****/**** Image A- Sound A
starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon
screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Alex Jackson Who is Lolita? There seems to be no independent, cognizant life to the character. She exists purely to be desired or despised. Certainly, she is seen as neither a tragic figure nor a victim--Lolita is always in control. She always has a tight grasp on what her needs are and understands how she's going to meet them. But simply being clever and conniving doesn't make you a real person. Humanity could be defined as our ability to experience pain and Lolita lives a practically pain-free existence. Double entendre intended, if you prick Lolita, she isn't going to bleed. In her eyes, sex doesn't have many drawbacks. Men lust after her and this gives her power over them.
How can it be exploitation, after all, if her stepfather, Humbert Humbert (James Mason), is constantly placed in a sexually submissive role? She teases him during breakfast with a fried egg, telling him to lay his head back so she can reward him for being a good boy with "one little bite." Under the opening titles, Humbert is painting her toenails. When the movie proper catches up with this scene, they get into an argument over his possessiveness. He mentions that he buys her anything she wants and does all the cooking and housework. She then decides to make up, smiling and telling him to "come over here." In my favourite bit, following their first session of lovemaking, we cut to her drinking a Coke and eating potato chips in his car, and she asks if they can go to the movies. "If that's what you'd like," Humbert replies; now that he's screwing his stepdaughter, he must ensure that her every childish want is fulfilled.
Of course, the conventional moral position is that any time an adult has sexual relations with a 13-year-old (this is according to Kubrick--actress Sue Lyon was 14 at the time and the character was 12½ in the novel; Lolita's actual age is never explicitly revealed in the film), the younger party is invariably the exploited one. But un-nuanced thinking like that does little to locate the truth of the situation. Power doesn't exist exclusively in terms of age and relationships are often mutually exploitive. Even if Humbert is taking advantage of Lolita, that doesn't necessarily mean she isn't also taking advantage of him.
I do, however, give credence to the idea that the Lolita we see in the film isn't the "real" Lolita, but Humbert's perversion of her; perhaps, in order to excuse his behaviour, he's portraying her as shrewder and more manipulative than she actually is. Lolita makes the first move here, seducing Humbert in their motel room by proposing they play a game she learned at camp. She feeds him the fried egg without reciprocation and taunts that she's been "unfaithful" long before they've consummated their relationship. He makes quite a deal about her seducing him in the novel and instinctively we recognize this as the routine defense of a sexual predator.
The novel is told in the first person and we're presumably meant to accept it as a subjective interpretation of these events. This is a tricky thing to effectively translate to the screen, but Kubrick pulls it off. The picture begins with the end and employs voiceover in spots, implying that Humbert is telling the bulk of the story after the fact. With a few somewhat minor exceptions, the entire thing adheres to his vantage point and we rarely know more than he does. Most importantly, Lolita has a certain "unreal" quality that isn't afforded Humbert or anybody else, for that matter. There is a curious sequence where he tells her that her mother has died and she spends the night crying. She recovers quickly, but this behaviour is out of character and indicates that the "real" Lolita has these feelings but that Humbert has done his best to minimize them.
The central conflict of the film takes the form of a love rectangle between Humbert, Lolita, Lolita's mother Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters), and local playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Humbert is a professor of French literature summering in Ramsdale, New Hampshire prior to beginning his professorship at Beardsley College in Ohio. He decides to room with the widowed Haze upon meeting and becoming infatuated with her daughter. Fancying herself cultured, Haze is extremely attracted to the European Humbert and attempts to seduce him. She has grown to hate her bratty daughter for cramping her style and reminding her of her lowly status as landlord and single mother. Haze exiles her to summer camp and professes her love to Humbert via a heartfelt letter that Humbert finds hilarious. He's amused that this lowly, vulgar woman deems herself worthy of him. Nonetheless, he decides to marry her in order to remain close to Lolita.
Haze eventually discovers Humbert's secret diary and learns of his true feelings towards her and Lolita. Rejected, for all intents and purposes, by her husband and envious (but apparently not even a little protective) of her daughter, Haze shouts that Humbert will never see that "little brat" again and runs out of the house, straight into a moving car. With Haze dead, Humbert picks up Lolita from camp. Their sexual relationship commences shortly thereafter and they move to Ohio. Humbert grows increasingly paranoid, demanding to know where Lolita is at all times and accusing her of dating boys her own age. We later discover that he had reason to suspect her: she was seeing Quilty behind his back the whole time.
