As my entry to The Great Movie Debate blogathon hosted by Citizen Screenings and The Cinematic Packrat I submit this debate on Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA (1962). Note, before you continue, that I had the nerve to ask Joe of Nitrate Stock to go a round or two with me on this film. If you’re unaware, Joe is as dedicated and knowledgeable a movie fan as there is and his site is a must for anyone in or near New York City as he discusses key film screenings for the classic and repertory fan. This debate, a term I use lightly, may well turn out to be one-sided, but I’m determined to give it a go.
Before we begin, a bit of background information:
When Stanley Kubrick made LOLITA Hollywood was broadening its acceptance of slightly more scandalous stories to be tackled on film. Martin Scorsese said that at a time when American cinema was on its way down, due to the collapse of the studio system, with LOLITA, Kubrick made a film that made people “stop and look” at the possibilities or at what American cinema would become. In that regard Kubrick pushed the envelope with LOLITA, not only by tackling the controversial topic – an older man infatuated with a young girl – but also in the way he filmed it.
LOLITA is appreciated by most today and did well at the box office upon its release, but the film had a terrible distribution problem. The Catholic Church succeeded in holding it back for over six months due to its subject matter. Kubrick had to re-cut the film to make it “acceptable” for release and later said he would have chosen not to do it had he known the limitations that would be placed on him and his film. It’s interesting to consider what the film would have been like had the director been able to make it his way, but as it stands both Joe and I have opinions – and here they are:
While I admire Stanley Kubrick’s penchant for originality and sticking to his guns as far as his art was concerned, I am not necessarily a fan of his films in general. There are a few I think are great, but that’s not the case for all and LOLITA is one of them.
To begin, I think it’s important despite subject matter that the audience identifies with at least one character in a film in some way. You get none of that in LOLITA. Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged professor who’s obsessed with the film’s 14-year-old title character has absolutely no redeeming quality, leaving no chance for anyone to identify with him. While I understand he is a despicable character and that the film deals with pedophilia, which is not a topic to be necessarily understood by most people, the lack of “build-up” in the movie in that regard leaves a flat character arc despite a good performance by James Mason. Humbert starts off as creepy as he ends up even after the long and tiresome journey we are made privy to.
Similarly, Charlotte Hayes, the teenager’s mother, played by Shelley Winters dives right in to the height of annoying desperation as soon as we meet her and only gains ground on a scale of insufferable pathetic in subsequent scenes. Yet again, there’s nowhere to go. We get it in the first few minutes, after which I am always eager for the movie to end.
Having just recently watched PATHS OF GLORY again, I can’t help but compare it with LOLITA as far as efficiency goes. Kubrick succeeds in telling a disturbing story in PATHS in an in-your-face manner that pulls no punches rendering the viewer unable to look away, as I mentioned in my recent commentary on that movie, despite the disturbing nature of the story. That’s what makes PATHS one of, if not THE, greatest of his films in my opinion. With LOLITA Kubrick throws efficiency out the window and makes a tedious movie filled with tedious scenes any number of which go on for far too long. Add the superfluous Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) scenes, which disrupt the story at every turn allowing for yet another reason for me to turn this thing off. I’m not a fan of Peter Sellers’ brand of weird to begin with so when his Quilty routines, which are how I see them, appear in the movie without reason the best they do is, again, disrupt the story. Every time I watch LOLITA it occurs to me that a 15-minute cautionary PSA would have been more effective.
Oh yeah? Well double nyeh on you! And good day madam!
Oh there’s a word count? And that wasn’t enough?
First off I’d like to thank my good friend and host Citizen Screen for inviting me to join her for this lively discussion. I found the prospect most inviting not merely because of my debate partner’s cred, but because the film, while the product of one of my fave filmmakers, is also one I find myself regarding the least, though not holding it in the least regard.
