Two Views of Lolita
Some Kubrick films could be said to be over-represented on the Kubrick site while others are under-represented. 'Lolita' (1962) is one of Kubrick's less discussed films; sandwiched between the box office triumph of 'Spartacus' (1960) and the critical triumph of 'Dr. Strangelove' (1964), it is largely regarded as a failure, not just because the constraints of the MPAA Production Code meant that Kubrick was unable to dramatise the novel's erotic elements, but also because Kubrick is seen as not being able to find an adequate cinematic equivalent of Nabokov's wit and dazzling literary style. Here are two views of 'Lolita', which articulate well the arguements that constitue the critical opinions commonly expressed about the film. The first is by Robert Stam, from whose excellent study of reflexivity the excerpt is taken. Stam defines reflexivity in film as: subverting the notion that art as a transparent 'window on the world.' Reflexive films are 'self conscious' in that they foreground the specific means of their filmic production, for example the inclusion by Kubrick of the record of '2001: A Space Odyssey' in 'A Clockwork Orange' is a reflexive strategy. Stam uses the notion of reflexive film to convincingly critique 'Lolita'. The second excerpt is by Thomas Allen Nelson, who mounts a robust defence of the film. Nelson's book 'Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze' is probably the best critical study of Kubrick's films published (along with Michel Ciment's 'Kubrick'), and should be an essential read for every fan. Nelson's opinion of 'Lolita' is more sympathetic and generous than Stam's. In a close analysis of the film, he finds points of interest that other critics have missed, mainly because they have been unable to look beyond the imposing edifice of Nabakov's novel, and view the film as an artwork in its own right.
Lolita and Reflexivity
by Robert Stam
Excerpt taken from the book: Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean Luc Godard, Robert Stam, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, pp 159 - 164. All Rights Reserved
Reflexive films have often been "bad objects" for critics, who resent their sabotaging of the conventional pleasures of illusion and identification. It is surely no accident that Woody Allens most widely despised film [Stardust Memories] is also his most self-conscious and avant-gardist. The critics complained that "the characters do not come alive" and "the big scenes never take off," apparently failing to notice that the film is consciously built on a principle of systematic interruption familiar from the self-conscious tradition. It is only because of the differential expectations applied to literature and the cinema that the disruptive techniques lauded in prose fiction are rejected as hostile and self-indulgent in film. Modernist and reflexive strategies, accepted in literature, remain, at least for the mainstream of journalistic critics, anathema in the cinema.
Many of the cinematic adaptations of self-conscious novels, including the more successful ones, often flounder on precisely this point. While they incorporate certain reflexive devices, they do not metalinguistically dissect their own practice or include critical discourse within the text itself. The mainstream fiction films relative impermeability to reflexivity explains the partial failure of Stanley Kubricks adaptation of Lolita (1962). While the novel constantly flaunts its own status as linguistic artifact, the film is largely cast in the illusionistic mould, presenting rounded characters in plausible settings through a self-effacing style. While the book is a veritable palimpsest of parodiesof Proust, Poe, Dostoyevsky, SadeKubrick opted to downplay style in a text in which style is of the essence. The film is intermittently parodicthe homage to Chaplins tussle with a bed in One A.M., the allusion to Kubricks own Spartacus, the disorienting direct cut to The Curse of Frankensteinbut never so consistently or effectively as the novel. Most of the Nabokovian wit is displaced onto Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, for Sellers shape-shifting capacity to mimic personages as diverse as Gabby Hayes and T.S. Eliot makes him an ambulatory intertext, a body of quotations whose very modus operandi is parodic in the best Nabokovian sense.
Nabokovs screenplay, of which Kubrick used but a small portion, is rather more audacious, although Nabokov himself recognizes in its preface that the "authors goal of infinite fidelity" may be a "producers ruin." The screenplay includes a cameo role for Nabokov himself, a Hitchcockian touch that recalls his guest appearance in his own Despair, and which would have constituted the filmic equivalent of his anagrammatic presence in Lolita as Vivian Darkbloom. The Nabokov screenplay also expands the role of the pedantic D. John Ray, developing a constant interplay between Ray presenting Humberts notes and Humbert presenting himself. The screenplay is more prone to interruption and dedramatization. Charlottes fateful car crash is treated less dramatically, for example, by means of a quick cut to traffic policemen examining diagrams of the accident, a narrative dislocation which visually translates the nonchalantly perverse syntax of Humberts account of his wifes death.
Lolita is, among other things, a fine work of film and literary criticism. But Kubrick fails to exploit the cinematic references (lovingly inventoried by Alfred Appel, Jr. in Nabokovs Dark Cinema) in the novel; the envy of cinemas "fantastic simultaneousness"; the description of Humbert himself as a "handsome hunk of movie and manhood" or Charlotte as a "weak solution of Marlene Dietrich"; the advice proffered to any future filmic translator of his work ("If you want to make a movie of my book, have one of those faces gently melt into my own, while I look"); and the incisive discussions of Lolitas generic tastes. Indeed, Nabokov shows himself to be a brilliant genre critic. He artfully details the formulaic visuals of westerns: "the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the slivered windowpane, the stupendous fistfight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife He describes musicals, meanwhile, as a "grief-proof sphere of existence where from death and truth were banned" and "underworlders" as fostering a "robust atmosphere of incompetent marksmanship."
