Clare Quilty, or my excuse for talking about the limits of auteur theory

In the early 90s (probably 1993), I went to the Directors Guild of America to see a Peter Sellers retrospective. I was not a huge Sellers fan at that point. I had seen him a couple of times on the Muppet Show, and mainly associated him with the Pink Panther series. It was a pretty wild retrospective because the folks who were running it spent some time talking about the significance of Sellers as a comic genius, and how it was completely ludicrous that he did not have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Now I don’t know if he ever got that well-deserved star, but I did come away from this retrospective with a new found love of Peter Sellers. The retrospective introduced me to films like Blake Edwards’s The Party (one of my personal favorites), Being There in all its unintentional genius, and, of course, the unbelievable tour-de-force of Sellers in Dr Strangelove. All brilliant performances, but there were many more -most of which I still haven’t seen like I love you, Alice B. Tolkas.

That being said, the character that I continue to mentally quote more than any other Sellers’s performance I have seen is Clare Quilty from Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita. This character is relatively minor in Nabokov’s brilliant novel, but takes on a much more significant role in the film. In fact he in many ways becomes on of the centers of the film which is evidenced by Kubrick’s daring creative choice to reorganize the narrative sequence of the novel by making “Dr. Humbarts” murder of Quilty the first scene of the film. Quilty is a protean character that is dogging Humbert Humbert throughout the film in the form of several imagined characters that very much foreshadow Sellers more celebrated performances in Dr. Strangelove. Quilty acts as a deranged conscience for the audience, constantly finding the opportunity to remind Humbert of his moral crimes while at the same time waiting for the moment to engage in it as well. Below are four scenes from Lolita that highlight some of the amazing dialogue and acting that has continually brought me back to the idea of genius in the context of a film.

I recently had the good fortune to talk with Gardner at length about a whole host of things recently, and when we meandered around to the subject of auteur theory in film studies I told him that “C.H.U.D. and Barry Lyndon are one and the same for me.” I know, I know, I really do try and get Gardner’s goat, but it’s only because I love him so damn much! I guess the problem for me with auteur theory on a very practical level is echoed by Paulene Kael’s articulation of the problems with this approach in The New Yorker magazine during the 1960s. Namely, she argues that such a theory tends to reify one figure of genius, often cutting out the more complex series of relations between a director and the myriad talents that bring any given film together. When anyone talks about a Kubrick film, it often focuses on the genius, vision, and power of Kubrick, I don’t discount any of this in relationship to Kubrick -I mean he was from the da Bronx and he had an unbelievable vision for film. Nonetheless, Kubrick worked in collaboration with thousands of people to produce his oeuvre which makes his vision constantly dependent upon the distributed genius of so many other people. Such a synecdochic figure whereby one part of a production gets distilled to the source of one person’s brilliance (the great individual theory of film?) characterized by box sets like “The Kubrick Collection” is potentially reductive and pushes film scholars and fans alike to attribute genius in a unilateral manner.

Another problem with auteur theory is the ways in which it attempts to rein in meanings by reading film according to a director’s intentions. When we think about the film as text does the question of intentionality begin to dictate a hermeneutic approach? Does a director’s vision (even if clearly articulated in the commentary) necessarily prescribe a reading? The power of creative works are their ability to defy intentionality, to exceed meanings, and to imbue the viewer, reader, etc. with a possible readings that are both unintentional and generative. Thinking films through directors is a valuable approach, but still only one approach among many to understand a film. In fact, I often think it’s more of a marketing tool to sell a brand than to highlight the complex organism that is the psychic life of the visual synapses of film. Thinking film through genres is one way of thinking about form and style as a constant conversation between films, a way in which actors, directors, cinematographers, set designers, gaffers, and production assistants may be working in relationship to larger cultural issues that are not so easily isolated to the genius of one mind. Reading Kubrick’s films as an exploration of genre is one way of placing his work in a bit more context, offering more cross-fertilization and possibility for complex connections and readings rather than some essentialized focus on the often abused notion of genius (I am one of the biggest offenders of this word mind you).

