Wednesday, September 10, 2008

lolita, by stanley kubrick

And now a few words about the necrophile community.

If you look closely at any group of people who appear, at first glance, to be unified by creed, interest, or fetish, you will inevitably learn that there is some issue or point of order that divides members of that community. And, indeed, so it is with necrophiles. According to a necrophile FAQ that's circulating around out there, the issue that divides necrophiles above all others is the question of how, er, "recent" the remains should be, with some necrophiles preferring freshly deceased remains, and others preferring older, more skeletal remains. Apparently, the rift between these two groups is severe enough that it's devolved into name-calling, with members of the first group referring to members of the second group as "dust-fuckers."

This was all brought to my attention by my good friend A., who claimed that she was going to start using "dust-fuckers" as her new favorite put-down, because she could think of no phrase more pejorative than the one a necrophile would use to describe an even worse necrophile.

So how does all this relate to this week's Film Club pick, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962)? Well, as we've been going through our tour of cinematic sociopaths these past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how filmmakers build audience sympathy with twisted characters. Lolita, as you probably know, tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who spends nearly the entire film pursuing (and eventually consummating) a sexual relationship with Dolores "Lolita" Haze, a 14-year old girl (she's 12 in the novel). Pedophiles are probably even lower than serial killers in the big catalog of American Enemies, so how do you get the audience to swallow their distaste and accept one as the protagonist of a two-and-a-half-hour-long film?

By using the Dust-Fucker Principle, of course, and squaring him off against an even worse pedophile.

In the case of Lolita, that Even Worse Pedophile is Clare Quilty, played memorably by the great Peter Sellers. Quilty dabbles in a wide variety of perversions: he's a pedophile; he's an aspiring pornographer; he organizes orgies; he gets off on being slapped around by exotic-looking Judo practicioner Vivian Darkbloom; he hangs out with submissives who themselves get off by being used as furniture. ("I know one guy, looks just like a bookshelf," Quilty quips, early in the film.) By contrast, Humbert's own (blunderingly direct) focus on non-polymorphous fucking seems practically old-fashioned, nearly wholesome.

If we buy into the setup that the Dust-Fucker Principle provides for us, however, we fall into a typically Kubrickian moral trap: although the movie takes advantage of the parallels between pedophilia and standard-issue heteronormative romance to gloss over the former's more repulsive aspects, Humbert is still a monster, and an ultimately unrepentant one at that. In this way, Lolita fits with the rest of Stanley Kubrick's body of work, which almost to a film has a notoriously problematic relationship to the whole concept of a sympathetic protagonist to begin with. (Quick quiz: who is the protagonist in Dr. Strangelove? In Eyes Wide Shut? In A Clockwork Orange? In The Shining? How many of the characters you came up with are good or likeable people?)

So Kubrick joins Romero, perhaps, in Film Club's annals of misanthropic directors. The parallel is more apt than it might first appear: not only do both directors share a focus on monstrous beings, but each of them reach further, observing trenchantly that the society that the monsters inhabit itself fails to succeed in its bid for "non-monstrous" status. The end result is that their respective bodies of work end up depicting a social moral schema in total confusion, with the distinction between [amoral] figure and [moral] ground completely collapsed. Lolita illustrates this as well as any of Kubrick's films: take, for instance, Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother. She's the character who the film could most easily cast as a martyr, but she is instead presented as deeply predatory in her own right, forcing herself on Humbert sexually despite his marked disinterest:

This tendency towards violation is reflected in the film again and again, as many of the film's minor characters also engage in some form of inappropriate boundary-crossing—whether they solicit Humbert and Charlotte to participate in a round of "progressive" partner-swapping or simply cross the threshold of Humbert's home uninvited. In this way, even a concerned neighbor can become a Kubrickian grotestque:

Everyone who isn't a simpleton is a transgressor, in Lolita's moral universe, and the Dust-Fuckers in the bunch are simply the transgressors who have come more fully into bloom.

Pretty bleak stuff, and yet, the film's not without its sense of humor. Humbert is a representative of European high-mindedness, which makes him a great straight-man figure. It seems like Humbert spends half his screen-time trying to maintain his dignity in various humiliating situations that Kubrick and Nabokov have devised for him:

It was these reflections, on Humbert's Old World nature, that led me to think that Humbert might be so uncontrollably attracted to Lolita less because of her nubile winsomeness and more because she's a walking embodiment of ahistorical slangy New World crassitude. Note the way she eats junk food right out of the bag:

Anyway, anytime I get thinking about the European take on "ahistorical slangy New World crassitude," I start thinking about Paul Verhoeven's infamous Showgirls, which brings us to next week's pick. Brace yourself.

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