While Nabokov constantly highlights the verbal factitiousness of his text, Kubrick finds no filmic equivalent for this device. While the novel frequently violates the readers expectations, the film rarely does. The novel consistently disorients its reader, especially as to the degree of "sincerity" of the text, while the film almost never does (the sudden cut to the drive-in horror film constituting a rare exception). While the novel systematically develops contradictions between what is being related (for example, Charlottes death) and the tone and style in which it is being related, the film is, in the main, stylistically homogenous. While the novel conveys eroticism through hilarious indirection, applying sexual language to non-sexual events and vice versa, the film conveys eroticism largely through love scenes (as explicit as censorship would then allow), through point-of-view editing, and through shots of characters whispering ("Did I do that!" Quilty responds to Charlottes whispered insinuations). In short, Kubrick substitutes three-dimensional illusionism and stylistic continuity for the recklessly flamboyant virtuoso anti-illusionism of the book. One almost wishes that a later Kubrick, the Kubrick of Strangelove and especially of Clockwork Orange, might take another try at Nabokovs novel.
Kubrick in Nabokovland
by Thomas Allen Nelson
Excerpt taken from the book: Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze, Thomas Allen Nelson, Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2000, pp 60 - 81. All Rights Reserved
The Lolita project began in earnest during the early months of 1960. The previous summer, Harris and Kubrick had asked Nabokov to come to Hollywood and write the script. Nabokov refused, but after a "small nocturnal illumination" later that year and another request from Harris-Kubrick, he accepted the job. On March 1, 1960, Nabokov met with Kubrick for the first time at Universal City (where Kubrick still was working on Spartacus), and under the jacarandas of Hollywood, he worked for six months on the Lolita script. By midsummner, Nabokov handed Kubrick a 400-page screenplay that included unused material from the manuscript of the original novel. Kubrick asked for a shorter version. In September, Nabokov submitted a script half as long as his first one. Two years later (June 1962), Nabokov saw the film at the New York City premiere, and afterward, in a Playboy interview (January 1964), he expressed his admiration for it, while taking no credit for the excellence of its acting or production. One bit of confusion arises, however, when Nabokovs comments in 1964 are compared with those in the 1973 foreword to his published screenplay of Lolita. In the earlier interview, he said that his only involvement with the film was the script, a "preponderating portion of which was used by Kubrick," while later he recalled that his first response to the film was "that Kubrick was a great director, that his Lolita as a first-rate film with magnificent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used." In the Playboy interview, Nabokov very graciously concluded that Kubricks cinematic approach to he novel was merely different from his own, while recognizing the unique demands, both artistic and those of the Production Code, placed on Kubrick by his medium (1). Regrettably, later critics have been less understanding about Kubricks considerable achievement in adapting to film one of the most difficult and brilliant novels of the twentieth century. Alfred Appel, Jr., for one, claimed that Kubrick used only twenty percent of Nabokovs submitted screenplay and, through innuendo more than argument deprecated the film. Rather than considering the film an adaptation and transformation of both the novel and the screenplayand seeing them as sources of stimulation to Kubricks creative interestsAppel (as do others) looked at the film through his vision of the novel and proposed scenarios for what it should have done. Nabokovs comments, on the other hand, indicate that he clearly perceived Kubricks talent (and the talents of the cast) and his rightful assumption of artistic license.
An examination of Nabokovs published screenplay (1974) reveals three very important factors: the screenplay includes scenes from the 400-page version that were deleted from the shorter version Kubrick accepted; in its overall structure, the film uses considerably more than twenty percent of the final 1960 script; and Kubrick created several visual and verbal translations of effects suggested in the Nabokov script, which is more theatrical and poetic than cinematic. For Nabokov, adapting Lolita to the "speaking screen," as he calls it, involved the staging of a complex network of verbal revelations punctuated by an occasionally obtrusive camera. Nabokovs cinematic ideassome of which probably interested Kubrickwould, if strictly followed, have announced an authorial film presence in tones louder than Kubrick preferred. The screenplays description of camera movements in the first scene illustrates this point: Nabokov has the camera gliding around and through Quiltys mansion like a theatrical invader (it "locates the drug addicts implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws"), which he probably visualized as an equivalent for the many assertions in the novel of his ironic presence as counterpoint to the distortions of a first-person unreliable narration. If Kubrick had adopted such a strategy, his Lolita would have pleased those critics who felt that the baroque stylizations of an Orson Welles provided the best model for a cinematic translation of Nabokovs prose style. But if my consideration of his earlier films has revealed anything, it is that Kubrick manipulated cinematic point of view in ways that are far more covert (but not necessarily any more complex) than Nabokovs. Ironically, in the hands of an expressionist such as Welles or even Sternberg, the subtle and intricate style of the novel might have been transformed in the film into the kind of cloying and pretentious seriousness that Nabokov disparaged throughout his life. Kubricks version, instead, strives to find its own expression for both the subtlety and the playfulness of the novel. And it should not be forgotten that Lolita represents Kubricks first effort at adapting to film the novelistic convention of the unreliable first-person narrator, an understanding of which will illuminate the narrational ironies of A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, two other films based on novels that confuse point of view in much the same way that Lolita does.
