate her house at once unless he feels the same for her. The letter says that if Humbert is still in the house when she returns, Charlotte will know her love is requited, and he must marry her. This is one of the most amusing sequences of the film because even as he reads aloud these heartfelt words of love and devotion that any other man just might be genuinely flattered by, he instead roars with laughter at the sadly tender, yet characteristically overblown letter by an American woman of such low class that he's clearly come to despise. Nevertheless, he marries her for the same reason he previously moved in. Things inevitably turn sour for the couple in the absence of the lovely nymphet. Humbert becomes more withdrawn, and brassy Charlotte more a lot more whiny. She soon discovers Humbert's secret diary entries detailing his sexual passion for Lolita and characterizing Charlotte as "the Haze woman, the cow, the obnoxious mama, the brainless baba". She has an hysterical outburst, runs outside, is hit by a car and dies. This, by all storytelling purposes, is the end of Act One. Act Two in which the dirty old man can freely pursue his teenage pussy is about to begin!
Act Two becomes, by today's standards, is something of a road movie. Humbert and Lolita drive across country toward their final destination of Beardsley College, Ohio where Humbert will soon begin teaching. An overnight at a large hotel is the first time it's suggested that the two of them are finally going to come together sexually when Lolita innocently seduces him as he lies awake on a hotel cot. This hotel sequence is also the first time we get a true sense of who Clare Quilty really is and what he intends to do to screw with Humbert's mind. It immediately becomes clear to him just what's going on between Humbert and Lolita and he has every intention of having a great deal of fun with it. It begins with him pretending to be a rather nervous member of the police force who enjoys repeating the word "normal" a lot and making his ever-threatening presence known to Humbert to arouse his nerves and his fears. Later, his portrayal of a German high school psychologist is used to further agitate Humbert, but I'll go deeper into that very shortly. By the time Lolita and Humbert have settled into a daily routine of school and work, the two of them may as well be just as American as any other bickering married couple. Humbert's obsession for Lolita is only flanked by his enraged jealousy over her association with boys her own age in malt shops, house parties and school plays.
Having mentioned the school play now, let's get back to Peter Sellers' portrayal of a German high school psychologist with an incredibly thick (and fake) German accent who goes by the name of Dr. Zemf. Take a look at what he looks like and you can immediately appreciate why Kubrick would later use Sellers again to play multiple roles in the classic DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)...
The initial purpose of such an elaborate disguise is only to get Humbert to allow Lolita to participate in the school play, but it's deeper intentions are that Quilty is clearly enjoying fucking with Humbert's mind and his sanity. This is just a game to him and one he thoroughly enjoys playing. Humbert, a man who started out as calm and dignified, is slowly being driven mad by obsession, jealousy, and the ongoing fear of being caught by law enforcement for his very illegal and immoral relationship with Lolita. Before we know it, the two of them are on the road again. It isn't until the end of their trip when we learn that Lolita has not only been a temptress, but a scheming and conniving little bitch who used Humbert for her own purposes until she could break away from him and end up with Clare Quilty, whom she later describes as "the only man I was ever really crazy about". By the film's end, though, she's married, pregnant and in her own way, repenting for the sins of her very young past. Humbert, on the other hand, is a broken man whose only option left in life is to drive to Clare Quilty's house and murder him.
And that, my friends, is how we got to where we got to!
