Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Fifteen

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#15 — Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
From 1956’s The Killing on, every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films was drawn from a novel, many of them the sort of prickly, complicated tomes that are tagged as “unfilmable,” a term the director undoubtedly found to be a creative aphrodisiac rather than an actual warning. Through it all, he may not have found an author better suited to feed him source material than Vladimir Nabokov, the two creators sharing a bleak sense of humor and a wicked intelligence, which led widespread misinterpretation of their work. Lolita, Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a literary scholar named Humbert Humbert who develops an obsessive passion for a girl who hasn’t even crossed into her teens, the girl of the title with the name that requires one’s tongue to take “a trip of three steps down the palate” to speak it. Dismissed by those who should have known better as mere trash and pornography–pronouncements that grew ever louder when it reached more prudish American shores in 1958–to even attempt to film Lolita was a provocation, particularly at a time before the introduction of a ratings system loosened up the standards of what could be presented in American films. Kubrick later noted that the monumental struggles he had in caressing the content to suit the norms of the day were such that he wouldn’t have opted to make it had he correctly anticipated the burden. Luckily, he underestimated the forces he was up against, because, no matter the difficulties, by pressing ahead he made a great film.

Kubrick’s one concession was to tick the age of Lolita up a couple years, at least by implication, as he cast fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon in the title role. For Humbert, Kubrick enlisted James Mason as Humbert and found a true ringer for key antagonist Clare Quilty in Peter Sellers (who he’d use even more effectively a couple years later, but we’ll get to that later). I’ve noted before that Kubrick was a satirist so masterful that his comic deconstructions become almost indiscernible from sincerity, and that quality is in full evidence here. Just as Nabokov’s novel was (and still is, amazingly enough) often misread as a offbeat love story instead of a portrait of ludicrous, self-destructive obsession, so to does Kubrick’s rendering of the material so perfectly cleave to the warped reality that springs up in Humbert’s head and heart that some undoubtedly don’t get the joke, even with the sly clowning of Sellers around the fringes. The ad campaigns for the film famously asked, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The answer, it seems to me, is clear: by exposing the spiritual corrosion at the core of Humbert that leads him down this ill-conceived path.

The framing of individual moments is astonishing. Others may have been more adept at the flow of narrative, but precious few rivaled Kubrick when it came to the art of structuring a shot, a talent matched by a bearish confidence to hold with a scene well past the point of unbearable discomfort. Lolita is funny, but it’s also painful, challenging and toxically engrossing, leaving the viewer without a single character with whom allegiance can be comfortably placed. The earliest scenes draw much of their humor from Humbert’s somewhat stuffy, unsettled responses to rumbling American effusiveness (all of it played marvelously well by Mason), and there’s a sense that Kubrick is exposing the damage that could be wrought by his homeland’s culture as it grew increasingly clear the entirety of the nineteen-hundreds were irrevocably the American Century. Lolita was the film that caused Kubrick to relocate to the United Kingdom, a move that became permanent. Kubrick never disavowed the States, but Lolita carries some twinkling of the reasons he was never in all that much of a hurry to return. As only a young teenager, Lolita is the future of the country, after all, and as alluring as it may be that future is also destructive.

Before I veer too closely to the sort of over-analysis that leads people to see minotaurs on the wall of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, I’ll concede that it could very well be far simpler than that. A major recurring theme in Kubrick’s work the damaging results that come from masculine hubris and selfishness. That thesis works just fine too. Whatever hidden messages may (or may not) exist, Lolita is a testament to the value of concentrated intellect in storytelling, and that complimentary notion is applicable to either the prose or cinematic authors of the piece.

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