LOLITA is a tricky film, as outlined by my colleague’s opening salvo, not a work for every taste. It marks for me the second phase of Kubrick’s career, one where he began to mess with audience’s heads well in advance of the dimming of the lights. As Aurora mentioned, the very selection of the Nabokov novel as suitable screen material was cause for scandal back in the Kennedy era, an atmosphere not merely predicted but provoked by the auteur. It was a practice he would continue for the rest of his career, one in which I draw my own line of demarcation (anything post-CLOCKWORK, that’s the subject for a different blogathon). To be fair, I’ve only ever really compared phases of his career to each other, not so much his individual films. I’ve often compared his 1st phase to his 2nd, but rarely if ever, say, PATHS OF GLORY to LOLITA. While I admit the WWI courtroom procedural is the better film, tighter, surer, I also think, were I to compare the two, that it’s the easier task between them. Yes, there are no likable characters in LOLITA, but PATHS is non-complex, never wavering in its loyalties to one set of characters or its indictment of another. It’s 90 minutes of hissing at the black hats, though granted nobody could hiss quite like Kirk. Effective, yet simplistic by comparison to the much more complicated, savvier, blacker comment on postwar American consumerism, where the object of desire has devolved from the staples of status to debauchery itself. The manicured lawn and the Buick aren’t enough anymore, American virginity itself is the latest must-own.
PATHS OF GLORY is a pristine examination of dignity in the face of dishonor and the dishonorable. LOLITA is about undignified characters made worse by their lusts, their ambitions, their belief in a consequence-free society, the very thing promised by Madison Avenue’s postwar dream factory. Humbert is a pilgrim to this most foreign land, a onetime colony that has grown too mature too quickly, much like the American teenager of the 50’s and 60’s. I don’t think Kubrick is ever on his side, ever promoting of his desire to defile this symbol of New World purity, this hula-hooping Id. I don’t, actually, think he’s on the side of any of the characters in the film. However, while he indulges in black social farce, and actually finds humor in the material (something that would later turn to full-blown humorless misanthropy, hence my post-CLOCKWORK distaste), he allows the characters their humanity, he grants them their moments of suffering. Yes, they’re building their own gallows, and yes the whole purpose of the exercise is to witness, even wallow, in their tragedies, but Kubrick exhibits some compassion for the players in the game. The ingredient perhaps most responsible for this potential empathy is star James Mason, a BIG favorite of mine, in what perhaps might be his finest 2hrs 25. Always excelling (and therefore always typecast) as manhood somehow compromised, whether slapping Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN or hinting at a very particular type of war wound in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (The Nautlius? Must we consult Freud?), he is given perhaps his most emasculated role in LOLITA, the initially smug professor, regarding the crass culture he must endure while on academic business with disdain, ultimately descending not through Hell’s circles, but its hoops. He ultimately is putting on the show for Lolita, not, as he believed, vice versa. He navigates the journey from villain to tragic wretch, maintaining not only our interest but ultimately earning our pity. He’s a miserable figure, from beginning til unbearably so at film’s end, and it was the height of bravery to accept the part, the apex of his talents to retire the jersey on it.
So what say ye, Aurora? Have I swayed you at all?
Hardly, Mr. film scholar! And yes, that’s what you are. I, however, am much more of a casual film viewer, which basically means the movies I watch must offer – first and foremost – entertainment. You explain the merits of LOLITA beautifully, but I’m afraid its value as social commentary is lost on me while I struggle to get through the muck. I’m just not interested in these people or their downward spiral and if that was Kubrick’s intent then kudos. But that disinterest goes far in making me want to step away early in this case. And that disinterest goes for Humbert Humbert most of all. While I agree that Mason portrays the wretch truthfully and bravely, I never pity him if only because he reaches those depths in monotonous disquietude. Let’s move on, I get it! Cut a good 45 minutes from this puppy and I’d still get it. And we get back to excess – inherent in the story and the telling of it as a sign of the times, a message that could have been delivered more effectively without going to cinematic extremes. And by “extremes” I mean among other things, but most conspicuously – what is Peter Sellers doing in this movie?