Before I conclude, though, there are two particular sequences, or shots actually, that I'd like to call your attention to because I find a great deal to appreciate as you study them carefully. The first is when Humbert and Charlotte are in bed together as husband and wife and she's just announced to him that she intends to send Lolita away to boarding school immediately following summer camp, which initially means that Humbert will likely never get the opportunity to get his hands on Lolita. As the two of them are embraced in each others arms in the bed as he listens to her announcement, we can't help but notice Charlotte's gun resting on the bedside table in the foreground of the picture. Not once does Humbert actually look at the gun, but it's impossible for the viewer not to. In an instant we know just how Humbert must feel upon hearing this awful and deal-breaking news and how much he'd really love to get out of this mess he's created for himself. Add to the fact that Charlotte Hays is just about the most annoying creature on this planet, and our empathy for his predicament becomes very clear. The fat, annoying cow should she! She must die! Well, as it turns out, she does die. The second shot is when Humbert is standing at the front desk of the first hotel he and Lolita stop at. As he's nervously making the arrangements for his sleeping accommodations with the girl he's publically calling his "daughter", we can't help but stare at the large wall-hung banner in the background that announces a hotel convention for police officers. Humbert never sees the sign and doesn't know about the convention (until he's later told). We as the viewer know full well what his immoral sexual intentions are towards this girl and the dangerous irony of the hotel convention becomes clear to us. Humbert may be a dirty old man, but we've likely come to consider him the hero of the story, nonetheless. Do we want him to get caught? Do we want him to get away with what he's been doing? Do we want he and Lolita to triumph under the so-called laws and attractions of true love? Perhaps only Vladimir Nabokov knew the real answer to that question. I confess that I never read the book.
In 1998, the Showtime cable network aired an updated version of LOLITA directed by Adrian Lyne (FATAL ATTRACTION) which was supposed to be a more faithful version of the original novel. I didn't get Showtime so I asked the girl I was dating at the time, who did get Showtime, to tape it for me. I've only seen it once to date, and that was fifteen years ago, but the memory I have was that I was not too impressed. Faithful story or not, there seemed to be much less mystery and intrigue as compared to the Kubrick vision. By 1998, the promise was very likely that we would experience more forbidden sexual content than anything likely shown to audiences in the still innocent age of 1962. Sex may be great on film, but in my opinion, unless it's just straightforward pornography, it doesn't necessarily make a film's story content any better.
Bravo Kubrick! You're still the champ in my book!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Clare Quilty as Dr. Zemf (with a thick German accent): "Dr. Humbardz, vould you mind if I am putting to you ze blunt qvestion?"
Humbert: "No. By all means. Do so."
Dr. Zemf: "Vee are vondering, has, uh, anybody, uh, instructed Lolita in ze facts of life?"
Humbert: "The facts...?"
Dr. Zemf: "Ze facts of life. You see, Lolita is a sveet little child, but ze onset of maturity seems to be giving her a certain amount of trouble."
Humbert: "I really don't think this is a fit topic..."
Dr. Zemf: "Vell, Dr. Humbardz, to you she's still ze little girl what is cradled in ze arms. But to dose boys over dere at, uh, Beardsley High, mmmm, she is a lovely girl, you know, vith ze sving that she has a temperature zat zey take a lot of notice of. You and I, what I mean, ve are ze symbols of power sitting in our offices dere, we are making ze signatures, writing ze contracts and ze decisions all ze time. But if we cast our minds back, just think, what were we only yesterday? Yesterday, Dr. Humbardz, you and I were high school chains and we vere carrying little high school chains' school books. You remember dose days, ah?"
Humbert: "Uh, in point of fact, Dr. Zemf, I am a lecturer in French literature."
Dr. Zemf: "I have, uh, not made my point quite clear. I have some ozzer details vhich I vould like to put to you, Dr. Humbardz. Here...she is defiant an' rude. Sighs a good deal in ze class. She sighs, makes ze sound of ze...hehhh. Chews gum verimently. All ze time is chewing zis gum. Handles books gracefully. Zis is alright, doesn't do any matter. Voice is pleasant. A little dreamy. Concentration is poor. She...she looks at ze book for a while and zen she gets, eh, fed up wiz it. Has private jokes of her own which no one understands so we can't enjoy zem wit her. She either has exceptional control or she has no control at all. Ve cannot decide vhich. Added to dat, jus' yesterday, Dr. Humbardz, she wrote a most obscene word wit' ze lipstick, if you please, on ze health pamphlets. So in our opinion, she is suffering from acute repression of ze libido, of ze natural instincts!"
And as Dr. Zemf goes on an on and on, you can clearly see the tension and the fear in Humbert's face. You can sense that James Mason must be doing his absolute best in trying to control himself and not burst into laughter from having to sit there and play straight face to Peter Seller's outrageous comic genius!