Kubrick-fest 05 - Lolita

Kubrick courts controversy! If you haven’t seen this film, you should.

Kubrick, after the international success of Spartacus, MGM gave him a blanks check for his next project, creatively.

He chose respected Russian-American poet and novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which explores the infatuation and courting by a pedophile of his twelve year old stepdaughter.


The novel…was controversial to say the least. Upon completion, it was turned down by every major publishing house world-wide and Nabokov was forced to publish it via France’s Olympia press whose releases at the time consisted of mainly “pornographic trash” (Brain Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years , 1991). It was banned in the UK, has been banned in France, England, Argentina and New Zealand in the past, and denounced for explicit content since its publication.

Frequently portrayed as an erotic novel, it has been argued that it is a surrealist novel, and that Nabokov’s work is far more akin and linked to themes used by to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka, characterized by irony and sarcasm. This is all hotly debated to this day. Google a bit. Nabokov is in his grave and serious controversy exists today. I am sure that in the age of streaming media and pixels warring with one another on-screen, this novel and subsequent film made in “stodgy” Black and White has no relevance today.

These debates can be had here but let’s be clear: the film may not be for everyone. Bearing in mind that Kubrick had to adhere to the Hayes code, the film underwent many changes from the novel to comport with that, let alone for artistic reasons. This thread may engender hot debate. Let’s keep it civil.

Its available for streaming rental at Google Play, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes. It is not free and is a $1.99 ish rental. I’ll leave to UK/European/International participants to fill in availability in those locations in-thread. Hey, it may be banned! Let us know!

Below are 3 reasons to watch this film in images:

Reason 1

Reason 2

Reason 3

And now we are getting into the good stuff!

Again, hard for me to rewatch any of these due to time constraints, but I’ve seen everything but Kubrick-fest 00 and 01 at least 4 times, so I’ll keep posting my opinions if you guys don’t mind.

My thoughts on Lolita are complex. See, the novel is perhaps into my top 10 novels of all time list, up there with Moby Dick and War and Peace. It’s just so subtly subversive and the best example of an unreliable narrator I have ever seen, since it does never resolve the unreliableness (btw, however ever thought of the novel as erotic or something like that needs serious counseling, but I digress).

So I can’t really see the movie on its own, since I can’t really ignore the source. For the rest of Kubrick’s oeuvre I can evaluate the movie on it’s own since I either don’t know/haven’t read the source (most of them) or the movie is clearly superior to, and elevates, the source (Shining, 2001). Of everything else by Kubrick perhaps only the Clockwork Orange comes closer to Lolita as having a difficult to ignore source material, but even there the movie stands on its own for me in a way this doesn’t.

And the problem is that as an adaptation the movie does everything perfectly but for one thing. Any change to the book’s plot is for the better, imho. Also, Peter Sellers. But the the irony and social critique of the novel, the dark sense of humor, the oppressive presence of Quilty… Everything is in there…

…except the whole point of the book. Which granted, might have been impossible to do in film, but still, quite a thing to miss.

The whole novel is Humbert’s memoir, written from prison while awaiting trial. And this is, we realize, a deeply intelligent individual, good with words. It is a confession of shorts. Yes, the book seem exculpatory (to an extent) of a really deplorable character, but the point is that it is indeed an attempt by that same character to frame himself in a good light (even his name is a pseudonym, as acknowledged in the preface). Perhaps even to help himself in the upcoming trial. The whole point being that you can’t really take at face value anything in the book, but must always wonder why the stuff you read is there and why the stuff that is not there has been omitted. It’s a book you have to read against, trying to grasp what the writer of the memoir (an abuser and pedophile) was trying to hide in order to get some insight in what was really going on, since everything you see is not only through his eyes, but also manipulated by him for our reading. And in that way it manages to be a very challenging book that can be read time after time and always offer something more to discover in between the lines (and thus why it’s in my personal hall of fame).

How do you do that in film? Hell if I know, but the movie sadly doesn’t either. It has a prologue so you know where things end, but as a framing device it is certainly much less successful than the novel’s, and I think it doesn’t really add anything here.

