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Lolita, novel of my life, movie of my youth.
Adrian Lyne’s long-delayed remake of Lolita debuts this week on cable’s Showtime. If, like me, you signed up to be online for the movie’s Aug. 2 American premiere, you probably won’t regret it, even though the new Lolita is only occasionally better than mediocre and almost consistently wrongheaded.
As a consequence of Lolita’s much-publicized failure to find an American distributor, Showtime managed to pick it up ultracheap, snagging domestic rights to the $58 million production for a reported $4 million. People who don’t subscribe to the premium channel will have to wait until the Samuel Goldwyn Co., emboldened by Showtime’s airing, releases the film to theaters in the fall.
In the ’50s, Vladimir Nabokov searched for four years to find an American publisher brave enough to print his novel about a professor’s obsession with his pubescent stepdaughter. Although notoriety and prurience catapulted Lolita onto the 1958 best-seller list, even slow-witted readers realized after a few pages what Humbert Humbert, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, ultimately learns: “Sex is but the ancilla of art.”
In 1959, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick acquired the screen rights to Lolita and invited the writer to adapt his book to film. Initially, Nabokov demurred (“The idea of tampering with my own novel caused me only revulsion”), but subsequently he accepted the assignment, producing a fascinatingly idiosyncratic script that Kubrick scrapped before shooting his 1962 feature. A decade later, Nabokov published Lolita: A Screenplay, including a preface that graciously praised Kubrick as “a great director” and Lolita as “a first-rate film with magnificent actors” while clearly indicating some dissatisfaction with the movie.
Viewed in the context of 1962’s elephantine prize-winning pictures (Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day), Kubrick’s Lolita is a first-rate film. In retrospect, it seems like an ambitious misfire, but its virtues have not dimmed. James Mason’s Humbert remains a definitive performance: the dark, slightly overripe handsomeness, the sense of bemused superiority gradually mutating into paranoid desperation, the mellifluous voice hollowing after its owner is abandoned by the elusive object of his desire. In vivid contrast to Mason’s subtlety, Shelley Winters’ triumphantly blatant turn as Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, forever captures the gauche pretentiousness (“How do you like my little Van Gawk?”), barely concealed concupiscence, and abject loneliness of the widowed suburban bohemian. Even Sue Lyon’s Lo, roundly criticized as too far removed from nymphetude, has improved with time, her surly slouch and Elvis-like sneer evoking an affectless style of ’50s adolescent rebelliousness that has evolved into contemporary punks and goths. What doesn’t hold up is Peter Sellers’ once-admired Quilty, which now reveals itself to be what it always was, an overly indulgent opportunity for the undisciplined English actor to display his sample box of accents and caricatures.
The first half of Kubrick’s two-and-a-half-hour, black-and-white Lolita is deft and witty, but the second part, which zigzags Humbert and his captive nymphet across America’s highways, goes slack, largely because the director, who had expatriated to England, refused to return home for location shooting.
Several warning alarms sounded in my head when I read the announcement of a Lolita remake. Its raison d’etre, we were informed, was to take advantage of contemporary sexual candor unavailable to Kubrick in censorious 1962. But nothing about Nabokov’s novel calls for such explicitness. Although encoded bawdy nuggets can be found on nearly every page, the novel offers the most decorous depiction of pedophilia imaginable. At the end of Book One, when Hum and Lo finally end up in bed together, the deviate narrator coyly draws a curtain over their exertions. “I am not concerned with so-called ‘sex’ at all. Anyone can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets.” Even more menacing was the disclosure that Adrian Lyne had been chosen to direct. Assigning Lolita to the perpetrator of Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and other soft-core snoozers was tantamount to engaging Leroy Nieman to repaint the Sistine Chapel.
The most surprising aspect of the new Lolita, apart from the fact that it isn’t unwatchable, is that Lyne manages to correct the shortcomings of Kubrick’s version while fudging its strengths. The first half of the remake is doggedly literal, a Masterpiece Theater condensation of the novel. Unlike Kubrick, Lyne and screenwriter Stephen Schiff fail to capture (or even comprehend) the humor that informs Nabokov’s prose. Bathed in the gauzy, diffused light of a douche commercial, the impersonal opening reels of Lyne’s Lolita rise and fall on the contributions of its cast.
Dominique Swain, her very name suggesting a Nabokovian invention, is extraordinary as Lolita. In what would appear to be a no-win assignment, any adolescent female cast in the role is bound to appear exploited, Swain, age 15 when the movie was shot, gives an intelligent, astonishingly assured performance. In itself, her projection of the character’s innocent depravity deserves high praise, but her technical command, evident in her ability to delineate the emotional and physical differences between Lolita at 12, 14, and 17, marks her as an actress of unlimited promise.
Jeremy Irons’ Humbert is not as successful as Mason’s, a problem that has less to do with the actor’s efforts than with miscasting. It is crucial that Paris-born Humbert, “a salad of racial genes,” be definitively mainland European. (One of Nabokov’s ironic conceits is reversing the Henry James formula of innocent America seduced by worldly, wicked Europe.) Although Irons is a superb actor, everything about him is quintessentially English, with all of the wormy sexual repression that implies. Irons’ prissy mouth, guilty eyes of a puppy caught making a mess, and cadaverous body work against his convincing impersonation of a Riviera-bred voluptuary. (However, on his unabridged eight-cassette audiobook reading of the novel, Irons proves to be a splendid Nabokov interpreter.)