All this to say, how much of the power of any Kubrick film has to do with the folks he has surrounded himself with. Gardner mentioned that 60-70% of any great film might be attributed to the casting of parts. So with that, I’d like to thank James Liggat whose brilliance needs to be recognized once and for all, for he has silently labored in the shadow of the looming genius of Kubrick to humbly bring you a character whose innumerable guises in Lolita represent one of my favorite film characters of all time: Quilty!. Enjoy.

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13 Responses to Clare Quilty, or my excuse for talking about the limits of auteur theory

  1. Andy Rush says:

    Jim, sometimes you leave me speechless. I have nothing else to add other than I want to watch all the movies you mentioned again immediately, starting with Lolita!

  2. jimgroom says:

    You’re too kind, Andy. But let’s face the facts that it’s no “Play Misty for Me” 🙂

  3. Shannon says:

    Wow, some films I have actually seen before! I really started to love Peter Sellers after watching “Lolita” and have seen several of his movies since. I wish I had words to describe why I love the character but, I’ll just have to agree with all the things you have said in this post.
    Reading your film posts is like a little film lesson and I’m starting to understand more and see connections between films and beyond films. Keep on spreading the good word Reverend!

  4. jimgroom says:

    Well looky looky who’s back in the States! It’s good to have you back, and hey -you can finally enjoy a decent slice! Ireland is a beautiful place, but their not exactly known for their pizza now are they?

    Thanks Shannon.

  5. Brian says:

    I’ll go out on a limb and bet you haven’t read Michael Herr’s memoir about Kubrick written shortly after his death. In it, I’d say there is a pretty compelling case that Kubrick might be one of the few directors worthy of auteur status… his attention to detail for one, but also his ability to forge a unified creative consciousness in which the diverse visions of his many collaborators are co-opted a bit… but mostly he seemed to bend even very gifted artists into buying in to his vision, almost by force of will. Herr (who wrote the most wildly hallucinatory and perhaps the best book about Vietnam) describes Kubrick’s power, largely exerted via dinner parties and marathon phone conversations, first-hand. It’s an amazing book — Gardner turned me on to it.

    Sellers is an interesting case WRT to Kubrick. If memory serves, Kubrick gave him a much wider berth than most of his collaborators. In part, I think it was because they seemed to share a certain bent sensibility (their shared affection for Strangelove screenwriter Terry Southern might allow us to triangulate where those points were).

    And with Kubrick, Sellers actually was willing to rein in a little bit and be part of a larger organic whole. From Seller’s perspective, his work with Kubrick is interesting as it makes up about half of his onscreen work (what I have seen, anyway) that even comes close to living up to his evident genius. For the most part, his films are very disappointing (and I so want to like them, I am a huge admirer of his style) most of the time… In this post you pretty much name all his work worth checking out — though I do maintain a certain fondness for the flawed insanity of the Southern-penned *The Magic Christian*. I’ve never quite cracked his earlier work on The Goon Show, the cultural gaps have been so wide… I’d love to take another shot at getting that stuff.

    Good on you for focusing on Seller’s performance as Quilty — it too often gets forgotten next to his multi-character turn in Strangelove. He takes an extraordinary literary phantom and brings him into life, not trying to recreate the uncanny sense Nabokov gives him, but cranking up the decadent weirdness. That opening scene of Kubrick’s Lolita is hilarious, some of the best black comedy ever filmed.

    Nabokov got the screenwriter credit — do you know anything about his relationship to this mix?

    Great post, as with most of your other recent stuff. As ever, I am overcome with admiration. Go Jim Go!

  6. jimgroom says:

    The criminal and the soldier at least have the virtue of being against something or for something in a world where many people have learned to accept a kind of grey nothingness, to strike an unreal series of poses in order to be considered normal. It’s difficult to say who is engaged in the greater conspiracy—the criminal, the soldier, or us.