For Kubrick, Lolita represented an important advance in the development of a psychological film style. Nabokovs Lolita gave him, for the first time, a novelistic source that constructed its world from inside the mind of a single fictional intelligence. And even though Humberts imagination can mesmerise the reader with its richness of invention and distortion, Nabokov uses the ironic and often parodic intrusions of his third person "voice" to undermine and transcend his narrators clever special pleadings. No such rhetorical strategy exists in either Whites Clean Break or Cobbs Paths of Glory. There, the potentials of psychological conflict are either harnessed or suppressed within the impersonal order of a demanding objective activity (robbery plan, war), one in which a degree of anonymity is not only a virtue but a necessity. Consequently, Kubrick was able to develop a dramatic tension between repressed psychological forces and the requirements of a temporal mechanism in the one film (The Killing) and between the human reality of war and the antiquated structure of a military politics in the other (Paths of Glory). In each film, external contingencies combine to create a fate that ultimately overwhelms and frustrates the aims of a very elemental psychology. Nabokov's novel, by contrast, generates its narrative conflict from within Humberts solipsistic universe, which is at odds not only with itself but also with the larger ironies of the novel. For the psychological world of his Lolita, Kubrick squeezed his style down into a more pinpoint, less expansive focus than the one conceived for Paths of Glory, where the puny ambitions of character are measured against grandeur, both historical and spatial in scope. He moved from the openness of location shooting to the interiority of performance and the studio, where, as he mentioned while making Lolita,
everything is inky darkness and the lights are coming from an expected place and it is quiet and you can achieve concentration... I think that too much has been made of making films on location... For a psychological story, where the characters and their inner emotions and feelings are the key thing, I think that the studio is the best place. (2)
Kubricks avowed admiration for Chaplins films, which also depended to a great extent on the studio for their psychological effect, reflects the importance that Kubrick attached to the actor. Despite a lack of cinematic sophistication, Chaplin developed a subtlety and complexity of performance that became a creative alternative to Eisensteins greater range of film styles. Lolita shows that, for Kubrick, performance could be as crucial to the expressive substance of a film as camera and mise-en-scène.
In Pudovkins Film Technique, Kubrick would not have found a very far-reaching critique of the film actors role. For Pudovkin, the actor was subordinated to the director, and performance to filmic construction. He did stress, however, how the actor could focus a films emotional manipulation of the spectator, while the director, through editing and images, worked on his mind. With the possible exception of Spartacus, Kubricks films do not contain highly emotive performances of that kind, although beginning with Lolita they increasingly exhibit a variety of subtly expressive and emotional acting styles. Kubrick often mentioned that early in his career he had found Stanislavskys ideas about working with actors to be helpful, and he continued in later years to recommend Nikolai Gorchakovs Stanislavsky Directs. During the formative years of Kubricks career, Stanislavskys theories already had influenced and helped shape the so-called school of method acting brought to the Broadway stage by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg of the New York Actors Studio (founded 1947). The Stanislavsky method was especially important for the expression of psychoanalytical themes found in the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Interestingly, this theatrical movement coincided with American film neo-realism (194555) and its treatment of "controversial" social issues. At times, however, the intimate, interiorized performing techniques of "method" actors would conflict with a less stylized visual realism (e.g., Brandos performance in The Wild One, 1953, or James Deans in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955). Not until Lolita did Kubrick work with a cast capable of the kind of intuitive approach to performance recommended by Stanislavsky, which specialized in oblique psychological revelation through a manipulation of gesture, mannerism, and voice. In Killers Kiss, he had the right kind of script for such a treatment, but not the right kind of actors. Consequently, he experimented with a highly expressive visual style in order to suggest psychological complexities beyond the abilities of his actors, while The Killing and Paths of Glory required their professional performers (with the exception of Kirk Douglas, veteran Hollywood character actors dominate both films) to give functional life to roles that rarely strayed from convention or stereotype.
Perhaps one reason why Lolita remained for years after its release Kubricks most unappreciated and misunderstood early filmwhy so many critics failed to notice that, like Buñuels Viridiana (1961), for example, it develops a surrealist mise-en-scène through a deceptively sparse naturalismis the strength of its performances. The films cast develops and improvises so many revealing details of character that its subtle manipulation of mise-en-scène might go unnoticed. Peter Sellerss spellbinding transformations, as well as the performances of James Mason, Shelley Winters, and Sue Lyon, command such attention that filmic complexities may travel through a receptive consciousness like so much visual Muzak. And besides its almost perfect expression of a Nabokovian verbal playfulness, Sellerss conception of Clare Quilty parallels an attitude toward the unreality of conventional social personas that Kubrick described in an interview as early as 1958:
The criminal and the soldier at least have the virtue of being against something or for something in a world where many people have learned to accept a kind of grey nothingness, to strike an unreal series of poses in order to be considered normal. Its difficult to say who is engaged in the greater conspiracythe criminal, the soldier, or us. (3)
