Sunday, February 17, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.6: Stanley Kubrick's Lolita

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 71 (B)

Spartacus was a rough experience for Stanley Kubrick, but it gave the young director an important lesson the importance of creative control. More importantly, it gave Kubrick the clout he needed to tell a story he was truly passionate about: Lolita. Adapted from Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial, masterful novel, Lolita was one of the first Kubrick films that saw the director pushing the envelope, both in terms of subject matter and form. The film is not one of Kubrick’s true masterpieces: it’s far too messy to rank high on his list. But Lolita does represent an essential step forward for Kubrick, one that would lead to the finest period of his career.

Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is an Englishman in America,  a sly, sarcastic man who barely hides his contempt for the rest of humanity. When Humbert gets a job as an English teacher at a university, he moves into a boarding house owned by Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters). Humbert finds Charlotte agonizingly irritating and stupid, and he doesn’t much appreciate her advances towards him. But Humbert is absolutely transfixed by Charlotte’s 14-year-old daughter, Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon). Humbert lusts after Lolita while putting up with Charlotte’s affection, but he has competition in Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), an acclaimed playwright who has his own sick obsession with Lolita.

Give Kubrick this: he’s certainly taking risks here. A film about an unrepentant pedophile given to acerbic comments about everyone around him is a hard sell for any era, let alone 1962. Kubrick himself lamented that he couldn’t do the sexual material in the novel justice given the strict censorship code. But what’s far more important, and indeed more impressive, is that Kubrick captures much of the book’s spirit and tone even though he only carries over Humbert’s narration from the novel in a few scenes. Kubrick can’t completely carry over the book’s literary style, but he’s more than capable of capturing the novel’s sense of black comedy. The result is the antithesis of his previous film, Spartacus (which Kubrick irreverently references early in the film): overtly sexual, morally hazy, and with a protagonist no one could ever love.

Kubrick’s finely tuned sense of irony and wry dark humor permeates through every frame of Lolita, beginning with the creepily suggestive opening shot of a young girl’s toenails being painted, complete with a lush, romantic score; Kubrick shows delight at making the audience uncomfortable, and it’s a pretty marvelous sick joke. He does even better with the opening scene, which starts at the sad ending of the story with a jealous Humbert murdering a drunken Quilty. Quilty’s soused ramblings and beside-the-point observations make up some of the best material in the film (after Humbert pulls a gun: “You’re sort of a bad loser, Captain. It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play…”), and the pathetic desperation of his final moments set a perfect tone for the film. It’s very telling that Kubrick shows Quilty trying to engage Humbert in a ping pong game, only to shoot the dominant and pistol-packing Humbert as a man with a clear upper-hand in the situation. It’s a tale of how life is a sick game, stacked against all the players.

Kubrick handles the material at Haze’s boarding house just as well. Some of the film’s biggest laughs are at the expense of poor Charlotte Haze, a big-hearted but obnoxious woman who’s too lovestruck by Humbert to realize what a monster he is. For every flirtatious advance Charlotte makes, HUmbert replies with withering sarcasm (“Everytime you touch me, I go limp as a noodle” “Yes, I know the feeling”). Humbert even has a cruel laugh at Charlotte’s expense when she leaves a note expressing her true love for him, which he exploits to stay close to Lolita. She’s too blinded by love to realize that she’s fallen for a sociopathic pervert.

Kubrick isn’t completely heartless towards Charlotte, however. He sympathizes with her and lingers on and emphasizes her genuine pain. She’s well-meaning, and her messy humanity certainly stands out against Humbert and Quilty’s cold calculation. Kubrick’s real feelings come out when Charlotte finally realizes Humbert’s monstrous nature. Heartbroken, tears in her eyes, she cries out the truth: “you’re a disgusting, despicable, loathsome, criminal fraud!” But Kubrick’s a consummate ironist, and he can’t help but see the dark humor of a woman so blinded by love that she stops protecting her only family.

By this point Kubrick had taken to putting down Spartacus, but there’s little denying that the earlier film taught him a valuable lesson: namely, that a cast need not follow the script to the letter, and that he could reform the film entirely through careful manipulation of their performances. Kubrick told his cast to memorize their lines, then to forget them and improvise, and the result was a film that feels every bit as alive and new as what the French New Wave was doing at the time. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a game cast: James Mason, dignified but with a sly sense of snark and entitlement; Shelly Winters, a hurricane of human emotion; and Peter Sellers, one of the screen’s great comic masters and chameleons, playing a man who, much like Sellers himself, slips on whatever persona or skin benefits him for any given time.

Of course, Kubrick’s just as adept with the camera as he is working with actors. Lolita stands as a halfway point between the early Kubrick masterpieces of The Killing and Paths of Glory and the Kubrick that would revolutionize the world with Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director shows the same predilection to long, fluid tracking shots borrowed from Max Ophuls and the gorgeous use of deep focus he takes from Orson Welles, but there’s a great sense of foreboding and discomfort that comes with it. Quilty’s murder scene plays like Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux staged in Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, and Kubrick’s use of symmetry in his shots is often unnerving. Kubrick also uses deep focus to pack the film with scenes of characters making terrible mistakes by paying attention to the wrong thing- Charlotte watching handsome Humbert when she should see how he watches Lolita with her hula hoop, or Humbert at a motel, too inwardly focused to realize that Quilty is toying with him and plotting against him.

