Thursday, January 4, 2024

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, With Unexpected Fodder for a Controversial Film)

“Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom—
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb—
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said: ‘What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?’
She replied: ‘Ulalume -Ulalume—
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!’"—American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “Ulalume

It’s possible that I read this poem a very long time ago, but I forgot about it until it was used, to very sly effect, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita.

This poem does not appear in the novel, but Edgar Allan Poe is very much present. What Nabokov uses as his point of reference is the poet’s “Annabel Lee.”

I’m not sure why Kubrick substituted “Ulalume” for “Annabel Lee,” but I’ll hazard a guess. In the novel, Lolita reminds Humbert Humbert of his long-lost love, Annabel Leigh.

Kubrick had to run a legendary censorship gauntlet to get Lolita released at all. (Indeed, its poster featured the memorable tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”) 

A couple of the most memorable lines from “Annabel Lee”—"I was a child and she was a child,/In this kingdom by the sea”—would only have reinforced the qualms of anyone asked to okay for general release a film featuring an unnatural relationship between an older man and a child.

Instead, in the film, the Poe allusion functions simultaneously as satiric and tragic.

The satire comes at the expense of Humbert, who offers a literary lesson to the vulgar American girl who has caught his gaze, Lolita. (James Mason and Sue Lyon, in the accompanying picture, played the two.)

The visiting European professor can’t help but reveal his pretentiousness by identifying the poem’s author as “the divine Edgar”—no last name needed!—and by pointing out how “my favorite poet” “emphasizes” and “twists” certain words.

It’s all a bit much for Lolita: “Well, I think it's a little corny, to tell you the truth.”

At the same time, the first four lines quoted above parallel what the deviant Humbert hopes to do with Lolita as his own goddess of beauty, particularly in the seduction verbs chosen: “pacified,” “kissed,” “tempted,” and “conquered”—all moving through “the end of the vista,” or the cross-country trip in which he kidnaps her.

But it can’t end well for Lolita, who is fated, like Ulalume, to end up in “this legended tomb”—leaving the seducer and abuser Humbert desolate in knowing that, in robbing her of innocence, he has played an inexpungible part in her tragedy.

(For a fascinating take on how Kubrick and producer James B. Harris edited down Nabokov's 400-page long adapted screenplay until only 20 percent was left, see Koraljka Suton's October 2022 post from the blog "Cinephilia and Beyond.")

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