The other principal performers strengthen not only the films satiric assault on the "normal" but, more important, its strong emotional subtext. Shelley Winters plays a perfect foil to the comic exaggerations of Sellerss Quilty and the vulgarity of Sue Lyons Lolita. In that delightful tour of the Haze home early in the film, through a mannered control of hands (which wave a long cigarette holder around in assertive flourishes) and voice, she comically expresses Charlottes social and sexual aspirations. Later, she shows the child in Charlottes character, the "lotte" Lolita, as she sits in the midst of a Kubrickian soft-textured close-up, smiling like a plump fairy princess and delicately ringing a bell for her maid to serve dinner. And even while we laugh at her vulgarity, Winters suggests a sadness in Charlottes character, one that glimpses but does not understand its own pathetic desperation. (As she cries and embraces the urn, she yells at "Harold," her dead husband: "Why did you leave me? . . . I didnt know anything about life!") James Mason and Sue Lyon repeatedly play off each other, and likewise communicate both the satiric and the poignant truth of Humberts obsession with Lolita. Mason develops a series of facial and gestural mannerisms to express Humberts European archness and his terrible vulnerability. When Humbert experiences moments of emotional exposure, for example, Masons face twitches uncontrollably as his hands move frantically to restore order to his facial landscape; and by the films end, the characters formal mask cracks under the internal pressure from a growing despair that releases an almost unbearable poignancy. Especially moving is the scene in the hospital where Humbert, his entire physical being shattered by an incalculable emotional and psychological loss, discovers Lolita gone and himself surrounded on a dark corridor floor by four figures in white who interrogate him as if he were a candidate for an insane asylum. In the car with Humbert, just after they have made love for the first time at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, Lolita displays that harmonious relationship with the objects of her teenage environment which eludes Humbert, as she erotically sucks a straw in a Coke bottle and wraps her tongue around potato chips in a bag. Meanwhile, Humbertthe ever-present voyeurdrives the car and slyly glances at his nymphet now sitting next to him like a "date" prepared for an evening of heavy necking and petting. Significantly, the very next scene shows Lolita, childlike, curled up in Humberts arms on a motel bed, crying over Charlottes death and the loss of her "normal" existence. At Beardsley, in an argument with Humbert over her lies and deceptions, and dressed as an elfin princess, she chews gum and blows bubbles as Humberts entreaties grow more desperate. He pathetically rubs his hand on his pants leg and kneels in a gesture of total submission before his now frigid princess, while Lyon maintains Lolitas teenage imperviousness to his suffering. Not until the performances within the elegiac mise-en-scène of Barry Lyndon, the nightmarish mazes of The Shining, and the surreal dislocations of Eyes Wide Shut will Kubricks actors again lend such a tragic pathos to his larger and more ironic look at the disparities between the forms of social normality and the truths of an unarticulated but real psychological disorder.
Kubrick did fault his Lolita on one important count: Because of pressures from the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency, he could not sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humberts obsession with the nymphet. And even though Sue Lyon was thirteen when shooting began, she plays Lolita closer to fifteen than twelve. (In the novel we are told that the nymphet exists on an "enchanted island" between the ages of nine and fourteen.) Kubrick, however, did provide in the film a definition of the nymphet (it is different from the one in Nabokovs screenplay) and of Humberts attraction that indicates the films altered sexual and psychological focus. In voiceover while writing in his diary, Humbert defines the "twofold nature" of this nymphet as a mixture of "dreamy childishness" and "eerie vulgarity," thus suggesting that his obsession with Lolita has nothing to do with the unsuccessful retreat of Nabokovs Humbert into that timelessness lost in the "princedom by the sea" of his childhood. Instead, James Masons Humbert starts as a whimsical satyr who, as he flees from the omnivorous clutchings of predatory American matrons, becomes enslaved to a tragic fascination for the iridescence and triviality of a child-woman. And in this movement from satire to poignancy, Kubrick weaves a pattern of sexual innuendo and implication that imitates the playfulness and pathos of the novel more than its eroticism. Brandon French, in an essay on the film, points out a few examples of Kubricks attempt to give his Lolita a dense sexual subtext: In the first scene, Humberts phallic gun (called "Chum" in the novel, forever eager to discharge its bullets, which Humbert fears will go "stale" from disuse) opposes Quiltys impotent ping-pong balls, while later we see Charlotte fondling the same gun as she reminisces about the "late Mr. Haze." Humberts introduction to Charlotte and Lolita initiates his early entanglement in a relationship where double entendres fly back and forth in a vulgar American mating ritual. Charlottes falsetto laugh trumpets her first advance on Humberts dark European handsomeness when she tells him that he couldnt get more "peace" [sic] anywhere than in her home. She then takes him into her bedroom to show off her collection of "reproductions" (Dufy, Monet, Van Gogh) after mentioning how stimulating" Clare Quilty, a TV playwright, had been in his lecture on Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago. (She, of course, had a pre-Humbert affair with Quilty, who also uses Charlotte to capture the nymphet.) In the hallway, Charlotte apologizes for the presence of a "soiled" sock, which, it is assumed, belongs to Lolita and prepares for Humberts discovery, postCamp Climax, of his nymphets sexual precocity. Nabokov especially must have delighted in the ending of this scene, where Humbert has his first vision of Lolita in the garden and instantly decides to stay and enjoy Charlottes promise of "late snacks" and "cherry pies."
The film develops the ultimate sexual irony when it shows Humberts involvement in an American ménage a trois that subtly disguises Quiltys presence and the more sinister outlines of a menage a quatre. In an early montage, Kubrick shows the comic drama of Humberts naiveté as his advances toward the nymphet are checked by the moves against him by Charlotte and Lolita. As Humbert peeks over a book at Lolita hula-hooping in the garden, Charlottes blowsy sexuality and flash camera break the spell; as Charlotte ponders a move in a game of chess with Humbert (a favored Nabokovian device, as well), Lolita slides in and gives him something more than a goodnight peck on the cheek ("Youre going to take my Queen," moans Charlotte); while at a drive-in theater watching a Hammer horror film that shows the monster turning on his creator (The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957), Humbert is trapped between the clutches of mother and daughter; and finally, Charlotte moves against Lolita in a conspiracy with the Farlows (Jerry Stovin and Diana Decker), which puts Charlotte in the house alone with Humbert. Ironically, Kubrick casts Humbert in these early scenes as a sort of Daisy Miller in reverse: the innocent rather than decadent European who becomes a chessboard queen to Charlotte and Lolitas knights. This sardonic look at the American Peyton Place reaches a climax in the scene where Charlotte, dressed in a leopard-skin pants suit, mixes the rumba and pink champagne in her primal assault on Humberts European reserve. Lolita unexpectedly returns (her "move" against Charlotte), because, she says, "salty fish eggs" were being served at the Farlow slumber party. What follows is a marvelous scene of Humbert, nervously cracking walnuts, caught between Charlottes pink champagne and Lolitas turkey and mayonnaise sandwich. He eventually gives Charlotte the cracked shells rather than his gonads, which anticipates his later comment during their brief conjugality that she leaves him as "limp as a noodle."