    Stanley Kubrick, 1958 interview (link to a great series of critical approaches to Kubrick’s Lolita)

    You are right, I haven’t read Kubrick by Herr, nor have I read Herr’s Dispatches -two for the queue, as always thanks to you (via Gardner). My understanding of Nabokov gave Kubrick a 400 page screenplay, of which he used only about 20% of, then reconfigured the narrative to have the confrontation with Quilty come first -an excellent choice. Nabokov may have been taken back at first, and perhaps a bit peeved that they would cut and re-written his masterpiece so extensively. Nabokov is reported to have acknowledged that Kubrick was a great director, “that his Lolita was a first-rate film with magnificent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used” (link).

    More than that, in terms of critical response Lolita was panned, Sarris thought it was cast all wrong (what!), one of the few good reviews it received was from Pauline Kael. Interestingly enough, these are the two critics who went back and forth about auteur theory in the New Yorker.

    I think one reason to focus on Sellers and Kubrick’s Lolita when discussing the problems of auteur theory may be because it is generally understood as one of his few critical failures. Much ink has been spilt over whether he could visualize the literary genius of Nabokov, or his inability to capture the sexual tenor of the novel given the historical moment (which, ironically, I think Sellers character actually does brilliantly -as the clips above illustrate). All this to say, is that my favorite Kubrick (well, maybe my second favorite -my real favorite is The Shining -another critical failure) is considered by many a minor work amongst critics, and there is much evidence to suggest that Kubrick felt the same way about it. Why? What makes this particular film a lesser Kubrick?

    Well, my very flawed argument would be because he couldn’t fully control the actors and their performances -think about some of his greater films, 2001, Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut, and Full Metal Jacket– few if any of them have the same kind of performative imagination as Lolita, Dr Strangelove, and The Shining. Ryan O’Neill? Nicole Kidman? Tom Cruise? Matthew Modine? Come on, they are not even comparable with Sellers, George C. Scott, a younger Jack Nicholson, or the best performer of them all Danny Lloyd.

    I think the tag of genius or auteur is certainly arguable, and there is much to it when you view his films, but I think this concept fails to fully explain the power of his films, which for me is the larger point. Not that there are not film auteurs, for there certainly are: Chaplin, Griffith, Welles, Hitchcock, Polanski, Melville, Goddard, Losey, Bunuel (ahh, Buneul -just think about his Mexican films and the idea of auteur as a construct of Western cinema (or even Kurosawa) -which is a post in and of itself -note to self), and many, many more I left out. But does thinking film through the frame of the auteur really give us much critically? I don’t know, I find it kind of pales in comparison to thinking Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in relationship to Fail Safe, The Day After, The Boy with Green Hair, Kiss Me, Deadly, Pick-up on South Street -not in its own little shrine of greatness. But, I’m not saying you are arguing this, nor am I anywhere near arguing a real point, just trying to grok the genius that is Brian Lamb 🙂

  7. Brian says:

    For the same reason I don’t pick fights in biker bars, I won’t even try to argue with you. And I really do basically agree with you on your larger point on auteur theory… and I wholeheartedly agree with so many of your tangential points… (damn right The Shining is underrated, ‘ahhh Buneul’ indeed, and I had never really thought about your absolutely correct assertion about Kubrick’s evident preference for shallow actors in his more ambitious films. I have a theory that Kubrick largely cooked up Eyes Wide Shut to destroy Tom Cruise, — and whatever the other circumstances, it did seem to work out that way…).

    I’ll push back on one small point — “what does the auteur theory give us critically?” In a pure critical sense, I can’t pretend it doesn’t efface more than it gives us. But its prevalance points to its appeal. I like to think that the novel (or well-written memoir) is the single most powerful and supple means of one consciousness communicating with another. This whizbang technology we both groove on hasn’t changed that. And when we are moved by a film, we want to connect with an author somewhere… or failing that, a star. Anyone who was holding it all together inside their head.

    Certainly, from all the films and everything I’ve learned about Kubrick, that is one cat’s consciousness I’d like to crack a little bit. I can’t help but think my scope of living would grow as a result.

    Then again, I have no idea who would win a Kubrick vs. Sellers smackdown on enigmatic grounds.

  8. Gardner says:

    I’m way way behind, so I’m just now rising to take the bait here….

    But here are a few quick thoughts, if I can manage quick thoughts about my second favorite director, Stanley Kubrick.

