Directed Viewing: Culture Comedy and “Lolita”

Behind every movie is a multitude of people, but when the time comes for a movie to stand or fall, often it’s the director who takes the credit or blame. A director is more than just the person running the show, they are the one most often with the name on the poster or in the trailer right after the stars. Auteur theory exists because a single director often creates singular vision. It’s that vision, spread chronologically over the work of a single man, that spurred me to create Directed Viewing.

We’ve managed so far to dabble in the early work of Stanley Kubrick, which has had its ups and downs but for the most part showed a director rapidly growing in terms of mechanical strength, even if the various projects didn’t quite live up to his potential. But riding on the wild success of Spartacus, Kubrick exercised his newfound influence to make a movie that most people would balk at the very idea of. A movie that even if it were made today would cause a stir, and in the 60s was nigh unthinkable. Yeah, you know the one.

Lolita (1962)

I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in high school, on the advice of a friend, and had found the whole thing heady in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s a novel unlike any I’ve encountered, a wall of narration from the main character that is so all encompassing it lulls you, through ornate justification and obfuscation, through rapid jumps from memory into fantasy into a dreary sort of reality. It makes the abhorrent seem oh-so-normal, not because it’s okay but because it’s just a blip in an inner world that’s vibrant in so many other strange ways. It is, in a word, unadaptable.

But of course that’s not actually true, as it’s been adapted into film twice. Kubrick’s version even had the benefit of working off a screenplay by Nabokov himself, which Kubrick admittedly interpreted rather liberally in pursuing the filming of the unfilmable. Even the poster sells itself on the inherent ridiculousness of trying to create a movie about something that would even today inspire moral outrage among many people. So how did he do it?

Simple, he dumped out all the details, and turned what was left into a comedy.

Looking for images I found a bunch of these really amazing advertisement cards with scenes from the movie. Here, Humbert (Mason, left) confronts Quilty (Sellers, right) at the opening of the film.

The movie begins where the book ends, with Humbert Humbert (James Mason) walking into the dilapidated mansion of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) a man who has apparently done Humbert a great as-yet-unidentified wrong. Quilty, obviously drunk, barely lucid, and viciously mocking of Humbert’s puffed up indignance, ignores Humbert up until he pulls a gun. Humbert shoots Quilty, and the film begins.

Four years earlier, Humbert comes from Europe to Ramsdale, New Hampshire, where he’s going to spend the summer before taking on a teaching job. Searching for a room to stay in, he runs across a room being let by Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters), a widow with an overblown sense of sophistication and the hots for the exotically buttoned down Humbert. Humbert is immediately and justifiably horrified, ready to run out the door and not look back until he discovers Charlotte’s daughter Dolores (Sue Lyon), a precocious, flirty teenager.

Humbert in bed with Charlotte, doing his best to enjoy himself with a bedside picture of Lo.

We meet Lolita, as she’s called by everyone, lounging out in the yard in a bikini and sunglasses, somewhere between a pinup and the classical girl next door. Lolita is 14, too-wise already by taking after her mother’s desperate man-chasing, and flirty to the point of genuine alarm in our more predator-sensitive culture. Humbert, unaware of the blonde land mine he was about to step on, finds himself hopelessly in love.

Humbert moves in and begins a long, suffering courtship with Charlotte. In fact, most of his interactions with the people around him are marked by suffering. Ramsdale is suburban and droll, everyone chattering constantly in a race to see who can be more bohemian than the next person. All of the adults joke around and act openly sexual, at first shocking Humbert with their permissiveness but slowly beginning to rub off on him. If they’re all so free-wheeling, maybe his forbidden desires have a shot? Humbert, set in the ways of a world gone by, has little concept of just how shallow their affectations are, how cheap their conceptions of urbane mischievousness. These are plain people play-acting, nothing more.

Humbert suffering through a dance on Charlotte's arm. Sue Lyon's performance is hard to love, but beautifully annoying.

Humbert finds this out when Charlotte finally delivers him a letter professing her obvious feelings for him, a melodramatic proclamation of love that’s so overwrought Humbert laughs as he reads it. He decides to acquiesce, marrying her in order to maintain his distant, flirting relationship with Lolita. Charlotte, who seems on some level to understand that she’s competing with Lo for Humbert’s affections, sends her away to a summer camp without consulting Humbert.

He can only play off his depression as hurt at not being thought of as an equal parent for so long, and eventually Charlotte gets wise to his real reasons, discovering and reading his diary. In her horrified rush out of the house, while Humbert is busy trying to fix her a calming drink and apologizing profusely, she runs out into the street and is killed by a car. Humbert is stunned only until someone reminds him that he’s now the sole guardian of Lolita, and then he packs up shop and goes to ‘rescue’ her from her summer camp, telling her her mother is in the hospital recovering from an illness, and going on a country-spanning road trip as their relationship goes from flirting to dangerous realization.