This bourgeois bacchanal within the pastoral simplicity of New England America turns darker whenever the film brings in the surrealist presence of Clare Quilty. Kubrick said that he and Nabokov agreed to have the film begin with Humbert killing Quilty without explanation, so that a narrative interest could be sustained after Humbert and Lolita are coupled at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel. But it also lends an atmosphere of impending menace to the lightly satiric quality of the early scenes. During the school dance, for example, Charlotte anticipates Humberts walnut shells when she hands him her hot dog to dance with John Farlow; and later she skitters across the dance floor to say "hello" to Quilty, who, in a tuxedo and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, looks more cherubic than decadently spent. She whispers in his ear (as Lolita will in Humberts just before she seduces him), and only then does he associate Charlotte with the beautiful, lilting name of Lolita. Quilty then joins the films game of playful sexual innuendo when he knowingly smirks over Lolitas having a "cavity filled" by his Uncle Ivor, the local dentist. In this context, Quilty seems harmless enough, although the constant companionship of the darkly exotic and slightly lesbian Vivian Darkbloom (in the novel, an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov) hints at something kinkier than just another American suburban rendition of hide the salami. (Lolita will later extol Quiltys "beautiful Oriental philosophy of life," which explains the "Tokyo" poster on her bedroom wall in Ramsdale.) In another scene, Humbert sits on Lolitas bed and reads Charlottes "confession" of love, which turns his despair over losing Lolita forever into a gleeful appreciation of lifes unexpected twists (his laughter begins when Charlotte asks him to "link up" his life with hers and "be a father to my little girl"). Just as he tearfully celebrates his good fortune, however, Kubricks camera reminds us of darker forces waiting in Humberts future as it ominously pans to Quiltys picture on a cigarette poster. Eventually Humbert, Quilty-like, will add incest to his sins, and so begin a journey into a nightmare in which Quiltys presence, alternately spectral and corporeal, will provide a mirror image for both his own sexual degradation and Lolitas triviality. While in The Killing and Paths of Glory Kubrick sacrifices complexities of character to the rigors of temporal and spatial structures, his Lolita examines interior worlds with a delicacy of tone and distance that eluded him in Killer's Kiss. The imagery and decors of Lolita merge an ethereal softness of texture with a surreal dissonance in deep focus to create a style of presentation that, overall, develops a deceptive naturalism. The film starts with a girlish foot descending into an unfocused blur and the melodic piano music of Bob Harris's romantic "Lolita" theme, followed by a pair of male hands coming into the frame and delicately administering a pedicure behind the film's credits. Completely removed from context, this initial shot creates an imagery that both gives form to Humbert's dreamy obsession with Lolita (including, perhaps, the wedding ring on the left hand) and satirises his demeaning subjugation. Later, the first sequence at Beardsley will put this image in a dramatic context and reveal Humbert's sexual enslavement as he comically vacillates between the roles of whining lover and nagging father. Throughout the early part of the film, Kubrick tends to define Humbert's interiority through images and space, while Quilty, his alter ego, is associated with objects and temporality. After the credits, the camera floats toward Quilty's medieval castle; once inside, the imagery sharpens into deep focus and delineates a mise-en-scene that, in its surreal merger of Classical and Camp parodies Humbert's loving embrace of the illusory. This Humbert/Quilty doubling overshadows, in the film, the novel's focus on Humbert's desire to "fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets." Nabokov begins and ends Humbert's narrative with the word "Lolita" ("Lolita, light of my life" and "This is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita"), while Kubrick verbally frames his film with Humbert's call for "Quilty," a name that assumes, for Humbert as well as the audience, both an exclamatory ("Quilty!") and an interrogative ("Quilty?") meaning. Who or what is Quilty? And what do his various appearances tell us about the psychological and conceptual ambitions of Kubrick's film?
