Although my feelings about Stanley Kubrick’s films are always in flux (which is great; he keeps me on my toes, even from the grave), there’s been one constant: I love Lolita. It’s aged well, in my opinion.
I saw this first when I was in high school, and even then there was one scene that distinctly affected me. (Well, most scenes unnerved and excited me, but this one was especially effective.) And the fact that one of its strengths is the length of its shots makes it a perfect entry for this series about great moments when filmmakers shun conventional coverage and editing. 1
Here’s the set-up: Tension between scholar Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and his teenage stepdaughter/lover Lolita (Sue Lyon) has been mounting, and when he discovers that she repeatedly skipped rehearsals for her school play, he brings her home to confront her.
(Note: Even though this scene occurs late in the film, I don’t think it will be a spoiler for those unfamiliar with the story and its outcome. Also, this is a longer scene than I normally post—4-and-a-half minutes—but to make it any shorter would be criminal and defeat my purpose.)
I’m telling you, to this day, this scene ties me up in knots. It’s the standoff the story’s been building toward. Prior to this, Humbert’s successfully removed all outside intrusions from his Perfect World: he’s become the legal guardian of the object of his desire; and he’s taken her to a place unfamiliar with either of them. But he can’t control Lolita’s raging teenage hormones and short attention span, and his world explodes from within. It turns on him in the worst possible way: this is a lover’s quarrel and a father-daughter dispute. (Whoa.)
This scene must have been a monster to stage and act, and when it comes to the shooting, Kubrick shrewdly favors “less is more”: Two shots, two edits, minimal camera movement.
There’s no room for the actors to hide, and there’s no edits for them to hide behind. This best exemplifies the power that can be achieved by holding a shot for much longer than a viewer is expecting. Conventional coverage, such as close-ups or over-the-shoulder shots, would have told us when to look at one or the other. As it is, however, thanks to Kubrick’s unblinking eye, we choose who to watch—and see how one’s body language affects the other’s. At times, Humbert’s an angry, frustrated parent; at other times (such as when he plays with his pants, looking down), he’s a whipped lover. Meanwhile, we see Lolita’s stubbornness, poorly executed lies, and taunts (“You need help”).
The dramatic pauses are where the tension really mounts. Humbert accuses her: “What have you been doing these afternoons?” and Lolita spends 11 seconds stalling, hemming and hawing. And the whole time I’m holding my breath.
Once Humbert changes his strategy, he moves to her right, gets down on bended knee like a contrite lover, touching her as no father should. Now Kubrick edits to his medium two shot.
This allows us to see more of Lolita. Thanks to her garish stage make-up, she looks like a grown woman (or at least pretending to be one)—yet her behavior is completely infantile. As Humbert makes his shallow promises to her, she snaps her gum—and once again, my heart rate changes, my frustration mounts. I feel more empathy for Humbert than at any other point in the film (and when you’re empathizing with a groveling pedophile, you know Kubrick and Mason have done their job well).
The rest of the scene follows suit: Humbert flip-flopping from angry dad to jealous lover and Lolita having childish outbursts. Great, intense stuff.
1. All of Lolita’s dynamic shine in this scene, making it one-stop shopping for an analysis of the story; and 2. Kubrick’s strengths as a filmmaker are on fire, including his skill with actors (which doesn’t get discussed as much as his other talents). As relevant to theme of my posts—the lack of editing—he really cooks: tremendous restraint; a respect for the actors relationship to each other; and an understanding of the average viewer’s internal clock: we expect edits, we expect close-ups, but Kubrick subverts by withholding those and letting the tension mount as this corrupt relationship plays out in front of our eyes.
It was such a damn pleasure writing this post (especially in the wake of my bitch-and-moan Inception post). The more I studied this scene, the better it got. The directing, writing, acting, production design, etc., all reached new heights in my estimation. This happens when I study Hitchcock’s films, too, and finding something new in repeated viewings (even after 25 years) is, to me, a mark of a true work of art.
Next in the When Not to Edit series: Either John Frankenheimer or John Ford. No matter what, it’ll be about a director named John and his belief that if he’s done his job right, then he doesn’t need the damn edits.
BACK TO POST 1 Let’s see. As I see it McCarey did it for a sight gag; Ozu did it to unobtrusively put us in his characters’ world; Oz did to let his actors edit within the shot; Coppola did it to reveal his lead’s frame of mind; and Browning did it to show us a kiss and a reaction to the kiss at the same time.