I still like the movie a lot (how can’t one love a film with Peter Sellers acting like that?) and I think the censorship actually helped here (the novel is far from explicit, and everything even slightly suggestive is restricted to the first third or so, but the movie even dials back on this) since without the framing device everything in the movie is necessarily more “textually” true, so the extra subtlety is welcomed. It is definitely more “Kubrickian” than Spartacus and much closer to his peak. More multilayered and modern than Paths of Glory, although perhaps less clear in his intentions (which is neither good or bad).

Also, I believe it marks the beginning of Kubrick’s infatuation with improvisation on set, thanks to Peter Sellers presence there and his otherworldly improv skills. This, I think, is the hallmark of Kubrick’s best work (which I know it’s not the usual stick about carefully composed shots, but I stand by it, since in most cases the careful composed shot come after the improvisation has discovered what will be shot), taken to an extreme (perhaps too much of an extreme) in Strangelove, but responsible for the most memorable scenes in pretty much any of his movies from now on. So perhaps I can argue with @Navaronegun about Kubrick’s most important film for his career, since I think this is it, in terms of his evolution as a director. He has better movies (imho) later on, but it’s here where he finally is in command of all the skills he will later deploy. Without Peter Sellers there’s no Kubrick.

That’s a strong statement. The “infatuation with improvisation” only really continues for the next film. In many other works after that Kubrick does the exact opposite. But i’ll wait to go into that in detail when we get there.

Snd well argue about “important for his career” here soon enough. Or maybe not you might end up agreeing with me. But I’ll let my bold statement in the Spartacus thread simmer for a bit before I go into detail. :-)

Other than Strangelove, the best scenes (or at least those strongly remembered) in The Shining, Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket have very high amounts of improvisation. Eyes Wide shut and Barry Lyndon have heavy use of improv too, iirc, but those have less memorable scenes. Only 2001 is probably not there.

Totally subjective statement to you. 😀. Also hard to say “improv” when you do 100 takes with heavy direction.

Improv requires many many takes. In filmmaking improv is normally used/understood as the process to find the scene in set (thus the many takes) and one the scene is found, it’s locked and shot (Kubrick is unusual in that he started shooting from the beginning, in case something happened). Basically allowing the actors and serendipity to change the script and the shot plan as you go. Improv does not necessarily mean “let’s shoot whatever happens and it’ll stick”. It means “I don’t know exactly what we are going to do, so let’s improvise and find out something that’s better than what’s written”. It also does not mean the director not giving “heavy direction”. That would mean leaving the improv to the actors (which is sometimes done and can be effective), but the director normally can participate in it (through the direction).

Kubrick did that a lot starting with Lolita. So does Wong Kar Wai (another filmmaker normally misunderstood in methods).

Contrast with Kurosawa, Hitchcock and (to a lesser degree) Spielberg.

Again will disagree. He didn’t allow the actors to change the script. He would change the script, and frequently, most frequently without their input. What Kubrick did do was experiment And endlessly implement changes while shooting. But in terms of collaborative work I think you’re far over selling that point. For instance Kubrick changed the script in full metal jacket to comport with Ermey’s rehearsals of extras before Ermey had the part. But when the script was finished it was finished, and then it was shot 90 times or whatever, insert ridiculous number of takes here. To his vision. And he would variably give almost overbearing or minimal, or somewhere in between, Directorial input to the performances, depending on what he thought needed to happen.

So I think we’re talking about semantics. Kubrick would experiment while shooting. Do you wanna call it improvisation? I’m good with that. But he did not give anybody else the “Sellars treatment” after Sellers. That was unique to Sellers. Because it worked for his vision for the projects, given What Sellers could do uniquely

Where are you getting your narrative? Because that’s not what I’ve read. Do you have any quote?

Yes, this is probably true.

I think I’d call experimenting on set improvising.

This is the Kubrick film I was least looking forward to watching. Most of the rest ranked somewhere on the axis of ‘really want to watch sometime’ to ‘have watched’. This one? Without this little film fest I would never watch.

I’ll get to it shortly, have it ready.

Also this back and forth is interesting. Not sure what to make of it, other than to say I definitely don’t associate Kubrick with improv like I would with a Robin Williams or other comedian type.