When Humbert first enters Quilty's Xanadu, we hear the ghostly ripplings of a harpsichord, which later will signal all of Quilty's menacing reappearances. Humbert moves through a bizarre clutter, unaware that it defines not only Quilty's physical domain but an inner sanctum: a three-dimensional surrealist canvas in which an ornate harp mixes with a ping-pong table, Shakespeare's bust with boxing gloves, Venus de Milo with Victorian bric-a-brac, a tiger's head with an eighteenth-century portrait. Quilty, swathed in a sheet, rises from his chair and plays both Spartacus in drag and resurrected spook to Humbert's indignant civility. His invitation to play Roman ping-pong "like two civilized senators"-mocks Humbert's urbane and scholarly mask, that pose of normality that conceals a mind as darkly cluttered as Quilty's. He mistakes Humbert for one "Jack Brewster," who, we find out backstage at Beardsley, is one of Quilty's groupies ("Brewster, go buy me some Type A Kodachrome film"). This highly stylized encounter continues as Sellers improvises, in masterly fashion, a series of perverse impersonations that anticipate and parody the movement of the film into the "normal" social and psychological landscape of Ramsdale. He sprinkles his language with clichés like the Boy Scout motto, as he pulls from a robe pocket beneath his toga an endless supply of ping-pong balls. He play prepares us for games to come when he responds to Humbert's brandished pistol with "it's not who wins but how you play." He goes through a repertoire of B-movie character parts (an old Western codger who reads Humbert's painfully precious poem as if it were the "deed to the ranch"; a boxing champion who wants to settle differences "like two civilized people") that indirectly mock Humbert's fatuous assumption of moral outrage. Even when he realizes that he cannot playact his way out of the situation, Quilty still satirizes the formal and civilized exterior of Humbert's Europeanism and, indirectly, later examples of suburban cultural pretense. He tells him to "stop trifling with life and death," and that, being a playwright, he knows all about this sort of "tragedy and comedy and fantasy." Yet Humbert does not see his face in the reflexive mirror of Quilty's impersonations: he does not see that his romantic infatuation with an image rather than the reality of Lolita finds its demonic incarnation in Quilty and the obscure objects of his desire. Instead of expressing this important scene through the flourishes of a Wellesian chiaroscuro, as Nabokov's screenplay invites, Kubrick chooses to materialise the dreamy evasions of Humbert's character through a realistic depiction of Quilty's nightmare world. He gives the surreal a palpable shape and sound, thereby preparing the audience for a flip-flop in scenes to come, one where a surreality shines through the transparent facade of middle-class normality and cinematic naturalism. In this remarkable scene, Sellers's performance transforms the Evil One-Quilty's Shadow to Humbert's Personainto a pathetic creature trapped in a black comedy he did not compose, futilely striving to find in Humbert a wit and humanity that could save Quilty's life. But to no avail. His comic rendering of both Chopin's polonaise ("Do you think it will make the Hit Parade?") and : his own death ("You really hurt me ...my leg will be black and blue tomorrow," he says after the first bullet strikes) does not dissuade the solemn avenger. He tries to bribe Humbert by appealing to his voyeurism-"I could fix it for you to attend executions, just you, do you like watching, Captain?"-but instead the executioner chooses to watch Quilty die. Kubrick concludes this prologue to his Lolita (Nabokov's novel begins with a parodic foreword by psychologist "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.") with Quilty seeking cover behind a portrait of a childwoman who resembles one of Gainsborough's eighteenth-century "ladies," and whose beauty is violated by the bullets that extinguish the life of the hidden monster. The portrait introduces a metaphor of Humbert's tragic obsession with Lolita-a neoclassical serenity masking the grin of death-one that will serve as a backdrop to the film's titled epilogue: "Humbert Humbert died in prison of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for the murder of Clare Quilty." This demure image twice seen, and the repetition of the call for "Quilty" that immediately precedes it, provide the film with an aural and visual Rosebud which, like a recurring dream-nightmare, frames Humbert's loss of vision in the dark obstacle course of the self.
Within this prologue and its ritualization of both Humbert's enslavement to Lolita (pedicure) and his execution-killing of Quilty, Kubrick establishes a third-person detachment from the subjective (first-person) narration that begins just afterward in a flashback to "Four Years Earlier." By materializing the surreality of Quilty's character and linking it, through the eighteenth century portrait, to Humbert's romantic fondness for images rather than objects, Kubrick is able to wrest the film from Humbert's subjective perspective and imply that, from the moment he steps into Charlotte's garden, his course inexorably leads to Quilty's mansion. Throughout the film, Humbert's attachment to the illusory is juxtaposed with various objects and characters that, in a different way, illustrate Quilty's view that people are interchangeable with furniture (he knows a man "who looks just like a bookcase"). In his first tour of the Haze domain, Humbert runs a gauntlet through the obscure objects of Charlotte's desire as he crosses a chessboard foyer into an interior that shows signs of a mental landscape almost as disordered as Quilty's: In every room, decorative wallpaper-vertical lines of a cage downstairs, flowers in the bedrooms, sailboats in the bathroom, fish on the shower curtain, and a clutter of table settings in the kitchen-clashes with a rococo collection of objects. Charlotte takes him into her bedroom and shows off a shrine to her late husband, which includes an urn holding his ashes (on which Humbert inadvertently rests his hand), the gun that will kill Quilty (a "sacred" treasure wrapped in silk), and Mr. Haze's picture voyeuristically gazing down from the wall onto the bed where the future Mr. and Mrs. Humbert will play at marital bliss. The upstairs hallway is cluttered with ghastly Mexican art and a porcelain cat, and downstairs various objets d'art fill out a world of cultural poverty and sexual desperation. (Lolita later will play with a bronzed hand holding a phallic arrow as she traces the sculptured outlines of an African head in the scene where she undermines Charlotte's rumba lesson in leopard skin.) Kubrick concludes this sequence, and its doubling of Charlotte's home with Quilty's Pavor Manor, by giving cinematic form to Humbert's dreamy idealization of Lolita. We first see Lolita in the garden, from Humbert's point of view: bathed in soft light and an aura of sensuality, mysteriously abstracted from time and linked to the imagery behind the credits and the portrait in Quilty's mansion, she is shown wearing a bikini, a sun hat, and heart-shaped sunglasses. Once again, Kubrick immerses his audience in Humbert's imagination and simultaneously inserts an ironic complication: first a pedicure, then a bullet hole through the face of the portrait, and now the sounds of a vapid teenage song ("yah-yah") playing on the nymphet's radio that firmly locate Lolita in time and objectify an existence on the other side of the mind's eye.