One other thing, Joe, with regard to the comparison between LOLITA and the far more effective PATHS OF GLORY – I agree with you that a comparison is not merited and I mentioned both only because I saw them in such close proximity so that the difference in efficiency struck me. However, that efficiency warrants another mention now since you so eloquently describe the simplicity of PATHS vs. the complexity of LOLITA. There’s a lesson to be learned for sure. Stanley Kubrick takes us through literal muck in the former, albeit simpler story so that we never doubt the film’s position and revels in the muck of the latter ad nauseam. I’ll take simplicity almost every time, which is why I am not a fan of several of Mr. Kubrick’s later efforts.
HARRUMPH, ma’am! No one calls me a film scholar and gets away with it!
Firstly let me correct myself: if I implied that the comparison between PATHS OF GLORY and LOLITA was an improper one, that was not my intent. I only meant to convey that I hadn’t quite considered it before. Indeed, it’s a pretty entertaining and thought-provoking exercise matching the pair, not merely due to their parentage but their emblematic status of their representative eras, separated by a mere 5 years. PATHS is fairly straightforward populist filmmaking, an Eisenhower war flick whose only grey exists between the black and white of the photography. This is no knock by the way: few filmmakers got material this sober and somber this right in execution. No pun intended. As I said, I agree it’s the superior film, but I maintain LOLITA might be the more interesting effort. PATHS ends tragically, with a slim glimmer of humanity fanned, the ability of the frightened tavern girl to crack the hard hearts of the raucous, weathered soldiers with her trembling warble. Indeed, in this scene Kubrick first displays a propensity for conflating an assemblage of unappealing faces and behavior with humanity’s enduring ugliness, something he’d soon and routinely overindulge, and that Woody Allen would be criticized for on multiple occasions much later.
By “soon overindulge” I say…you’re not kidding! There’s little else but humanity’s enduring ugliness in LOLITA, as far as I’m concerned. Interesting effort? Perhaps. I certainly recognize the gall it took for any filmmaker to have taken on this particular subject, one that would still be a difficult one to tackle today. So I do give Kubrick his due for being a nonconformist, which is what I most admire about his career despite the fact that I am not a fan of much of his work. I most definitely respect the artist.
On the statement you make regarding the “populist” PATHS vs. LOLITA, I will concede that the subject matter in LOLITA is inherently distasteful so the fact I want to continually look away, versus being rendered unable to in PATHS, is understandable. Or, not necessarily due to how the story is told, which is what I have a problem with.
LOLITA, by comparison, ends tragically with a sad excuse for humanity, Humbert’s decision to leave his stepdaughter/”succubus” with the entirety of the estate, and the remainder of his equity as well. It’s by no means redemptive of his callow and callous decision-making and behavior, which has brought ruin to him, but it does show that perhaps his only virtue, albeit misguided, remains intact: his devotion. Nor is Sue Lyons’ nymphet concluded as soulless Harpie, instead afforded a short moment of exposition, of clumsy explanation. It’s a scene and an act that remains cringe-worthy to this day, for more than a couple of reasons, yet that alone may be enough cause to champion it, and it stands in harsh contrast to later films Kubrick would make, wherein the participants were regarded with and afforded no empathy whatsoever.
I don’t see Humbert’s final purge, as a manifestation of any kind of devotion, but I get what you mean. As far as Lolita and Lyon’s portrayal – probably due to a “softening” of the character due to censorship issues, she never quite comes across as anything but a figure important in order to realize Humbert’s perversion. Lolita ends up with as “normal” a life as one would expect/want someone of such a young age to end up – with the prospect of a “normal” future in any case, which is where I go regarding this character. That is, if I cared enough to think of any these people as having a future. I am never that invested in them.
I have to say I do find certain works of cinema, ones that showcase not merely anti-heroes but persons damn near irredeemable, as close as lead characters can be to worthless but whose story retains worth enough for the telling, when well-motivated and executed, to be fascinating fare. As such LOLITA shares shelf space with Scorsese’s RAGING BULL and Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, films that do not excuse the actions of the truly wretched yet still ask the audience to spare some sympathy, even empathy. It’s a dare: how far can I take you down this person’s pilgrimage to hell while still asking you to see some part of your own weakness within them. Humbert is indeed despicable, yet I appreciate the Kubrick adap, perhaps unfairly in contrast to his later, crueler focus. As much bleak and black humor as he derives from the proceedings it might be the last time he saw enough awful fragility within himself to spare his bad actors some, dare I say, mercy?
