Monday, March 6, 2017

LOLITA

   The writer hereby speculates that we were not necessarily intended to like the movie Lolita (1962). That is not to say that director Stanley Kubrick (who only used twenty percent of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's adapted screenplay and wrote the rest himself) did not want us to enjoy the movie. I mean that he did not intend for us to approve of it. The only people Kubrick hoped would approve of it were the Catholic Legion of Decency and the souls behind the Hayes Code. It is fair to say that neither group had the director on their Christmas list, but the movie was released with the consent of the Production Code of America, in large part because producer James Harris and Kubrick worked with the director of the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock. Kubrick tried his damnedest to convince Shurlock that this movie about pedophilia was no such thing. It was actually a dark and smart comedy that poked fun at a middle-aged professor's fascination with a young girl. 
   Shurlock was not immediately convinced. 
   Kubrick upped the young girl from twelve to fourteen and made sure his casting director, James Liggat, gave the title role to a relative unknown, in this case a seventeen-year-old named Sue Lyon. He also made certain that the role of the curious professor, Humbert Humbert, went to an actor whose career was in decline, in this case, to James Mason. (Granted, the other actors Kubrick wanted all turned him down--David Niven, Rex Harrison and Noel Coward among them). Casting Peter Sellers in the role of Clare Quilty was expected to take the edge off as well.
   But what really got the film into the theaters was the tone of the movie. Instead of Humbert and Lolita doing the nasty under the sheets, the sexuality was rather more implied and that is one of the reasons why, despite not approving of the movie--even after fifty-five years--we can at least like it. In fact, that is one of the reasons the genius of Lolita endures. 
   When we meet the young Dolores (Lolita), she is tanning in the backyard in a bikini. Humbert rents a room from the girl's mother, Charlotte (Shelley Winters). To be close to Lolita, Humbert pretends to care for Charlotte. But being the academic type, he cannot help but write the truth of his feelings in his diary. When Charlotte discovers how Humbert actually feels, she runs out into the street where she meets with a prompt demise. 
   The closer Humbert gets to Lolita--and her attempts at flirtation early on suggest that she has been to the movies a few times herself--the more she is compelled to manipulate him without giving him precisely what she believes he wants. He has custody of the child and when she behaves as a girl of her temptations reasonably might, Humbert writhes with visible and expressed jealousy. 
   Depending upon one's own personal chemistry, one might find Lolita's rebuffing to be exactly what the oldster has coming. One might also feel a bit of pity for the professor. It is unlikely one would feel both, at least simultaneously. 
   It is only once we recognize the danger that the long-lingering playwright Quilty presents to Lolita that we begin to reluctantly join motivation with Humbert. But even then we risk being taken in by the charm that Sellers brings to his character. When Humbert arrives at Quilty's house with the intent of murdering him, Humbert demands to know for certain if this strange fellow is in fact Quilty. Sellers replies, "No, I'm Spartacus. You come to free the slaves?" (Two years earlier Kubrick had directed the film Spartacus.)
   Our allegiances are never solid. They cannot be because the story keeps shifting us until we begin to sense that this is not a comedy--dark or otherwise. This is a classic tragedy lacking only a hero to provide catharsis. 
   Although Lolita was technically Kubrick's fifth feature-length film (preceded by Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus), this was the first time the director used his tremendous talents to affect what I have referred to elsewhere as a Stanley Milgram type of audience manipulation. By dazzling us with directorial expertise, he establishes his authority just as Milgram's instructors established theirs with white lab coats. Instead of telling us "The experiment must continue," Kubrick tells us, "You must see what happens next."
   Just as with Milgram's subjects, once we become slowly aware that this was an experiment--only a movie--we feel even more wrecked than we did when we allowed ourselves to believe it was happening. When Milgram's "teachers" believed they were shocking the "learners" with high voltage electricity, they did so because following orders gave them more comfort than refusing to do so would have. When we see that what Humbert feels for Lolita is more love than lust, we gain an insight that is every bit as disturbing as Milgram's revelations.


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