The Unmatched Weird Karma of “Lolita”

I was about 14 when I started buying “dirty literature” at a bookstore in Bozeman. My parents didn’t know from any titles and for whatever reason there was not an “adults only” section for things like William Burroughs and this little item:

Lolita 1962

Was more than a bit over my head at that time, though I immediately thought it started with the finest opening paragraph in modern lit (which I sill believe). By the time I was a freshman in college I was eager to reading in a English class for grown-ups. The subject matter caused one straight-from-the-farm guy to about pop his cork and I can certainly understand how the unreliable narrator’s depiction of Lolita would piss people off a different way to this day. I go back and forth on it. For a while my standard line was that you couldn’t avoid that it de facto romanticized a monster (while part of me countered that was key to making you uncomfortable but compelled as a reader).

Anyway, here is the fullest accounting to date of the real-life crime that deeply influenced to book. At first I thought it was too much a rehash of the 2005 Times Literary Supplement article on the case and the book, but this adds much new detail and takes those involved up to the present. (The saddest part is that the evil of the psychopath kidnapper lives on in that he brainwashed his daughter into believing his self-serving bullshit version of events.)

A final, the-oddness-continues foot note is that Sue Lyon, who played an indelible Lolita in the Kubrick film, has led quite a fraught life herself. Including (gulp) a very bad car wreck.

Yes, books can carry their own cloud of karma.

The 101 Most Disappointing Developments of My Lifeline, Part One

Basically an ongoing series of complaints about getting old. I know, everyone’s favorite. (Sometimes called the Senior Organ Recital.) Feel free to skip.

I did not realize that the onset of winter, which I found downright exciting as a kid and a bracing reaffirmation of four seasons all the way through my 50s, would come to give me a big, fat twinge of depression. I used to have a satisfying turn-turn-turn feeling as I noticed trees and leafy shrubs and even grass stretches beginning to look tired as autumn wore on. Now there’s bad moments when it looks to me like the landscape is cringing.

Old Man Winter

Lyme Disease: A Classic of Stupid Science Reporting

Should be all but extinct. Getting them damn cute deer off Monhegan island in Maine was a step in the right direction, for instance. But instead, we get screw-ups more often. The obit for the discoverer of the bacteria that causes Lyme had a clunky mistake in it. But that’s just the tip of the idiot iceberg. You can make a good case that dummy thinking about Lyme and hysterical reporting about the vaccine led to the current anti-vaccine madness. I never thought civilization would regress so viciously. It’s just short of burning witches again.

Mike Nichols Covert Feminist? — Not Hardly

Here’s the relevant passage from the kinda-perceptive Anthony Lane appreciation in the New Yorker (PS: I think he’s dead wrong about the “best movie” thing, if only because The Graduate changed popular culture so much ((that counts for more with me than Lane)):

Hence the deep discomfort of “Carnal Knowledge” (1971)—the most bothersome movie that Nichols ever made, as well as the saddest, the most provoking, the most pretentious, and, despite all that (or because of it), the best. If someone were to show it next week, in homage, at Film Forum or Lincoln Center, and invite a bunch of college kids, split fifty-fifty between male and female, to hang around after the screening and talk it through, the evening might still simmer into an argument, or a fight. You wouldn’t say that about “Working Girl” or “Biloxi Blues” (1988), or, for that matter, most of the movies we have seen this year.

The film, written by Jules Feiffer, tracks a couple of friends—Jonathan (Nicholson) and the bashful Sandy (Art Garfunkel)—from college to middle age, and thus from one disappointment to the next. Women are pursued, seduced, berated, swept away and then aside; listen with care, especially to Jonathan, and you will hear an undying aria of misogyny, replete with every quaver of lust and every known crotchet of fear. Yet the film is not misogynist—partly because its pervading mood is one of equal-opportunity misanthropy, and partly, also, because Nichols takes such pains to demonstrate that Feiffer’s script is, and never can be, the whole story. Consider the infamous slide-show sequence, in which Jonathan takes Sandy and Jennifer (Carol Kane) through a roster of his conquests, near-misses, and the occasional never-was: “This one’s Rosalie,” he says. “Rosalie looked just like Elizabeth Taylor in ‘National Velvet.’ Had a crush on Rosalie from fourteen to fifteen, and I never went near her. In those days, we had illusions.” And so on, up to the scabrous final flourish: “Here’s a sixteen-year-old I gave twenty bucks to one night in the Village. Maybe you know her, Jennifer, she gave me a dose.” The screen goes blank.

Nicholson is extraordinary here, and his sign-off—a stammering “That’s All Folks,” in the wholly appropriate tones of Porky Pig—still makes me catch my breath. Would the scene work onstage? Yes, but we would miss the ways in which Nichols, striving to think his way outside and through the theatrical box, shoots Jonathan in a string of different ways: from the side, in silhouette; stranded in the cool white room, in velvet slipper and no socks, as Sandy and a weeping Jennifer rise from the couch and soundlessly leave; alone at last, with the fun over, gently refreshing his Scotch. No man is an island, reportedly, but this one is. We don’t feel sorry for him, but we have no doubt whatever that he’s lost. Any movie buff watching in 1971 would have grasped, from the framing of the scene, that Nichols had been keeping up with Fellini and Antonioni, perhaps too dutifully so, and, indeed, the cameraman on “Carnal Knowledge” was Giuseppe Rotunno, who had already worked with Fellini on “Satyricon” and elsewhere. This blending of a new visual method, unfamiliar to many eyes, with the stream of verbal acidity is hardly an unqualified success, but the ambition is an honorable one, and the unhappy land that the film reveals is not one that Nichols cared to revisit, on the big screen, for too long.

For good reason. The hip-neurotic attitude toward female sexuality — it’s bold to go hoo-hah that it’s out there, but it’s still weird, scary, unknowable stuff — was really dated by the end of the ’60s. The message when you saw the film back then, I’m sorry, is that guys were being put into an impossible box by the demands of women (who knows what they want) even if you acknowledged they were sexual beings. It’s a prime limitation of the time, of Pfieffer, of Nichols, and apparently, of Anthony Lane unto this day.

Serious Low for Network TV

I was utterly dumbfounded that not a single major network interrupted the flow of general swill to broadcast a very brief speech by the POTUS about a significant change in immigration policy. Once would have been unthinkable. And again, a major part of the horror is how little outrage there is about it. At least The Nation and a few others got it right.