There’s a lot of interesting psychology in your statements there. I take my hat off to you, Joe – I can’t even go there with this one. I will add, however, that I find your mention of both BLUE JASMINE and RAGING BULL interesting and valuable from a character perspective. From the storytelling one I want to point out a difference that gets to the center of my problem with LOLITA. That is that both Scorsese and Allen allow for respite from the depth of despair in the main characters. I feel sympathy for both of those main characters, while I can summon none for Humbert. Go figure.
ALTHOUGH, if I were allowed an uninterrupted story ie. sans Quilty then who knows?
Which brings me to Clare Quilty, and Peter Sellers. I find him not only not superfluous, but crucial to the twisted morality play at hand. He is both the product of Humbert’s sins, a quizzling imp perfectly at home in this plastic amoral wasteland,
and the hot poker prodding what’s left of the aloof linguist’s conscience. He is the worst manifestation of this manufactured New World, with all its decadence and disingenuousness and deceptiveness. If this is modern myth he is Loki, the trickster, come to a land even more equipped to avail his worst tendencies, except he is properly placed to torment a lead character most decidedly un-Thor. If Humbert pretends to any proprietary panoply, and thinks this sufficient replacement for his lapsed morality, Quilty is never far behind, literally, seemingly conjured to disabuse this sinner of his delusions. A case could even be made, I’m sure, that Quilty doesn’t even exist beyond Humbert’s paltry, putrid imagination, that he is indeed the ethereal manifestation of his self-hatred, a Tyler Durden from the birth of post-modern culture, one also none too beloved or beloving of his inadequate host self. Except he is corporeal, not absolute devil, as evidenced by his ultimate mortality, unless you view this final act as provoked suicide, last nail driven in Humbert’s coffin, purpose fulfilled. But I think the point of their dynamic is thus; even a minor devil can be raised to major status. Provided the sin is great enough.
Although you’re too open-minded to do so, I’ve been told I’m crazy in the past for not enjoying Sellers’ stint as Quilty in LOLITA one iota. You make some great points, though and I will admit that it has occurred to me – on occasion – that Quilty is indeed a manifestation of Humbert’s alter ego or the part of himself he despises most. The thought came as I tried to overcome the “what the hell is this?” annoyance I feel at watching those scenes. I’m not saying you’re saying I’m clueless, but I may well be in all matter of things that fall well outside my comfort zone and this may be one of them. But, that view of Quilty – as being a “part” of Humbert – is one I retreat from because I cannot get past the indulgence. In fact, it’s personally insulting on some level. Is that strange?
But fair play: if you see nothing more than terrible human beings, that’s exactly what’s on display. And I’m not condescendingly implying I’m privy to deeper levels of the film than you might be. All art is subjective, and by all means there are tens of thousands of stories with far more redeemable characters to award your sympathies. How ’bout this: let’s widen the compare/contrast to Kubrick’s entire CV and then cinema in general. Whatsezye?
It is subjective and you’ve certainly given me lots to think about. It’ll be a while before I revisit LOLITA, however. A cleansing of the cinematic palette is in order. And, if I haven’t bored you to tears I’d really enjoy the task you’ve set before me. Let’s continue the debate as you suggest and see what happens.
I can’t thank you enough, Joe for taking the time to do this. It’s been a blast.
Becketchya Bebeh! I never get tired of talking film, and it was an interesting task championing a film I deem important yet flawed, against an opposing POV that considers it a post-modern meh. Each argument carries equal ballast methinks, and I think we’ve utilized said jumping off points to concoct a dialogue worthy of interest. Now let’s see if the comments section proves me right. Thanks again, and what are we discussing next?
Love that enthusiasm and I hope you enjoyed this debate. Joe and I may be back with more opinions, but for now this one’s for The Great Movie Debate blogathon hosted by Citizen Screenings and The Cinematic Packrat. Please be sure to visit the host sites for more arguments for and against notable films.