The blockbuster casting blunder is Lyne’s choice of Melanie Griffith as Charlotte Haze. This helium-voiced, silicone- and collagen-enhanced bimbo can barely recite her lines, let alone forge a characterization. (The effort to articulate all four syllables of “favorably” nearly exhausts her.) But Frank Langella’s Quilty easily outshines Sellers’ patchwork villain. Physically goatish, this gone-to-seed former matinee idol manages to embody, in just a few moments on-screen, the morally rancid doppelganger that Humbert must eliminate to appease his emergent conscience.
Lyne’s Lolita starts to gain momentum at the point where Kubrick’s version wanes. This time out, Humbert and his nubile captive traverse actual American landscapes, Nabokov’s “exhilarating milieu” of “philistine vulgarity.” At this point, Lyne and Schiff feel comfortable enough to invent some lively scenes that do not appear in the novel, notably a highly physical altercation in Humbert’s car and a hysterical tantrum brilliantly realized by Swain. Humbert’s encounter with Quilty at Pavor Manor conveys the mixture of horror and gallows humor of the novel’s climax, and suggests what the film could have been had Lyne not been preoccupied with gimmicky gambits like Lolita’s Lewinskyesque fondness for bananas, and the preparation of a chocolate ice cream soda shot and edited as though it were a sex act.
If an ingenious film editor combined the best of both Lolitas, Mason and Winters with Swain and Langella, the first half of Kubrick’s version with the second half of Lyne’s, the result would be impressive. But Nabokov’s novel is, as he insists, the record of his love affair with the English language, which ultimately makes his masterpiece, the greatest, most enjoyable novel of our dying century, untranslatable to any other medium.
When I arrived in Washington three decades ago, the sole outlet for cutting-edge filmmaking was the experimental cinema club screenings held on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings at the Janus Theater. (In those days, the Janus had only two faces and housed The Endless Summer, A Man and a Woman, and similar lite art-house fare for runs lasting as long as a year.) I vividly recall walking across Dupont Circle on Sunday mornings toward my first exposures to underground short films by Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs, and the Kuchar brothers, mixed with vintage experimentals by Bunuel and Genet and the occasional Warhol feature.
That long-ago dissolved club, or the pot-scented midnight movie screenings of the ’70s (Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos), would be ideal venues for writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s pi, winner of the Directing Award for Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Made for $60,000, pi is a striking but overextended feature debut. At 30 minutes, it would have been a knockout. At 85 minutes, it’s numbingly repetitive.
pi probes the mind of Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), a reclusive mathematical genius living with his super-computer in a claustrophobic room in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Max believes that everything can be represented and understood in numerical terms and is on the verge of proving his thesis by decoding the workings of the stock market. Plagued by computer breakdowns, hallucinations, headaches, and blackouts, Max continues his quest, stopping only to visit his philosophical former teacher, Sol (Mark Margolis). Pursued by rival groups (a Wall Street firm and a Kabbalah sect) seeking to use his discoveries to achieve their own ends, Max is pushed to the brink of madness.
In an interview at Sundance, Aronofsky claimed that he’s never had a creative idea in his life, an assertion that pi tends to confirm. His theme, the search for a secret code to unscramble the chaos of existence, is a modernist chestnut, developed in works as diverse as Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 and TV’s The X-Files. His film’s expressionist style, grungy interiors shot in high-contrast black and white, is equally derivative, tapping into a tradition extending from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Eraserhead. Even Aronofsky’s shock effects have obvious antecedents: Max dementedly shaving his head (Taxi Driver) and excavating his own skull (Driller Killer.)
Clearly, Aronofsky has talent, and pi is an impressively resourceful calling card. But he’ll need to come up with some creative ideas (or hire someone to provide them) if he plans to have a lasting career as a filmmaker.
The trailer for Jane Austen’s Mafia! compelled me to put Jim Abrahams’ anything-goes farce on my must-see list. The title alone was irresistible, a cheeky lowbrow riposte to the prevailing notion of prestige productions. Apparently, that gag was judged too up-market by Touchstone’s publicists, whose ad campaign abbreviates the title to Mafia!, but the wacky Austen attribution remains in the movie’s opening credits.
Writer-director Abrahams, part of the triumvirate responsible for Airplane! and sole creator of the Hot Shots! series, spoofs the Godfather films and Casino along with sending glancing jabs at, among others, Jaws, The Lost World, Showgirls, Forrest Gump, and The English Patient. At best, one joke per dozen works, but Abrahams’ generous inclusion of perhaps 1,000 gags assures most viewers a lively time, provided they aren’t alienated by fuck, fart, and puke jokes. (When a Las Vegas tramp praises a mobster “who helped me when I was down on my luck,” she quickly clarifies that she means My Luk, the Chinese ambassador.) The low humor is unexpectedly enveloped in a handsomely designed and photographed production, nearly as sumptuous as the Godfather pictures.
Admittedly, it’s a bit late in the day to burlesque Coppola’s gangster saga, and many of Abrahams’ secondary targets (Wayne Newton, O.J., Barney, the macarena) are painfully familiar. But the movie’s pacing and spirit are so antic that only a sourpuss could exit frowning. It’s pointless to analyze the performances in this no-holds-barred send-up, except to praise the late Lloyd Bridges, who goes out in style as the Brandolike family patriarch. Bridges takes so many slapstick blows to the head, one can’t help wondering whether the role contributed to his demise.
I feel uncomfortable endorsing such sophomoric fare, but, in all honesty, if I were forced to re-see any of the three movies I reviewed this week, Mafia! would be my hands-down choice.