    “Lolita” is a fascinating adaptation but a largely boring film for me, probably because it has none of the novel’s erotic tension. That may be because James Mason isn’t believably decadent, or it may be because Shelley Winters is so distractingly a parody of herself by that time. Also, I think it’s important to note that Stanley was fully capable of a wry immaturity that doesn’t suit this material very well. As Herr notes, when Kubrick is sophomoric, we mean a sophomore in *high school*.

    Auteur theory is vital for just the reasons Brian enunciates. Also, Sarris never pretended that auteur theory was all we needed for film criticism. Kael wildly exaggerates Sarris’s points so she can knock down a straw man. When Kael was right, she was oh-so-right, but more and more it seems to me she traded cleverness and a weirdly narrow critical vision for genuine insight all too often. And I used to *adore* Pauline Kael.

    Auteur theory is also important for the reason my Milton professor in grad school said we practice biographical criticism: because we want to give thanks. Also, in a world where it’s clear that we subscribe to the person, not the blog, isn’t auteur theory relevant? (That’s another way of saying what Brian said.)

    Here’s another way auteur theory helps. Take a look at Robert Stephenson’s adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” the one starring Orson Welles. Then take another look and try to spot the scenes Welles’ might have directed. The stylistic markers are quite prominent, as I have argued at length (and with stills from “Jane Eyre” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”) in my article in “Literature/Film Quarterly” 31:1 (2003) 2-9. In that article, paradoxically, auteur theory makes the signs of directorial collaboration more visible.

    I think Kubrick was trying to work out a very complex theory of dream, art, and sexuality in “Eyes Wide Shut.” He cast Cruise and Kidman because they were highly bankable and could thus help him get the film made. His contract with Warner Bros. was outrageously permissive, but even WB would balk at a property like that unless bankability was involved. As it turns out, Cruise actually played hapless quite well, I think.

    “Barry Lyndon” is a work of absolute top-flight genius, a tragedy on a level with anything ever committed to film in my view. Positively Sophoclean at times, but also with a very modern sense of irony. O’Neill is an ingenue–turnabout is fair play. What A Movie. Unbelieveable. Wow.

    I collaborated with a friend in Richmond many years ago on a Kubrick article. (Filmfax, issues 77-79, 2000). Maybe I’ll post it to my blog–I think I still have the typescript on my hard drive somewhere. I did Lolita, Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket. He did 2001, Clockwork Orange, and The Shining.

    Hey, just found a draft of the piece. Here’s what I said about “Lolita”–I’ll have to watch the movie again to see if I agree with myself nearly eight years later. Can WP handle a super-long comment? Let’s find out.

    –Begin Filmfax Magazine excerpt–

    First up, 1962’s Lolita, the film that instigated Kubrick’s move to England (according to biographer Vincent LoBrutto, a UK government deal called the “Eady plan” allowed Kubrick generous cost write-offs, so he moved overseas for what turned out to be a permanent relocation). Impressed by Kubrick’s growing reputation as a filmmaking prodigy, Vladimir Nabokov collaborated with him and producer Robert Harris in adapting Lolita to the big screen. Nabokov’s exploration of Humbert Humbert’s erotic and aesthetic obsession with nymphets–girls on the edge of puberty–was widely considered unfilmable. Indeed, the question “How did they make a movie out of Lolita?” is the main hook for the film’s trailer.

    So how did they make a movie out of Lolita? Largely by indirection, innuendo, double-entendres, and key omissions–and also by casting a sixteen-year-old (newcomer Sue Lyons) in the title role. (Nabokov’s Lolita is twelve.) The film shows no explicit sexual activity between Humbert (played by James Mason) and Lolita, although it clearly suggests it throughout. On the other hand, we do see Humbert and Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother, overplayed by Shelley Winters) in bed together, but poor Humbert suffers from impotence when he’s in the clinches with Charlotte, so all we get are jokes about “limp noodles.” Such winks and nudges to the audience fill the movie, and often become annoying. At times Kubrick seems to have concentrated so fully on the ironic and satiric aspects of Nabokov’s book that the whole story is played as one long smutty joke. At other times, however, Kubrick uses long tracking shots, deep focus, and intricate blocking to build up cinematic detail and presence, and the film finds some gravity. The opening of the film, Humbert’s murderous encounter with Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), is particularly good in this respect.