Quilty followed the same basic plan as Humbert, seducing Haze to get to her daughter. Lolita says that she first met him when he "visited" her mother months before Humbert's arrival. Haze was quite impressed with him, though Quilty struggles to remember their time together and recalls only that she is Lolita's mother. For as much as Haze likes Quilty, she sees him as a substitute for Humbert, who strikes her as more authentically high culture. This does not reflect Lolita's feelings. She regards Quilty as a bona fide genius with an "Oriental" outlook on life. Humbert is okay. His jealousy and possessiveness are kind of a drag, but he buys her Cokes and takes her to movies and is generally preferable to her mother and boarding school. But Quilty was the only man she was ever crazy about. After leaving Humbert, she went to live with Quilty for a while in Arizona, where she met lots of "weird people"--writers, painters, and body-builders. Quilty wanted to put her in an "art movie," but she refused and so he kicked her to the curb. Lolita takes this in stride. While Quilty was the great love of her life, she has accepted that it wasn't going to work out and moved on. C'est la vie. Humbert is considerably less philosophical. Upon learning that she never loved him as much as she loved this goofball, Humbert drives to Quilty's dilapidated mansion and kills him.
So, in review, here is how this love rectangle breaks down: Humbert loves Lolita and hates Haze and Quilty; Haze loves Humbert, hates Lolita, and likes Quilty; Lolita likes Humbert, dislikes Haze (grieving her death and matching her rage with more petulance than genuine anger), and loves Quilty; Quilty is more or less indifferent to Humbert and Haze, but likes Lolita. He takes Humbert's threats to kill him idly and could hardly be said to hold a grudge against him--and he's not nearly as offended as Humbert by Haze's neediness and pretentiousness. Lolita is cute enough, yet he appears to seduce her and manipulate Humbert and Haze to get to her mostly out of sport.
I realize this seems like a dimly mechanical way to review a movie, but it helps us to identify some interesting patterns. For starters, in comparing the Humbert column to the Haze column, we see that nobody hates or even really dislikes Humbert and that nobody loves or even really likes Haze. This could be partially explained by the fact that the film is told subjectively from Humbert's perspective and he would wish to protect his own ego and additionally insult his hated object. Yet it suggests, too, that if Lolita has a tragic figure, somebody truly deserving of our pity, it would be Haze, not Humbert.
They both love somebody who doesn't love them back--loves, instead, somebody they absolutely hate. Still, the rejection of Haze by Humbert is much harsher and more absolute than the rejection of Humbert by Lolita. Where Lolita retains a limited amount of affection for Humbert, Humbert spares none for her mother. The emotional damage Quilty and Lolita have inflicted on Humbert pales in comparison to what he has done to Haze, significantly undercutting his claims to victimhood. He is so blind with hatred for this woman that he fails to see the ways in which their situations are similar or how he has harmed her. This fundamental lack of empathy on his part renders him especially unsympathetic.
We also notice that Humbert and Quilty are polar opposites in that Humbert is consumed with these passionate feelings of love and hate that appear to roll off Quilty's back. Quilty is definitely a better fit for Lolita than is Humbert. She doesn't feel anything too deeply, either. Although Quilty may be the only man she was ever crazy about, she's able to shrug off his eventual rejection and leave it in the past. She isn't nearly as obsessed with Quilty as Humbert is with her.
As played by Sellers, Quilty almost stands outside the film and subtly shows us that he knows he's in a movie. One of his first lines is, "I'm Spartacus. You here to free the slaves?" It's a direct reference to a sentimental moment from Kubrick's previous film, Spartacus. Throughout Lolita, he uses a lot of funny voices and at one point poses as a proto-Strangeloveian German psychiatrist to trick Humbert into signing a permission slip for Lolita to act in the school play. These scenes don't exactly work, but they do call attention to the fact that Peter Sellers is in the movie, and they have a disruptive, artificial quality to them. Yes, similar to the artificiality of Lolita herself, except much more potent. It's impossible to accept that he could ever fool Humbert. Quilty demands that we accept Lolita as having a loose "movie logic" by which anything goes. His irreverence explains and justifies such melodramatic contrivances as the death of Haze while undermining their emotional power.
Lolita is like a Quilty in training. When I think about the film, I think of her sarcastic "monster face," or her "Sieg Heil" Nazi salute in response to her mother's nagging, or the way she teases Haze and Humbert while they're dancing with a sardonic "cha-cha-cha." Her "Ya-Ya" theme music, the bikini, the hula hoop, the bottled Coke, the screening of Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein at the drive-in (introduced to us by Kubrick with a jolting smash-cut)--virtually everything about Lolita embodies 1962, that wonderful twilight between poodle skirts and free love. The film hasn't dated, because the detached hipster camp attitude is already a function of the early-'60s, and because the youth culture symbolized by Lolita stands in stark contrast to the sincere, sludgy timelessness of Humbert and Haze. Lolita's exciting. Her entire world is exciting.