Throughout, Humbert has trouble dealing with the material and mechanical substance of a world that frustrates his every move. Characters close in on him as he fumbles with a plate of cake and a cup of punch during the dance; he investigates the gun in Charlotte's bedroom, and the bullets fallout; and at the Enchanted Hunters he is as intimidated by the mechanics of a folding cot as by Quilty's impersonation of a policeman. Humbert prefers, instead, the private sanctuary of words in his diary and the elusive sounds of "Ulalume," written by "the divine Edgar." He fails to deduce Quilty's identity partly because it exists in a dark and very corporeal part of the imagination, the one that emanates from, the loins rather than the cerebral cortex. Kubrick's Humbert, given a more sympathetic form by James Mason's performance than in the dense forest of Nabokov's prose style, wants to glide through space rather than tread the ground of primal instinct. In one of the film's most inventive and original scenes, Kubrick shows that Humbert, balancing a drink on his chest and listening to the faint sounds of Lolita's "yah-yah" garden music playing in his mind, is more at home in the dreamy and masturbatory delights of a hot bathtub than in the clutches of Charlotte's voracious libido. Humbert relaxes in the very bathwater that Charlotte had been drawing for herself just before reading his diary and fleeing to her rain-soaked death. And in a devilish joke at the expense of his protagonist, Kubrick has Humbert's position in the bathtub duplicate Charlotte's in the street, including the supplicatory presence of one Mr. Beale James Dyrenforth), whose son's car ran over Mrs. Humbert, and who moves from sitting on the curb next to her covered body to sitting on the toilet seat next to Humbert's submerged one.
Scenes in bedrooms and bathrooms abound in Lolita, as they do in Nabokov's novel, and indicate the film's highly developed use of studio-bound settings to express the comic and tragic modalities of a psychological/sexual content. Within these private chambers of an otherwise public domesticity, where the guilty and repressed secrets of suburbia find both release and purgation, Kubrick develops a visual and musical coherence that binds setting to both character fate and film concept. Throughout much of the film, bedrooms and bath
rooms come together in an expression of primal irony. Charlotte, just before she escorts Humbert into her bedroom, makes a point of illustrating her home's old-fashioned plumbing by pulling the toilet chain and synchronizing her vulgar laughter to its flushing. Later, on the morning Lolita leaves for camp, Humbert crawls from his bed and, with the bathroom visible in the background as counterpoint and the theme music rising in pitch, receives Lolita's embrace as she winks and tells him not to forget her. He then goes into Lolita's room to sit on her bed, flanked by innocence on one side (a teddy bear) and vulgarity on the other (Quilty's picture on the cigarette poster), as he reads Charlotte's confession of love. In marriage, Humbert escapes from Charlotte's bed into the bathroom, where he scribbles his secrets in a diary and is pursued by her pouty snoopings into his private life. And in that same bed, Charlotte starts to tell him about her "most ambitious fantasy" as he simultaneously makes love to her body and his fantasy embodied in Lolita's picture on an end table. When he discovers that Charlotte's fantasy also involves Lolita sending her off to boarding school so that she can have him all to herself-Humbert rolls over and contemplates the gun lying opposite Lolita's picture. At the Enchanted Hunters, Kubrick creates a sense of deja vu as he delivers Humbert and Lolita into a room that mirrors the decor of Ramsdale, with flowered wallpaper in the bedroom and a bathroom in the background with a chessboard floor. Humbert comes out of that bathroom and hovers in a state of cleansed readiness over the sleeping beauty, but alas, she wakes up and sends him Scurrying to the cot. The next morning, Lolita bends Over a tired and unshaven Humbert lying in his "collapsible" bed and whispers her dirty secret into his ear.