Humbert mourning the death of his wife by taking a bath and having a drink. His neighbors excuse it as him being in shock.

It’s much of that relationship that receives the most cuts, as could be expected. In the novel Humbert is much more manipulative, and while their relationship isn’t explicit it certainly is out in the open. By comparison, the movie version dances around the issue with a censor-dodging cleverness that transforms what was an uncomfortable romance into an absurdly coquettish courtship.

By taking most of Humbert’s pedophilic agency away, Lolita suddenly gained all the power. It’s her who seduces Humbert, who manipulates him for money and adoration. Humbert comes across as a love-struct teenager, a man who never really knew the kind of burning, needy desire inherent to teenagers and who relives it through Lo. Lolita, on the other hand, seems more and more unimpressed with his abandon. This isn’t the smooth, dignified European who landed on their doorstep, this is just another boy like any other boy, and she knows how to handle boys. I’d hesitate to go so far as to call it empowering, but certainly Lolita holds most of the cards, even if she doesn’t quite know how to best use them.

The infamous introduction of Lolita. Humbert is instantly, visibly smitten.

Which is where Clare Quilty comes in. Quilty is a famous writer, who showed up early on in Ramsdale and was foremost in Charlotte’s bragging on how easily she could bed even the most famous men. Humbert, as he did with most everything Charlotte said, didn’t even notice. Nor did he notice the poster of Quilty in Lolita’s bedroom. But Quilty noticed when a man and a young girl he recognized fought over whether their room would have a cot at a hotel when their paths crossed. And, disguising himself and claiming he’s a cop, recognized Humbert for what he was: the same abhorrent scoundrel he was, just far less good at it.

So begins the latter half of the film, which in many ways is a low-key chase film. The audience knows Quilty is after them, recognizing him when he shows up in another disguise and a terrible German accent (one he would almost repeat exactly in Kubrick’s next film, Dr. Strangelove) to convince Humbert that Lolita was sexually repressed in order to get her away from him and into his own clutches in a play that Quilty (by name) was directing.

It’s a delicate thing, this play of egos. Humbert, quick to appear innocent, lets the rebellious Lolita go despite every instinct to the contrary. Lolita, slowly pulling away from Humbert, seems to know a good opportunity when she sees one. Sure, maybe she’s the one being used, but even then a trade-up opportunity might be good for her future. And Quilty, the one person who seems to have no scruples and glide through life because of it, ends up absconding with Lolita and getting everything he wants, until years later Humbert shows up at his mansion with a gun and some backbone, too late for anything other than bittersweet revenge.

And what of Lolita? The book and the novel both have her leaving Humbert with Quilty, only to appear several years later, finally out from under the thumb of any controlling older man, pregnant and married to a young man. She asks Humbert for help, referring to him as her father. He helps her, but leaves and never sees her again. The movie leaves her fate up for grabs, the book is far less lenient, having her die in childbirth. But in some ways it’s barely the coda to the story at all, for in all honesty this story is Humbert’s (or in the movie Quilty’s) and Lolita is just a catalyst for the disintegration that was waiting to take place.

Quilty in disguise as a school psychiatrist, adopting a ridiculous German accent he'd use as inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character.

I have to say that the first few times (this was my fourth viewing) I hated Lolita. It’s an adaptation bordering on directly opposing the book it is supposed to represent, a story that leaps into the direction of mocking what the book at least considered with a degree of compassion and nuance. The idea that this was all turned into a farce, some sort of mocking comedy not only about the situation but against the things that inspired it? I reacted poorly, and maybe not without reason. And not without reason.

Kubrick’s Lolitais a scathing endemic against people’s wall of pretentious, a lampooning of both the education middle class and the idea that somehow all those bourgeious pretenses are a sign of moral decay. The truth, at least how Kubrick was spinning it, was simply that most people ignored their convictions, and when they did act on them they did so poorly. Which is a fine story, but has very little to do with the book. The thing I discovered, finally, after throwing myself on the rocks of this seemingly insurmountable cliff, was that it didn’t really matter.

Lolita years after escaping Humbert, married and pregnant and happy in a rundown housewife sort of way.

Lolita is a bad adaptation, and it’s a film that’s nearly hamstrung from the get-go by the cultural standards of the time in which it was made, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. In fact, in it’s own way–with its smart sense of juxtaposition, its flare for the absurd, its careful understanding of how humans actually act (and more importantly how they react)–Lolita is a much stronger, smarter comedy than his next film, one that was actually billed as a comedy.

But I’m afraid that’s a story for next week.

About Matthew Marko

Writer, movie fiend, game enthusiast, and all around philosopher clown.
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