My resolution to write shorter movie reviews will commence after this one—there is just way too much to ramble on about incoherently, after just seeing Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita, projected on film at Milwaukee's 1927 Oriental Theatre in the year 2018's invigorating autumn season. That said, I'm not really going to write about the movie (or the book), about both of which you can find hundreds, thousand of articles, entire books, dissertations, interviews, reviews, and podcasts. No stone has been left unturned... except for one. That's a joke; hundreds, thousands of stones have been left unturned. That's my belief, anyway. There are two types of people, those who believe it's all been done, all been said, and those who believe there are thousands of stones yet unturned.
I was immediately thrown off-balance when the remarkably young woman taking tickets at the theater automatically assumed I should pay the lower, senior citizen discount price. This has never happened to me before, and I said, “But I'm not...”—but then, never one to pass up a bargain, happily accepted. Or not so happily. Okay, I'm bald and fat and my thrift-store clothes fit weirdly... but that never happens. Then I saw another theater employee gyrating with a Hula Hoop near the auditorium entrance and it dawned on me... I'd been taken for a lollipop. The Oriental has been doing fun and inventive promotional stuff, and automatically offering any men over the age of 30 (roughly my demographic) the “senior discount” when buying a ticket to Lolita was a brilliant bit of performance art. Then, laughing like a madman, I tried to pee once more—and miss as much of the pre-feature stuff before this too-long, intermission-less movie—while thinking about my history with Lolita.
In just my second year in college at Ohio State University I had a class with a professor named Morris Beja, and I guess it was the English department, but it was about film adaptations from literature. We used his just published book, Film and Literature (1979)—another book I should still have but can't find anywhere. It was one of my favorite classes ever, and I think it kind of spoiled me. I saw a lot of great movies for the first time in that class. One of the assignments was to read Nabokov's Lolita (and I haven't read it since), after which we screened Kubrick's film version. It occurs to me now, the combination of the two is like giving LSD to a child (I was a young 19 year-old), but it must have been a really good class because it's always been one of my warmest school memories. It would be many (I'm not sure how many) years until I would watch that movie again, wanting to relive that magical feeling, but after my second viewing I decided it was Kubrick's worst failure. And now, after this, maybe my third or fourth viewing of the movie, I've totally come around to it again and think it's a great movie, in spite of the twin towers of pedophiliac monsters. Also, in spite of the really terrible ending—I mean, what the hell, with that ending? It's not like Kubrick doesn't know what a good ending is (see Dr. Strangelove, maybe the best ending in the history of cinema). I'm sure I could read more about it, but I hate reading “movie trivia”—I'd prefer to speculate. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that Nabokov wrote the screenplay (which, naturally, was monstrously long). Asking a novelist to write a screenplay is kind of like asking an architect to cook a soufflé—you may well get something flat and delicious, but if it rises, you're probably better off just taking a picture.
I don't normally like to dwell on performances in movies, but this one is over the top, so I'll dwell for a paragraph or two. First of all, Shelley Winters is great—as good as anyone in this film—but she dies before we're halfway through it, so you kind of forget. Also, she's so good at this part (she's Lolita's mom) that she makes you profoundly uncomfortable. In a movie that is equal parts comedy and tragedy, her performance is almost perfectly equal parts comedy and tragedy. Sue Lyon plays Lolita, and it was her first movie at age 14 or something, and it's kind of incredible just how good she is at saying so much with subtle looks. The character, Lolita, knows more of what's going on than anyone in the movie while still being, on the other hand, a somewhat goofy, clueless kid. But really tragic, too—after losing both parents, she has to balance relationships with two formidable, pedophile predators. One of those, Clare Quilty, is played by Peter Sellers whose performance is one of the most insane I've ever seen. When I first viewed this movie, seeing how the Clare Quilty character is one of the major differences from the novel (as I recall), I had the idea that Peter Sellers was this out-of-control force of nature that Kubrick just couldn't contain. Of course that's ridiculous, knowing how obsessive Kubrick was about his films, and now that I see all of Kubrick's films as comedies, this performance makes perfect sense. I mean, his movies aren't comedies, but they're all funnier than comedies. What is a comedy, anyway? I don't find most comedy at all funny, actually, but I find all of Kubrick's movies hilarious.
One of my earliest moviegoing memories is seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) at the drive-in, which of course freaked me out, as a little kid, but nothing freaked me out so much as the conflict in the Captain Nemo character, played by James Mason. Was he good or was he evil, a hero or a villain? Of course, that conflict is central to the story, but James Mason really made it the thing that makes me watch that movie whenever I have a chance. He's such a good-looking, suave actor, he could have had a whole career playing corny heroes and comic romantic interests, but he must have preferred playing complicated, complex, flawed characters, like the one in Bigger Than Life (1956), one of my favorite movies, and Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954). The latest version (is it like the seventh or eighth version?) of A Star Is Born is coming out any day, and I have high hopes for it because it's one of my favorite Hollywood stories. After seeing this new one, if you haven't, you owe it to yourself to go back and watch the 1954 version. Anyway, just because I love James Mason so much, I've had enormous conflict every time I've watched Lolita; it's hard for me not to relate to him—I mean, just as my favorite actor, I guess—but his character really is reprehensible in this movie. Besides being a pedophile and a murderer, he's also—well, not worse, but more relatable to most—an insufferable jealous boyfriend.
Talking about remakes, there was one of this movie (or maybe a “fresh” adaptation of the book) in 1997—I can't remember if I saw it or not, but I remember thinking there was no point in it (except for maybe Jeremy Irons in the Humbert Humbert part—excellent casting!). Anyway, at some point in my latest viewing, most likely during one of Peter Sellers' incredibly long, bizarre monologues, I thought of a really great idea for another remake (or new adaptation) of Lolita—but this one, instead of from the point of view of Humbert, would be from Clare Quilty's point of view. (Of course, who could possibly play Quilty after Peter Sellers? Maybe Johnny Depp?) It cracked me up that he was always with this woman, Vivian Darkbloom, who never says anything. My idea is that whenever Clare Quilty is in public, he's a manic, talking non-stop, doing characters, constant jokes. But then when he and Vivian Darkbloom are together in private, he says nothing, just sits around depressed while she talks non-stop. Maybe that's in the book, or maybe someone's already done it, or maybe it's just pretty thin, but I do like the idea of seeing this story from another point of view. Maybe not Quilty's after all—maybe Vivian Darkbloom's.
I asked the internet about Vivian Darkbloom and noticed that someone mentioned the name is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov—so what does that mean?—worth looking into? I also noticed, at one point in the movie, a poster, I think, that said “Drome”—and this struck me as weird because I'd never heard that word except for Drome Records, the old Cleveland punk label. I didn't make a note of it, though, during the movie, and totally forgot. Then on my way home I was trying to remember what the thing was I wanted to remember, but it was gone. Then when I got home, there was mail—a total surprise—a vinyl LP my friend Jeff Curtis had sent me, from Cleveland, by the late-Seventies punk band Bernie & The Invisibles—and in the liner notes there's stuff about Drome Records—so this brought it right back! What do you make of coincidences like that? So I asked the internet about this Drome poster and it turns out it's a made-up brand of cigarettes, with some significance to Nabokov. If you want, you can look all this stuff up on the internet, and re-read the book, and watch the movie via DVD, paying attention to all those details. But I'm warning you, you don't want to go down either a Nabokov rabbit-hole nor a Kubrick rabbit-hole—and both together, forget it it—that's more like a subterranean rabbit colony catacomb—and you may never get out.
Randy Russell 9.27.18