In later scenes, this comic movement within a maze of private passions takes darker and more poignant courses. And more successfully than in any of his previous films, Kubrick demonstrates in Lolita a remarkable talent for directing his actors and developing a profound emotional content within the larger structures of an ironic distance. In a motel, he shows a tearful Lolita walking through another bathroom, this one separating her room from Humbert's, to seek comfort (Humbert has told her of Charlotte's death) on a bed in semi-darkness, illuminated from behind by the light from the bathroom. Humbert consoles her with promises to restore her life to normality and never to leave her ("cross my heart and hope to die") as we see the child in Lolita break through the mask of teenage precocity. In a moment that is both touching and satiric, Lolita clings to her middle class belief that normality can be measured in the continuity of such objects as records and record players, while we fully appreciate the tragicomic nature of Humbert's obsession. Despite his failure to find Dante's Beatrice in Ramsdale's Eve, he eventually must comfort and love the real Lolita, who later will double back and become another Charlotte. Even at the end, with Quilty gone ("the only man who I was ever really crazy about") and Humbert wasted and herself facing the tawdry prospect of her existence as Mrs. Richard T. Schiller (in Nabokov, the middle initial is "F"), Lolita still takes refuge in the enduring value of things and resists both Humbert's vision and his love. In their last scene together, Humbert faces a new Lolita-no longer dreamy or magical, but bloated by pregnancy and wearing horn-rimmed glasses like Quilty-and sits with her on another bed (on which, ironically, there is a copy of Seventeen), this time in a living room cluttered with domestic junk and the ubiquitous decorative wallpaper. He tearfully begs her to come away with him, "to live and die" with him, only to be rejected by her in her newfound morality and her tragic triviality. She accepts from Humbert only a last gift, in the form of money and property settlements. He flees in despair to confront Quilty, as we hear the last chords from the theme music, which now express pathos rather than satire. And Lolita sends him on his way in a cascade of clichés ("What's past is past" and "Keep in touch," as she waves hand and money in a gesture of farewell) and documents the ultimate shallowness of her character and the futility of Humbert's dream. But as the film sympathetically records Humbert's loss, it visually develops his entrapment on a gameboard far more deadly than he ever imagined. Kubrick creates a cinematic chess game, reminiscent of both his earlier films and Nabokov's novel, that opposes Humbert's White to Quilty's Black. Chess, of course, superbly objectifies a state of paranoia and the themes of deception and entrapment; it demands from each player a constant vigilance lest he become the butt of an opponent's malicious joke. In Lolita, Kubrick allows his audience to watch the game from his vantage point by providing both privileged glimpses of Quilty's moves and, long before it dawns on Humbert, the knowledge that Lolita longs to be Quilty's Black Queen rather than Humbert's White. Not only is Humbert's first view of Lolita cast in soft light, but throughout the early part of the film all their encounters are brightly and realistically lit. Thus, Humbert has the illusion that his dream of Lolita might take shape in the daylight of a "normal" world. Quilty disguises his true role at first, although Kubrick brings him into the high school dance, where Humbert's white dinner jacket opposes his black tuxedo; of course, Quilty travels with his Dark Queen, Vivian Darkbloom (Marianne Stone). And on the soundtrack, blasts from Humbert's romantic piano oppose the subtle but sinister sounds of Quilty's harpsichord. Kubrick initiates a visual shift in the film at the Enchanted Hunters, even though the mood remains lightly satiric as the lighting becomes darker. On the hotel veranda, the camera is positioned so that the audience watches Quilty's face while Humbert, sitting in the background, remains ignorant of his identity (which, incidentally, parallels the camera's independent pan away from Humbert to the picture of Quilty in Lolita's bedroom). Quilty dominates the frame, while Humbert tries to maintain his composure despite a latent paranoia about policemen and his anticipation of incest with his "daughter" Lolita. Quilty fidgets with his glasses and speaks in nervous, broken phrases about how he wishes he had a "lovely, pretty little girl" and indirectly mocks Humbert's pretense of familial normality (one "normal guy" to another) by expressing a concern that their "accommodations" (read "bed") might not be comfortable enough; at one point, he ironically says that Humbert should have the "bridal suite." He surrealistically objectifies for the audience Humbert's internal disorders, and when he asks to have a look at the room so that he might use his influence with the hotel desk clerk, Humbert beats a hasty retreat to the sleeping Lolita and a battle with an intractable cot.
Humbert next confronts his sinister incubus in the form of Dr. Zempf, sitting in the dark of Beardsley ("to save you electricity," he tells Humbert). By now, Humbert's cultured and cool exterior shows signs of cracking as he imagines sexual competition from nonexistent forces (the "Rexes" and "Roys" of Lolita's adolescence) and misperceives the true nature of Quilty's game. And while the audience could appreciate Quilty's earlier pranks as forms of poetic justice, they surely must feel an uneasiness about his Zempf impersonation. The game now takes on sinister and cruel tones, as Sellers twists his conception of Quilty toward that neo-Nazi monster who will roll out of the cavernous shadows of Dr. Strangelove. First as Zempf, and then as a voice on the telephone, Quilty throws a diabolical light into the darkness of Humbert's soul and forces him to experience the nightmare that lurks beneath his dream, the one facing him on the other side of the gameboard. Zempf's psychological profile of Lolita ("a sweet little child" who suffers from an "acute repression of the libido") denies Humbert's love for Lolita and ridicules his debasement. Zempf exaggerates Humbert's European pomposity through his psychobabble and his Germanic anality, his thick glasses and the efficient row of pens protruding from his breast pocket. And Kubrick, as before, has Quilty acting out an inside joke for our benefit-and at "Dr. Humbert's" expense-when Zempf offers Humbert a Drome cigarette (the poster in Lolita's bedroom) and maliciously tells him to "keep the pack." Humbert's final contacts with Quilty, before Lolita's escape from the hospital, are nightmarishly disembodied ones. Quilty's car follows him across the barren Southwest ("the designation of doom"), and as he contemplates a rear-projection image through the window of his car, Humbert's daylight world begins to match his nocturnal one. Sick and obviously dying, Humbert drags himself out of bed in a darkly lit and ominous motel room to answer the call of a telephonic nightmare: Quilty refuses to identify this impersonation by name ("My name is really obscure and unremarkable") and more successfully than before exposes Humbert's comic fear that policemen and faceless civil authorities have formed a legion of decency against his quest for the dream of Lolita. Tragically, Humbert never sees the twofold truth Kubrick shows us: Quilty mirrors the perverse underside of that dream, and Lolita never embodies its romantic substance.Notes:
(1) Alvin Toffler: Interview with Vladimir Nabokov, Playboy, January 1965.
(2) Interview: Stanley Kubrick Movie Maker, Observer (London), 4 December 1960.
(3) From interview with Jonathan Stang: From Film Fan to Film Maker, New York Times Magazine, 12 October 1958.