    Depending on which account you read, Nabokov was either pleased or very displeased with Kubrick’s adaptation, in which (again, depending on whom you believe) Kubrick either ruined Nabokov’s carefully written screenplay or enhanced it with sharp, witty sexual satire. At any rate, the film is not one of Kubrick’s finest. Aside from a few set pieces like the film’s opening, Lolita has long, tedious stretches of chirpy talk peppered with zany scenes (usually centered on Peter Sellers’ whacked-out improvisations) so off the wall that they seem to belong in a different movie. The next time Kubrick aimed at sexual satire, in Dr. Strangelove, he hit his target by firing in a different direction, at the Cold War policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. In Lolita we can see the outlines of Strangelove, but too often Kubrick seems to be fighting his material.

  9. Gardner says:

    Why did I put an apostrophe after Welles above? Who knows. Apostrophe abuse always gets me riled, so maybe it’s karmic fate that I will now start screwing up my apostrophes. A B&B host in England once shared with me, over a glass of sherry, his favorite example of apostrophe abuse, a sign that said,

    Merry Christma’s.

  10. Gardner says:

    Rats, the site has only part of the video. What’s up with that?

    At any rate, Kubrick’s revision of the Icarus lesson proves he’s an auteur’s auteur. 🙂

  11. jimgroom says:


    Who is your first favorite director? I’m intrigued. And, yes, I openly admit I was baiting you, but hey, I’m a redbaiter -it’s what I do!

    I think your assessment of the perceived failure of Lolita is right on the mark. But, I, for one, find the fact that Kubrick could not control this text to film translation quite interesting in and of itself. How could we frame Lolita as a failure, and praise Eyes Wide Shut, it seems ludicrous to place these two films side-by-side. Eyes Wide Shut, for me, lays bare the core of Kubrick’s style, i.e. to distill the acting to the least common denominator while controlling the space of the film all around the players. The scene between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise on the bed talking about the sailor while smoking a joint was so unbelievably bad. I mean, it makes Lolita look like the greatest film ever made by comparison.

    Also, I’m not so sure I agree with you about framing his choice of Cruise and Kidman as a bankable decision given the fact the the US version of the film was a far cry from risky or cutting edge in terms of sexuality. The film oozes of an auteur’s auteur realizing that is what he might be understood as and engaging in the very filmic frivolity such a concept engenders over time. Eyes Wide Shut was a colossal let down -and examined alongside Lolita you can get a really good sense of why it was. Lolita is driven by the stalking presence of Quilty and the very “whacked-out improvisations” that you mention. These moments make that film something other than the novel and more than just a character drama triangulated between Humbert, Lolita, and Charlotte Haze. He introduces a character that Kubrick could not seem to control and hence pushed his vision in unimagined directions, which is the very reason why it is one of my favorite Kubrick films. You can’t say this about Eyes Wide Shut at all, the acting is lifeless and the beautifully controlled scenes frame the death of any real inspiration besides some beautifully lit shots (a kind of auteur’s special effects fix).

    I know you’re point that film can be thought generatively through a focused examination of a director’s vision is an excellent one. But at the same time it often seems contrived and limited -why is the vision of a producer, actor, cinematographer, writer, etc such a distant second these days. Why does the framework of thinking film in relationship to a cultural moment (be it decades, genre, b-movies, etc.) often seem to be an afterthought? -or discussion-based filler?

    I do love talking with you about film, Gardner. And now that I know that you published in Filmfax I am green with envy and overflowing with respect. Filmfax is without question my favorite read for film -insightful, at times irreverent, and often exercising on a intelligible level the very readings I have been promoting as of late.

    You’re comments here make this conversation that much richer because you always keep me honest and your rigor is something I am writing towards more and more everyday. Thanks for being a friend, mentor, adviser, and downright mensch.

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