In part, we could interpret Nabokov's novel as a challenge to those literary theorists who argue that aesthetics and the complexity of a text should be the principal means by which we evaluate a work, leaving moral and political considerations by the wayside. Nabokov wrote a witty novel about child molestation. It's a book for readers who love words and language but are indifferent to people--for readers who feel that style redeems and excuses any subject matter. On a related note, it's about a man who confuses lust with love and accordingly romanticizes something that cannot be romanticized. Humbert believes he's capable of connecting with the very depth of Lolita's being, but there isn't anything there.
This satirical disparity between how Humbert views Lolita and what Lolita truly is may have been what attracted Kubrick to the material. Of A Clockwork Orange, he memorably said, "[It] suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn't do them, or anybody else, much good." To the extent to which we still see Lolita as the story of a dirty old man corrupting an innocent girl, this seems to have some applicability. Humbert Humbert gets as far as he does by adopting the role of an academic. Nobody suspects him because he is so cultured, and they mistakenly believe that the cultured are better, moral and otherwise, than the rest of us. Moreover, his background allows him to reframe his salaciousness as something noble and even tragic.
This is that much more interesting when we consider how it applies to Lolita herself. Lolita is cultured, too, but it's pop culture, not the high culture Humbert celebrates. Pop culture is oftentimes more exciting than high culture and substantially fewer people are going to credit it with morally refining society. Our own Walter Chaw is fond of saying that just because Taco Bell is the most profitable restaurant in the country, that doesn't automatically mean it's the best. The defenders of, say, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, to use the trendiest example, argue that it's not supposed to be art. I honestly don't think this is a bad argument, but implicit in it is that they have no use for art. That the core questions of who we are, who we want to be, where we are, where we're going, what constitutes the good life, why we keep going, why we keep living, are not questions worth asking, much less answering.
Lolita makes no apologies for her hedonism or her essential hollowness. I see her as sort of a precursor to Kubrick's Alex DeLarge and Private Joker. She's one of the Star Children, a race of superhumans with superior self-knowledge and moral fortitude. The Star Children have synthesized our instinctual viciousness with the comforts of civilization. Their wickedness has not been pre-determined through evolution as a means of survival, but instead exists as a conscious choice. They have rejected the moral values--like altruism and compassion--that straight civilization holds dear, because straight civilization consists of the mediocre and the weak and the Star Children are neither of those things. If they want something, they just go ahead and take it. In this sense, selfishness is not a function of immaturity but rather a sign of spiritual enlightenment.
Good luck sorting this out. One's sense of right and wrong will inevitably conform to one's actions. I'm not sure it's possible to establish a concrete, objective standard for moral behaviour. Assholes tend to convince themselves they have a right to behave like assholes. And those of us who go to work every day, pay our taxes, and raise our families tend to convince ourselves that we're making a choice to behave this way as opposed to sheepishly staying within the chalk lines society has drawn for us. There's no way to judge either of these belief systems from the outside, because you're one of the common people or you aren't and you are inevitably going to defer to the value system of your own kind.
What distinguishes Lolita from Kubrick's other superbeings is that we are particularly aware of her as an artificial construct. She's a goddess invented by a mortal man lacking in any godly quality of his own. And her artificiality makes her that much more superhuman. I've often thought that Kubrick's films are all about illustrating that there is no real correlation between "good" and "great"--that not only is moral behaviour rarely rewarded and immoral behaviour rarely punished, but God, if He exists, likely doesn't have any moral dimension to Him, either. Yet Lolita suggests that we do not create gods to authorize moral behaviour, but rather to actualize our deepest subconscious desires without guilt. The rejection of morality is not incidental, it's the entire point. Lolita has achieved the complete freedom, from social and psychological restraints, that we all secretly envy.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
I've read some reviews criticizing Warner's Blu-ray release of Lolita for being too modest an achievement. The dialogue-heavy black-and-white production, shot largely on soundstages, doesn't present the same audiovisual challenges that something like Barry Lyndon does. Still, it should be said that the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer hasn't left a lot of room for improvement. Any softness to the image appears to be organic to the original film and is more than balanced out by rich black levels. Furthermore, there are no egregious signs of wear-and-tear. The attendant 1.0 DTS-HD MA track is equally if not more impressive. Though limited in scope, the MGM lion's roar has a wonderful rumble to it, and Nelson Riddle's score is a powerful presence. The only extra, unfortunately, is the theatrical trailer, in standard definition. Not only would I have loved to hear from celebrity fans David Lynch and Sofia Coppola (who paid homage to the title sequence in Lost in Translation), but an account of the battle Kubrick and producer James Harris waged with the Catholic Legion of Decency would've made for incredibly compelling material, while a scholarly discussion of Lolita the novel might've thrown new light on this adaptation, so often naively dismissed as a sanitization of the source material. Regardless, this disc is well worth a format upgrade. Like Barry Lyndon, Lolita is an Amazon exclusive, although it's also available as part of the new box set "Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection." Originally published: July 21, 2011.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.