Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kubrick Kick: Lolita


Today, "a lay of the land" continues to look at Stanley Kubrick films, with a look at 1962's film adaptation of Lolita.

I loved the novel. Loved it. Nabokov has a very sensual and poetic prose style that floats and lilts in your head. He is definitely one of the great prose stylists ever. Lolita is a difficult novel if only because we have to get into the head of Humbert Humbert, a disgusting manipulative coward who is charming, intelligent, decent-looking and European. He marries a woman he couldn't possibly love just to stay in Lolita's life, and he contemplates murder to keep Lolita around. Humbert Humbert is totally in love and in lust with a precocious and innocent child called Dolores Haze. But is the novel about a morally bankrupt academic who corrupts a child, or is it about the morally bankrupt child who corrupts the academic? Part of the complexity of Lolita is the first person narration from Humbert, who's entertaining, eloquent, wry, funny and charming. You want to believe him, but you can't possibly take him at face value. All of this is what makes a visual adaptation of Lolita very hard to swallow. No matter how much of a visual stylist Kubrick is, his cold detached analysis of humans doesn't really lend to the multi-dimensional and duplicitous aspect of Humbert Humbert.

Kubrick, working from Nabokov's screenplay, works backwards. He shows Humbert's murder of Quilty, in a beautiful fluid series of shots in Quilty's mansion on a dude ranch. From the beginning of the film, I was totally in. It was gorgeously shot, and Peter Sellers is a godsend. It helps that James Mason, as Humbert Humbert, has this perfect voice and cadence.

Once we move to the past, and we're introduced to Humbert, and Mrs. Haze, played by the loud and obnoxious Shelley Winters, the movie slows to a crawl and begins to emulate every other movie from that era. Nothing of the first act shows any of the visual flair that the prologue did. Sue Lyon, who plays the titular and titillating Lolita, is extremely beautiful, and certainly makes for a convincing quasi-seducer.

What Kubrick does is quite interesting here. Lolita doesn't have very many lines for most of the first half of the movie. She becomes a sketch, almost, in which Humbert fills in the blanks for the audience. This is a fairly ingenious attempt at first person perspective in a visual medium. Lolita isn't really a character until the second act of the film, in which Mrs. Haze is dead and Humbert and Lolita are driving around America. Once Humbert is totally head over heels, and stuck with her, Lolita's true character is revealed as a bratty snotty spoiled princess whom Humbert waits on hand and foot. He's totally in denial about how mean she is to him, how she twists him and plays with him. This becomes apparent to the audience very quickly that Lolita is destined to break Humbert's heart.

The movie picks up pretty decently in the final act. As aforementioned, Kubrick is a fan of sloooow pacing, so the third act is a breath of fresh air. Humbert and Lo have been living in Beardsley, but after a vicious argument, and a mysterious phone call, they leave and travel the States again. Slowly, Humbert realizes that they are being followed, even though Lolita doesn't seem to care. After a short stay in the hospital due to fever, Lolita suddenly disappears from Humbert's life for three years. At this point, Humbert's life is cut out of the film, including his affair with Rita, the Lolita look-alike (and another reference to doppelgangers). Lolita re-enters Humbert's life by writing him a letter; it turns out that Lo is married, pregnant, and heavy with debt. She asks for a handout, and Humbert shows up at his door, meeting the new Lolita and the new husband, a near-deaf war veteran, whom Lo finds "sweet" but doesn't love.

In order to get the money, Lolita finally reveals who helped her escape Humbert's clutches, and who is the architect of Humbert's heartbreak. It's Clare Quilty, who is the spectral figure of American intellectualism (ie, nihilism, Eastern philosophy, bad dancing and black clothes). Humbert painfully realizes that he can never have Lolita and decides to go murder Quilty, which brings us to the present. The film ends with a caption on screen that Humbert died in prison awaiting trial. Notably, the ending of the film leaves out Dolores' death in childbirth and Humbert writing the "Lolita" novel while in prison. I'm not sure that her death is necessary to enjoy the film.

I found the adaptation to be slow and boring. Even for all of its visual faults, the movie benefits from spectacular casting, including Shelley Winters as the loud Mrs. Haze and Mason as the suave and European Humbert. Of course, Peter Sellers is awesome as usual, playing Quilty's death scene perfectly: wry, uncaring and unfeeling. Kubrick's successful adaptation of Humbert's perspective versus fact is note for note perfect. If you needed to teach unreliable narration for film, this is the movie to use.

One of the numerous reasons why the novel was so good was for the wordplay, the puns, the observations on society, and all of Humbert's great sarcastic and spiteful comments. The film version is only charming and entertaining because of Mason's acting and voice, not because of the adaptation. Pretty much only Cary Grant could replace Mason in this role. The screenplay doesn't allow for any room for Humbert to charm the audience. His voice-over narration is minimal and merely moves us from place to place.

I would still say that this is a successful adaptation of a great novel, but there's still some Kubrick-ian problems, such as the slow pacing and the cold detachment from the characters. And since it's not very visually engaging, such as The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut, that's a definite negative. I expect a lot from Kubrick in terms of composition. Of all of Kubrick's films, this does not rank near the top for me. I liked it, but I didn't love it.

It still remains for "a lay of the land" to look at Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus and surprisingly, Dr Strangelove, all of which I've never seen. I will try to track down the Criterion edition of Spartacus, but the first four Kubricks I may never see, if only because they're out of print, or hard to track down. The Kubrick Kick series will take a break and resume with hopefully Dr Strangelove.

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