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Savannah, Lolita and Jeremy Irons

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 8, 2013 at 2:22 a.m.


Jeremy Irons and Chris Auer, the chairman of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s television and film department, discuss Irons’ career at the recent Savannah International Film Festival.

SAVANNAH, Ga. - In the old days, we went to several out-of-state film festivals every year. Toronto was the big one, and we also usually made it to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and New York’s Tribeca. A couple of years we went to the Palm Springs International Film Festival. We hit Cleveland one year; the New York Film Festival another. Oh, and festivals in Nashville, Tenn., and Memphis. And once, kind of by accident, in Vancouver.

We can’t do that anymore. But I could combine business and family obligations in Savannah (I was born there, it’s where my mother’s family is from and she moved back there about 15 years ago), so we’d been eyeing the festival for a couple of years. And this year we went, just for a couple of days, just to dip our toes in, to see what it was all about. And we’re planning to go back.

It’s held downtown, mainly in the Lucas Theater for the Arts, which was built in 1921, and the Trustees Theater, which opened in 1946. They’re around the corner from each other, and if you hurry, you can get from one to the other in a couple of minutes. Both theaters are owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which puts on the film festival and dominates the downtown business district. Savannah (142,000 population) is a bit smaller than Little Rock (194,000) and the eight-day festival draws about 40,000 people each year, which I imagine provides a welcome jolt to the local economy that relies heavily on tourism - more than 12 million visitors a year.

We just missed the opening-night screening of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska - one of the films I’m most anticipating this year - but we caught a few others, including James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (which was filmed in and around Athens, Ga.) and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 version of Lolita with Jeremy Irons, who was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s festival. (After the film there was a question-and-answer session with Irons conducted by Chris Auer, a former television writer and producer who is now the chairman of SCAD’s film and television department. Irons was very relaxed and thoughtful and Auer was an especially good interviewer - he didn’t appear to have a pat list of questions he wanted to get through, and he followed up on some of Irons’ thoughts. I put the audio of the session up on the blood, dirt & angels blog.)

I was happy to finally see Lyne’s Lolita on the big screen, having watched it originally on a VHS tape. It never had a big theatrical release in this country and made its American debut on cable television months after being released in Europe. Though Lolita received rave reviews in France and Spain, no U.S. distributor picked it up until cable movie channel Showtime acquired the rights. I think Lyne’s version is remarkable and in many ways superior to Stanley Kubrick’s understandably abridged 1962 movie. (I wrote a lengthy essay about Lyne’s Lolita for the website when it aired on Showtime. Though they say nothing ever disappears from the web, this piece apparently has. Somewhere in my files I think I have a hard copy. But I haven’t reread it for this piece, so if I contradict myself, I guess I’ve changed my mind.)

As you probably know, Lolita - the novel by Vladimir Nabokov that was published in 1953 - is about pedophile Humbert Humbert, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and marries her mother to be in closer proximity to the object of his desire. When the mother dies, Humbert and his Lolita light out for the territory across an American landscape littered with motor courts and roadside attractions, pursued by Clare Quilty, a bizarre playwright who wants Lolita for his own.

Watching the film on the big screen held some minor revelations. The cinematography is stunning; at times the screen looks misty, atomized, as though we are watching the proceedings through a scrim. Irons is remarkable as the dissolute yet weirdly likable Humbert, and Dominique Swain - the chosen one, the last Lolita (whatever became of her?) - is pretty terrific as the titular nymphet. It was her first acting job; she was 14 when she sent her audition tape to Lyne and 15 when the movie was shot. Her Lolita is a leggy, horsey little girl with the “honey-hued shoulders” and “silky supple bare back” the mythology requires. Irons confirms what seemed apparent: She wasn’t acting back then, just being.

Frank Langella appears as creepy Quilty, and (spoiler alert) the scene in which he is murdered is indelibly disturbing. Melanie Griffith is so perfectly cast as the silly cow Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, one wonders if she wasn’t the victim of a cruel joke. And America is almost as vast and heartbreakingly forthright as it appears in the book.

My own take on Lolita has always been that Humbert is an unreliable narrator, and that what we’re reading is simply his deranged fantasy. Nabokov’s book is a highly moral, even censorious work; all of the guilty are punished at the end, even Lolita, the ostensible innocent. There are no coarse words in the book and the sex scenes are explicit only in the sense that Nabokov understands the sensual possibilities of rubbing explicit nouns against precise verbs. Yet Lolita, even in the 21st century, still retains at least a faint whiff of scandal. Irons says that he was reluctant to take the part because he feared it would damage his career.

He only took it on after Glenn Close urged him to and his agent secured a fee large enough to allow him to “live for two or three years without working.” He needed it.

It’s far too early to say we’ll be back at Savannah next year; but we will be back.


MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 11/08/2013

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