Girls on Film
Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday
Stevens Square Park,
Wednesday at dusk
LOLITA, FORGIVE THE pun, is looking ripe these days. A largely unseen but already notorious new film version directed by Indecent Proposal's Adrian Lyne--who claims his sexually explicit interpretation hews closely to Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel--was recently picked up for indie distribution, having bootlessly pedicured the majors' cold feet for over a year. Meanwhile, the dirty old man who filmed Lolita back in 1962, Stanley Kubrick, is about to come out of cold storage himself with Eyes Wide Shut, his first movie in a decade--a somewhat momentous event that seems to have occasioned a newly struck print of his Lolita (playing at Oak Street for two weeks). Seen 35 years after its making, Kubrick's art film about child molestation appears in sync with the current vogue around high-brow shockers. On the other hand, the rash of day-care scandals and Calvin Klein ads have made Lolita's real-world context much stickier than in '62--which is maybe one reason why it has taken Lyne's picture so long to see the light of a projector.
In any version, Lolita tells of the affair between Humbert Humbert and Lolita Haze, a middle-aged man and a newly pubescent "nymphet." But while Kubrick's may be named after the book and its title character, it has little to do with either. As Lyne's screenwriter Stephen Schiff told Vanity Fair, Kubrick might well have named it Quilty--after the hipster playwright who mercilessly taunts professor Humbert by acting as his guilty conscience. Played in the movie with scene-stealing zeal by Peter Sellers ("I'm Spartacus...Are you here to free the slaves?"), Quilty has been read as the director's surrogate, which in turn requires seeing James Mason's stuffy Humbert as Kubrick's backbiting parody of Nabokov. (Hardly a stretch, since both Lolita and Lolita function as stolen property, passed from a tenured man of letters to his irreverent satirist.) The irony is that, while Kubrick may have likened himself to an ad-libbing thief of arts in 1962, his current persona seems the epitome of Humbert: the dour, fastidious academic, ironically undone by his desire for complete control.
Fittingly, Kubrick's movie opens with a perfect image of obsessive fetishism: a soft-focus close-up of Humbert cradling Lolita's bare leg as he paints her toenails, the music dripping with sarcastic melodrama. Besides punning on "pedicure" and "pedophilia," this shot reflects Lolita's split personality, torn as it is between a critique of obsessive-compulsion and the thing itself. (Kubrick hired a stand-in cinematographer expressly for this one shot.) When the scene is repeated later, amid Humbert's barely contained paranoia about where his fetish has been sleeping, it seems to become a self-portrait of the auteur: the image of a man indulging his obsession, but having no fun doing it. True, the movie is stuffed with playful double entendres about Lolita (Sue Lyon) getting her cavities filled, her mother's "cherry pies," and Humbert feeling "limp as a noodle," but it's also formally cold and relentlessly self-reflexive--ending up, like all Kubrick films, as the cinematic equivalent of an abuse of power.
But where's the victim's voice in this picture? Will Dominique Swain, Lyne's 15-year-old Lolita, succeed in her noble bid to give the character, as she told Esquire, a "point of view"? Will Lyne align with Humbert (Jeremy Irons) and pit his Quilty (Frank Langella) against Kubrick? Suffice to say that, even after two films (not to mention a 1971 stage musical and a short-lived stint on Broadway in '81), this material will hardly have been exhausted. Perhaps someday a precocious young product of digital video and cinema studies will make a Kubrickian bio-pic of Kubrick on the set of Lolita. But let's hope it's a girl. Because while Lyne's version will undoubtedly be fascinating, Lolita still begs the interpretation of a Sadie Benning or Sarah Jacobson--someone to reclaim the nymphet as artiste.
Speaking of girls as seen by Hollywood guys, F.W. Murnau's extremely rare City Girl (1928) plays Wednesday in Stevens Square Park. Like Lolita, the waitressing title character (Mary Duncan) takes a symbolic back seat in her own story, as her life is directed by men: a Minnesota wheat farmer's son (Charles Farrell) who brings the city girl home as his wife, and the farmer's distrusting dad (David Torrence), convinced that the bride is a nymphet. Shot in Oregon as the German filmmaker's follow-up to his American Sunrise, City Girl was taken out of Murnau's hands, recut, and partly reshot by Fox studio hacks. Still, like Sunrise, it remains the personal story of two humans whose lives are altered by the environment around them, aptly rendered in a poetic-realist style that seems to combine dreams and actuality, country and city, freedom and constraint. If Murnau displays appreciably more sympathy for the girl than Kubrick, it may be because control was one of his themes but not one of his privileges.
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