Friday 7 June 2019

Kubism, Part 6:
Lolita (1962)

With the grand folly of Spartacus mercifully over, Stanley Kubrick turned his back on epic melodrama and sweaty blokes in their underpants. For his next project all the conflict would be internalised in the tortured soul of just one sweaty bloke, and this time it would be a fourteen-year-old girl in the skimpies. Undeterred by the possibility that a quinquagenarian lusting after a teenager might just be a little controversial, The Kube went ahead and knocked out a morally ambiguous, surprisingly touching and often downright hilarious film that walks a tightrope of taste while further muddying the waters of exactly what "A Stanley Kubrick film" is.
Lolita defies easy categorisation. By this point Stan had had a go at psychological thriller, film noir, heist flick, anti-war polemic and swords 'n' sandals epic, and would later dabble in satire, sci-fi, costume drama, horror and more war. But here's a comedy-drama about a charming, discombobulated paedophile and his amusingly desperate attempts to stick his dick in a child. And even if you count the as-yet-unmade Woody Allen biopic, that's a pretty narrow genre.

Opening in the faded glamour of a ruined mansion that serves as a psychological metaphor for both men inside it, Lolita blends tragedy and comedy from the off. James Mason's Humbert Humbert, already displaying all the signs of one of Kubrick's spectacularly flawed males, grumbles angry threats at Peter Sellers' shambling wise-ass Clare Quilty, who bats them back as comedy ping-pong balls. Within minutes Quilty will be dead, shot by Humbert over the apparent matter of a girl. What the hell kind of film is this? And how did we get here? It's a Stanley Kubrick film, so it must be time for an expository voiceover!

In fairness, if you're going to have a voiceover you may as well have James Mason deliver it: Mason's mellifluous tones slide out of your speakers like highbrow honey, all intellectual and smooth and ideal for adding to a glass of bourbon. We later find out Humbert is reading from his diary, a narrative device which tethers us to him and his disastrous voyage of poor life choices and eventual self-destruction. Stanley Kubrick there, turning his entire audience into surrogate child molestors.
Suddenly it's four years earlier and, looking for lodgings, Humbert visits the house of Charlotte Haze, played with heartbreakingly aggressive sexual desperation by Shelley Winters. Here he clocks Charlotte's young teenage daughter Lolita, reclining on the lawn in a hat and sunglasses and not a great deal more. Humbert experiences a sudden rush of blood to the penis, and his fate is sealed. What follows is unquestionably Kubrick's most inappropriately funny montage, which sees Humbert gawping at Lolita's gyrating, hula-hooping hips in his distressingly open dressing gown, deploys some flawless physical comedy in an awkward drive-in movie scene, and haemmorhages double entendres all over the shop. The chess game between Charlotte and Humbert, in which she complains "You're going to take my queen", and he replies "That is my intention, certainly", is an excruciating joy.

Yet somehow none of this feels unseemly so much as pathetic: we know that Humbert knows what he's feeling is wrong, and that conflict between desire and rationality is the driving force behind the drama. Here's an uptight divorced English scholar thrust into a world of horny American sex people living behind white picket fences (it's strongly implied that Charlotte's married friends are of the keys-in-the-bowl, pampas-grass-out-front inclination), bamboozled by his own primitive urges while fending off the unwanted advances of his tragically amorous landlady. It's ostensibly objectionable but just too funny to be offensive: Vladimir Nabokov's script, based on his own novel but almost entirely rewritten by Kubrick, uses innuendo and tragi-comic pathos to offset the potential grimness of its subject matter, and the first act sails by on James Mason's rarely-tapped comedy skills to evoke audience sympathy.
The second act is where it all starts to get a bit sinister. Lolita has been packed off to the jaw-droppingly named Camp Climax For Girls, while Humbert and Charlotte have hit rock bottom and got married to prove it. An incredible eighteen-minute, real-time scene starts light ("You just touch me and I go as limp as a noodle," teases Charlotte; "Yes, I know the feeling," Humbert replies with weary resignation) and ends with genuinely unanticipated calamity, signalling that all bets are off for whatever comes next. A conversation between four characters - one of whom is shitfaced in the bath, though barely anyone bats an eyelid - offers some trademark Kubrickian absurdity, the reappearances of the increasingly shady Clare Quilty ping the film off in a new direction, and an extended bit of slapstick with a recalcitrant fold-out bed is the unexpected prologue to a scene that culminates with one of cinema's most loaded fades to black (the significant shift in Humbert's costume design at this point speaks volumes).

Humbert's journey, which began at forbidden lust, inevitably makes a brief stop at possessive paranoia before reaching its final destination: agonisingly unrequited love. Lolita's last act is necessarily downbeat but enormously affecting, and contains the kind of revelations that make you want to watch it again, in a different light, immediately. At the very least we now know the fate of Clare Quilty's spectacles.
Stanley Kubrick would become synonymous with a dispassionate coldness, but that's a mystifying conclusion to come to after watching Lolita. Its three lead characters are complex, flawed humans, and James Mason, Shelley Winters and newcomer Sue Lyon as the titular temptress imbue them with recognisable fears and desires. And then there's Peter Sellers, doing his own thing, improvising comedy routines willy nilly in a film directed by a supposed control freak. The truth is that Kubrick encouraged improvisation, and his experience with Sellers arguably provided the necessary groundwork to allow Jack Nicholson to go full Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Stan's struggles with the Production Code and the Legion Of Decency while making Lolita are well documented and wholly unsurprising: even now, if you search "lolita kubrick", you can expect an overzealous, finger-wagging child pornography warning from Google that makes you feel guiltier than Humbert Humbert ever did. But those struggles work in the film's favour: the necessary cuts and tweaks lent Lolita an extra ambiguity, widening its appeal and leaving more to the audience's imagination, whether they like it or not. And it's that kind of ambiguity, along with Lolita's refusal to sit in any easily-definable genre box, that would characterise Kubrick's career and make him so endlessly fascinating.
Join me again soon for Dr Strangelove, Kubrick's surprise crossover into the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

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