Well he certainly let Peter Sellers do so for Lolita and Strangelove. But that was an exception in terms of dialogue creation, which was unique to Sellers in a Kubrick work, which sometimes did lead to complete scene changes. But you’ve seen my inputs above on that. Other than that I think @Juan_Raigada and I basically agree on his techniques, But were using different vocabulary words. 😀 It might be Apple versus Manzana! Or translating Manzana into “Apple”. 😜

It’s also a question of specific vocabulary. Improvisation is not normally as free as people imagine, nor it is restricted to actor work, although that’s the easiest to see and what is commonly understood by it. “Experimenting” (something I’ve never heard said on a set) and “improvising” (something I’ve heard many times, not only related to actors, but shot selection, mise-en-scene, lighting, etc) are pretty much indistinguishable in practice.

As @Navaronegun says, I’m not talking exactly in terms of dialog creation, but I think learning with Sellers that dialog could be improvised on set helped the path towards the other type of improvisation/experimenting we are talking about, which is taking what an actor can do (read the scene as it’s playing out and react to find something better) and apply it to the rest of the filming process, frequently to the exasperation of the more technical people on set.

I think Spartacus might have been the last Kubrick film to use extensive storyboards other than 2001 (for obvious technical reasons). Again compare that technique with Hitchcock’s or Kurosawa’s.

Some very famous places where we can still find “improvised” (as in not in the script before shooting) dialog is the “here is Johnny” line in the Shining or the “Singing in the Rain” in Clockwork Orange.

Or a coke-addled Shelley Duvall.

l finally found some time to join the Kubrick-fest, and started with Lolita. l had never seen it before, and have mixed feelings about it. l have read the book when l was around 15 l guess, and don’t remember much of it; however, l do remember the beginning pretty well: it starts with “Lolita”. The book also ends with “Lolita”. However, the movie starts and ends with “Quilty”, and l don’t remember the book being this focused on him at all.

Do you guys know if this was an original idea from Kubrick, or did he rather decide to focus more on Quilty after seeing Sellers perform, or at least based on the fact Sellers would be playing Quilty?

Kubrick was fascinated with the idea of Quilty being a dark reflection of Humbert in the script he wrote with Harris.

As we move forward all I can say is to all book lovers; Kubrick looks at these novels as source material and then completely rewrites them and makes them his own unique works emphasizing completely different themes. If he tells a different story, he really doesn’t care. Frequently Kub fans who dislike or are put off by a particular work are clinging to the source material. This particularly applies to the authors (see Steven King). He doesn’t care about being faithful. He’s trying to make an original work unique to his themes and vision.

lt shows very much. Quilty is clearly presented as a version of Humbert that would be freed of his inhibitions. Humbert therefore kills this very part of himself, that led to his fall. Also, Quilty always appears at key moments in the evolution of Humbert infatuation of Lolita: in the ballroom, at the hotel and once they live together, appearing almost as a conceptual character.

This is not that dissimilar in the book, only that the book, by being longer, devotes less percentage of narrative to Quilty, but he’s very much there (although we only discover who he really is later). The theme of Quilty as a “freed” reflection of Humbert holds too, in the sense that he seems to be something he would love to be, but also (and this is lost in the film due to the omniscient narrator) Quilty serves as a moral scapegoat for Humbert. You think I’m bad, says Humbert, but look over there, that’s what “real” evil looks like. In that way, in the book we are actually left to wonder whether Quilty (the versión Humbert presents of him, not the person per se) really exists or it’s a construct. The possibility exists that Quilty is “less guilty” than Humbert (slippery slope and all) since we only have Humbert’s word for it and Quilty’s dead and Lolita too.

The movie IS Quilty though. Seller creates a character that remains the most memorable of the film, and the real magnet of attention and attraction.

Unreliable narrators/PoVs abound in my favorite Kubrick films.

I posit that here he missed the mark. While in Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut the unreliability of the narrator comes more to fore, here I don’t see it unless I force myself to look for it.

As much as I like the film.

But that might be me. Did others feel they were watching an unreliable story?