And yet the director is still playful, as seen in a gorgeous form cut as Humbert slyly insinuates his way into Lolita’s life, only for Kubrick to cut to a shot of a monster movie. Even better is a slapstick scene worthy of Chaplin as Humbert and a hotel employee try desperately to fix a cot that just won’t quite unfold the right way. And there’s a number of great sick jokes as Kubrick focuses on Sue Lyon, sexualized in a way that’s meant to make the audience deeply uncomfortable- and it works.

Most of Kubrick’s films are, to some degree, about entrapment, and Lolita is no exception. Kubrick’s roving camera is a beautiful stylistic choice, but it’s also indicative of the film’s theme of people who try, desperately, to get away from whatever comes between them and what they want. An early scene in Charlotte’s boarding home shows Humbert practically running from Charlotte, only for her to inevitably catch up with him and trap him (Mason’s expression this whole time: priceless). Charlotte’s misguided affection, while tragic, does briefly keep the man away from her daughter- it’s a classic Kubrickian three-way conflict between monster, mother, and daughter, without Charlotte ever realizing what the stakes are until it’s too late. Humbert uses this sense of entrapment to his advantage, however, after Charlotte’s accidental death, and the film becomes a tale of a monster who won’t let the true heroine of the film go. That said, she’s edging towards the sociopath who truly captured her heart- Clare Quilty, the three-way conflict now being monster vs. girl vs. monster.

Lolita is, by nature,  a tale of sexuality, but it’s also a classic Kubrickian tale of repression. When Charlotte and Humbert first meet, she notably has a cigarette-holder in her mouth, but her overt sexuality clashes with Humbert’s repressed disgust and barely hidden feelings for her daughter. Humbert’s discomfort is not only with Charlotte- it’s with the rest of humanity. When Humbert reluctantly attends a party with the Haze family, Charlotte’s friend suggests that Humbert should make his move, and further suggests that she and her husband are “broad-minded”. The look of barely-hidden contempt on Mason’s face is all too clear. Contrast that with Sellers’ Quilty, equally leery and loathsome but far better at hiding it with a nasty sense of charm.

Humbert’s repression slowly falls away as he comes closer to Lolita, but it’s clear that she’s not responsible for their sick relationship. There’s a clear flirtatiousness to Lolita, but it plays less like that of the nymphet (allow me to recover from throwing up in my mouth a bit) that Humbert sees and more like a teenage girl who knows how to wield her sexuality without understanding the consequences. She knows what Humbert wants because she’s been lusted after by plenty of men before (most notably Quilty, whom she’s clearly smitten with), but she’s still just a kid, and it’s little more than a game to her. That game grows tiresome, however, as she’s repressed herself by Humbert’s obsessive control over her every action.

This comes to the greatest recurring theme in Kubrick’s filmography- dehumanization. The film begins showing two sick men, Humbert and Quilty, at the end of their respective ropes, one boozy and messy, the other spurned by a girl he loved. There’s no doubt that their disgusting actions have brought them to ruin, and their downfalls are well-deserved considering their treatment of Charlotte and Lolita. Humbert’s cruelty towards Charlotte, his basic disregard for her humanity, is often funny, but Kubrick doesn’t admire his coldness as much as he empathizes with the messy, sad, silly individual that is Charlotte Haze.

Kubrick also shows more concern over Lolita’s escape from both odious men- she’s the put-upon heroine who manages to escape (Kubrick threw out the section in Nabokov’s book that suggests Lolita died during childbirth). She’s snotty to her mother in the way that teenagers often are, but her world truly comes crashing down as she realizes that she has no one to rely on but loathsome, manipulative Humbert, whose transformation from sly monster to pathetic monster is practically cheered at. As Lolita gains her independence and Humbert and Quilty tumble towards a sad, pathetic death, there’s hardly a sense that any of it is undeserved.

Lolita is such a rich and vital film from Kubrick that it’s almost churlish to point out how much of a mess it often is. The first half of the film is mostly masterful, but as soon as Humbert and Lolita take to the road the film becomes lumpy in rhythm and episodic to a fault. Kubrick felt that the book dragged after Humbert and Lolita got together, but the real problem is that it’s hard to make the second half of the story work cinematically- it’s heavily reliant on Humbert’s delightfully acerbic observations and the sense that he’s growing increasingly unhinged. Kubrick and company create some terrific scenes along the way, but they don’t often cohere as well as they should.

Kubrick also struggles with the material dealing directly with Lolita. Kubrick and producer James B. Harris decided that they’d best placate the censors of the time by raising Lolita’s age from 12 to 14 and casting a girl who looks much older. Lyon, 16 years old at the time, isn’t bad as Lolita, but she doesn’t quite capture the girl’s youthful spirit beyond teenage brattiness and precociousness. She feels a bit too old for the role, which is frustratingly necessary for the film to have even been made.

Kubrick also has trouble with a coda that shows Humbert and Lolita briefly meet once more some years later before Humbert’s fateful murder of Quilty. If Lyon was too old for the girlish Lolita, she’s almost comically too young for an older-but-wiser version of the girl. In the book, Lolita is still only 17 at the meeting, but Kubrick dresses Lyon in dowdy clothes and big glasses as if that’s all she needs to look older. It’s a case of a young actress playing dress up in a role that she’s theoretically the right age for. The coda isn’t completely without its bright spots, however, as there’s an indelible moment where Humbert realizes that Quilty, not he, was the love of Lolita’s life, and that he’ll never be nearly as important to her. Mason plays the scene beautifully as a man whose heartbreak finally brings him within a spitting distance of humanity. It’s a scene that’s emblematic of the film: not entirely successful, but fascinating and rich in a way that makes its biggest missteps forgivable.

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